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More Timeboxing Insights: Ramp Scaling and Polar Switching

This entry is part 4 of 26 in the series Timeboxing Trilogy

You must always work not just within but below your means. If you can handle three elements, handle only two. If you can handle ten, then handle five. In that way the ones you do handle, you handle with more ease, more mastery and you create a feeling of strength in reserve.”
Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso

This is one of those ones where it’s especially difficult to take the ideas out of my head and put them in a way that other people can understand. But, at the risk of sounding conceited, it is my honest opinion that these ideas are so valuable that they’re worth being expressed even partially and incompletely. To quote myself 1:

“To be human is to be misunderstood most of the time and in most places, even by the people who like you, even by yourself. And that’s perhaps part of why we spend so much time and effort communicating: not to eradicate the problem but to mitigate it.”
[Speaking: You Don’t Have A Linguistic Problem, You Have A Humanity Problem — Why You Still Suck At Speaking and How to Fix it Fast | AJATT | All Japanese All The Time]

Alrighty, then! Here we go:

You know, there are as many ways to use timeboxing as there are things to do and try and see and explore in this world.

OK, maybe not that many ways, but there’s still a lot of variety.

Personally, I am constantly trying more, different, new, better, faster, funner, easier ways of doing things. A couple of things things that are working really well with me right now include ramp scaling and polar switching.

At the core of both of these ideas is the idea of satisficing, which is just a fancy way of saying: doing the best you can with what you’ve got (which includes all resources — time, energy, knowledge, friends, acquaintances, etc.), not the best possible and definitely not the the best imaginable.

“Satisficing is a decision-making strategy or cognitive heuristic that entails searching through the available alternatives until an acceptability threshold is met.[1] The term satisficing, a portmanteau of satisfy and suffice,[2] was introduced by Herbert A. Simon in 1956…Simon used satisficing to explain the behavior of decision makers under circumstances in which an optimal solution cannot be determined. He maintained that many natural problems are characterized by computational intractability or a lack of information, both of which preclude the use of mathematical optimization procedures. He observed in his Nobel Prize in Economics speech that “decision makers can satisfice either by finding optimum solutions for a simplified world, or by finding satisfactory solutions for a more realistic world. Neither approach, in general, dominates the other, and both have continued to co-exist in the world of management science”.[6]

Simon formulated the concept within a novel approach to rationality, which posits that rational choice theory is an unrealistic description of human decision processes and calls for psychological realism. He referred to this approach as bounded rationality”
[Satisficing – Wikipedia]

Theoretically, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they’re not even the same type of thing. You might call it the Theory of Task Relativity: Never do your absolute best. Do your best within the context, that is, your best relative to what you’ve got. What is your context? Well, the timebox is your context. Your physical energy is your context. Your physical location is your context. Whether or not you’re next to your computer is your context. All the particulars and limitations of time, space and resources are your context. You wanna do your best within these limitations, not outside them; there is nothing for you outside them (except for the eternal emptiness of perfectionism).

Ironically, however, doing the best you can with what you have (actually, if we’re to follow Pablo Picasso’s advice, with less than what you have) is what will produce transcendent (man, I hope I’m spelling this word right) success for you.

Don’t believe me?

Think, for a second, about all the things you love: Star WarsLegend of the Galactic Heroes, smartphones, custard pudding, homemade popcorn with coconut oil and nutritional yeast, nduma, that MPDG from that movie…all these things are all finite and limited. And yet, they’re so awesome it’s almost otherworldly.

The irony, then is this: We do not create despite our limitations but because of them. Limits set us free.

Now, Nick Carr 2 and many dyspeptic others (like Adam Alter of “Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked”) argue that our modern technology is somehow ph##ing up our attention spans. I think that that’s categorically untrue. Categorically. And not just because ADHD does not exist 3, but because of what does exist. And what exists is boring sh## that nobody wants to do. Boring s##t has and always will be boring.

But that’s not all.

Part of the issue with how “we”  — all of humanity that’s engaging with modern technology — are behaving is also due to the freedom we now enjoy. The price of personal freedom, however, is personal responsibility. And very often we — myself, unfortunately, included — are unwilling to pay that price.

You see, there used to exist many more external circumstances  and triggers that forced certain good (“good”) behaviors on us. Refined sugar used to be too expensive for anybody but actual royalty. A thick Tolstoy book was the Game of Thrones of its day; if Tolstoy were alive today, he’d be writing his own Netflix/HBO series, not Russian doorstopper novels like some hipster.

Now, though, we can all do bad things on the cheap, and ain’t nobody gonna stop us. Again, part of it is a new epochal, societal freedom. Another part of it is simply the freedom that every non-minor — every legal adult in every society that has ever existed — enjoys, but that not all of us adults exercise with the greatest wisdom and facility until a relatively advanced age (if, indeed, we ever do at all).

