Strike The Bell And Turn The Glass: Using 30 Minute Writing & Work Intervals

by Randy Murray on October 14, 2013

On a recent trip to the Atlantic shore I found the thirty minute hour glass that I’d been looking for. It’s simple and elegant and it is the only thing that I place on the upper shelf of my standing desk next to my laptop.

I’m a big, big fan of the novels of Patrick O’Brian set in the age of “fighting sail.” And one of the elements of life aboard ships of that era was the marking of time based upon the thirty minute hour glass. After the sand runs through it a Marine stationed near by would strike the ship’s bell to announce the next interval and turn the glass to start the next thirty minutes. This would go on throughout the day, typically dividing it into four hour “watches.”

It’s a remarkable way to manage productivity even today.

As a writer and “knowledge worker,” I can focus well for periods of time, but not all day long. Thirty minutes is an excellent length of time to devote to a burst of writing or research or thinking. At the end of this period it’s good to step away, breath, and start again.

I also think that it’s very important to “strike the bell” after each thirty minutes. Celebrate each completed interval, congratulate yourself on the work completed. Then start again.

We can learn from the swabbies. A four hour watch is a long time to work and write. It’s more than enough. For writers, unless you’re on a major roll, take breaks, work for four hours, rest for four, then go back for another watch. I’m lucky if I can get in four solid hours of work before becoming completely exhausted both mentally and physically.

I also like glancing at the glass rather than looking at the clock. It’s enough to know that there’s still sand above the neck of the glass. Keep working. Keep moving. And then, when the last grains drop, give the glass a flick to clear those pieces stuck to the interior, pick it up, and turn it for another period of work to start. Then ring the bell.

I find it fascinating how many common terms come from the age of fighting sail and general nautical terms. Here’s a place to start: Nautical Terms and Phrases Used In Everyday Speech.


The Strike The Bell And Turn The Glass: Using 30 Minute Writing & Work Intervals by Randy Murray, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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