Saving Time with Index Cards and a Timer

January 31, 2008

stopwatch.jpgFor the last several weeks I’ve been experimenting with a technique that has been so effective, I thought I’d better pass it along.

I recently read this article about using a countdown timer to help sharpen concentration and boost performance. I’ve also been using index cards for task management for the last several months.

The combination of the two techniques helps me accomplish most tasks faster, sometimes completing the same activity in half the time!

Here’s how it works:

  1. Write all of your to dos on 3×5 index cards.
  2. Set a reasonable amount of time for completing each activity and write it on the card.
  3. Arrange the cards in the order you plan on accomplishing the activities they represent.
  4. Grab your first card, Set the timer, and knock it out!

Yes, it’s geeky and a little obsessive. But it works.

  • So why the timer? Working against the clock has two great advantages:

First, it improves pace. Working against the clock makes you hyperaware of your time budget, and the rate at which you’re working. That’s because deadlines, even self imposed, help create a sense of urgency lacking in most untimed activities.

If you doubt the power of ‘focused time’, check out any college or university the last few days before finals. Focus that was virtually non-existent just weeks earlier is suddenly present in a big way as the final project/test deadline looms. That’s the motivating power of deadlines.

Second, consistently working against the clock let’s you know exactly how much can be accomplished in a relatively short period of time. There’s no better way than timing yourself to know what you’re capable of. Often times, open-ended tasks cost valuable time simply because you have it to spare. Setting a time budget and sticking to it helps cut away the fluff.

As an experiment, try setting a 15 minute timer the next time you open your email inbox. Get through as many messages as you can in just 15 minutes, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

  • So why the index cards? Index cards provide two important advantages: Tangibility and Sortability.

First, Index cards give you something tangible to focus on. Never underestimate the value of representing abstract concepts like “to-dos” on something more concrete like index cards. It’s much easier focusing on things you can see, pick up, and move around. Thoughts, on the other hand, are invisible and fleeting.

Think of filled out index cards like targets for your attention. Placing them directly in front of you will help focus your attention solely on that activity. If you’re as prone to distraction as I am, you’ll find index cards are great for directing your attention to the task at hand. If you catch yourself wondering, pick up the card, look at it, and use it to help refocus your mind.

Second, capturing tasks on index cards makes prioritizing easier. That’s because you can sort your cards into the exact order you plan on completing them. When you’re finished with your first card, immediately grab the next, set the timer, and knock it out. By presetting the order you’ll lose less time transitioning from one activity to the next. Keep this up card after card and your productivity will soar.


Here’s a recent example of a ‘work from home’ day:

  • 15 minutes paying bills
  • 15 minutes returning phone calls
  • 20 minutes processing email
  • 30 minutes writing a first draft for my blog
  • 20 minutes cleaning the kitchen
  • 20 minutes reading several interesting articles

Had I not established a time budget and used my countdown timer, I could have easily spent more than 2 hours accomplishing these same six activities. After a few tries you’ll get good at setting an appropriate amount of time for each activity.

Just a few notes in closing, I find this technique is best used for recurring activities, and special projects. I also don’t set times longer than 30 minutes, primarily because I’m distraction prone and find it too easy to wonder with times longer than that. So if a project takes an hour, I’ll set the timer for 2 back to back 30 minute sessions.

Click here to purchase preprinted index cards and help support my favorite charity Heifer International.

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5 Responses to “Saving Time with Index Cards and a Timer”

  1. Hope Wilbanks on February 1st, 2008 6:29 pm

    Very interesting tip. I recently downloaded Slim Timer and have found that I pay closer attention to the time I’m spending on a project when I time myself.

  2. natejust on February 2nd, 2008 8:44 am

    Thanks for the Slim Timer tip Hope. Can you also set it as a countdown timer, or is it strictly a time recording tool?

  3. Millionaire Mommy Next Door on February 21st, 2008 8:41 am

    I love the addition of the index cards! I’ve been creating categorized task lists, then selecting one from each category (on days when Daddy is watching our kiddo) and putting it on a small daily list. But having to look at the whole looooong list often feels overwhelming.

    Thanks for the link to my timer post. I plan on linking to yours in my next round-up.

  4. Links of Interest : Productivity501 on June 24th, 2008 8:28 am

    […] Saving Time With Index Cards and a Timer-Nate’s Productivity Tips This article explains how using note cards for your to-do list can improve your efficiency and productivity. The author also mentions using a stopwatch to improve efficiency. […]

  5. Mark - Productivity501 on March 26th, 2009 5:52 pm

    This is a great method. For some reason it reminds me of a post that was going around this week about a swimming coach that taught people to swim faster by throwing a live crocodile in the pool after them. :) I think I’d become much more efficient at my work if I thought I was going to get eaten by a croc if I was to slow.

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