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Setting Five Minute Timers

Using small windows of time to get more done.

January 12, 2016

Anjali Gopal is a PhD student in the joint Bioengineering program at UC Berkeley and UCSF. You can follow her on Twitter at @anjali_gopal.




Procrastination is inevitable in graduate school. It’s true: there are too many things to do and very little chance we’re going to get around to all of them. There are papers I could read (or reports that I could write). Data that I could analyze. Tests that I could run. Unreplied emails rotting in my inbox for a week. And when this happens, I’ll naturally start gravitating toward the tasks-of-least-resistance. The easy ones, or the fun ones, or the ones that don’t give me a jaw-ache from a perpetual frown.


One of the most useful skills I learned to manage these never-ending task lists was to use a five minute timer. I initially heard about the idea for five minute timers from a workshop by the Center for Applied Rationality, and it’s been one of the most useful lifehacks I’ve picked up.


Why is the five minute timer different from any other time management technique? Because there’s a lot of merit in having short, intense bursts of work towards getting things done. There’s a lot of power in five minutes--and in this post, I’ll give you examples of how I’ve used it and why it’s so effective.


It actually helps you get through your to-do list. Believe it or not, five minutes is a long time if you use it fully. One of the best tips I got from my workshop is to pretend that five minutes was the only time I had to complete a task. So, if my task was to write a summary of my experiment to another grad student, I would pretend that I only had five minutes to do it. And this is sometimes very effective! Your can trick your mind into doing sprints of high-energy work when it’s only for a short time period. And that can sometimes be all the push you need to finish that one annoying task.


It lowers activation energy of certain tasks. Five minute timers are also useful in helping me get going on a task that I otherwise would have no intention of doing. For instance, this week I joined a new lab for my rotation, and needed to get some administrative things done, even though I was really just impatient to start reading papers and planning my project. So, instead of making it an all-or-nothing game, I set aside five minutes and managed to do the top three things on that list (mostly sending out emails to get my keycard information worked out). Now I’m  much less aversive to going back and tackling three more items on that list during another five minutes. If you find a task particularly enjoyable, you could even continue it for another five minutes! Such is the power of the five minute timer.


It soothes perfectionism. GradHacker Julie Platt has written about the perils of perfectionism at length. Have you ever agonized over writing an email, and then realized you just wasted half an hour figuring out perfect wording, even though such effort would ultimately make very little difference to the reader? The five minute timer helps me limit the amount of time I spend being nitpicky. Five minutes is a surprisingly large amount of time to spend proofreading an email, and it prevents me from feeling guilty about not having given due diligence to a particular task. Now, whenever I notice myself doing anything else that resembles perfectionism (sorting files, replying to a message, making a figure pretty), I’ll automatically set myself a five minute timer--and stop when I hit the limit.


It gives me time to slow down and think. One of the best uses I’ve found for a five-minute timer is to prep right before I go into a meeting with an advisor or a colleague. Whenever I’m rushing into meetings, I often think of what I’m going to say for 30 seconds, but not really spend the time thinking it through. A five minute timer allows me to slow down from that rush and helps me really focus on any goals or priorities that I want to address in a meeting. Even if I come up with an immediate answer, it’s nice to let my mind wander for a bit, and not be clamped down by explanation freeze.




Using short bursts of high-energy work can be highly effective in finishing up stale tasks, getting started on daunting projects, and in giving thoughtful consideration to rushed decisions. What are some ways you could use a five minute timer to help you with your work?


[Image by Flickr user Eflon, used under a creative commons license.]


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