Timeboxing Trilogy, Part 7: Isn’t Timeboxing Just A Waste of Time?

This entry is part 9 of 17 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 seriously not talking about this any more.

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

Some very pertinent questions about the value of timeboxing (or lack thereof) came up on the Twitter the other day. Since my answers are too long to tweet, I’d like to share them with you here.

“Isn’t time boxing just a long-winded way of procrastinating? Isn’t a better idea just ‘get crap done’? Why use timers and crap?” — @TracyBBoy

Excellent question…s. Let me attempt an answer.

>Isn’t time boxing just a long-winded way of procrastinating?

How is it procrastination to say “I’m going to do thing T for M minutes starting now“, and then do it?

>Isn’t a better idea just “get crap done”?

Is it? What about the people who sit around paralyzed thinking “but it’s gonna take forever”? What about tasks that do need to be done, but also need to be prevented from taking too long? What about tasks that are cyclical, that do not finish? What about tasks that cannot be easily divided into even parts but would benefit from being done piecemeal (and since time can always be divided evenly…)

>Why use timers and crap?

If time is easier to divide than task quantity, then it makes sense to divide by time. Time is (now) a universal, standardized, unambiguous, and often quite convenient metric.

Timeboxing is about giving form to the formless. It’s about making the large small.

At some meta-level, we are only afraid of what we can’t understand. And what does the word “understand” mean? Well, in Japanese, you say 分かる/解かる/理解 (wakaru | rikai), which shares the same root as 分ける (wakeru) and 分解 (bunkai), all of which mean “to break apart“. In jive, when you’re explaining something to someone, you (used to) say “let me break it down for you”.

Once something is broken down into small, visible pieces, you own it; you control it; you understand it. You can’t fear it and you can’t fantasize about it. All that’s left is to do. To play with it. That’s what timeboxing is about.

But…whatever. It’s not like it’s an idea that needs defending. If it would work to go slap everybody in the face and tell them to shut the fork up and get it done, Nelson Mandela bootcamp style, I’d be for that, too. But that’s what we do right now, and it doesn’t work. All it does is make people feel like crap, teach them to work reactively out of fear and shame (rather than proactively out of joy and greed), and add an unnecessary “moral” element to work.

Most work is and should be amoral. I vote for “cleanliness is next to knowing where the heck your stuff is, being able to think straight, and having no household pests” over “cleanliness is next to godliness”.

The difference between timeboxing and “just do it” is the difference between abstinence (“tell them kids to just not do it”) and contraception (“let’s put some mechanisms in place to mitigate the consequences of the fact that those kids may just do it”). The former is simple and straightforward, but also produces higher per capita teen pregnancy and STD rates. The latter requires some overhead, but we’re at least admitting what the nature of most humans is going to be in a society that allows freedom of motion. And that is the point — we need to work with the human organism and not against it; if the human organism wants smaller pieces, then it should get them. The least we can do for ourselves is present work in appealing portions, even if the content of the work itself remains largely unchanged.

Hmmm…got a bit racy there with the examples…

It may well be that you’re already able to just do it. It certainly sounds like it. There are people like that, just as there are people who simply can’t use, won’t use and don’t need to use tools like Remembering the Kanji and SRS. That’s wonderful — it really is. You’re making the right choice; you should continue to go ahead and just do it. There are many areas of my life where I’m like that — where tools and equations just get in the way. But there are plenty where I’m not. In these latter areas, I need to introduce new ideas and tools; I need to think and strategize and tweak; I need to use my head and I need to allow for some overhead — because the alternative is that nothing happens.

Timeboxing is overhead. But it is not net overhead… it brings us net gain. Except when it doesn’t, in which case, it’s just overhead and should be avoided. So don’t timebox, TracyBBoy. You don’t need it; it would be like a dark-skinned person going to a tanning salon. Like the people who just can’t get into SRS, you already have things figured out, and that is a good thing. Run with that. Leave the children to their toys 😛 .

