Understanding Time

I've been trying something new today.

I have a tendency to get stuck when I'm on the web - checking email, posting on Twitter, reading articles, replying to forum posts. It's like I start turning to stone, my mind gets stuck inside the computer screen. I think fifteen minutes have passed when an hour has gone by.

This is a problem. Not only do I end up spending more time than I want doing trivial tasks, I also neglect my basic needs and can easily go without eating lunch just because I suppress the physical pain I feel in order to focus on taking care of just a few more emails, a few more replies, a few more articles.

And now, I think I've found a solution.

The main problem is inertia. The longer I sit there in front of the computer, the more reluctant I am to get up. So I keep myself mobile - getting up and walking around every so often. But how could I make sure I do this?

It turn out that the answer is easier than I expected. As I found this morning, all I have to do is set a timer for five minutes, and put it in another room. When the timer goes off, I get up from the computer (that's the hard part) and walk over to the timer. I don't have to stop using the computer after that, I just restart the timer and go back to whatever I was doing. And then I do it all over again in five minutes. And five minutes after that. And so on.

I haven't had any trouble getting up for the timer - after all, I never let myself sit down for so long that I get completely stuck. After a while it becomes instinctive, Pavlovian, like waking up to an alarm clock. The hard part is making sure I get enough of a mental break that I can actually slow down and get some perspective before going back to the computer.

One thing that helps me is to put the timer in a different place every time. Hide it, even. This forces me to engage with the physical world, to acknowledge the third dimension, to get out of my head and get in touch with the place where my body lives, if only momentarily. Plus it's kind of fun. It helps me experience my ordinary surroundings in a new and refreshing way. And it's such a weird feeling to be looking for this timer, guided only by the sound of it beeping, with no recollection of where I put it just five minutes before.

What's strange is that already I find myself getting up naturally at five-minute intervals, right before the timer goes off. I get up for a drink of water (thanks to my newly instilled mobility) and then a few seconds later there goes the timer. Very interesting.

But the most striking thing about this whole exercise is how horribly skewed my perception of time is. I don't know if my timer's broken, but it feels like that thing is going off every two minutes, not every five. And I'm pretty sure the timer is working, because even my computer clock agrees. Yet almost every time I hear that timer go off, I'm thinking, "How has it been five minutes already? I just sat down!"

One thing that might help is to keep track of how many times the timer has gone off, writing down the current total every time I restart the time. I could write it in terms of minutes, even. Because it really feels like a lot less time has passed, and this might help me tie the feeling to the numbers.

Hopefully, using these timers will retrain my brain to perceive time more accurately. Who knows, maybe it will even help me in long-term planning. Though I might need another tool for that.

There are a lot of useful things you can do with timers and productivity - for example, the "48 minutes of flow" mentioned in this article. I've done something similar before, and it helps. It's just a matter of using your physical (or virtual) environment to reinforce your goals. It's like level design, applied to your own life. Why not?

You could even use this mechanic in an actual game. Put a timer in the game and give them a little reward for responding to it when it beeps, and the ability to put it somewhere else and start it again. Kind of like the Milano cookie effect in reverse. Could be useful.

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