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Secrets to Smoother SRSing, Part 5: Timeboxing

This entry is part 5 of 11 in the series Secrets to Smoother SRSing

This is part 5 of a multi-part series on smoother SRSing.

I’ve mentioned timeboxing many times before; it’s just one of those things that’s so useful you want everyone to try it. Timeboxing seems to be very beneficially lopsided in that it’s super simple and super useful on the one hand, while also being difficult (although, like anything, probably not impossible) to abuse, since it is both flexible and inherently self-limiting.

Some people (one person) I know have suggested that timeboxing is only necessary because so many of us are so completely out of touch with our own feelings — and by “feelings”, I mean women and minorities — and preferences, having experienced so much forced activity from an early age. In Japanese, those people are usually called “hippies”. LoL. No, I definitely think that they (she) may be right; it’s a compelling idea, though kind of outside the scope of what I want to share here.

The actual mechanics of timeboxing are painfully simple. You simply limit an activity to a preset time of your choosing. All you need is a timer of some sort; I have a trusty pair of kitchen timers I use that are super easy to set and reset, with shortcut buttons for setting 10 minutes, 10 seconds, 1 minute, and cetera.

Timeboxing seems to be at the root of much of the mystery as to why people are able to do crap jobs for other people’s benefit but won’t even tidy their own bedrooms (as discussed here); many people get timeboxed in their daily lives at schools and offices, but few people ever take the controls for themselves.

OK, enough intellectually lazy social theory already. Let’s just discuss the benefits of timeboxing, for the uninitiated. This is a non-exhaustive list of some of the cool things timeboxing has done for me:

  • Timeboxing helps you quit while you’re ahead — it’s fine to work to exhaustion sometimes, but always working on certain tasks to exhaustion will (subconsciously) plant in your mind the idea that the task is exhausting, which will make you not want to do it.
  • In a related vein, timeboxing helps you make efficient use of energy. What I mean is, sometimes you don’t have the energy to go through 100 reps in one setting. But who says you have to? Maybe you only have the energy to do 120 seconds of reps. So timebox a 2-minute block!
  • There are at least two basic types of procrastination. Timeboxing can help prevent both.
    • Evasive procrastination. This is where you simply don’t touch the task at all. Timeboxing can help you see past the fear and dread (in this sense, it’s actually getting you out of touch with your feeling), past the negative images of endless work, by giving things a concrete, relatively low time limit. You could say that timeboxing is a like an enzyme — a catalyst — bringing two substrates (you and your work) together, lowering the psychological “activation energy” needed to get the “chemical reaction” that is you working on task, to start up. This is the little biochemistry that I remember, so it may be wrong and/or outdated, hmm…
    • Working procrastination. This is where you’re doing the job, but you’re doing it slowly because you think it’s going to take a long time. It’s weird, people tend to work faster on a task the shorter they expect it to be: the effort they put in is inversely proportional to how much effort they think is needed; it must be an overactive self-preservation behavior — sort of a “why sprint in a marathon?” type thing. Anyway, timeboxing makes things shorter in both perception and actuality, and therefore helps you work faster.
  • In concrete terms of SRSing, timeboxing has led me to play a number of different kinds of “racing” games.
    • In one version, I try to see how many reps I can do in 2 minutes; I sometimes repeat this game over and over, until suddenly I “run out” of reps!
    • In other versions, I try to complete the entire day’s set in 30 minutes, or get halfway in 15 minutes. Even if I don’t make it, the momentum/inertia keeps me going further…but sssssssssshhhh! Don’t tell my subconscious that; it’s not supposed to know.
    • Late update: I’m playing a new timeboxing game in which I have my SRS scheduled to automatically come up about once every 45-60 minutes, at which point I work on it for 1-2 minutes, sometimes longer if I feel like it, sometimes shorter. So, on days when I don’t have the strength to do all my SRSing in one sitting, I just split it up into tiny, unnoticeable chunks. What might have been a chore has now become a game, even a way to take a break from a different task. Sometimes I do actually have the strength and desire to do a whole day’s reps in one sitting, though…
  • Indecision. I used to have major problems with indecision. Be it something big like buying a new major peripheral fer me computey, or choosing whut bloggin’ softweer to use fer me websoight, or something small like picking a treat at the convenience store. Then, between reading Steve Pavlina and figuring things out for myself, it dawned on me: if there’s room for you to be indecisive about a task, then the task itself may very well not matter that much. Think about it — you wouldn’t think twice about breathing air, or killing zombies, because it matters, you’ve got to breathe air otherwise a clown will die and your face will stick. But if you’re at a convenience store and you’re up in the air about whether to get soymilk or apple juice, maybe you should get neither. Or, maybe it doesn’t matter whichone you get, it just matters that you get one in very finite amount of time and not give yourself an ulcer over it. More examples:
    • Picking omiyage (souvenirs) for friends back home; it’s easy to spend hours choosing a stupid souvenir. When we went to Korea last month, Momoko and I gave ourselves ~15 minutes to find a shop and 15 minutes to pick souvenirs for all our friends who knew we’d gone. Half an hour to do a task that could have been OCDed into a daylong ordeal of hesitation, regret and backtracking (“hey, maybe we should’ve gotten the thing at that shop we were at that’s now a 3-hour train ride from here?!”).
    • Picking an apartment. You could spend the rest of your life picking an apartment in Japan. After all, new properties are forever coming in and out of existence. This had been the solemn admonition of a Japanese friend back in the US, who, interestingly, was getting his MBA, learning to be an executive, and so was probably very much into decisiveness. Taking his advice, I knew some merciless decision-making was necessary. I made some hard conditions:
      1. The apartment had to be a direct commute (no train changes) from my company at the time.
      2. There had to be greenery nearby.
      3. The rent had to be at or below a certain number, anything even 1 cent over was out.
      4. The water pressure had to be good, because MY TURDS ARE BIG
      5. The size had to be at or above a certain number of square meters
      6. It had to allow pets, and
      7. I had to feel like going there to look at — I figured that if I couldn’t be bothered to go take a look at a place, there’s no way I’d want to live there.
      • From that point on, all it took was a 10-minute phone conversation with the then-future-spouse to decide between the last two candidates. It took me 7 days to pick and move into my apartment when I first came to Japan. My colleagues were shocked: “give it more time”, they wailed, “give it a least a month or two”, they cajoled. All they could see was a fresh-faced, over-optimistic newbie who didn’t know what he was doing. All I could see was an invitation letter to do graduate work at Indecision University. I still live in that apartment, and I still like it. So do my two cats.