“@ajatt All you need to get crap done. No timers, no convoluted equations, etc.: nowdothis.com” — @TracyBBoy

I’m mostly a pragmatist, too. But you have to know when to be a pragmatist and when to be an intellectual. And sometimes, you need to intellectualize your problem in order to come up with a more pragmatic solution for it. When pragmatism and simplicity get in the way of effectiveness, we call that anti-intellectualism.

I actually really like that app, NowDoThis. It’s not the antithesis of timeboxing at all. In fact, it’s a great timeboxing tool. Timeboxing is all about single-tasking.

Let’s say I put “write book” in the app. Am I going to be able to single-task that? No toilet breaks, no eating, no sleeping? All in one day? All in one sitting? 500 pages? No. I’m going to need to say “write 1 page” or “spend 30 minutes writing”…What’s that? Is that the pitter-patter of little timeboxing feet I hear? 😀

Will timeboxing solve all my problems?

Timeboxing will not solve all your problems any more than your favorite dish is good enough to eat at every meal every day for the rest of your life. Timeboxing is a tool, an ingredient. And it goes great with NowDoThis! While far from omnipotent, it is highly potent. Batteries not included. Dilute to taste. Results may vary.

Big thanks to @TracyBBoy for his probing questions and app suggestion. He really touched on core issues and made this post possible. Tracy exemplifies a healthy attitude toward tools; he is not submissive; he is better than any tool — the tool has to prove itself to him, not the other way around.

Series Navigation<< Timeboxing Trilogy, Part 6: Q&ATimeboxing Trilogy, Part 8: Don’t Those Super-Short Timeboxes Make Timeboxing Meaningless? >>

  13 comments for “Timeboxing Trilogy, Part 7: Isn’t Timeboxing Just A Waste of Time?

  1. Tyler
    July 31, 2010 at 01:16

    Thoughtful post. I understand the concern: sometimes all the discussion and fiddling with tools, gadgets and strategies is used to procrastinate. But that doesn’t mean that they are inherently bad. Just goes to show that though you can give someone the tools to solve a problem, you still can’t solve their problem for them.

    Also: “The difference between timeboxing and “just do it” is the difference between abstinence and contraception” <—– this is a great analogy.

  2. nacest
    July 31, 2010 at 02:19

    >Tracy exemplifies a healthy attitude toward tools

    Too bad he doesn’t appear to make an effort to read the stuff he confutes.

  3. brick
    July 31, 2010 at 04:00

    2 more and you’re at a trilogy of trilogies

  4. Caleb
    July 31, 2010 at 08:58

    I resisted doing the super small time boxes for awhile. I was like, I should at least sit down and do this for 10 minutes (as opposed to 1-3 minutes). And usually I was getting my stuff done. But, I hit a bit of a wall after awhile on my SRS reps and they started to drag on throughout the entire day.

    I thought, wtf, what do I have to lose. I’ll try this nested time boxing action that Khatz talks of. Not only is it much easier to get started on when it’s only two minutes long, I find I’m actually far more productive. There must be a technical term for this, but I’ve noticed the phenomena of decreasing effectiveness/productivity as time spent on a task increases (a inverse relationship, if you will).

    Example: working in blocks of 10 minutes my best ever rep completion number was 55 or something for my SRS sentences deck. THE BEST EVER. Usually 40s. Sometimes mid 30s when I was really dragging it.

    Nested timeboxing: working mostly with 3 minute boxes I’ve been consistently hitting 16-22 sentences per timebox (that’s freaking 60-73ish average for a 10 minute block).

    It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that nested timeboxing not only gets done but is also more productive in terms of actually work done per minute.

    Like Khatz I haven’t been taking “rests” in between mini timeboxes. Rather, I do other things I need to (cleaning, stretching my body, dishes, learning to sing songs in my target language, brushing my teeth). These other forms of “work” have also benefited from timeboxing. Not only do the get done more frequently, but the work completed to time ratio is much higher.

    To argue against timeboxing in general and nested timeboxing in particular is nearly always the product of not actually having tested out the methods for oneself. In my humble opinion, that is.

    Thanks Khatz for helping me out.

