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Can Timeboxing Help Me Do Really Big, Hard Things?

This entry is part 19 of 26 in the series Timeboxing Trilogy

MikeLike on November 17, 2011:

You’ve clearly used this method to accomplish great things, so I’m trying to put my skepticism aside… I see how this would apply to something like cleaning the house, but I’m having trouble seeing how it can be applied to larger, more complicated and cognitively intensive tasks. For example, a 20-page paper for a college class.

If I could only work in spurts of 90-120 seconds, I might finish 2 or 3 sentences at a time. Sometimes I wouldn’t even finish one sentence. If I then had to switch, when I came back I’d have to spend most of the timebox figuring out where I left off in the argument and getting myself back in that train of thought. Then it would be time to switch again.

I guess I’m saying that while I see the benefits of frequent task-switching (novelty bringing more mental energy and interest), there are also costs. Some tasks just seem more suited to spending 15 minutes, 30 minutes, or even an hour immersed in focused work.

What do you think about that? Am I misunderstanding how the timeboxing method applies to tasks like writing a paper? Or are the some tasks that work better with timeboxing than others, and if so how should we decide when to make use of this technique?

Duh. If you write 2~3 sentences at a time enough times…the paper will write itself. How do you think I produced this entire website, which, at this writing, would fill a couple of Harry Potter-size books?

Admittedly, this website sucks. But that’s beside the point. It’s here.

There are no truly big atoms. There are no big tasks. Only long sequences of small tasks.

There is no such thing as “hard”: there are just things that need smaller chunks than you’re currently using.

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  13 comments for “Can Timeboxing Help Me Do Really Big, Hard Things?

  1. May 8, 2012 at 03:17

    I have gotten A’s on all my papers this semester simply by starting with a couple sentences a day. A day. You can move frequency up by a couple more sentences a day enough that you get the paper done in time, but often the fact that I have a start to my paper (although very small) was inspiration enough to start writing for 30, 40, 50 minutes at a time. I now think that the max to writing a paper should only be put in a 40-50 minute time slot, as I’ve learned that from Tony Schwarts here:

    And his Google Talk:

  2. himawari
    May 8, 2012 at 07:10

    I know it’s off topic, but maybe someone can help: I plan to include audio into my srs cards and someone mentioned a website where you can get audio recordings from natives to sentences you upload.. I looked for it myself on the web and on this blog.. for about 2,5h, but can’t find it anymore..

    • 名前
      May 8, 2012 at 09:19


      • himawari
        May 8, 2012 at 15:25

        yes! that’s what I was looking for! thank you

  3. Kimura
    May 10, 2012 at 10:58

    I use a fairly simple solution to this (which unfortunately only applies to SRS timeboxing and not daily-life stuff like essay-writing): timebox by number of cards, not by a time duration. This way, you can take as long as necessary to accomplish a “chunk”, while still getting the benefit of the “it’s a bunch of smaller tasks” mindset. I find that 25-card chunks is a nice number. Takes about 1-2 minutes for stuff I already know well (like cards with a duration >= 4mo), and about 4-5 minutes for harder stuff (complex sentences, kanji I keep bombing, etc).
    And by aligning the new-cards-per-day amount to the same as the timebox, I can easily tell how much longer until deck completion (for example, I’m at about #750 in Lazy Kanji, and there’s ~1800 cards in the deck (I applied the “little-used-kanji deletions list” from JALUP), so at a rate of 25 new cards a day, I’ll finish sometime around the end of June.)

  4. Kk
    May 11, 2012 at 23:52

    To the original author’s question… How about free writing. You set the clock for X minutes and just free write on topic for that amount of time. Once you have a critical mass of material, then time box forming it into coherent paragraphs, chapters, etc. then time box in the revising process – revise for X minutes. The point is to split the essay task into smaller chunks which are more manageable and easier to tee up.

    So you have to reconcile the essay task from one big 20hr monolith into smaller parts. I’ll work just on the intro for X time. Then part I, etc…


    • Sagetobe
      May 26, 2012 at 22:53

      That sounds like a good way to fit writing a paper into a timeboxing method. I used to write with a similar method, putting all the bits of information from my research that I wanted to include in one document, then organizing them into an outline, filling in the spaces only when I converted that into the actual paper. It’s a good way to ensure that you’re heavy on content, because you’re setting the framework with the information you’ve gathered.
      That being said, never start with writing the introduction. It’s fine if you’re writing a timed essay or something, but the purpose of an introduction is to set up the material that comes after it, which is hard to do if you don’t even know what that is yet.

  5. Tommy Newbhall
    May 12, 2012 at 01:44

    Well, i thought I should say something because I too am in the midst of writing a god-awful long paper (my master’s thesis) and have experimented using several different time boxing styles for it, but generally, I can say that, at least for myself “short burst” time boxing is not as effective for writing as it is for other tasks like doing flash cards.  

