How breaking up big undertakings into smaller chunks not only increases productivity, but eases anxiety. What was once daunting, becomes manageable.
By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here
The most valuable time management tool I use in my day-to-day life is a timer. I was first introduced to the importance of a timer while working on my fitness. Instead of long durations, I found short bursts of high-intensity training not only saved me time but offered me better results. Now, this is conventional wisdom for all athletes, even endurance runners. But time management and productivity are not limited to athletics, it can be applied to work, learning, and everything else. The limits of its uses are the limits of your imagination.
You can't maintain focus for long. This is why we all joke that we have ADD even when we do not. But for most of us, it's not ADD, it's being human. Humans cannot hyperfocus for long durations. Our minds are meant for novelty, this is why we proliferated. What inventions and innovations would there be if we just stood there staring at the savanna all day? Our brains aren't wired this way, which is why when we try, we feel like we're going mad.
We have been studying the benefits of distributed practice since the 1800s. The most famous method being the Pomodoro technique. Developed by Francesco Cirillo, it's named after the Italian word for "tomato"—as a university student Cirillo used a tomato-shaped kitchen timer as a productivity aid. Cirillo's technique breaks work down into increments of 25 minutes followed by a short break. Just as with exercise, it's difficult to maintain intensity for long. Something will give: either you burn out or get distracted. In the case of exercise, you'll injure yourself. In the case of work, you'll increase your anxiety and stress. But with time chunking, the daunting becomes manageable.
Break Up Your Work Into Chunks
With the Pomodoro, after each round of work, you take a short break, anywhere from three to five minutes. You do this for four rounds, then you can take a longer break, 15-30 minutes. This is similar to the Tabata method for physical training where you break up short rounds of intensity with short breaks, then take a longer break after eight rounds. But the magic is in the breaks, they give your mind and body the time to download all the work you've done without overload. You're maximizing your biology.
Tweak to It Match Your Personality
However, tweak the intervals to match your personality. I find 20 minute time chunks work best for me. This was after some experimentation; you can't break up an hour into 25-minute chunks, and 30 minutes was too long. For people I've taught this to, they've either lengthened or shortened the chunks and breaks and modified the total number of rounds to fit their individual personalities.
Let Your Personality Dictate the Method
What I've learned from years of coaching martial arts is that the technique must match the personality of the user. It's not about the right technique or even the right technique for their body type. The mind supersedes the body, so the key is to find the best method for the type of mind that you have (you can also change your mindset, as I've written about previously, but what works best is somewhere in the middle). 25 minutes may be traditional, but that may not be practical for some. Some may do better with 10-minute rounds and 5-minute breaks.
I call it the personality-based method. Productivity is all about getting stuff done, and if the method doesn't match your personality, you're not going to do it. From chess masters to star athletes, half of what they do is about efficiency, but the other half is personality. If what we do doesn't express even a little bit of ourselves, again, it will drive us mad. (We need just that bit of ownership.)
Some people will abandon valuable techniques if they aren't given permission to break the rules. For example, in politics, elites smugly say that some folks vote against their economic best interests. But what's really happening is, some people value personal freedom over rigid policies. They will abandon something possibly valuable if it means too many rules. This is human, and human psychology applies to all that we do. Fortunately, personal productivity is much simpler. Just as with any innovation, no permission is needed to make changes. Do it, and if it works for you, it works for you. Find your own personal effective dosage of time. However, first learn the standard rules; the rules are the framework to build your own system upon. Only then can you forget about boilerplate figures and cookie-cutter numbers.
When I'm learning something new, I use a longer chunk of time. If for instance, I'm working on a new jiu-jitsu technique (Brazilian jiu-jitsu is my primary art), I may spend 40 to 60 minutes playing around with it. If I don't know the technique well enough, practicing it with speed and intensity will only produce slop. This is why I slow it down. If I practice slop, I might make slop my permanent technique. Practice makes permanent, then how I practice is of the utmost importance.
Modes of Learning: Diffuse and Focused
I call longer these longer training chunks, lab sessions. Lab sessions are experimental, playful, loose, and creative. In neuroscience, this is called diffuse mode thinking. In diffuse mode, rather than being rigid, I open myself up to new ideas, allowing myself to learn without agenda—it's the best way to learn the new and abstract. Once I feel comfortable with the new technique, I shorten the chunk to 10 minutes, where I apply it on my partner, and try to get as many repetitions as I can in that chunk. I'm combining modes for maximum efficiency. Then I have my partner do it to me for 10 minutes, and I learn from the opposite end, what my opponent's reactions will be. I learn the move inside and out.