  5. blarg
    July 31, 2010 at 11:44

    Using timers and stuff is boring to me, I find songs work a lot better. I’ll put on some an awesome song, and then try to get as much work done as possible before the song ends.

  6. SRS Addict
    August 1, 2010 at 05:39

    I’ve found that when I use timers, it is easier to focus on stuff. I usually set the timer for 30 minutes, work on the task until the timer is done or until the task is done. This isn’t a problem when I’m in some place other than my home (No problems focusing when at the library, someone else’s home, etc.), so maybe it has something to do with the amount of distractions easily at my disposal when I’m at a very familiar and personal place like my home.

    I guess there are a million different names for “using timer to focus.” I saw www.pomodorotechnique.com/ pop up on Lifehacker, and all it seems to be is a glorified 25-minute timer (I find it somewhat silly to say “I did five pomodoros today,” whatever floats his boat, I guess). Regardless of what you call it, using timers has been useful for me.

    I personally can’t wait for the release of the “Epic Win” app. Using a shallow (But what I believe will be effective) RPG point system to help incentivize good habits has been on my to-do list for a really long time (I downloaded the Dev kit and had a notebook of design documents). Combine the game itself and a timer, create a reward system, I can’t wait!

  7. zaynah
    August 1, 2010 at 06:35


    yea that’s what i do too!

  8. zaynah
    August 1, 2010 at 06:54

    oops, I meant “@blarg”

  9. August 7, 2010 at 05:05

    In the past I’ve used the Now Habit with ridiculous amounts of success. This summer between school semesters my workload has dropped to almost nothing, and The Now Habit just never really found a place in my vast oceans of free time.

    I went back and forth about timeboxing after barely touching my L2 for almost the whole summer. Finally one day I just “did it” using the decremental timeboxing, and Khatz, thank you again.

    Timeboxing rocks so hard. I’ve been motivated to do my L2 more in one day than I did in a whole month earlier this summer. I was afraid of failing and it kept me from revving up Anki and going through the cards/getting sentences. With timeboxing I always win and am always motivated.

    There’s natural pauses in what I do. I check my e-mail between time boxes, I sometimes throw in a Bob Dylan song and… it still works. I use my ipod timer, open up the windows, and just do it. After I finish I am hungry for more. Where before the 30 minute Now Habit would leave me exhausted, with the timeboxing I am always shocked how fast it goes and want more!

    A great book to pick up is called Brain Rules by Dr. John Medina. It covers 12 overall facts that we definitely know about the brain, and explains some of the science, history and applications of it. One of my favorite chapters is on long-term memory, and it talks almost entirely about spaced repetition as the only proven consistent method of creating long-term memories. The book also says that we tend to lose focus after about 10 minutes of an activity, like class. Timeboxing alleviates this by zipping around before our brains can get bored.

    For anyone on the fence I recommend to just “go for it.” Worst case scenario you have lost 10 or less precious minutes of procrastinating in (likely) L1.

  10. Kimura
    November 24, 2011 at 11:53

    My 2¥: Timeboxing is Super Effective. Not shitting you, 1000 cards due in Anki (875 reviews, 125 new; my inner 赤ちゃん is probably in starvation stasis). Did it all in one day with the power of five-minute timeboxes. Proof here: twitpic.com/7ini4s
    I know, it wasn’t a solid 1.29 hours of continuous practice (there was about two meals, three hours of Minecraft, and the odd MythBusters episode distributed in there, so probably about six hours of real-world time if you include breaks), but there is no way I would’ve even accomplished that without timeboxing it. (Of course, the “Challenge Accepted” aspect of doing a thousand cards in a day certainally didn’t hurt.)

  11. Jigree1
    October 4, 2012 at 12:06

    I find that the times when I “just do it” I am actually using some type of a tool unconsciously. Like when it comes to cleaning I have already implemented the tools to “just get it done”. I don’t think about it consciously, but I break it down into smaller pieces accomplishing one thing at a time, for a specific time frame, and so on. So really there isn’t any “just do it” in life. It’s just that the people who “just do” things are people that have already figured out how to do it. That’s where certain things come naturally for certain people. (different people have problems with different things).

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