Burning Money

Timer-based to-do lists have been around for a long time. If you are interested in personal efficiency you will no doubt have heard of the Pomodoro technique, which uses an egg timer to encourage working in focused, 25 minute bursts. A five minute break is the reward. Personally, I find the five minute breaks of the Pomodoro technique distracting (who can do five minutes on Twitter?).

Most of our to-do lists use some sort of timer – even if they are outside your system. They may involve (at different times) the urgent bleating of a work deadline, personal disappointment, the annoyed emails of a co-worker, or the plaintive sounds of someone you live with that chores are undone.

So, here’s how to set up a to-do list that uses one of the greatest timed incentives of all: burning money!

This system uses

  • A list of ‘tasks‘ – jobs you have to do but don’t enjoy doing – preferably broken down into half-hour tasks.
  • A list of ‘rewards‘, usually small, luxury items you wish to purchase, but could do without.
  • An smartphone, computer, or online ‘wage timer’ app (a kind of stopwatch that counts in dollars and cents, as well as minutes and seconds – see below for examples).


1. Firstly, you will need to find a wage timer app that you personally like. I enjoy the ease of a smartphone app, although others like it on their desktop – where their work is mainly situated.

There are many different styles of wage timers. A simple one might be the Money Stopwatch. I really value nice design (and don’t mind the scatological aspect) – so I use PoopBreak (below).

Do a search for ‘wage timer’, ‘salary clock’, or ‘salary timer’ in your app center to find some that suit you.

2. Set up your ‘burn rate’. This is the amount of cash you are willing to burn through (or ‘earn’, depending upon your point of view).

The trick here is to find an hourly figure that is high enough that you will be excited enough to work, yet low enough that it will not cause any real financial troubles. You may wish to experiment with higher and lower figures to find the cheapest level of productivity you need.

My own hourly rate is set very low, as I find a small financial incentive does a lot. You can determine your own rate by converting the following to something that is more suited to you:

  • Average amount of half hour jobs I’d like to do per session: (for me, this is 6 tasks)
  • Hours per day I’ll therefore use this technique for (30 mins per task makes this automotic): 3 hours
  • Approximate money I’m able to afford to spend on this technique per day: $5
  • Hourly rate ($5 divided by 3 hours): $1.66 per hour

An illegally small amount to pay anyone else! Fortunately, we are only paying our future selves here – set this rate into your timer app.

3. Set your tasks into 30 minute chunks, and put them in a place where you can easily see them. I like to find my most difficult, neglected, or important tasks and put them on a sheet of paper near my computer (numbered 1-6 but they can be done in any order).

You may wish to include 30 minutes of emailing as a task. Alternatively, more open ended amounts of time may work for other tasks – eg. any time spent on preparing your taxes may be worth its rate!

4. Set up a list of rewards – say on a sheet of paper, or a computer file (mine is called ‘Rewards List’)

What rewards work for you is a personal decision, but my list contains items such as the following. Notice it contains a range of items (not all days are your needs the same), as well as a list of cheaper and more expensive items (adding the dollar amount is another useful motivating factor).

5. Ok, you’re set. Now, whenever you want a ‘short burst’ of productivity, simply set up your lists, and hit the timer.

More than likely you’ll find that you have much more attention, and work much more happily when you can see your reward count increasing. (Or, if you are concerned with money, you may work faster, to save you money.)

Turn off the timer when you are doing tasks that are easy, that you enjoy, when you stop work, or when you are procrastinating.

Whenever your accumulated rate is enough to buy something you want on your list, purchase it, and reset the accumulated dollar amount. Not only will you have a nice new thing, your increase in productivity will likely have easily paid for it!


  • This method works particularly well for people who are naturally spendthrifts! Not so much for compulsive shoppers ; )
  • It adds a spark of excitement and danger to otherwise dull tasks.
  • You may find you finish tasks quicker than even 25 minutes, as you race the ever increasing clock.
  • Why not get paid for doing tasks you would otherwise reluctantly have done for nothing?
  • It can almost seem like having your own, smart personal assistant (for $1.60 an hour)!
  • Simply keeping track of your tasks and your time makes this method worthwhile.


  • The fact that rewards go up and not down if tasks take long could be counterproductive for some.
  • This might add a further financial burden on those who are already struggling (although realistically, each task should raise more money than it costs)


  • Try using this in an inverted way, if that suits you better. You could start with $5 in front of you, and the amount the money clock shows is the amount you miss out on being rewarded for.
  • You might want to use this system for just one, long task (such as doing your accounts, or working on an important but often neglected project). If so, forget the 30 minute tasks, and keep the meter running! The more time you spend on it the better.

Our Rating

A great system if you respond to games, incentives, and deadlines.

Your Thoughts

Have you tried this system? What are your experiences working with it? Any pros, cons, variations, or tips?

Leave a Reply