The Argument for a Sand Timer

Glass sand timer with black sand and a shattered bulb

My sand timer broke several months ago.  It was my own fault, really.  I had “paused” it.  (Which really means, I laid it on its side so I could attend to some distraction).  It turns out that cylinders are not overly stable on their rounded edges.  I recognized how precarious it had been when I heard the definitive crunch behind me.

On my podcast interview last summer, I mentioned how much I rely on my sand timer.  Still. I haven't replaced it yet.  Whenever something breaks, it’s a good excuse to examine whether or not it belongs in my life. I think I've almost convinced myself that a sand timer does.  But, I'm still deliberating.  Here are a few of the arguments in its favor.


Sand Timers Are Gentle

On a purely mechanical level, sand timers are a more compassionate chronometer.  They don’t rely on the rigidity of numbers incessantly clicking away. There’s no jangling bell at the end.  They simply mark the time with silent consistency.

But, there's more to it than that. Dividing my days by a device that obeys the unwavering rhythm of gravity is instantly grounding.  Marking my time by falling grains of sands is an invitation to bring a gentle attitude to my to do list.

When the work is going well, and I slip into the flow, I’m not jarred out of it by a buzzer clanging my mind out of its reverie.  And, when the work isn't going well, a sand timer is a mute witness to my struggle.  Instead of insisting that I gut it out for another 13 minutes and 39 seconds, it stares back at me with inexorable persistence. 

Sand Timers Help Me Keep Trust with Myself

Sometimes I don’t want to begin.  Look, often, I don’t want to begin.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  It is reality.  In those moments of resistance, I’ve learned, I need to be both consistent and gentle.  I want to hold myself accountable.  But, I have no desire to assume the role of strict school teacher, poised with a ruler ready to whack a stray hand. 

I need to know that I care enough about myself to show up.  To stick with the plan.  Even when there are other things clamoring for my attention.  Even when the work feels hard and sluggish.  I need to know that I will show up because I said I would.  But, I also need to know that there are walls around that commitment.  I'm not asking myself to sit down and grind away in Sisyphean perpetuity.

Setting a timer, when the resistance is high, feels like an act of grim determination. Picking up a sand timer, which feels beautiful in my hand, makes beginning feel like a privilege.  Even on the hard days, turning over an elegantly wrought object imbues the whole commencement with the weight of ritual.

Sand Timers Fulfill My Low-Tech Preferences

I tend to gravitate toward the lowest tech solution that can get the job done.  I'm a hopeless Luddite that way.  If the purpose of my sand timer is to segment my days into reliable time chunks, the only way to go more analog is with a sundial.  While also an attractive possibility (I can envision myself lounging outdoors, checking my sundial from time to time to see if I’m on schedule), it is not quite as practical as a sand timer. 

I appreciate the narrowness of a sand timer’s output. Every time I pick up my phone, I have to fend off the multitude of distractions it's pedaling. A sand timer, in contrast, simply demarcates the time in the same unobtrusive way it did a thousand years ago.  It can't whisk me away into mental paths unknown.  A glance gives me access to the same enigmatic message: Some time has passed.  Some time is remaining.  And the former is relentlessly becoming the latter.

Sand Timers Bring Me Into a Healthier Relationship with Time

My daughter and I often talk about how our dream super power would be to stop time.  The prospect of finding extra minutes in the day is even more alluring than flying.  But, there is no pause button on life, and the consistency of a sand timer is a good reminder of that. 

A sand timer can't be paused very effectively without courting disaster.  And, I can't thoughtlessly roll it back five minutes if I want to give in to some distraction. Its implacable regularity mirrors the inevitability of life’s persistent march.

It might seem extreme, but I do wonder if, casually hitting pause on a timer all day starts to indoctrinate my mind with the belief that I can pause time. Not literally, of course. But, that I can carve out time that “doesn't count” toward the measure of the moments my life.  Or, that I can afford to stay in a holding pattern.  When I rationalize time spent on this distraction or that diversion, I'm not taking seriously the gift of this life.

I’m not advocating for more rigidity.  And, I'm not suggesting that I should be spending more time in ways that are traditionally considered productive.  I want to hold my life in a more sacred state of awe.  Those unrelenting sands remind me that these 30 minutes are my only shot at these 30 minutes. They are a silent whisper that this life is not a dress rehearsal.