Recently I listened to an interview with Elizabeth Gilbert on the podcast On Being. Gilbert, you may recall, was the author of the book Eat, Pray, Love. In this interview, however, she and the host, Krista Tippett, were not talking about traveling the world, but about creativity. Gilbert said that her mother had bequeathed her two valuable items when it comes to developing work habits: The List and The Kitchen Timer. I immediately thought: Well, that’s time and task practicing in a nutshell.

For most of my life, I have stubbornly hung on to my belief of the superiority of task practice. We (“we” meaning both students and I) should practice through all of our assignments for the day: Scales and arpeggios. Check. Sight-reading. Check. Bach: metronome. Haydn: hands separately. Copland: memorize. Check. Check. Check. In other words, daily practicing was simply a list of tasks to work through, one item at a time.

I still love a list and probably always will. There is nothing like getting to the bottom of the list of practice tasks, or gardening tasks, or household chores and thinking: Woo-hoo! I am DONE.

But lately some of my best practicing has been due to the old Kitchen Timer. Take, for example, the garage.

Matt and I bought our house thirteen years ago. Prior to that point, we could claim eight different addresses in ten years of marriage. We had lived in a series of one-bedroom apartments, including a tiny one on Beacon Hill in Boston that was 350 square feet on a good day. That was minimalist living at its very essence: when something came in, something had to go out.

Although our current house is small by American standards, we have both a basement and a garage, which means that when faced with the dilemma of: “What do we do with this?” we have an easy answer: “Ah! Just put it in the garage.”

As a result, we had thirteen years of forgotten items in the garage. We also had a few important things like two bikes and a number of gardening tools, most of which have become buried under the thirteen years of debris. It was past time, I decided, to clean out the garage

I. Hate. Cleaning. Out. The. Garage.

It’s really dirty. There are spiders and evidence of mice. There are leaves and birdseed everywhere. I can’t identify half of what is in there and every item requires multiple decisions: Keep? Toss? Put where?

I. Hate. Cleaning. Out. The. Garage.

Hence The Kitchen Timer. On multiple occasions in the last few weeks I have managed to convince myself to spend five (or sometimes even an ambitious 10!) minutes in the garage. I have made so much progress that last night I was able to wipe down the tool table, a surface I have not seen in, well, thirteen years.

When I think I can’t spare or face even five minutes, sometimes I tell myself: Two items, Amy. Do something with TWO items. Which is, if you think about it, a kind of variation on The List.

Back at the piano, I’ve turned to the Kitchen Timer more and more often this summer, both in teaching and in my own practicing. “OK, let’s work on this passage for exactly three minutes,” I’ll tell a student and flip over my trusty egg timer. Three minutes is like nothing, I can hear the kid thinking. My teacher is crazy to think this will make a difference, but of course, I know three minutes is a long, longtime to work on a single passage. We can fix almost anything in three good minutes. And we do, one three-minute chunk at a time.

It might be a form of magical thinking, but such tricks work. In the garage (Come on. Five minutes, Amy). On the piano bench (OK, twenty minutes with the concerto you have to learn for that gig next winter.). At the computer (Write SOMETHING for ten minutes. Anything. A letter. An email. A sentence. A haiku.).

So which is it? Time or Task Practicing? The List or the Kitchen Timer?

Both. Just ask Elizabeth Gilbert’s mother.