Beat Procrastination With a Stopwatch

I have been experimenting with a new strategy for combatting procrastination and it seems to be working! It’s nothing so genius; it’s actually a very simple idea — which might explain why it has proved effective.

I started using a stopwatch.

When staring down a day’s to do list it is difficult sometimes to motivate yourself to do some of the more daunting tasks. Catching up on emails, recording expenses or ordering office supplies sometimes get pushed down on the list since we would rather be doing more creative tasks… or looking at photos from last weekend’s shenanigans on Facebook.

I have started using time limits as a motivator and it works! Not only does it cause me to be more focused on the task at hand, but by limiting a task to a short time frame the very idea of doing it seems more manageable. Looking at the action item of recording last weeks business receipts sounds awful, but when I say “spend five minutes recording business expenses,” that doesn’t sound that bad — it’s just five minutes, right?

Often with a very short timeline (like five minutes), I find that I get focused in on the task and either finish it within the time limit or when my alarm sounds. Yet I am so close to finishing the entire project and so “in the zone”, that I stay the course and finish it with little to no trouble. Getting started on these types of tasks is usually the larger barrier for us; once they are near completion, the reward of having them done is now motivation enough to finish up!

So here’s how you do it…

1. Write out each task…specifically.

You can’t use this method for vague goals or huge projects. An action item like “write a blog post” or “build a website” doesn’t work with this strategy. Try something like “write an outline for a blog post about the best blogs for funny cat photos.” This is a specific task — and you can likely assign a short time limit to it.

2. Assign a time limit to each quick task.

This isn’t The Price Is Right. There’sno risk if you’re not spot on — just go with your gut! Avoid assigning time slots longer than a half an hour. The point of this practice is to make tasks seem less daunting and to motivate you to focus on them. Assigning yourself 45 minutes to respond to the ten emails in your inbox will just give you license to putz around for most of that time, because you know you have 45 minutes. Try something like ,“I’ll clear the ten emails from my inbox in five minutes!”

3. Don’t watch the clock.

I regularly use this site to set alarms for myself on tasks. I open the site in a browser tab and then hide it so that I cannot see the time as it ticks by. The point is not to focus on the time but just to know… soon, that alarm will sound and you want to be done when it does!

You could also use the stopwatch app on your phone — or if you want to go “old school” you can use an egg timer.

4. When the alarm sounds…

You gave yourself fifteen minutes to write that outline for your blog post about the best cat blogs on the internet, your alarm has sounded and you’re about three-quarters of the way done. What do you do? Stop? NO! You’re on a roll! You’re in the zone  — jump back to step two and move ahead. If your gut says, “I could finish this up in two more minutes,”  then do it!

You know, it’s not that the tasks are that unmanageable or even difficult to complete — it’s  getting started on them that keeps us in that cycle of avoidance. By telling ourselves that we only have to endure this task for a few short minutes, it makes the whole things seem easier to jump into — and you’ll find that once you’re in it… it’s not so bad.

Now, there’s no time like the present. You’re done reading this post, so it’s the perfect time to spend the next five minutes tackling that pesky task you just can’t get off your to-do list. C’mon, it’s only five minutes…


Popular search terms for this article:

procrastination, productivity stopwatch, task stopwatch

I own and operate CMD+Shift Design, a one-woman design studio in Seattle, WA where I specialize in design & development for Wordpress and logo design. I blog from time to time about my life as a small business owner and I co-host Pagebreak Podcast with Niki Brown every week. I am an internet nerd and a crazy cat lady!


  1. Graphic Design Boss on the 18th January

    I use an internal clock – but more than that I usually ask my graphic design clients what kind of time frame they are expecting it in.

    This helps me put it in my work in progress board in the right order.

    • Luis Perez on the 20th November

      May I also recommend the stopwatch and timer at as the name suggests it’s also well suited for iPad.

  2. hi on the 18th January

    Love it!

  3. TrafficColeman on the 18th January

    Liz I use this same straightway at time to complete my task..and it works and things get done.

    “Black Seo Guy “Signing Off”

  4. cerebral009 on the 18th January

    theres a little program you can run on your computer that acts as a timer, its called “focus booster” its free. you can set up how much time you want to pass, then a “break time”

  5. save time, live better on the 18th January

    Terrific idea, Liz.

