I used a visual timer for ADHD to boost focus for a week and didn't end up on YouTube once

A visual timer for kids and adults with ADHD.
Courtesy Gili Malinsky
Key Points
  • Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder impairs the executive functions, including the ability to pay attention.
  • Tools like visual timers help give a more visceral sense of time and avoid distraction.
  • I tried using one and found while it didn't stop my mind from wandering entirely, it did help to reel me back into the task at hand.

I have attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. It's a neurodevelopmental disorder that impairs the executive functions in the brain, which are responsible for planning, initiating tasks, decision making, and, of course, attention.

Needless to say, time management and focus are a huge problem. While external distractions can definitely take a toll when I'm trying to get a work task done ― like write an article, for example ― internal distractions are just as hard to rein in. In just the last few minutes, I've been tempted to reorganize my entire schedule for tomorrow, message my boss about an early morning doctor's appointment, and chat with a colleague about the bagels she brought in this morning.

About 4.4% of adults in the U.S. have ADHD, according to a 2006 University of Michigan survey of 3,199 adults ages 18 to 44, which experts still cite today. But most people struggle with attention. In fact, people are mind-wandering 46.9% of the time, according to a 2010 Harvard study of 2,250 adults.

Luckily, there are tools you can use to help your wandering mind, whether you have ADHD or not. One such tool is a visual timer, a windup clock that gives a visual sense of time (pictured above).

"Analog time pieces (as opposed to digital), like these timers, make time both externalized (rather than in your head) and visual-spatial," J. Russell Ramsay, associate professor of clinical psychology and co-founder of the Adult ADHD Treatment and Research Program at the University of Pennsylvania, told Grow via email. "You can see the hour hand getting closer to an appointed time or in the case of these timers, the [blue] section shows times counting down, so there is a sense of decreasing time."

Timers also help with task completion. It "creates what I call a bounded-task with a start- and end-time," says Ramsay, adding that, "Having an unbounded task, 'I'm going to work until I'm done or for as long as I can,' is often too broad, vague, and non-specific for individuals with ADHD and more likely to result in procrastination."

I bought one of these timers on Amazon for about $19 and tried using it for a week. Here's how using it affected my productivity.

I did not end up on YouTube once while using a timer

In the first days of using the timer, I immediately felt the pressure that comes with having it on. There's a huge difference, it turns out, between watching numbers change on my computer clock and watching a circle that represents an hour get smaller and smaller. It's a little more stressful, and there's a greater sense of urgency to finish the task at hand within this circle of time.

While I used it, I also found myself feeling more beholden to the task at hand. YouTube is my greatest vice, and I'm cruising random videos on it more often than I'd like to admit. The visual stimulus of the timer made it easier to remember that I was in the middle of something and I needed to refocus, even if the impulse to watch a performance from the 2001 VMAs arose.

In fact, I found as long as I was using it, I didn't end up on YouTube once.

Analog time pieces (as opposed to digital), like these timers, make time both externalized (rather than in your head) and visual-spatial.
J. Russell Ramsay
Co-founder the Adult ADHD Treatment and Research Program, University of Pennsylvania

The beeping when the timer ends is annoying

One small annoyance about the timer is that it beeps when the hour ― or however long you set it for ― is up. I set my timer's volume as low as it goes and the fewest number of beeps possible. But it still makes that noise, and I was nervous about disturbing my officemates every time it went off.

The timer also ticks quietly. I mostly didn't notice the ticking but when I did, the noise itself could be a bit distracting.

When I googled around for other timers, it looks like they have other sound options, so this issue might be specific to the model I bought.

I'll take any tool to be more productive

Ultimately, I found that while the timer didn't stop my mind from wandering altogether, it put a bit more pressure on me to focus for as long as it was running. There were still the regular internal distractions and impulses to check Hinge or my email, but seeing my time slowly run out made it easier to reel myself back in even when those arose.

I can't rewire my brain, but I'll take any tool that makes me even a bit more productive. So I'll likely keep using it.

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