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Timeboxing Trilogy, Part 3.5: Timeboxing Turns Work Into Play

This entry is part 8 of 26 in the series Timeboxing Trilogy

I was making some additions to the previous post in this series, but I ended up adding so much content that it made more sense to spin it off as a new article. So here we go!

Timeboxing Turns Work Into Play

I love how nested timeboxing makes virtually any work feel like web-surfing — mindlessly moving from one interesting thing to the next (except, of course, in this case, we’re doing something immediately productive!).

I use the word “mindless” deliberately…usually this word carries a negative connotation, but the thing is that most of us have “too many mind“; most of us spend time stuck in analysis paralysis pretending to be “prioritizing tasks” when really we’re just freaking out and hating our work and ourselves.

I’m with HONDA Naoyuki on this one — most of us don’t need to prioritize our work, we just need to get started on it. Many times. That’s what’s killing us…paucity of starts. And all the tidying and soda breaks and relaxation exercises in the world cannot will not ever change this. Let’s be brutally honest: your life simply is not that complicated — most of the time, you already know what your top priority direction is. The only question is: are you headed in it?

That’s why I’ve found timeboxing to be such a great tool. Timeboxing, used skillfully, is all about “shut the truck up and just effing do it” — minus the meanness.

Dual timeboxing can give work the spontaneity of play. Because, you see, work and play are actually the same. The primary difference between work and play is not content, but form. When you feel like you’re making a lot of fun, small choices, we call it play. That’s why mountaineering is classified as a hobby and not a life-threatingly dangerous form of hard manual labor — lots of fun, small choices.

As it turns out, certain types of content tend to get packaged in fun forms…but trust me when I tell you that video games start to get boring for game testers. Play can become work and work can become play. The key is that you have the knowledge and freedom to make everything a game for yourself.

You don’t need to get rid of Facebook and Gmail and all the other  game-like distractions — they’re not the problem: they’re the solution. More accurately, they contain the blueprint for the solution. Play and games distract us not because something is wrong with us, but because something is right with them: they are tapping directly into “the firmware of the mind“, if you will . We need to cut up our work into pieces so tiny and so easy to do that we don’t even know or feel that we’re working any more. We need to turn our work into Farmville. That’s what these 90-second spurts are to me. A game.

Why bother change our nature? Why pretend that we don’t, as human beings, prioritize short term gain over long term gain? We’re not going to win by forcing ourselves away from that. We have tried — Heaven knows we have tried — and it doesn’t work. Correction:  it does work, but only when someone else is there to coerce us, and it fails as soon as that person disappears. This is why so many former professional athletes are obese…it’s not age: it’s dependence on coercion.

We will win consistently when we use our strengths and use our nature and use our short attention spans to do fun, instantly-rewarded little things that just so happen to produce long-term gain.

If worrying is about having “too many mind”, then flow is all about “losing your mind” (how do I keep coming up with these?). To the extent that dual timeboxing can help get rid of “too many mind”, you could argue that it is helping us induce flow states. And that’s fun.

Series Navigation<< Timeboxing Trilogy, Part 3: Dual TimeboxingTimeboxing Trilogy, Part 4: Decremental Timeboxing >>

  10 comments for “Timeboxing Trilogy, Part 3.5: Timeboxing Turns Work Into Play

  1. July 8, 2010 at 08:31

    I really ought to buy myself some egg clocks. Or perhaps i could download it somewere or, why don’t i just use my cellphone stopwatch?

    I like recommending this site to various language learners. If i were to direct them to one article, which one article do you think i should direct them to? First impressions are important afterall to make them read the rest of it.

  2. Will
    July 8, 2010 at 17:55

    Nice addition!!

    Oh yeah, here’s a pretty interesting science article. According to this study, even people who were born and raised in their L1 environment may have trouble understanding very simple sentences. This suggests a foreigner could very well learn an L2 better than a person who has spoken this languageas their L1 their whole lives.

  3. MikeLike
    November 17, 2011 at 03:30

    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?

    Thanks for this blog, it’s been very helpful to me. 

    • August 5, 2013 at 16:04

      I think the major point is that getting started is the most important thing. You hear all the time about people who have a 20-page paper due next Monday and they just can’t get started. The reason I succeeded in my Composition classes is because I set out to write 2-3 sentences or an entire paragraph and just stop, no strings attached. When other people are dreading the whole process, you’ve already started. As you go further, 30-45 minute timeboxes are the norm, but it’s important to get those small starts in.

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