    I think it basically is because writing, at least academic writing, requires more precise and thorough thinking and synthesizing information rather than simply saying whatever is at the forefront of your mind.  Its a a particular kind of creativity and problem solving… although the actual physical work comes down to “just writing something” the task of writing isn’t just making sentences, but first thinking and then organizing those thoughts and turning them into comprehensible sentences.  Its different even than just writing about your own personal overservations (as you might in a blog, or a journal, sorry katz). You can break down the process, sure, but its all based on putting together ideas in your head in a way that makes sense to someone else.  Sometimes the words flow out because you have a clear picture in your mind of what you want to say, but more often than not, they don’t and getting to that point requires certain thinking steps where its not merely one action followed by another–they’re all jumbled together, and loop back on each other, and it’s nearly impossible to predict how long putting together a thought will take.  Therefore the axiom of “just putting words down on paper” in a given space of time can even be counter-productive— if a sentence is not really fleshed out.  Now of course, you shouldn’t need make every sentence perfect on the first try, because editing and re-working sentences is part of the process too. Anyway figuring out what the heck you want to say is the first step… and unfortunately one that requires an unpredictible amount of time.
    Because of this, I think, short burst timeboxes don’t work so well for technical writing. However, “long bursts” time-blocks do work quite well, and still conform to the spirit of timeboxing of “starting often.”  These require that you actually plan and set aside significant distraction-free chunks of daytime to implement, which requires a different kind of discipline than small-chunk timeboxing.  A reasonable minimum to make this work is to try to aim for doing 20 minutes workign on a specific aspect of your project–that’s almost always enough time to get something small done.  Ideally, you might try to write in blocks of 1~1.5 hours, and if you have time to do multiple back-to-back blocks, separate them with 5~10 minutes of non-project break time (like doing flashcards for instance).  “working time” is also structured around specific tasks: don’t just sit down to “write something”, but decide before you start a time block what to work on: “make notes for article X” “write about <specific sub-topic>” “edit section X” rather than “write paper.” 

    Basically, sorry to disagree with you Khatz, but I think even though technically you “can” write a sentence in a minute shorter timeboxes don’t work well for productive essay writing, but longer boxes do. The basic difference is the type of work involved with essay writing and other creative work vs. making cards, reviewing, or even reading.  The latter, while having some element of creativity, are pretty mechanical and straightforward in comparison to putting together well-thought out words on a page, which is a very complex and knotty task by its nature even for the best of writers.

  6. Rout
    May 14, 2012 at 05:57

    I apologize for the off-topic comment…
    I recently really started AJATTing (finally). Well, if listening to Japanese every minute I don’t forget to turn the Japanese audio on counts. So AJATTing hardcore also meant no more subtitles for my anime.

    Lemme tell ya, I started about 3 weeks ago and I went on an anime search, I found a few fun ones… And I just want to BLOODY understand them. I mean, watching them without subs is still fun (despite what I used to say like a year ago), but it bugs the hell out of me, all the story-essential stuff I miss that has to be picked up from the dialogue. But still, my stubbornness (that’s a funny spelling) won’t let me turn the subs on (and it’s actually easier to find raw anime).


    Thanks for hearing me out. I need some sleep now. 

    • Maruku
      May 20, 2012 at 04:23

      This is probably information I’m using second-hand from Khatz, so this probably isn’t my own idea, but a good thing to try is watching an anime you’ve seen before (but maybe only a few times) with no subtitles.

      That way, you don’t have whatever dialogue the subtitles contained crammed into your head, but you just know “Oh, this character does ____ during the _____ arc” and from there, you can get a vibe for what they may be talking about. 

      You might even catch a word or two here and there that you go “Oh, I know what that word means, at least. He was probably talking about his brother’s pain,” or some such similar situation.

  7. Aidan
    May 29, 2012 at 18:57

    “There are no truly big atoms”…

  8. H4
    July 29, 2014 at 00:48

    I agree with this guy to some extent. I can’t imagine spending less than 10 minutes on anything and feeling particularly satisfied about it, but that’s just me and that just means I keep all my time boxes between 10-20 minutes and I rest between, getting stuff done. I disagree that cleaning your house can be done in 120 second spurts though. That’s probably the worst thing to do in such short timeboxes because you forget where you cleaned and you don’t clean stuff properly because you’re stressing out etc. I prefer to do cleaning while listening to music/podcasts etc. to make it easier.

    • Amir
      August 2, 2014 at 10:07

      @H4 The key is to keep them as small and fun as possible for your personal standards. If 20 minute timeboxes keep you coming back for more, then it’s great. But some people find even 20 minutes to be too much, that’s why they need to make ’em smaller. Just making for example a timebox of 3 minutes can make a big difference. I had the same mindset as you until I tried it myself. You know, they make you feel at ease, they kill your procrastination. You work, for example on your 20 pages essay for 3 minutes and actually make your body experience that the task isn’t as painful and killing as your imagination is making it out to be. You put some awesome music on and actually start having fun doind the task. If you actually feel good doing the task you can then higher your timeboxes, and on the contrary if you feel bad or are not in the mood , lower them. The goal is to NOT do nothing on a DAILY basis. The multiplication factor and the potential fun factor asking for more will take care of the rest, trust me.

      Good luck! 🙂

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