How a low-cost, low-tech ‘gadget’ can help you be productive and beat overwhelm

Okay, this is not going well. You’ve got a million and one things to do today: tight deadlines; emails popping up all the time, many important and urgent, and you simply can’t get going.

Every time you start work on one thing, your brain wanders to something else – you feel like a butterfly flitting from flower to flower, but never resting on one long enough to feel you’ve accomplished something.

Now I know you know about prioritising: your to-do list for today is probably neatly organised into A, B and C tasks (you know, based on importance and urgency). Then why can’t you get productive?

The problem is that assigning importance and urgency to your tasks does not automatically put you in a productive mindset. In fact, if you have many important and/or urgent things to do, your mind will be going over each of them all the time, making it near impossible to concentrate on just one.

What if there was a low-cost, low-tech gadget that could help you beat the overwhelm and get productive?

You need an egg timer on your desk!

When we have a lot on our plate, our attention and focus is on completion of all those tasks. That can create an enormous sense of overwhelm as well as an overestimation of how long it will take to complete each task.

As a result, our brain can’t ‘latch on’ to one task. Even if you have created a to-do list based on excellent prioritising, your mind will keep touching on each of the tasks.

As long as you focus on completion of all those tasks, you won’t get started on any.

So where does the egg timer come in?

What I suggest you do is take your top priority task and commit to working on it for 5 minutes solid, without any interruptions:

  • Close your email program – no email will be that important that it can’t wait 5 minutes.
    Turn off your phone – trust that people will leave a voicemail message if they need you urgently. And because they may leave a message you need to turn your phone off, so you can’t be distracted by a vibrating, flashing phone.
  • Remove everything related to any of the other tasks off your desk and out of sight (because if you can see it, your mind will register it and ‘visit’ it).

Set the egg timer or stopwatch for 5 minutes.

Now make an agreement with yourself that you will spend the 5 minutes exclusively on this task and nothing else. And agree with yourself that you can leave the task after the egg timer has gone off if you choose.

Now here’s what I predict will happen:

You’ll get a lot done in those 5 minutes!

And when the egg timer goes off, you will feel frustrated that it is time to stop.

You will also have a fairly good idea of how long it will take to complete the task.

At this point, you can either simply continue with the task, or, if you prefer, set the egg timer again, perhaps for the time you think it will take you to complete.

Then give yourself 10 minutes to deal with emails, voice mail messages, etc. and then tackle the next task with your egg timer.

As you get better at a single-task focus, you may want to increase your egg timer periods to 10 minutes.
There’s something magical about giving control over what you focus on, and for how long, to a simple egg timer. The mental space it creates can really boost your productivity.

Do you have some powerful strategies to be productive when you can’t seem to get focused?



About Your Guest Blogger: Anne-Marijke Gerretsen is a Behaviour Change Expert. She works with people and organisations who struggle to create the change they want or need to make. She helps them develop the strategies that reduce resistance to change and achieve the change faster and make it stick.