The Printable CEO™ III: Emergent Task Timing

The Emergent Task Timer Last winter, buddy Brad was telling me about the wonders of his egg timer tracking method, which used said timer with a to-do list. This memory came back to me lately, as I’ve been feeling “blah” about doing task management. I know generally what I have to do, but am just not feeling like making a plan. I just want to start working on something and see where the time goes. And this is how the Emergent Task Timer was born: half timesheet, half diagnostic tool.

What? Emergent?

My Kitchen TimerIt’s emergent because I have no idea how long these tasks are really going to take, nor am I feeling particularly motivated due to being in the “I don’t want to really think about it” mood. So rather than pre-design the tasks and enter them into something like the Task Progress Tracker, I just do the tasks and see what patterns emerge from the doing. Since most people don’t actually plan out their tasks at the detailed level, the emergent task methodology may be the gateway into using The Printable CEO™ when the important high-level tasks aren’t known ahead of time.

The idea of journaling what you’re doing is a method that I believe is used by productivity coaches; my emergent task timer really is the same idea.

Compared to the Task Tracker, which measures cumulative time in a to-do list form, this Emergent Task Timer is more of a diagnostic timesheet.

Ok, How Do You Use It?

The Emergent Task Timer Sheet So what good is the ETT? I am thinking it’s useful in two ways: as a way of finding structure after the fact, and a way to keep focused, by virtue of incorporating Brad’s 15-minute timer into the process.

Here’s the scenario: I’m about to start some work, but am feeling a little vague and unfocused. I do want to work on something, so I start the 15-minute timer. Knowing the timer is counting down, I feel a little more motivating to get moving, so I just start. 15 minutes later, I get beeped by the timer, and then I write down what I was doing, reset the timer, and keep going. If I start a new task, or if it’s a significant sub-task, I make a new entry on the sheet and fill in the appropriate bubbles every time the timer goes off.

This goes on for a few hours (the sheet has 8 hours, broken into 15-minute chunks). By the end of the session, I have a record of what I did, broken down by task. If I was especially foreward looking, I might have even taken notes on what I was doing at a given time.

That’s pretty much it. At the end of the day, you’ll see where your time was spent, captured in a way that is intuitively readable. Where you see the most black, that’s where the most time you spent was. You might be able to see patterns of where you ended up getting caught in email hell, or took an extra long lunch, or where you were getting nothing done because you were ping-ponging between multiple tasks.

The genius of the egg timer is that it paces and reminds us to be mindful of what we’re doing.

Visual Example

Example of ETT 02 You can also look at this example sheet. This depicts the wide version, but the ideas are the same.

How to Evaluate your Form Results

There’s nothing particularly special about this form, other than it’s designed to be used with an egg timer. If you’re conscientious about using the timer to track what you’re doing, I think the following will happen:

  • You’ll develop a better awareness of where time is going, which is an essential step in improving your own productivity.

  • You’ll see what kinds of tasks you’re doing everyday, and approximately how much time is getting swallowed up by it. You’d be surprised at how much is not essential; you can then consult your Concrete Goals Tracker to see how you’re doing.

  • You’ll get an idea of how long it takes to do something, and this is invaluable in formation when it comes to giving estimates.

  • You may develop better pacing, because your 15-minute timer starts to build an anticipation in having something to record. If 15 minutes is too short, just use 30 minutes or an hour.

If you’re interested in tracking this kind of information more formally in a business setting, don’t forget to check out Blue Flavor’s timesheets, which are wonderful. I didn’t put in a lot of the stuff that they have, primarily because I just needed something quick and dirty. In retrospect I could have just used their design, but I felt like tackling the information challenge anew.


So now I have several documents and forms that are loosely tied together:
  • The Concrete Goals Tracker: a high-level focusing form to keep you doing stuff that actually advances your business / personal goals.

  • The Task Progress Tracker: a lower-level tool that breaks your goals into discrete tasks, and tracks progress individually on them. Alternatively, it’s a To Do list that emphasizes what you DID, instead of what you DIDN’T.

  • The Menu of the Day: a kind of morning meditation and focusing exercise. There actually isn’t a form for this yet, though I do draw them out when I need focus in the morning.

  • The Emergent Task Timer: This is the new form, which is even lower level than the Task Progress Tracker. It doesn’t plan what you do at all; it just records what you end up doing, and allows you to see the patterns after-the-fact. Still useful. Requires less thinking.

  • The Compact Calendar: A trick that allows you to perceive blocks of time as a more continuous stream of time, thanks to an improved calendar layout.


p>There are a few tools I haven’t talked about yet, like the intent/expectation/motivation/result breakdown that you can apply to every task; this is more of a “how to” tool, but it’s an essential element of my “get productive” process. After all, you can’t really be sure you are productive if you don’t know what you’re measuring.


Download the Emergent Task Timer PDFs

» Download The Emergent Task Timer 8 hours » PCEO-ETT01-Standard.pdf

» Download The Emergent Task Timer 12 hours » PCEO-ETT02-StandardWide.pdf

» Download The Emergent Task Timer 12 hours, 5min bubbles » PCEO-ETT02A-StandardWide.pdf

» Download The Emergent Task Timer 12 hours, laser-friendly » PCEO-ETT03-PowerUserWideBW.pdf

Or Try the Online Version (Alpha)

ETT I finally got off my butt and started coding a replacement for the kitchen timer. It’s a software implementation of the Emergent Task Timer:

ETT Online (Flash Alpha)

Let me know what you think!

» More on The Printable CEO Series