Timeboxing Trilogy, Part 4: Decremental Timeboxing

This entry is part 6 of 20 in the series Timeboxing Trilogy

Here we go again with another entry in the timeboxing series…I really should stop calling it a “trilogy”, since there are quite clearly more than three parts, but…whatever. I mean, it was originally intended to span only three parts but it kept — OK, no, we’re not talking about this any more.

Oh, go here to read the series from the very beginning, and here to read the previous installment.

What Is Decremental Timeboxing?

OK, so decremental timeboxing. AKA “downward spiral” timeboxing. What the heck is it? Well, decremental timeboxing is another nested timeboxing variant that occurred to me in the course of my daily adventures. All it is running timeboxes sequentially (back-to-back), while making each new timebox shorter than the previous one. Like dual timeboxing, decremental timeboxing is a “nested timeboxing” method. Unlike dual timeboxing, decremental timeboxing requires only one timer.


  • The task is big: it needs time
  • But you don’t want to “feel” like a lot of time is being spent, because this feeling of burden and enormity leads to procrastination
  • You want to shorten the time for the task to take advantage of Temporal Motivation/Parkinson’s Law
  • But you can’t make it that much shorter
  • I don’t have the evidence but I imagine that our attention/mental energy follows a curve
  • Over a single session, our ability to pay attention –- to focus mental energy on a task –- generally decreases
    • But it doesn’t disappear — we don’t suddenly run out of energy. Rather, it fades away
    • Decremental timeboxing takes advantage of the fact that we still have some mental energy to bring to bear
    • But decremtental timeboxing also takes into account the fact that (a) we’re weakening and (b) creating a feeling of “this is going to end soon” makes us work better
  • As always with timeboxing, all we are doing is cleverly choking the “D” term of the temporal motivation theory equation.
  • Decremental timeboxing turns work into play: “just a little bit…we’re almost done…just this little bit…just a couple more minutes”
  • Unlike dual timeboxing, decremental timeboxing accomplishes a nesting effect using only one timer. After all, we can’t always be Flava Flavin’ it with multiple chronometers…

What Kinds of Decrement Patterns (i.e. Timebox Sizes) Do You Use?

  • Decrement patterns:
    • 10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 (units: minutes) | Each timebox is one minute shorter than its predecessor
    • 10-5-3-2-1 (units: minutes) | Each timebox is half the length of its predecessor
    • 90-60-30 (units: seconds — incidentally, this was at one point my favorite decrement pattern for washing dishes)
    • Decremental timeboxing with decremental reset:
      • 10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1; 5-4-3-2-1; 3-2-1; 2-1 (units: minutes) | Each timebox is one minute shorter than its predecessor
      • 10-5-3-2-1; 5-3-2-1; 3-2-1; 2-1; 1 (units: minutes) | Each timebox is half the length of its predecessor

In Closing

Somewhere along the line, we all seem to learn the false lesson that only big matters, that our steps do not count, that the process is a waste of time, that if we’re not working our way to a heart attack then we’re not really working. Everything is too small. Everything is too late for the fictional deadlines we make up. Everything is too early because we don’t have the imaginary perfect toolset we’re supposed to have.

And all the while we wonder why nothing’s happening…

It’s never too late. It’s never too early. It’s never too small. Do something, no matter how small. Do anything, the easier the better. ((((DO SOMETHING!) SMALL) USEFUL) NOW!)

I think that’s almost it for this particular more-than-three-part timeboxing trilogy. Except this — your questions. If you have any, I’ll answer them in the next (and probably-though-maybe-not final) post.

Series Navigation<< Timeboxing Trilogy, Part 3.5: Timeboxing Turns Work Into PlayTimeboxing Trilogy, Part 5: Incremental Timeboxing and Mixed Timeboxing >>

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  18 comments for “Timeboxing Trilogy, Part 4: Decremental Timeboxing

  1. WC
    July 9, 2010 at 02:23

    Somehow it was the washing dishes comment that hit home. I need to seriously look into timeboxing the crap that I hate doing. (Which, oddly enough given that’s what this site is about, doesn’t actually include studying languages.)

  2. WC
    July 9, 2010 at 02:25

    lol That series of asterisks makes it look like I said something MUCH worse than I did. Next time, I’ll use its less offensive cousin ‘crud’. 😀

  3. July 9, 2010 at 05:30

    Timboxing triology part 3 -> Timboxing triology part 3,5

    Decremental timboxing in paractice?

  4. Michael
    July 9, 2010 at 08:31

    With timeboxes so short, what sort of things do you do in the in-between time to make sure you’re savoring that “completion dividend” you mentioned in the first post?

    If I do 10 minutes of kanji, I’m a bit confused as to what to do during the 2 minute gap between that and the next time-box.

  5. MC
    July 9, 2010 at 10:40

    I love these articles, and especially your writing style! There are a few things I am confused about though:

    1. You say that one only needs a single timer for decremental timeboxing. How it different than dual timeboxing, in this sense?
    2. How long should one break for between timeboxes, and what are recommended activities?

    Thanks! 🙂

  6. Peeled Cucumber
    July 9, 2010 at 11:27

    @ Michael

    Whenever I’m doing a time-box task like Kanji, I like to have a TV show, etc. on in the background. During the short breaks between time-boxes I’ll just kick back, enjoy the show, and munch on some snacks. That way I don’t have find something to do, it’s already there. Variety Shows are _excellent_ for this.

  7. July 9, 2010 at 12:58

    So… There is a 2 minute break between each timebox, correct?

  8. Tony
    July 10, 2010 at 10:28

    When I read a textbook using 30 minute time boxes, it felt too easy at the beginning. After a few sessions I got tired, so 30 minute periods seemed too long. Consequently, I switched to 15 minute sessions. The problem is the first 15 minute periods feel too easy. I’ll try a decremental time boxing. I’ll do 30 -> 25 -> 20 -> 15 minute sessions thereafter.
    P. S. When I have a short break between study sessions, I lie on the sofa and do nothing. I think listening something in your target language could be a good break activity.

  9. d4veg
    July 10, 2010 at 21:31

    What kind of stopwatch do you use? Does anyone have a program or stopwatch that you can set all the times in the timeboxing ahead of time?

  10. マルク
    October 31, 2011 at 19:42

    Thanks for the Kenan and Kel shout-out. It goes to say that you practice what you preach. You add in jokes and references and that gets me to read the whole article every time. Just like putting on Japanese music makes RTK not really all that bad. I really dig the method and I’ll keep going with it so long as it stays fun and works =)

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