Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Improving Productivity beyond 1 Dish at a Time: Timeboxing

My wife and I discovered the 1 dish at a time trick for getting ourselves to do things a couple of years ago. Since then, I've worked at applying it to a number of areas in my life, and have gotten somewhat better (though far from perfect) at getting the dishes done, keeping up with mail, and making progress on some of my personal goals.

However, one thing that has continued to stump me is how to apply 1 dish at a time to things like getting myself to meditate regularly, write blog posts, or other things without an easily definable first step or chunk of work. Getting myself going in these areas seems to be much more of an act of will, as I don't have access to my usual trick of doing just one compact unit.

This morning, I was reading a personal development blog I've recently discovered by Steve Pavlina, and I think I've found the answer in what he calls timeboxing.
Timeboxing is a great way to deal with tasks where you’d otherwise procrastinate. With timeboxing you only commit to working on a task or project for a fixed length of time, normally 30-90 minutes. 10-15 minutes is perfectly acceptable.

Once you get past the first 15 minutes, you’ll often want to stick with the task. Timeboxing is a good way of coaxing yourself through the initial task resistance. You tell yourself, “It’s only 30 minutes. How bad could it be? I can handle anything for 30 minutes.” But then when you get through that first 30 minutes, it’s easy to keep going.

Like doing things one dish at a time, this technique works by making the cost of starting seem smaller ('It's only 30 minutes...') but then more often than not once you pass the activation energy you're ready to keep going. And just like doing things one dish at a time, its important to actually give yourself permission to stop if you don't feel like you're ready to keep going. If you don't do that, it won't actually be easier to get started because you'll know in the back of your head that you're going to have to make yourself keep going.

The great thing about timeboxing over doing the dishes is that it is much more flexible; it doesn't depend on picking out a unit that you're going to get done. This means that it's applicable to everything, including the areas that have been giving me problems. The downside is that it doesn't have as catchy of a name. :P Any ideas for a better one? If so, let me know in the comments!

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  1. i really need this (and the "one dish at a time"), and i need to actually start DOING this. i have this terrible way of thinking about grading essays/projects, where i think there's just no point in even starting if i don't have a solid 5-6 hours to sit and make a sizeable dent in the pile. what ends up happening, of course, is that i never start them at all, and suddenly find myself in the situation where i REALLY have to get the damn things done and back to the kids and i have no choice but to sit in my classroom for 10-12 hours on a sunday afternoon/evening/dead-of-night to finish them. i keep telling myself to do this, and it still just never happens. why do you think that is? probably i'm just lazy. or over-stressed and therefore hiding from my work whenever i can. maybe. :-P

  2. Hi Lara,

    I think you do it because you're human. What you've described is exactly how I've dealt with things most of my life, and I'm only sometimes able to get myself doing things better.

    I think labeling it helps... 'oh, I'm putting off the dishes again'. While its still just a vague uncomfortableness and avoiding what I probably should be doing, it sits and festers and makes me unhappy. But for me at least, once I've labeled my procrastination, its easier for me to laugh at it and try applying one of these tricks.

    Hope this helps!