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Three Minutes Of…

This entry is part 20 of 26 in the series Timeboxing Trilogy

File this one under “autobiographical advice”….

But I guess that file would include all advice ever given in the history of mankind. All philosophy is (auto)biography…I think Steve Chandler or someone said that once.

So let me paint a little picture for you. The other day, I’m at my house. I wake up in the morning. I take a shower. I gingerly wash my nether regions. I get out, wrap a towel around my modesty, slip into a robe. Then I sit on the couch for a bit to cool off.

16 hours later I’m still on the couch; water is running in the kitchen; the household gas has turned itself off. And I know a whole lot about Roman history. You see, I’d just spent 16 hours watching Spartacus.

Most people would be frustrated. Not me. I was fascinated. I was fascinated because if you had asked me two paragraphs ago: “Hey Khatz, baby, I love how you fill that robe. Wanna watch 16 hours of blood and guts?”, I’d have said: “No, that sounds monotonous”.

So I knew that it wasn’t the case that something was wrong with me. Nothing is wrong with me 1. No, something is right with Spartacus. Spartacus is structured in such a way that it’s easy to watch it for 16 hours.

  • Why do you watch Spartacus: Vengeance instead of making that call?
  • Why do you shop around for a new trackball mouse on Amazon instead of writing that email?
  • Why do you go for a walk instead of working on that project?

Why do you do that meaningless “delta” activity instead of the big, life-changing “alpha” activity you already, unequivocally know truly matters?

Because when you think of alpha, you think too big. You think of all of it at once. And it’s tiring. So tiring. Just thinking of it hurts. “A day of worry is more tiring than a day of work” and all that.

But when you think of delta, you’re only really thinking of clicks and atoms. Delta doesn’t require you to think. Delta doesn’t require you to worry. Delta doesn’t scare you with its enormity. Delta doesn’t make you feel like a chump for not having started earlier. Delta lets you get lost in the moment. Delta comes pre-chunked for you. Delta has been thought out and planned and laid out by someone else. Delta has been designed to be addictive.

You don’t procrastinate because something is wrong with you. You procrastinate because something is right with the avoidance activity. Procrastination is not a morality problem, it’s a design problem. Well-designed activities are never avoided. Poorly designed activities almost always are.

There is no such thing as inherent fun 2. Or if there is, it’s very rare. Almost nothing is inherently fun or unfun. Fun comes from structure. Sometimes accidental or unintentional structure, but always from structure. Think about it — why is Farmville the number one video game in the world (in terms of players)? You don’t like farming, son! Most of human history has been a massive, multi-millennial conspiracy by self-appointed elites (nobles, aristocrats) to avoid having to farm. Similarly, air traffic control is said to be one of the most stressful of all professions, yet there’s apparently a wildly popular  air traffic control video game. Let’s not even talk about how video game testers begin to hate video games…

So what else is new, right? Right.

Well, what if I told you you didn’t have to think any more? What if I told you alpha could be as fun and easy as delta? What if I told you you didn’t have to feel like a schmuck any more? What if I told you that alpha could come pre-chunked, and you wouldn’t need to buy or make or develop a new system to do it all? You don’t even have to write anything down (unless you want to). Sounds exciting, right?


Well that’s what “three minutes of” is about.

  • Don’t do your taxes. Do three minutes of taxes.
  • Don’t finish that project. Do three minutes of it.
  • Don’t make that big decision. Do three minutes of it.

And then stop. Return to your hookers and blow.

Don’t finish. Don’t “work on it”. Don’t have a goal. Don’t have a past. Don’t have a future. Just have now.

Three minutes.

Three minutes, baby. Because right now, you’re doing jack all. You have made it so that nothing is good enough. And so nothing is exactly what you’re getting. I know you are because I know you. And you’re me. You’re better than me, but not by much. You’re still weak and lazy and scared. Less so than I am. But not by much.

Three minutes. That’s all.

We’re so obsessed with being “right” and getting it “right” and doing things “the” “right” way that we frequently neglect to do them at all. This  isn’t perfectionism. This isn’t fastidiousness. This is lunacy. It’s the exact equivalent of holding your breath until you figure out how to breathe “right”. No. This is madness. Thus us Sparta. Breathe badly if you have to, but do breathe. You can fix it up all nice and fancy later. Maybe you’re like Charlie from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and the only diaphragm you’re familiar with is that thing chicks use. No matter. You’ll learn how to breathe “properly” later. For now, just breathe.

