For several years now, I have been an enthusiastic practitioner of time boxing—working in fixed time intervals (time boxes) of 25 to 40 minutes, interspersed with short breaks during which I get up from my desk and do some physical activity.
Over the years, I have tweaked my time box length several times to optimize my productivity.
If I made it too short, I would interrupt work too often; if I made it too long the time box would drag on and exceed my attention span.
I also needed a shorter time box length for reading than for writing, in particular when learning complicated material.
But that also means that I might miss the alarm going off at the end of a time box. Often, I just didn’t hear it.
So I started using the vibration alarm of my Fitbit. That worked great because a brief vibration would always alert me to the end of a time box. I also didn’t disturb others with audible alarms.
Paced Time Boxing (PTB): Augmenting time boxing with intermediate reminders to pace yourself
Many fitness trackers, such as the Fitbit, have an interval timer, designed for high intensity interval training (HIIT), where you alternate between move and rest intervals.
This got me thinking:
“I could solve the problem of dealing with different time box lengths for different tasks and at the same time introduce a pace setter.”
So this is how I have been doing for a while now:
I set both the move and the rest interval in my Fitbit to 20 minutes (the maximum) to make up a time box with a total length of 40 minutes. In other words, I use both the move and the rest interval to make up a time box.
To begin a time box I start my interval timer, and it starts counting down. After 20 minutes I get two brief vibrations on my wrist.
But this first vibration alert only signals that half of my time box is over.
After sitting up, I drink water from the big bottle right in front of me.
After drinking water, I get up and make my bed.
After making my bed, I shave.
After shaving, I brew myself a cup of coffee…
This is the routine I follow every morning after waking up: It is an autopilot sequence of behaviors—“a stack of habits”—where the completion of one action triggers the start of the next one.
This routine is extremely helpful and contributes massively to my happiness and productivity every day.
It also keeps me from going off the rails and into cyberspace:
You see, I have an iPad and a smartphone sitting on my nightstand.
In the past, I have always been tempted to use them after waking up: “What is the news?” “What is going on Twitter?” “Let’s check email real quick.” More often than not, I have given in to the temptation.
The next thing I noticed was that half an hour was gone, and I was running late.
As soon as the headless chicken wakes up, it starts running in circles. It becomes frantically active, checks its mail, and feels the urge to do something. Anything that can relieve the stress and the worries will do.
While handling the phone, it opens the pantry to refill the coffee maker. Too bad, there is no more ground coffee left. Well, instant coffee will do for now.
“Shit, it put the coffee in the kettle instead of the cup…”
The chicken has no time; it wants to do everything at once.
And so it forgets some of its papers on the nightstand and runs back and forth and all around the house to fetch everything for the office.
It truly has lost its head.
Fortunately, the drive to the office is without any major incident. While still at the wheel, the chicken’s head is already at the morning meeting.
It doesn’t see anything to its left or right. Neither beauty nor danger! Had a little chick suddenly run out from behind the parking cars, it would have been flat!
In fact, a little bit earlier, there was a little chick.
Luckily, by the time the headless chicken drove by, the little chick had already safely crossed the street. An elderly couple saw it early and stopped to allow the chick to cross safely.
The headless chicken didn’t know anything about this though when it angrily flashed its headlights at the slow moving car in front of it – the car of the elderly couple that had just spared the headless chicken a nightmare.
What does this have to do with me?
I have been a headless chicken at some point in my life. Sometimes I still am, I am afraid.
But now I have more experience and strategies to re-find my head in most situations. I am still learning, mind you.
In this post, I want to share with you how we often lose our head in the craziness of our busy mind, and eight simple techniques that help me to stay happy and productive.
If even one of them helps you to get back your peace of mind and cruise through the day, this post has served its purpose.
How the chicken lost its head
At the root of our frantic activity are worries that we are going to run out of time or money and the realization that we have no control over this world.
We feel we have to do something, anything to get back in control and on top of things.
Working in intervals of 20 to 40 minutes (so-called timeboxes) interspersed with 5-minute breaks is an excellent way to increase productivity, overcome procrastination, and do something for your health at the same time. In an earlier post I have outlined some ideas on how to implement time boxing.
In the 1980s, Francesco Cirillo devised the Pomodoro Technique, a complete time management system based on the concept of timeboxing. According to him, the optimal length of a timebox is 25 minutes. He called this 25-minute interval a pomodoro. Cirillo’s technique has spawned a variety of productivity apps and timers. I’ll introduce you to one cool app below.
I have used timeboxing more or less for several years, but have also varied the work period depending on the task at hand.
If a task is very difficult or boring, starting out with only 15 minutes is fine, if that helps you to get started and avoid checking your phone. I can always do 15 minutes.
For writing, I much prefer 45 minutes of even an hour.
Recently, I got myself a Fitbit Charge 2 fitness tracker. I bought it to encourage me to move more during the day and track my sleep during the night. It also continuously tracks my heart rate and automatically recognizes and records different exercises. For example, it detects and records when I am walking, running, or using a cross trainer or treadmill and supplies stats such as duration, calories burnt, heart rate graphs…
I have come to like my Fitbit a lot – and it can help with time boxing / pomodoros as well.Continue reading →
It depends on you, the kind of white noise you are using, the task you are working on, where you work, and even the time of day. This post looks at some of the intricacies and helps you to decide whether, when, and how to use white noise for your work and studying.
Speech and varying-state noise (e.g., typical office noise) are distracting and can significantly impair mental performance:
Experiments have shown that cognitive abilities important for both studying and cognitive work are negatively affected by noise: This includes serial memory (remembering the order of things), reading comprehension, mental arithmetic, proof-reading, and writing.
Most of these studies have included silence as a control condition. Some experiments have also included white noise for comparison. The results for white noise were ambiguous: White noise was mostly but not always benign.
