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Timeboxing Trilogy, Part 3: Dual Timeboxing

This entry is part 7 of 26 in the series Timeboxing Trilogy

OK, so remember how last time we talked about “nested timeboxing”? Well, today we’re going to talk about the first type of nested timeboxing — dual timeboxing. We’ll talk about the second type (decremental/downward spiral timeboxing) next time.

So, Why Dual Timeboxing?


Dual timeboxing is just personal timeboxing using two timers. I first started using it when I noticed that I was missing a lot of trains.

If you live in Japan, then you know that our trains run the heck on time. It literally takes a death to make our trains late. So, under normal circumstances, missing a train, in Japan, is like failing an open-book, open-notes test where the answer was given in advance and there was only one question.

I mean, the schedule is written, published and distributed in advance for all to see.  It’s publically searchable from any of dozens of train websites like Ekitan and Jorudan. You can even get a little wallet-sized copy at your local train station. All for free! IMHO, unless death, injury or natural disasters are involved, missing a train in Japan really isn’t morally defensible, at least as far as the pure logic of the situation is concerned. I mean, come on, it’s not like the train is gonna fake us out! Unless someone dies it will leave at the exact time it says, and not a second earlier or later, every time, every day. All you have to do is be there for it and let the magic unfold.

So I started using normal, “vanilla” timeboxing to help me make it to the trains I needed to make it to. But that actually didn’t work too well. Why? Because I would wait until the last two minutes of the timebox to actually start getting ready. Unfortunately, it would take me about 5~10 minutes to prepare my things. Now, those of you who have mastered kindergarten mathematics will realize that 10 > 2. The crocodile wants to eat the 10. So I kept missing trains.

And what if I just took the next train? Well, the same crap would happen, dawg. Wait until the last two minutes and then be running late. Maybe missing a train isn’t that big a deal. But for me it was and is a metaphor for life itself. In life, I want to be able to say: “I shall do thing X at time Y”, and actually have that happen.

The fact that this “have all the time in the world, but then wait until the last 2 minutes to start getting ready and still not make it” pattern of procrastination followed by panic kept repeating itself, showed me that the problem was not the train schedule, it wasn’t “the Japanese people and their love of rules” or any other prejudicial nonsense like that. The problem lay in my behavior. My behavior needed to change.

I knew I had to “master” the art of meeting trains, because this same procrastination-panic cycle was cropping up in my other work, like translating video games or creating products like the QRG, MFSP and even AJATT+.

Herein lies the paradox: I needed more time, but I also needed less time. In other words, I needed not one but many two-minute timeboxes. Thus was dual timeboxing born.

How Does Dual Timeboxing Work?

Again, dual timeboxing is just regular timeboxing but with two timers — “the big one” and “the small one”.

  • The big timer measures the total or absolute time remaining (until, say, I need to leave my place of residence to catch the train. Example lengths (minutes): 90, 60, 30, 10
  • The small timer measures the subtotal or relative time remaining within the current nested timebox. Example lengths (seconds): 120, 90, 60

Clearly, dual timeboxing is good for more than just making it to the train. It’s good for anything where you have a clear, hard, absolute deadline with a longish time horizon (dozens of minutes to a couple of hours?), within which you have to do some creative or otherwise amorphous work — work where the content is not so hard and fast, work where the details are not fully predetermined.

So, personally:

  • I don’t plan out what I’m going to do in the big timebox.
  • I have a “theme” (e.g. “study X” or “write Y” or “get ready to leave”), but within that theme…
  • I act spontaneouslyI just pick something productive to do for 90~120 seconds (or whatever the length of the smaller timebox is) and give that all my energy.
  • It’s like eating chips or popping bubblewrap. Sure, there’s a bag, but I’m just eating this one chip.
  • Occasionally, I even use some of the small timeboxes to take little breaks. I keep both timeboxes running as normal during the breaks…no clock-stopping since that (for me) creates the illusion we can stop time, which is the one thing we cannot do. We cannot (yet? hehe) stop time — all we can do is position ourselves and our tools in such a way as to use the ever-flowing river of time productively </OverlyPoeticStatements>.
  • If my breaks get too long (use up too many small timeboxes), then I take it as a sign that the big timebox is too big and/or that I shouldn’t be working anyway, so I’ll just stop working altogether. Remember, the point of timeboxing is to limit work time, and but also to be actually working during work time. Yes…”and but”.

Complex (i.e. made up of many pieces), amorphous, ambiguous tasks are the kind that seem “hardest” to us, whether it’s cleaning house, writing an article or doing our SRS reps. Breaking it up like this helps me focus on just doing, not on freaking out about the enormity of the task (which, as we all know, leads to avoidance behaviors like our good friend Procrastination).

Timeboxing Turns Work Into Play

[This section got spun off into its own post. Click here to read it].

OK, Kenfucius, I’ve Drunk the Kool-Aid, But How Do I Use This For Learning Japanese?

  • SRSing
  • Reading (you could switch books every 90 seconds…this actually works really well when it’s your L2 — a language in which you are a mental child — and you can’t concentrate for too long)
  • Watching/listening to media — think of it like channel-surfing.

Anyway…that’s the basic idea. Tune in next time for the second type of nested timeboxing — decremental timeboxing.

Series Navigation<< Timeboxing Trilogy, Part 2: Nested TimeboxingTimeboxing Trilogy, Part 3.5: Timeboxing Turns Work Into Play >>

  13 comments for “Timeboxing Trilogy, Part 3: Dual Timeboxing

  1. Will
    July 3, 2010 at 02:27


    I do something very similar to this and I completely agree that sometimes shorter, more concentrated spurts of work will help you get more done. But I just can’t help feel you are leaving out some very important insights on taking breaks. Being the recovering workaholic that I am, I realize that taking some quality rest or even a quick two minute break to just meditate and relax will make you a much more productive worker (Niel Fiore, anyone?).

    IMO It’s just so much more inspiring when you have some FUN to look forward to between your bouts of productivity. This fun will be in a some L2 or L3 that you are currently taking steps to OWN, of course.


  2. Theo
    July 3, 2010 at 04:08

    I thought it helpful to use it a double super cool timer

  3. Theo
    July 3, 2010 at 04:13

    I’ve tried pomodoro, I think for personal stuff is too complex, maybe for work purpose it’s ok.

  4. Theo
    July 3, 2010 at 04:15

    Khatz for President. It’s a really cool idea, oh hell yeah

  5. Serhei
    July 3, 2010 at 07:27

    I enjoy combining dual and decremental timeboxing. Throw a bunch of 5-to-15 minute timeboxes into a bag, pull one out of the bag and do it, bite off a minute or two and throw it back in. Pick a different one and repeat for awesomeness.

  6. Lex
    July 3, 2010 at 09:39

    Just a though, if you are listening to music (which you should be), setting the timer to the end of the current song could be a fun way to timebox!

  7. Leonardo Boiko
    July 4, 2010 at 09:09

    Lex: totally gonna try that. Thanks for the idea.

  8. Todd
    July 7, 2010 at 08:24


    sounds a lot like the Tabata protocol….short intense bursts of exercise, rewarded by interval rest…..all wrapped up in a much bigger timer for the workout. (dual time-boxed)

    You can Tabata anything by playing with the times….and from personal experience, it works great for the most painful, procrastination prone tasks out there. The shorter and more intense, the better: the focus becomes more about the pain/reward cycle than just about how painful a task is.

    Link explaining. Has some Japanese relevancy to boot (Dr. Izumi Tabata):—Four-Minutes-of-Pain-to-Gain&id=348486

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