And it’s all thanks to timeboxing. So, sometimes a task doesn’t matter at all. Sometimes the sun goes round the moon — no it doesn’t, Vanessa Williams! Sometimes, it just matters that it be done and gotten over with. Most of the hand-wringing isn’t actually essential to the decision, nor does it actually optimize the final decision, it’s just a behavior many of us have fallen into to make ourselves and others feel better since we have this idea that “I took a long time and gave myself a lot of stress and emotional pain and engaged in much weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth in making this choice, ipso facto it must be an optimal choice, since the quality of a choice is directly proportional to the agony that went into it”.

I am not advocating recklessness; I am, in fact, advocating pragmatism. Worrying about something does not make a decision better. Verily, I submit to you that wasting your time and life worrying about what Kwanzaa gift to get your friends in Japan is the ultimate recklessness. Now, sometimessometimes…it’s good to “sleep on something” for days, weeks, even months — for example, when I had to come out to my family about being gay, black, Jewish, and Republican on the same day — but most of the time it isn’t; most of the time, that’s just procrastination. Most of the time, you just need to collect relevant domain information as quickly as possible, mix some logic here, some gut feeling there, maybe get some advice (not orders…too many people are looking to be ordered around because that’s just so much easier — take advice, not orders) and just pick, just go. Realize that you don’t have the whole world on your shoulders, you’re not curing cancer and Superman is not going to die because of this, and just get on with life; you’ve got buttocks to scratch and chocolate soymilk to drink, don’t let things like “decision-making” get in the way of that.

Thanks for reading. Check back soon for the next installment: part 6

Forgive me…I was watching Resident Biohazard III while writing this.

Series Navigation<< Secrets to Smoother SRSing, Part 4: Collect ‘Em to Throw AwaySecrets to Smoother SRSing, Part 6: Maintain Only the Baseline/SRS Holidays >>

  15 comments for “Secrets to Smoother SRSing, Part 5: Timeboxing

  1. Ken
    September 22, 2008 at 06:24


    I’ve had a week to write three papers for my Monday English class, but I’m just now starting on them. At close to 4:30pm Sunday afternoon.

    I think it’s about time I give this timeboxing thing a try if only to lessen the chances of suddenly dropping dead from self-inflicted stress.

  2. km
    September 22, 2008 at 13:54

    Thanks, Khatz. This is something I have been suspecting for a while and now I will give it a go!

