Killing Time: Do More By Ignoring the Clock

Twitpic CTO Steve Corona really knows how to kill time. He threw his wristwatch in the trash, turned off his microwave oven clock and disabled the time display on his PC. According to a recent blog post chronicling his timeless experiment, he "unsubscribed from the clock."

Twitpic CTO Steve Corona really knows how to kill time.

He threw his wristwatch in the trash, turned off his microwave oven clock and disabled the time display on his PC. According to a recent blog post chronicling his timeless experiment, he "unsubscribed from the clock."

(My editor might say that I unsubscribed from the clock years ago.)

Corona stopped using clocks, he wrote, because they're stressful and counterproductive. Without obsessing over the time of day, he has become "totally devoured and consumed by creating things."

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He says he decides when to stop work and go home by "reading" the sun. (Maybe he needs a wristwatch like this.)

Is Steve Corona nuts? Or is he just ahead of his time?

Why kill time?

Clocks have two basic purposes. The first is to synchronize activity between two or more people. The meeting is at 10 a.m. Let's have lunch at noon. I'll pick you up at 8.

But people are already drifting away from using clocks for this purpose. Instead, we arrange for alerts to sound on our phones and PCs. If we have an engagement, we set it and forget it. When the alarm sounds, we obey.

Theoretically, people no longer need to know what time it is in order to synchronize and coordinate their activities.

The second purpose for clocks is personal time management. Many people take the tasks they want to accomplish, then cram them into time slots. OK, I'll get up at 7 a.m., do email from 7 to 8, drive to work by 9, try to finish my report by 11, return calls from 11 to 12, and so on throughout each day.

This approach is nice in theory, but it gets wrecked on the shoals of today's distraction- and interruption-filled world.

The reality is that when you sit down to do your email, the first message is a link to a YouTube video. The second one is a notification that your friend posted pictures of you and others at his barbecue. Before you know it, you're getting sucked into an Internet black hole of distractions.

By the time you recover and force yourself to get back to your email, you have only 10 minutes left to do it. Then "Rrrrrrriiing!" -- it's your boss calling to interrupt you.

This is why your in-box has 4,391 messages in it. You give yourself an hour a day to do email, but rarely spend the hour actually doing email.

This tug of war between distractions, interruptions and the unyielding fascism of the ticking clock leaves you exhausted by the end of the day with little to show for it.

The universal obsession with the time of day is fundamentally incompatible with human nature. We try to force ourselves into an abstract notion of time, and two things happen.

First, clocks dominate our sense of situation. What's my situation? It's 4:33 p.m. and I'm stressing out about my deadline. I'm supposed to get up because it's 7 a.m. I should eat because it's lunchtime.

The clock overrules the body, which would have you waking up when you're rested and eating when you're hungry. In fact, our name for productivity -- "time management" -- reveals the over-dominance of the clock in our systems for productivity.

Second, forcing yourself to march to the beat of an abstract notion of time causes the mind to rebel. You want to fight it, break it and escape from it. While distractions pull you in, clock rebellion pushes you out.

Now the good news: Thanks to a world of new options, many taking the form of mobile apps, we can kill our clocks and use better alternatives.

How to beat the clock

For personal productivity, people are increasingly turning to timers, rather than clocks, to get things done. They're also focusing on the achievement of goals, rather than just "putting in time" on various activities.

The mobile app stores are jam-packed these days with creative solutions for timer-based productivity. It's worthwhile to spend some quality time browsing through these to find out what works for you.

One of the most powerful and useful apps I've found recently is a free iOS app called 30/30 from Binary Hammer.

The way it works is that you use a gesture to create a new task. You give it a name, an icon, a color and a duration. Then you create another and another. You can create as many pages of tasks as you want, and give each page a distinct name.

One common-sense option is to create a page of tasks for each day of the week.

You can also create a new page each day based on what you have to do that day.

Each of us has big, important things we want to do, and also little urgent ones. For example, writing your novel is a big, important one, and returning calls is a small, urgent one.

With 30/30, you can create time for the big things, and schedule them before the little ones.

So let's say you want to spend two hours each day writing your novel. You create the task, give it the "book" icon, color it green and call it: "Write the Great American Novel."

When you're ready to get started -- no matter what time it is -- you tap the screen on your iPad or iPhone 30/30 app (don't worry, they synchronize with each other). The screen turns green. The two-hour timer starts ticking down. A circular interface shows you graphically how much time has passed, and how much remains. The interface alone gently urges you to hurry.

Because the timer is associated with the time on task, and not time of day, it's easier to resist distractions. But if distractions or interruptions do occur, you hit the pause button.

After you return from your distraction, 30/30 is still green, and still shows you how much time remaining. You hit the "play" button, and get back to work until you've put in your two hours.

When you're finished, you can take a break and then go on to the next tasks.

Your sense of how you spent your day is based on how much time you actually spent on the important tasks -- in fact, you know exactly how much time you actually spent, so you can adjust those for future days.

Best of all, your sense of situation at any given time is dominated by what you're doing and how much time you've got left to keep doing it (rather than what the clock is doing).

The 30/30 app frees you from the constraints of the clock, and empowers you with your own work and your own goals. It drives you to work faster and focus on the task at hand without triggering clock rebellion.

Another great trend in counter-clockwise productivity is the focus on the achievement of goals, rather than on how you spent your time from 1 to 3 p.m. There are many new mobile apps that promote this focus on achievement.

One great example is an app called iDoneThis. At the end of each day, iDoneThis will prompt you to list the things you accomplished that day, and it will record them on a calendar for you.

The knowledge that you will be asked this, and that your achievements will be recorded, is enough to keep you focused all day -- not on doing work, but on achieving goals and finishing projects. (It works like a semi-automated version of the Jerry Seinfeld Productivity Secret, where you try to mark your calendar with unbroken days of achievement.)

iDoneThis is a free iOS app, and also an app for Chrome and other platforms. There are other achievement-oriented apps on all platforms that do something similar.

To recap, here's the six-point secret to clock-free productivity:

* Remove as many visible clocks from your life as you can, to break your clock obsession.

* Rely on alerts, rather than clock-watching, to coordinate meetings and appointments with others.

* Use new apps and online tools to match tasks with timers.

* Make sure you can easily pause the timers for distractions and interruptions (which you should try to minimize).

* Optimize your use of time by flexibly tweaking tasks and the time allotted to those tasks.

* Use mobile and online tools to constantly focus on the actual achievement and completion of tasks and goals.

It's time to start phasing out clocks as the dominant context of our lives and our work. We have better tools now. And by taking advantage of them, we can lower stress, raise productivity and -- finally -- get things done.

This story, "Killing Time: Do More By Ignoring the Clock" was originally published by Computerworld.

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