  • Don’t hold your breath until you figure out some mythical, I dunno, “Aryuvedic”, “correct” way of breathing
  • Don’t stop drinking water until you analyze every brand that exists
  • Don’t get it right. Get it started. Don’t get it good. Get it going. Don’t get it finished. Touch it. Don’t do it. Do three minutes of it.

Don’t do tasks. Don’t do projects. And definitely don’t “finish” them…good gosh. Instead, do “minutes of” — it doesn’t have to be three. Think about it — this is how you do your Facebook, your email, your TV. You never set out to “do all your Facebook” or “finish your Facebook”. You just…do a coupla minutes of Facebook. And a couple more. And a couple more. Until you’ve ruined your life 😉 . You don’t set out to eat 7 tubs of fake Scandinavian ice-cream. It’s just one spoonful at a time.

You never intend to watch 16 hours of Spartacus — the mere idea would scare and bore you. You just say yes or no to one episode — the commitment is limited; there is a clear, unambiguous startpoint; there is  a clear, unambiguous endpoint. The mental burden is low: you make only onedecision — a single, clear, two-second choice — once an hour. And the rest of the time you just sit there, mindless. If Spartacus came as a single, massive, 37-hour with no slicing, no chunking — no episode splits — you probably wouldn’t even open the box. And even if you made it that far, you would barely make it through the first 40 minutes.

Look at you. You’ve been intending to sit down and watch the Special Extended Editions of the entire Lord of the Rings movie trilogy for years now, yet you just “never seem to get around to it”. Why? Because the structure is all wrong. It’s too big. Too much to think about. Nine hours? Screw that.

Pick whatever SRS. Do whatever reps. Buy whatever manga. Just do it. No, don’t just do it. Don’t do it. Don’t finish it. Don’t get it right. Just do “three minutes of” it. Or whatever number hits you right. And chill — a bad direction is far easier to correct than non-movement.

Don’t read a book. Do three meetings of reading. 3

Get out that timer and carve yourself a little salami slice of slick awesomeness 4.

One minute of…
Two minutes of…
Three minutes of…

Series Navigation<< Can Timeboxing Help Me Do Really Big, Hard Things?Nothing Is Hard >>


  1. OK, plenty is wr…I mean, in this context, nothing is wrong with me
  2. Yeah. Pretty bold. Setting up for a fall here 😛
  3. Don’t read a book. Read a paragraph. Read a sentence.
  4. alliteration fail

  20 comments for “Three Minutes Of…

  1. dtcamero
    August 18, 2012 at 00:46

    “Procrastination is not a morality problem, it’s a design problem.” this part was particularly nice…

  2. August 18, 2012 at 02:17

    Big things tend to start with a single moment, like “Oh I’ll just watch X before Y” and then blammo, suddenly it’s dark outside and your dog won’t talk to you any more. I Frenched out hard one weekend a while ago- Saturday was the entire LotR extended edition marathon and Sunday was the entire first season of Game of Thrones.

  3. August 18, 2012 at 04:55

    Completely agree…this timeboxing-kaizen mashed awesomeness might be the true magic bullet against procrastination.
    This works when you don’t feel like or your energy is down, because you do just a little and get all the good feelings associated with completion.
    This is also why most of the time you cook stuff in small bits, as opposed to throw in the whole motherload and then bitch about it staying stubbornly uncooked.

  4. kalek
    August 18, 2012 at 05:30

    So, this past weekend, I decided to make the switch from Surusu to Anki, because Surusu requires an Internet connection to use at all times, but I can get AnkiMobile on my iPhone that isn’t connected to cellular service and do it while I’m on the bus for two hours a day going to and from work. (I am an iPhone app developer, so work has given me an iPhone to test apps on, but I haven’t gotten my own iPhone and won’t be getting one until October or so lol).

    Provided I stay on schedule, in three days I will be completely caught up. My entire Surusu deck will be moved over, and every card seen. Last night I finished out the RTK1 Kanji in Anki, and remember, I started transitioning a week ago. Last friday. Over half of the RTK1 Kanji were seen on day 1.


    Two things:
    – 1 minute timeboxes (my Anki timebox setting hasn’t been set to anything other than 1 minute since re-installing it)
    – very liberal deletion (more liberal than usual, which I guess I want the usual, but I sometimes get attached too easily, but with this little project I seem to be cleaning things up pretty nicely).

    Basically, one minute timeboxes are so short and easy that they’re addictive. I’ve done 500 or more reps every day since installing Anki and AnkiMobile, and that’s insanely huge for me. On day 1, I did 1500 reps in a day — a new personal record (previous was 600). And, any time I saw a card was hindering my want to do another minute after the first, I went into the next minute with every intention of exterminating that card to make sure things stayed fun and addictive, because even a single minute can be tiring if the cards suck. In the end, I did 5400 reps in eight days (today included, and I’m not done with today; that number also does not include deleted cards), and I could quite comfortably keep up these sorts of stats because of how fun and addicting 1 minute timeboxes are, especially when combined with liberal deletion.

