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Matt Dorey

A bird is sitting on the grass with a kite

The Stopwatch Technique

At a recent job interview I was asked how I would get started on a new task for which there was no existing technique. This is something I am used to doing (or at least thinking about doing), mainly because I prefer to treat each task as though it were something new. Before you lambast me as inefficient, let me share with you the technique that I use to get started.

I use what I have taken to calling “The Stopwatch Method”. I have one of those cheap Casio watches because the dual time function is useful while travelling and because it has a countdown timer. The timer is permanently set for five minutes. This is for two reasons. The first to make sure my cups of tea don’t stew when I wander off while they brew up. The other reason is to time a five-minute burst when I get started on something. I use Siri to set all my other timers because it’s nice and easy, but for a sprint it’s nice to know how much time you have left.

This process adopts the idea that five minutes is all it takes to get going on something. It’s usually enough time to get you hooked into all but the most undesirable of tasks. I ensure this by making that five minutes into a bit of fun. I free-associate and plan out the problem: I plan out the aspects of the problem that require a solution and recall or think up possible techniques for getting to those solutions. This disassembly and brainstorming does not guarantee a perfect solution, but it does help you to map out where you are. Sometimes if you don’t know where to start it is good to at least assess the places where you could start.

Sometimes I allow the timer to restart and go for another five minutes, usually because I’m already inspired enough to continue. It’s very rare that I give up once I commit to a five-minute sprint and press the button on my watch. This is due to positive reinforcement: because it is a technique that consistently works for me, I have confidence that it will continue to do so.

I think it scales too. For longer projects, and/or those that involve larger groups of people, it is possible to do the same thing. If five minutes is just a fraction of, say, the two hours you’ve allotted for doing something, then you can usually dedicate something on the order of an hour to a sprint that kickstarts a project you plan to spend a week on, and so on. Note, for example, the existence of books like “The First 90 Days”, which are about getting you started in new work projects.

Of course, the technique alone is not enough. Your success with this method also depends on how you marshal your thoughts, your ability to produce a wide variety of ideas, and the tools that you have at your disposal for validating your ideas and taking them further, to name but a few. Nevertheless, I’d urge you to give it a try: it’s often easier to get started than you think.

Why not set your watch or phone to a 90 second countdown now, and use that little smidge of time to come up with a comment below?

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