Two Simple Timers

Posted by W. Caleb McDaniel on May 1, 2012

Like Natalie Houston and the Profhacker gang, I sometimes use a timer to keep me on task when I need to be productive, especially when the tasks at hand are ones that I’d rather put off. But instead of investing in a full-blown timer program, I’ve hacked together two simple timers for my Mac that I can fire up whenever I need them. Both are rough around the edges, but they work for me.

A Simple Terminal Timer

I can’t remember where on the Web I first read about this, but the simplest way I’ve found to set a timer is to open the Terminal, and enter the command:

sleep 600;say "break"

This will cause the computer to count to 600 seconds, and then say “break” using the system’s voice. Then I set another timer for the break that will prompt me to get back to work.

sleep 120;say "back to work"

I can easily recall these timers at the command line by using the up arrow key to go back to previous commands. So I can easily run each of these timers back-to-back for as long as I want.

Usually, I find myself using the simple terminal timer when I want to work in short bursts using a system like Merlin Mann’s (10+2)*5 procastination hack. But when I want to work in longer stretches, I use iTunes and Applescript.

A Simple iTunes Timer

I like to listen to jazz while I work, so about a year ago I pieced together an Applescript program that causes my music to fade out when it’s time for a break, and then fade back in when the break is over. To make it work, you can copy and paste the following code into AppleScript Editor, save the script as an Application, and then launch the application just like any other Mac program. (I call mine “Write Tunes,” because I use it often to time my writing sessions.)

property tick : 2
property thismany : 1

display dialog "Playlist?" default answer "Straight Ahead Jazz"
set writelist to text returned of result

display dialog "How many work sessions do you want?" default answer "2"
set sessions to text returned of result as number

display dialog "How many minutes each?" default answer "25"
set worktime to ((text returned of result as number) * 60)

display dialog "How many minutes for a break?" default answer "5"
set breaktime to ((text returned of result as number) * 60)

tell application "iTunes"
    set sound volume to 50
    tell playlist writelist
        set shuffle to false
        set shuffle to true
    end tell
    repeat sessions times
        set snd to sound volume
        set sound volume to 0
        if player state is paused then
            play playlist writelist
        end if
            if (get sound volume) is greater than or equal to (snd - tick) then
                set sound volume to snd
                exit repeat
            end if
            set sound volume to (sound volume + tick)
            delay thismany
        end repeat
        set resume_volume to sound volume
        delay worktime
            set snd to sound volume
            if snd is less than or equal to tick then
                set sound volume to 0
                exit repeat
            end if
            set sound volume to (snd - tick)
            delay thismany
        end repeat
        set sound volume to resume_volume
        delay breaktime
    end repeat
end tell


on quit
    continue quit
end quit

What I like about this timer is the way that it slowly “fades in” and “fades out” of work time, alerting me when a break is coming so I can wrap up a sentence and then alerting me when the break is ending, so I can stop surfing or snacking and get back into a writing frame of mind.

The settings can be adjusted by changing the default playlist name (currently “Straight Ahead Jazz”) and break and work times, but these defaults can also be left as they are; the dialog box will allow users to overwrite the default with their own choices. The speed with which the volume fades in and out can also be adjusted by changing the “tick” and “thismany” properties in the first two lines.

I patched this together largely with help from Doug’s Applescripts for iTunes, so there are definitely seams showing. For example, I’ve never really figured out a way to quit the app once it’s running other than to “Force Quit” it. The program will also fail if any iTunes dialogs pop up (for example, if I have my home wireless speakers selected in iTunes and then try to run this program at work, where those speakers are unavailable, then the program will fail). I should probably try to fix these issues someday, but right now the program does the trick, which is to get me working on what I should be working on.