    In addition to helping you beat procrastination, setting a timer can al timer is equally useful for setting limits on the amount of time you fritter away each day. We all need a little mindless activity in our day to help us recharge. You might spend this time checking your Facebook account, flipping through a magazine, or catching up on DVR’d episodes of your favorite sitcom.

    When you’re wasting time, the minutes tend to add up quickly. It’s easy to lose half a morning surfing the web or reading the newspaper. A perfect solution is to set a timer. Give yourself just a limited amount of time — half an hour, perhaps — to putter around as you wish, totally guilt-free. As soon as the timer goes off, go back to doing something more productive.

  6. kyanardag on the 18th January

    I’m running out of solutions to beat procrastination. I’m like a car without a starter engine, who is completely useless. I have a wall-like barrier whenever I intend to start a task. Anybody has ideas/solutions for rare cases like me?

    • Mike Vardy on the 19th January

      Try using the The Pomodoro Technique at first if you find that you’re technologically inclined. Also, a tool like Freedom (Mac only – not certain of a Windows equivalent off-hand) can get you away from surfing and back to work.

      I pick my favourite thing on my list that will get me moving faster as the first thing to tackle during the day; it gets me into a state of flow and keeps me moving for longer stretches of time.

      Good luck – and thanks for the comment!

    • Morkinbrock on the 27th February

      Freedom also has a Windows version.

  7. Balance on the 18th January

    It sounds like a great idea and I wish I could utilize it, but the problem I have isn’t setting aside the time, but focusing when I’m in that set time. All my work is done on the computer, and occasionally requires the net – setting me off on a tangent is as easy as an email, cool looking link, or new song playing. If I could focus for the time I set, I mean… really do so… I think the times I set are pretty realistic.

    • Mike Vardy on the 19th January

      Maybe give RescueTime a try. It might be a tool worth looking at to give you the best of both worlds.

  8. Rob Mills on the 18th January

    I had recently thought of trying to breaking up my work into small blocks like you said but I really like the idea of adding the stop watch as a new element. Thanks for the idea!

  9. Rebecca on the 19th January

    I read this article this morning and followed these tips today – got SOOO much done, thanks for sharing!

    • Liz on the 28th January

      THAT is great to hear! YAY! 🙂

  10. Bryan Thompson on the 19th January

    Liz, thank you for this. I have seen a few posts on WorkAwesome recently regarding procrastination, which does 2 things:

    1.) It tells me this is a more common struggle for people than we once thought.
    2.) I feel so much better that I’m not alone.

    I heard British motivational speaker Paul McKenna once say that no one really suffers from procrastination. That every one of us find a way to complete the tasks we really want to do in that moment. The problem is usually our commitment to the task we’re given.

    Your stopwatch and specific task list is right on.

  11. PatGLex on the 19th January

    I use a timer to get to those things I’ve put off — like the breakfast/lunch prep dishes that I am always “too tired” to do at night when I arrive home from my part-time evening job. I’ll intersperse 10-minute blocks of time doing Thing A with 10-minute blocks of Thing B (sometimes Thing B/C if I have two things that need to get done). I totally agree about using a time limit — I seem to get more done when I limit my activity to 10-15 minutes at a clip. And frequently I’ll find out that the “project” didn’t even take the 10-minute limit. If only I could learn from those experiences!

  12. Sam on the 25th January

    This is a really good strategy. I started tracking my work on tasks and sub-tasks. I make it a bit of a goal to maximize the use of my time and thus reduce my time on each task. It also makes me more aware of time wasting distractions. I started using this neat little free browser based task timer ( and it was great for the job. It also helps to minimize overlapping tasks – ie doing more than one thing at a time which kills productivity.

  13. Julio Barros on the 26th January

    Thanks for the article outlining this approach. I have an iPhone app you may be interested in. is a countdown timer with a memory for time boxing/limiting activities. Its not a time tracker but rather is great for setting aside minimum (or maximum) time blocks to work on your long term goals. For example, studying, working out, accounting, breaks, etc. Its free for a limited number of activities and has an In App Purchase if it fits in your life and you want more.


  14. IJas on the 29th June

    1. Write out each task…specifically.
    2. Assign a time limit to each quick task.
    3. Don’t watch the clock.
    4. When the alarm sounds……

    is equal to


  15. Luis Perez on the 22nd October

    If you want a stopwatch with a really big display that also works great on the iPad I recommend

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