In my quest to lead a responsible life, and to acquit myself of many onerous but essential tasks, the egg timer is my tool of choice. I refer to that clockwork gizmo—predictably shaped like an egg or a broody hen–that you can set for a maximum of sixty minutes (if you’re cooking an ostrich egg). It ticks loudly as its inner mechanism unwinds, and lets out an ear-splitting buzz when the time is up.
This humble tool keeps my life on track by fooling me into thinking that it, and not I, is responsible for deciding when I can stop working on some unpleasant task. I realize that I am the one who sets the timer, but such is the mind’s capacity for self-deception that I can trick myself, when the buzzer buzzes, into believing that a higher authority—God, my mother, the German nuns who educated me—has deemed my obligation met, at least for the present, and I am free to pick up my needlepoint or watch another episode of “Call My Agent.”
Take, for example, the task I most dislike: preparing income tax returns. Not only does it deal with boring things like forms and numbers, but it is also scary—what if I make a mistake that sets the IRS hounds on my trail? The combination of boring and scary is conducive to procrastination, guilt, anxiety, more procrastination, and the need to file for an extension. But I am glad to report that this morning, thanks to my egg timer, I made a start on it.
After setting the timer for sixty minutes, I assembled my files, a pad of yellow stickies, some paper clips, a black pen, a red pen, a pencil, a stapler, last year’s calendar, and a calculator. The timer’s cheerful ticking kept me company as I sorted and compiled medical expenses, charitable contributions, 1099s, and random bits of paper, and before I knew it the buzzer buzzed. I shoved the lot into a box to await tomorrow’s session and went for a walk with my dog Bisou, feeling like a kid let out for recess.
House cleaning is another task I dread. The prospect of cleaning the house, or even cleaning just one room, throws me into existential despair. How will I feel, on my death bed, about the hours of my “one and precious life” I spent cleaning? Who even knows what “cleaning” means? One might begin with dusting, then press on with wiping, polishing, sweeping, vacuuming, and disinfecting, and never be heard from again.
Again, the trick is to think “by the hour” rather than “by the job.” If it’s a dusting day, I set my timer for sixty minutes and begin. Perhaps when the timer rings I’m still in the room where I began, in which case I must have done a thorough job. But no matter how far or how well I have dusted, the egg timer has spoken, and I obey.
On days when the sidewalks are icy, or the snow forms huge balls on Bisou’s “feathers,” I exercise her by throwing balls for her indoors, an activity that she adores. For me, despite my love for her, throwing balls the length of our cottage until she gets tired is sheer tedium. I try to focus on the moment, to take pleasure in her pleasure, to remember that this is the least I can do for a being who brings me such comfort. But the truth is, I am bored out of my mind. How long must I do this before I can in good conscience stop?
Here again, the egg timer saves me. I set it for fifteen minutes, and then ignore it as it ticks away. Knowing that it’s in charge lets me enter into a mindless zone in which I throw the ball, praise her as she retrieves it, throw, praise, and throw again until the buzzer jolts me out of my hypnotic state. Then I put the ball away, and Bisou collapses into blissful sleep.
I also use a timer for meditation. If I didn’t, I would be opening one eye to check the time every two minutes. But here I use the timer on my phone, which emits a bucolic cricket sound that doesn’t make me jump out of my skin. I could use the phone timer for everything else, but I am fond of the loud, companionable ticking of the analog machine.
What about writing? Heaven knows we writers need tricks to get us going and to make the task seem less hopeless. But I don’t use a timer for writing because, when I am in full avoidance mode, even setting it for five minutes feels overwhelming. What I do instead is take a nap, one during which I may or may not sleep, but during which I allow my mind to ramble through its various wastelands. Then I get up and go to the computer, having made a solemn promise to myself that I will write a one single solitary sentence, no more. Next thing I know, I’ve written paragraphs.
But for everything else, nothing beats the egg timer.
|Bisou after chasing balls|