Productivity can be an unhealthy obsession. It can leave your head spinning: trying to fit more into each day than can be accomplished, without slowing down enough to appreciate a second of it. Mind racing, thoughts frantic. A spiral of stress.
It’s enough to bring to mind the lyrics written by the Bergmans for their 1968 classic, ‘The Windmills of Your Mind’:
Round like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel
Never ending or beginning on an ever spinning reel
Like a snowball down a mountain, or a carnival balloon
Like a carousel that’s turning running rings around the moon
Like a clock whose hands are sweeping past the minutes of its face
And the world is like an apple whirling silently in space
Like the circles that you find in the windmills of your mind
What a nightmare.
Life needs balance, though — a healthy mix of things. Part of that mix is getting shit done. Sometimes you need to be productive. Particularly tricky are tasks that have a way of falling through the cracks, day after day, because there are always things shouting louder for attention. Some tasks are easy to neglect, so that’s what happens to them.
These can also be tasks that, though important, strike a daunting note. Or tasks with Unknowns, so it’s not clear how to go about doing them before starting. Tasks you’re not exactly sure about. Who knows what you’d be commiting yourself to. Tasks like this have a kind of anti-allure, like a “keep away” force field.
The problem is about resistance. There’s a resistance to starting some tasks, for various reasons, and the longer we put them off the more convinced we become they will be truly horrendous. Horrifying things. More and more resistance builds. This is how shit Never Gets Done.
To prevent this, it can be useful to have tricks in your bag. Lately I’ve been using a good one: the 5 minute timer.
I have a digital wrist watch with a timer mode. I can set it to 5 minutes, and switch modes from the normal clock function at any time of the day, to see a 5 minute timer set up and ready to go when I hit START.
I use these timers to commit to spending a few high-energy minutes on a task that I need to move somewhere. No commitment beyond 5 minutes, so easy to do on the faintest of whims. Once the timer sounds, regardless of progress, I am off the hook. I am free to go back to Life. It's a simple, low resistance way of unsticking tasks and getting your brain to move forwards.
Sometimes I use these timers when I've been on a task too long, too. If a task is dragging out, I run a timer to give myself 5 minutes to wrap it up and reach a conclusion. One way or another, it spurs me to decisive action.
I've found that usually 5 minutes is all it takes to unblock your life or clarify its next steps—so it's set up to knock down easily tomorrow. And often when the timer goes off, you want to continue since you're already in the zone and making fantastic progress in there. Sometimes I run three timers in a row, and that's enough to complete the task without spending too much time. In fact, I wrote this article in something of a productive frenzy of multiple consecutive five minute timers.
It's a low investment of time, so you can't go wrong. And going through the process means you can check it off the list for now. Something has been done.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is all there is to it.