That’s a lot of comma-delimited parenthetic asides for one paragraph, but hopefully you’re catching my drift.

Having said that, this isn’t an invitation to wantonly wallow in pop culture to the exclusion of the “high” culture 4 that our ancestors (in the widest sense) have left us. Just because we can watch Netflix and YouTube all day and eat them carbs, that definitely doesn’t mean that we should.

Polar Switching

OK, so what is polar switching? It’s easy. So easy, in fact, that it may even seem anticlimactic. Be not fooled. The first thing you’re going to need to do with polar switching is to make a “to-do” list. Yes, despite all my posturing about GLOAFing and arrogantly pooh-poohing the great David Allen’s work from a great height, writing down the things you need or intend do still works and is still awesome. Brian Tracy (the Canadian-American author of personal development classics like “Change Your Thinking, Change Your Life” and “Eat That Frog!“) may be old-fashioned, but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong. The cooler and more elegant ideas of Tim Ferriss (4HWW) and Richard Koch (80/20) work because of that great Allen-Covey-Tracy foundation, not in spite of it; at the very least, the ideas are not mutually exclusive.

For best results I strongly recommend you write this list on paper. Digitize it for archival purposes if you like, but always come back to paper. Are we being a little hipsterish? 5 Perhaps. But also eminently practical.

You see, it’s far too easy to turn on a glowing rectangle (desktop PC, laptop, smartphone) and completely lose track of why you were there in the first place. And then you just default to whatever your YouTube/Amazon/Twitter/whatever social media algorithm has decided you “should” see or “might” be interested. In the immortal words of Haji from The Real Adventures of Johnny Quest: this is not good. This is a recipe for frustration and mediocrity.

Needless to say, frustration and permanent suckiness are precisely what we do not want. Fortunately, polar switching is a recipe for fun and awesomeness. So here’s how you do it:

  1. Write a to-do list. Not for forever or even for the whole day 6. Just for the next, I dunno, five to sixty or ninety minutes.
  2. Do the most important thing (priority #1 on the list. Then,
  3. Do the least important/easiest thing (priority #N, assuming an N-item list)
  4. Go back to step (2)

This oscillation between hardest and easiest will give you just the balance you need to move forward, without killing your golden goose.

Incidentally, Tony Schwartz is a big fan of oscillation, and he’s the first person who ever pointed out to me that it is a guiding principle of nature. Natural systems oscillate between tension and relaxation.

Wait, what the ###k am I talking about, you say?

Just this: human beings are not machines. Heck, even machines aren’t machines. No machine, literal or metaphorical, animal or mechanical, can work at 100% efficiency 100% of the time. Trying to do that will, literally and/or figuratively, kill it. Working flat out without resting is why many Japanese salarymen eventually just keel over and die every now and then.

You need to work in a way and at a pace that enables you to continue to work for a long time. This is a binary choice. Because your only other “choice”, if it’s even worth calling it that, is to try to force too much work, too hard, too fast, which will very quickly (sometimes instantly) lead you to getting no work done at all, whether thanks to burnout or procrastination.

So that’s polar switching. What about ramp scaling?

Ramp Scaling

Well, this one’s even easier. Remember how, a few paragraphs ago, we talked about how the real problem is freedom, not technology?

It seems rude to call freedom a problem, after all, many people have laid down their lives fighting for it. But it is a problem. It’s just a very high-quality problem, like the upholstery company being sold out of your favorite color for private jet couches.

When other people were around to force us to do the right thing, we didn’t have to pace ourselves. Well, they’re gone now (thank Baal!) and, if we play our cards right 7, they won’t ever be back. We will have our freedom if we can keep it. And in order to do that, we need to learn how to exercise it, not return to a Luddite utopia that never did, never could and never will exist.

So, we have to pace ourselves. Ramp scaling allows as to do just that. The idea is simple: use incremental timeboxing any time you’re faced with doing something valuable and important and even fun, but that you’re not getting around to do it because it seems too complicated or daunting. Remember, nothing is too hard, but many things are too big, and need to be broken up like AT&T (except even smaller!).

Mental sports are physical sports. Why? Because everything is everything. You wouldn’t try to do something physically taxing without doing all sorts of preparation (assuming basic sanity, of course) — as well as resting a lot afterwards. Mentally taxing activity is the same. It’s ludicrous for us to expect to go into doing something full-bore right from the word go. That’s like expecting sex to start with orgasms, I mean, it might be nice, but it’s not gonna happen.