  5. Kimchi
    August 18, 2012 at 09:10

    Wow, I’ve been unintentionally doing tihs for years!
    Except that I’ve divided all my time into chunks of “songs”. Yeah that’s right, my ears are so glued to my mp3 player of choice I’m pretty much obliged to in order to keep track of time.

    Goin’ to that place . . . 3-5 songs. Doin that thing . . . maybe 2.

    Now all I have to do is apply. Like, at the start of this song. . .I’ll start doing this. And if I don’t wanna at the beginning of the next, move on to something else. Next song, move back (if I have to) cuz you know, I might still need to get shit done.

  6. Urtica dioica
    August 18, 2012 at 12:03

    What would happen if you altered your SRS to stop telling you how many cards you have left? It’s useless information. The point isn’t to “finish” your reps, it’s to do them. The fact you have $x cards left shouldn’t be a factor when deciding how many to do. That number is a barrier to starting, and may be one of the biggest design flaws an SRS can have.

    I have a similar problem with lots of books. The chapters are too long. It takes commitment to read just a little bit more. Therefore, I don’t read, at least until I can stomach the thought of another bite that probably tastes great, but doesn’t fit in my mouth.

    • Sholum
      August 19, 2012 at 04:45

      There have definitely been too many times where the number of cards left has made Anki slightly painful.

      I fixed that problem with books in school when I was constantly reading every chance I got. Instead of thinking of the chunks being chapters, think of them being paragraphs. Most novels don’t have really long paragraphs, so use that. If you want to make the chunks less variable (or you’re just quicker at reading). Then go by page. Advancing the story only really requires one sentence, so a paragraph or page at a time is plenty.

      If you do something like that, you’d be amazed at how much reading you can get done. It’s probably even faster than reading large chunks at a time since you only got a little taste of the story between the door and your office, in between classes, during your lunch break, etc.
      It really helps to get a smaller bookmark if you do this though to emphasize the progress and the how much you are actually progressing (for the record, they also stay in the book better).

  7. ガイ
    August 18, 2012 at 18:51

    Very wise words there

  8. Jack
    August 19, 2012 at 16:39

    I like 5 minute time boxes. I used them while studying for my finals and also had a lot of other distracting stuff going on. 5 minutes on, 5 minutes off. I stuck to it and actually got a lot of stuff done.

  9. August 19, 2012 at 22:26

    the fun part comes in if you are doing your reps and you start wasting time in Japanese…like when you create a card with the song lyrics and a link to the song…suddenly you find yourself “wasting” time adding more content to your Japanese youtube content, reading song titles (in Japanese) to see if you are interested in it…before you know it you have “wasted” a lot of time . . . in Japanese 🙂

  10. Pingfa
    August 20, 2012 at 00:54

    The way I went with SRS is more like 3 seconds of it, all the time. I would just leave the SRS tab open all day and just do a word/sentence or two whenever I felt like it; often I’d be watching something and when there was a quiet, relatively inactive scene I’d quickly go through a few flashcards. Or I’d be reading something and switching to SRS every few seconds.
    So I never really dedicated any time to SRSing. It was just always there. I was bound to get through them all within a 24 hour period. I went through hundreds of flashcards a day this way (I use past tense because I don’t need to add many flashcards anymore).

    So my recommendation is don’t even do 3 minutes. Do 3 seconds.

  11. Jack Cotton-Brown
    August 20, 2012 at 10:07

    One thing I have noticed is that I get more pleasure out of completing chunks of tasks that I’m working on. A common pitfall for me with timeboxing, and quantifiable action, was when the structure and quantity of what I was working on was small enough to do in a short period of time. Getting that gratifying feeling of finishing your reps for the day is easy to lose yourself in, and when the reps number in the ‘too many’ range, its easy to try and finish them anyway. There have been plenty of times where I’ve sat down for hours to catch up on a thousand or so reps. For me, it’s about knowing when a timebox is better, or when just finishing something off is better. Of course, when a project is too large to break down into small chunks, then a timebox is the best kind of chunk to be using.

  12. Oosaka Ayumu
    January 25, 2013 at 02:46

    You just…do a coupla minutes of Facebook. And a couple more. And a couple more. Until you’ve ruined your life 😉 .
    or get another chance?

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