- Siobhan Smith struggled to manage her time when she became a full-time freelancer.
- She found setting alarms to go off every 20 minutes made her feel more in control of her day.
- She doesn’t recommend this all day, but she says the hack helped her boost her productivity.
I used to barely notice time passing, which was why I was wasting so much of it.
Or at least until recently, when I decided to make a dedicated effort to track it, with a technique that makes me sound like a glutton for punishment: I started setting an alarm to go off every 20 minutes, across each working day.
In July, I left my TV development-exec job after 14 nonstop years in the industry. I was burned out and needed a change. I set up as a full-time freelance journalist.
But without the structure I was used to, I found it difficult to focus. Despite getting up early to spend up to 10 hours at my desk, it felt as if the days just disappeared.
I was writing, but not much. I’d start emails and then get distracted by Twitter, finding the unfinished drafts hours later.
In the first month of freelancing, my procrastination levels were at an all-time high, and my phone screen time was about 7 1/2 hours a day — the ultimate sign of time wasting. I often found myself writing at night to meet article deadlines, despite having enough time to do the work in the daytime.
I Googled potential solutions. But none of them felt right. I could set self-imposed deadlines or block out time on my calendar, but it all sounded too rigid for me.
I needed something to help with my time management that didn't involve traditional scheduling.
Then I remembered a creative-writing workshop that I took before the pandemic. It was based around "writing sprints." We split the day into chunks, with a timer set to go off every 20 minutes.
The idea is that you work solidly for the allocated time, and when the alarm sounds, you take stock of what you've done, make a quick plan for the next installment, and start again.
This is similar to the Pomodoro Technique, a time-management system in which people break their workday into 25-minute chunks, separated by five-minute breaks.
The rationale is that the prefrontal cortex — the part of our brain responsible for focused work — gets tired after about 25 minutes, said Mo yra Scott, a productivity expert and well-being coach.
"Our brain's capacity to focus hard on anything is limited," she told me.
"Having a set time to do something is relaxing to the brain, as whatever we are doing, we know that there is an end point which is not too far away. Humans find it depressing to work on tasks that feel never-ending."
Panicking at the number of hours I was wasting every day and my inability to focus, a month into freelancing, I decided to start setting my alarm for every 20 minutes, preferring shorter intervals than the Pomodoro Technique.
Before I start, I write out my to-do list for the day: send pitches, arrange a call with a case study, transcribe an interview, write X number of words. I then make my way through these tasks as usual — the only difference being that I try to race the clock and do as much as possible before the next alarm.
It might sound disruptive, but as soon as I started, I felt more in control of my day. The first morning, I raced through my to-do list, aware that I had limited time until the alarm sounded.
After each alarm, I take a two-minute breather, tick off anything I've done, assess what's next, and carry on. After three alarms, I take a 10-minute break. I allocate some of the 20-minute slots for things beside work, like exercise.
I always know how much time is passing, without having to watch the clock.
Three months on, I still use this technique for most of each workday. If it gets too much, I take a break from it — but I miss the sense of structure and purpose when I do.
It also makes it easier to start bigger tasks — a common piece of advice from productivity gurus — as nothing feels overwhelming when you're doing it for only 20 minutes.
If I'm in the middle of something, I hit reset and keep going without a breather. If I've started doomscrolling or been distracted by WhatsApp, the timer jolts me back into action.
Now my screen time is down by about three hours daily — around 40% less than it was.
I'm writing a few hundred words of my book every day, and my freelance commissions have increased. I feel less overwhelmed, more accomplished, more purposeful, and my self-belief has improved massively.
A huge effect of this technique is having more free time because less procrastination means I'm working less. I make the most of my morning and can take an afternoon off.
That said, it's probably not wise to do this for eight hours a day, five days a week. There are times that I will stop the timer for a couple of dedicated hours for tasks like brainstorming new ideas, when it's nice to have some space that feels less pressured. I'd also recommend setting your alarm to vibrate if you share a workspace.
But it's revolutionized how I work by focusing my mind, increasing my productivity, and, most importantly, giving me a better work-life balance.