My take is, compared to silence, it didn’t affect the average (!) participant’s performance negatively, but it also didn’t boost it.
However, people respond differently to white noise. Some people and tasks thrive on it, while others are slightly negatively affected. Read on to find out who benefits. Continue reading →
In my previous post, I explored how day-time noise impairs our cognitive performance and what we can do about it. But there is another big elephant in the room – our night-time sleep. Sleep or the lack of it has a big impact on our ability to perform at our best, both physically and mentally.
Less or disrupted slow-wave sleep, for example, entails poor memory and poor wound healing.
Among the worst offenders interrupting our night-time sleep is the all too familiar sound of SNORING. Snoring can be loud – very loud indeed. A loud snorer can reach more than 90 decibels of peak sound pressure level. That is about as loud as a lawn mower.
Intrigued by the capabilities of some of the newer devices to block out noise and sophisticated white noise apps, I decided to run an experiment to answer this question: What is the best way to block out snoring noise?
Test equipment and candidates
An iPad equipped with a sound level meter (Noisee for iOS).
Two different white noise apps: myNoise for iOS and White Noise by Tmsoft for iOS and Android.
Earplugs of different sizes by Hearos, 3M, and Mack with a noise reduction rating (NRR) of 29-33 (an NRR of 33 is about as good as you can get).
Good-quality earbuds (a good fit is vital for sound quality and noise isolation).
The best earmuffs I could find, with a noise reduction rating of 31 (3M Peltor X5A).
DIY noise isolating earbuds and sleep headphones.
The best noise cancelling headphones I could find (Bose Quiet Comfort QC35).
Noise affects you as a professional, office worker, teacher, and student. It impairs your ability to read and write effectively, remember what you have learned, and do math. Everyday noise can cause a performance loss of 50 percent or more. This is easily the difference between an A and an F. Luckily there are some smart ways to block out and mask noise so it doesn’t disrupt you.
A good 18 months ago, I was sitting on my balcony watching an online lecture on my computer. My balcony is facing a small aisle, but the traffic noise from a nearby road is still very noticeable. I was wearing decent earbuds, so the noise wasn’t bothering me – or so I thought.
Just out of curiosity, I put on a pair of earmuffs, which I had purchased earlier to block out noises that often startle me during my early-afternoon naps.
Well, they did a hell of a job with the traffic noise: I was sitting there, and all the honking, squeaking and rumbling had receded into the background. It wasn’t completely quiet, but everything was so faint. That’s very nice indeed, I thought.
Why not try continuing the lecture with my earbuds underneath the earmuffs?
The first thing I noticed was that the voice of the lecturer was now way too loud. Annoyingly loud.
I had to turn down the volume from 10 to 3 to make it comfortable again. I also noticed that I could hear the finer nuances of the lecturer’s voice. I could even understand other students’ questions. These students weren’t equipped with microphones as this was a normal computer science lecture recorded at MIT in a big lecture hall (part of MIT’s Open Courseware program).
Wow – it was so much easier to follow the lecture and take in the whole experience. One of the great advantages of watching a recorded lecture is that you can stop it and re-listen to parts you couldn’t comprehend the first time. After putting on the earmuffs, this became almost completely unnecessary. Not only was I able to listen at a much lower volume and make out previously unheard details, I was also comprehending faster!
Bolstered by that experience, I experienced with earmuffs in other learning and reading situations as well
I have been an afternoon napper for more than 14 years. I started napping after moving to a country where most people took a siesta. For various reasons, I just couldn’t get enough sleep during the night, so it was easy to fall asleep.
Over the years, I have tried short power naps, 60-minute naps, and occasionally 90-minute mid-afternoon sleeps. In this post, I would like to share with you how to nap for better mood, alertness, concentration, improved memory, and restoration of learning capacity. We will cover how long and when to nap for maximum benefit, how to avoid after-nap grogginess (sleep inertia), and the possible risks associated with longer naps.
As a final point, I am going to share my personal napping experience and my favorite napping hacks.
The benefits of napping are numerous
For me personally, the most important benefits are improved mood and decreased sleepiness. I just feel happier and ready to tackle my afternoon after a nap.
Napping studies have found a large number and variety of benefits of napping in all kinds of workplace and operational settings. Studies looked at drivers, commercial airliner pilots, shift workers, doctors and nurses, students, children, senior citizens…
Here is a non-exhaustive list of research-proven benefits:
Improved cognitive performance
Increased alertness and concentration
Decreased reaction time
Speed and accuracy improvement on cognitive tasks
Less sleepiness and fatigue
Significantly reduced number of driving incidents such as drifting out of one’s lane in a car simulator experiment: the number of incidents caused by drivers who had taken a 15-minute coffee nap (see below for details) was 91% less than for drivers who had just taken a break. Coffee alone reduced the number of incidents by 66%.
In a NASA study, pilots who took naps were able to maintain their performance and reduce incidents during a demanding multi-day schedule. Pilots who weren’t allowed to nap experienced deceasing performance and a significantly larger number of incidents, including during the descent and landing.
Significantly Improved memory and protection of learned information from interference: a study that focused on declarative learning found a 60% increased memory retention for nappers at a final test one week after initial learning, compared to learners who hadn’t napped.
Nappers perform better at abstracting general concepts and making connections that weren’t directly learned but can be inferred from what was learned (relational memory).
A nap can restore the capacity to learn, which otherwise deteriorates considerably with time awake.
Performance on a creative problem solving task where subjects had to find a linking word between three seemingly unrelated words was improved by more than 40% after a 90-minute nap containing REM sleep (see below) compared to rest and naps containing only non-REM sleep.
To better understand what nap length you should aim for, here is a sleep architecture primer