  3. Nukemarine
    September 22, 2008 at 17:07

    It may seem minor, but a few years back I began to take the Two-Face (from Batman) approach to indecision. If I really was indecisive about something down to two choices, I flipped a coin and stuck to it. Plus, if it turned sour, I just blamed luck and not my choice. I’m not sure if there’s psychology behind it, but I think people on average feel better following choices made by other people or even fate. Plays on your time boxing method, as the clock is making the call and not you. That we’re the one that flipped the coin (and decided which decision is assigned which), or turned on the clock (and decided what the task will be, and for how long) is irrelevant.

  4. jamesFALLEN
    September 22, 2008 at 18:11

    Total non learning related question here,

    hey katz,
    how did you meet momoko so fast. Since I assume you had just recently came to Japan before choosing an apartment…? Love the whole site man. I have been following the methods exactly for about 5 months now. Really inspirational bro.


  5. khatzumoto
    September 22, 2008 at 19:18

    Momoko and I went to college together, so we’ve known each other a long time 😀 …

  6. Squintox
    September 22, 2008 at 21:21

    I recommend anyone using Anki to download the RLC Blitzer Plug-in. It’s a plug-in that can help you “timebox”.

    Say, you open Anki, and have 300 reviews, initially you do 10 reps. And then the Blitzer asks if you want to keep going; “5 more cards”, “1 more card”, “Enough”. It will prompt you a minute later if you want to keep going, if you pressed enough. Try it! It’s very useful, I get through about 300 reviews in 2 hours with it, and it makes it a lot easier!

  7. Rob
    September 24, 2008 at 10:25

    1-2 minute SRSing? Interesting idea, but when I hear that it makes me curious about something. When you (including all readers) are SRSing, what percentage of the time are you dictating and writing out the full sentence?

    I nearly always write out the sentence after listening to it, which takes more time of course, so doing only 1-2 minutes would probably only get me through 1 or 2 sentences. I prefer doing it this way, but I can help but wonder if more people are doing it differently.

    On a side note, I came across this site:

    This is a first. It is live Japanese TV (usually it’s on Fuji テレビ) that is embedded on the webpage so no external player is required. Pretty sweet.

  8. Max
    September 24, 2008 at 12:51

    @ Rob
    On weekdays, I generally don’t have much time for reps before 10 PM or so, so I have to admit that I’ve cut the “writing” part out my reps for the most part…

    I don’t like it, but I figured that review and new knowledge have a higher priority for the time being.

    That site is great, btw! Definitely looks like there’s some fun to be had there, thanks a lot 😀

  9. David
    September 24, 2008 at 20:19

    I did a time box test yesterday, but not quite like it’s outlined here. — What I did was, I used a program that tracks how long you’re working on something, and to stop it, you switch the active activity to “Off-clock.” What I noticed was that I learn Kanji much quicker than I originally thought. This was both, motivating and relieving. What this also did for me was track how much time I spent being distracted from actually making progress. If I wasn’t distraction free and thinking only on the character at hand, then I would off-clock. One other thing that I think this helps is that, like the time-boxing method outlined above, it gives you a slight pressure to keep moving. I tried to keep each Kanji under 5 minutes. I ended up getting ahead of time, but then came an overwhelming amount of distraction. (I’m home this week from college, so family is being quite demanding of my attention. Note: never, ever have younger sisters. If your parents are considering having another child, tell them not to. 😉 ).

    Anyway, I just wanted to share that bit of experience I had with some form of Time-Boxing. It does help keep me on task. And now, off to make some progress.

  10. Sebastian V.
    October 19, 2008 at 16:40

    >>>Did you know that your score will go up each time you take an SAT or JLPT or even an IQ test? Did ya suddenly become more scholastically apt? Did ya get smarter? Do ya know more Japanese than 5 minutes ago?

    Actually, yes. According to what I learned from, just by reading the JLPT questions I am in a way learning Japanese. 😉

  11. Sebastian V.
    October 19, 2008 at 16:44

    Whoops, wrong article I guess…

  12. July 7, 2010 at 20:01

    Sebastian V@ Apros IQ tests, i once read abit about the IQ test system. I instantainiously went up 10 points when i took a test, did i get smarter? No, course not, there is no such thing as being smart, just how used you are to diffrent stuff, a very ambiguos thing indeed. If someone dedicates their next couple of years to training ther IQ test skills they can with no doubt score 200 and beyond every time.

  13. December 15, 2011 at 15:28

    I think time boxing was something that actually motivated me to do to my Reps, as through time-boxing, i am spending the least possible time on the language whilst achieving a very level of productivity. In addition, time boxing allows me to treat Japanese like a “game” and venture for new methods to make the process more efficient.

    Excellent Post! 

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