Chess timer productivity trick

Now that I’ve gotten that last horse-choking philosophical blog post out of my system, I am turning my attention to other, offline writing projects. I’m sitting down to my desk this morning (actually writing at my desk, fully clothed and with my teeth brushed like a human being and not slumped in an unwashed pile on the sofa with the computer perched on one knee, waiting in vain for inspiration to strike) and contemplating how this writing thing is actually supposed to go. There’s something of a first-day-on-the-job feel to the beginning of a new writing project. It’s a job I’ve been doing for decades now, but somehow it doesn’t get any easier. The distractions don’t get any less numerous or less nagging, and my inertia doesn’t weigh me down any less. Perhaps you are in the same boat?

I won’t belabor the obvious: email is the death of writing. So is Facebook, Twitter, etc. You already know this, but start your serious writing before you ever fire up your email browser. Those hassles can wait just a bit longer.


The daily experience of opening up my email browser first thing in the morning, in GIF form.

(I stole this joke from someone on Twitter, but I can’t remember who. Sorry, whoever you are.)

There are productivity apps that act as a kind of toddler gate for the user’s wayward attention, locking out the internet for a preset period of time. But these are unhelpful for academics, who often have to check online databases and library catalogs while they write. That said, an advisee of mine told me about working at the Paul Sacher Stiftung, where she could not access the internet, and, over the course of several weeks, found herself developing the skill for writing down all those errant “I have to look this up on the internet right now” impulses and saving them for later. She found that many of the things she had felt a sudden, urgent need to look up ended up being trivial and irrelevant — she didn’t even bother with most of them when she was back in wifi range. So perhaps there’s something to be said for the brute-force, Odysseus-lashed-to-the-mast approach to resisting the siren song of the internet.

Still, it wounds my amour-propre to think that I am so powerless over my procrastinating impulses that I need to lock myself out from the internet. So rather than merely forcing myself to make good choices, I thought of a way to hold myself accountable for my bad choices.

Go to the online chess timer. You will see a timer display for two players:


Click start. The clock for Player 1 will start counting up and the “start” button will become a “switch” button. Then begin writing. “Player 1” is your writing self.

When you stop to do something else — going to the bathroom, getting a cup of tea, checking to see what’s shaking on Facebook, whatever — click the “switch” button. The clock for Player 2 will begin counting up. Player 2 is your non-writing self.

When you are done peeing or writing “LOL” in response to a photo of someone’s ugly baby, click on “switch” and Player 1 will start up again, at which point it’s time to get back to work.

At the end of a writing session (whenever you have to go to a meeting or start dealing with class prep or something), you can hit “pause” and the clock will stop. Take a screenshot of it. You now have a straightforward record of how you spent your time: a simple ratio of Player 1’s writing-time to Player 2’s faffing-about-time. If you want to be hardcore with yourself, post your screenshot on Facebook, so all your friends can write “LOL” at your pathetic attention span.

I haven’t tried this last refinement, but the fear of public mockery has to be motivating, right? Actually, though, I find that when I do the chess-clock trick I don’t even spend that much time goofing off.

No warranty expressed or implied: all I can say is, it works for me. Let me know if it works for you.


About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
This entry was posted in Exercises, Research, Writing. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Chess timer productivity trick

  1. cyborgk2016 says:

    I like this. As a computer programmer, I have very similar issues with internet distractions. The best strategy I have found is to look really closely at what I can do in front of a computer. Any kind of planning and thinking through problems, I will do away from the computer, on a big table, with index cards, colored markers, graph paper, posters, and anything else. This approach has super charged my productivity, and also improved my general health (less time staring at screen, and by not being glued to a computer I find myself exercising more).

    The most interesting thing I have found is that I actually think through code BETTER away from the computer. This seems to hold true, even when my time at the computer is 100% focused on the task at hand, and does not involve procrastination or off-task behavior.

    This approach, which involves creating a more physical experience, drawing sketches, and pretending I’m just a kid creating something for fun with a bunch of art supplies, seems to greatly improve my ability to think through complex problems. I theorize that the reason for this is related to the reason that people retain much more reading physical books than they retain when reading electronic books.

  2. cyborgk2016 says:

    On a less serious note (though it might work): Find the thing you dread most and have been procrastinating longest, something much worse than the task at hand. Put it at the top of your to-do list. Then accidentally get your work done while you are avoiding that one thing you really don’t want to deal with….

Comments are closed.