The 10-minute chunk is a very focused mode of learning, where it's less about learning something new and more about owning it. But it's difficult for me to maintain that quality of awareness for more than 20 minutes (10 minutes my partner's turn plus 10 minutes my turn), so a break to shoot the breeze and make jokes with my training partner helps me renew my focus for the next round. We call this "drilling." Precise repetition for the purpose of "drilling" a move permanently into our long term memory. But precision needs breaks.
And when I learn something related, I'll already have a permanent framework of knowledge to draw from. For example, you need the framework of biology to understand evolution. Without framework, learning anything new is nearly impossible. Try talking about a movie without comparing it to anything else? Try describing the shape of anything new without comparing it something already preexisting? You can't. You always need framework. This is why it's hard to win people over with facts if they do not have the framework to see where the facts are supposed to go. To the person without the necessary framework, facts are abstractions—random tidbits that don't mean anything. It's no different than words becoming gibberish to a person who doesn't speak your language (framework). This is why people are naturally skeptical if you mention something they are not already aware of. No framework of comparison creates the bias of incredulity—if I don't know anything about it, it's not real. This is why framework is vital, it makes learning the next thing possible.
The Math Problem
Think back to when you were in school when you had to take math. It's by far the least popular subject. We don't hate math because we think it's unnecessary—out of all the subjects it's the one we see the most practical need for—we hate it because it's so damn hard. Why is it hard? Because it's the one that is the most rigid, unbending to what works for us. It's also the fastest moving, topics change quicker than any other class. But worst of all, it's the class where it's drilled into our heads that being good at math is inborn: "You're either good at math or you're not."
We don't go into it believing we can all be good at math. We're defeated even before we start—and we can't wait until we hit our requirements so we can stop taking math. So what happened when a math teacher named John Mighton developed a math program where kids were told they could all be good at math, where learning was slowed down so kids could diffuse abstract math concepts, where kids' personalities were allowed to shine through discovery-based lessons, and everything was broken into increments? All the kids got good at math. Much of the struggle in math comes from children lacking a foundation to work from. Self-discovery (play) and increments created the framework they needed. And from there, they moved onto the next increment, which led to the next, and so on. We can all master increments. Even in math! Small steps, chunks, are critical. (Arrogant people who are already good at something don't like it when new members join their club. It means it's no longer exclusive. This is why they want you to believe you can't do it.)
What makes a task overwhelming? You see where you are and you see where you need to go. Incremental learning is the ladder. And like a ladder, you see how it's supposed to work, so you have confidence that you can do it. And each rung only strengthens your belief. You can learn, express yourself, and do it at your own pace. This frees you from judgment (even your own), which is the biggest obstacle to improvement.
Break up Any Extended Task
Whenever you have a task that seems insurmountable or too difficult, try breaking it up into chunks. I found this to be beneficial when reading dense material, especially nonfiction. You'll find many of the best TED Talks are around 20 minutes. Meditation teachers tell you 20 minutes is the ideal amount of time to meditate. Sports scientists say 20 minutes of intense cardiovascular activity is all you need. Music teachers recommend learning complex pieces 20 minutes at a time. Even in writing this entry, I wrote in 20-minute spurts.
20 minutes is also the perfect length of time to break up your sitting habit. Countless studies have proven that no amount of exercise can undo the damage of prolonged sitting. According to science, the best way to undo this damage is to get up every 20 minutes. Be imaginative, the applications are endless.
No task will seem too big if you break it up into increments. Apply this to the things you find most intimidating (or the things you procrastinate). As a child, the only way I would clean was if I turned on the music, cleaned intensely, then took a karaoke dance break every 15 minutes. This was prior to ever hearing about time chunking or interval training. It's natural and it works. These productivity techniques only enhance what is already built into our systems. Take full advantage of it. Breaking up any big undertaking into smaller chunks not only increases productivity, it eases anxiety. Oh, yeah. I can do this!
Useful Companions (Improve Your Education and This Site by Buying a Book):
- The essential business book on productivity, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen
- Where David Allen's focus is on work and business, The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich by Timothy Ferriss is about everything else
- The best breakdown of practice, The Talent Code: Greatness Isn't Born. It's Grown. Here's How. by Daniel Coyle
- A personal narrative of learning from a former child chess prodigy, The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance by Josh Waitzkin
- A book about the necessity of play in learning, Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art by Stephen Nachmanovitch