The problem is not that smartphones are making us stupid. The problem is that we expect Herculean, Tolstoyan levels of focus apropos of nothing. Our expectations are violently high.

Don’t be a tech curmudgeon. Instead…

Use ramp scaling — incremental timeboxing:

  1. Work on your pico-project for just 1 minute. Just 1.
  2. Then start again. This time, for 2 minutes.
  3. Time up? Good. Now go at it for 3 minutes.
  4. Then 4…
  5. 5…
  6. 6…
  7. Keep adding a minute until you can add no more.
  8. Don’t take breaks between these timeboxes. Just keep rollin’, rollin’, rolllin’, rollin’ (WHAT?)
  9. And when you can’t do another N+1 timebox because you’re either done or out of juice…
  10. Then stop and rest for as long as you need to. An hour. Six hours. A day. A week. A month. Whatever. (Haven’t figured out how to gamify the resting part yet).
    • Pro-Tip: Always rest longer than you worked. At he bare minimum, rest for at least half as long as you worked. Do not kill the goose: she can only lay you golden eggs while she’s alive.

Hint: It’s how this post got written, from basic idea to vague bullet points to final form (in case you’re wondering, it took about 18 consecutive incremental timeboxes or 171 minutes, give or take, no breaks, total and complete concentration). #BarryWhiteStyle

My point isn’t that 171 minutes is a lot or little or even that this post is some kind of masterpiece. That’s not the point. My point is that:

  1. this post exists at all. Write this on your liver: imperfect real always beats perfect imagined. Nobody can read the perfect things you wish you would write, only the real things you did write. We’re trying to satisfice here. We work with context, in context, not outside or against it.
  2. there is no way that I could have concentrated for almost 3 hours if that had been my initial goal. That is not a winnable game. Heck, even three minutes would have been too much. I started with an almost pathetically paltry dream (1 minute) and worked up from there, gradually amassing experience and confidence, gradually racking up wins. This is a lesson that has wide application across all of life. It’s a bottom-up process rather than a Soviet-Harvard top-down one.

And another thing…

You can’t just eat frogs — you want to make your life so that it doesn’t involve metaphorical eating of things you don’t like. But putting off doing the things you love but that are amorphous/complicated won’t make you happy either. The trick is to ramp up into it: you gradually scale up your timebox size to match and assist your level of concentration. It’s this smooth, natural gradient.

Sex isn’t fun when forced — and it’s supposedly the gold standard of pleasure (when we want to express how pleasurable something is we compare it to sex; even the things that are “better than sex” — like crushing your enemies, seeing them driven before you and hearing the lamentation of their women — are being compared to sex; in case you’re wondering, I’m trying to see how many times I can say the word “sex” without it seeming awkward oh wait too late) Well, guess what? Neither is work. Work isn’t fun when forced. The trick is to neither be too on-task nor too absent. Don’t go in dry, bro 😉 . Give the work some foreplay (lol! phrasing). Lube up. Slide in there all smooth like. Ramp scale into it.

Series Navigation<< All I Ever Needed to Know in Life, I Learned from Cloud StorageTimeboxing Trilogy, Part 1: What Is Timeboxing, Why Does It Work, And Why Should You Care? >>


  1. which is either Peak Conceit or Peak Introspection, you take your pick 😛
  2. [ The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains 電子書籍: Nicholas Carr: Kindleストア]
  3. [Amazon | ADHD Does not Exist: The Truth About Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder [Kindle edition] by Richard Saul | Specialties | Kindleストア]
  4. High culture is just ancient pop culture. Not that that there’s anything wrong with that, but it is the truth, and it’s fine to ignore it most of the time, but denying it outright is like refusing to accept that humans are animals.
  5. “The Hipster PDA is a paper-based personal organizer, popularized by Merlin Mann.[1] Originally a tongue-in-cheek reaction to the increasing expense and complexity of personal digital assistants, the Hipster PDA (said to stand for “Parietal Disgorgement Aid” and often abbreviated to “hPDA”) simply comprises a sheaf of index cards held together with a binder clip. Following widespread coverage in the media[2][3] and blogs, the hPDA has become a popular personal management tool particularly with followers of David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology.” [Hipster PDA – Wikipedia]
  6. “Honestly, the best scheduling for me has always been timeboxing. I can schedule the next 15-20 minutes and actually follow through on that. I can’t schedule the next day in advance and detail what I am going to do every hour. If you timebox enough and change your environment to accommodate, then it will become a habit. That habit will eventually be your “schedule”.”
    [Why You Should Never Ever Schedule “Study Time” For a Language | AJATT | All Japanese All The Time]
  7. “Well, Doctor, what have we got—a Republic or a Monarchy?” “A Republic, if you can keep it.” [Republic – Wikiquote]

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