Timeboxing Trilogy, Part 10: Timeboxing, Tony Schwartz and Recovery

This entry is part 11 of 17 in the series Timeboxing Trilogy

“It is not about staying the course. It is not about pushing yourself for long periods of time…The key to your great performance is intense effort balanced by deep recovery. It’s becoming a sprinter inside a marathon. You live in a marathon, but the way to thrive in that marathon is to push yourself to the limit and then recover.” ~ Tony Schwartz

Hey team. It’s been a while. Welcome to another (quite unplanned) installment, the tenth, of this rather inappropriately named Timeboxing Trilogy. For those of you wanting to pick up from where we left off, check out Part 9: Birthlines And Timeboxing, ←here. ← There.

Um…the question of timeboxing and rest/recovery is on which I’ve vacillated a lot and on which I may well vacillate again. That’s just how I roll. At times, I have advocated deliberately resting between timeboxes, urging people to resist the well-meaning urge to force themselves to continue and thereby kill the proverbial golden egg-laying goose 1 of energy and concentration.

But then, sometime later, in this very series no less, I pooh-poohed the idea of taking a break, suggesting that anyone who needed a break after a 120-second timebox shouldn’t be working in the first place. And now I’m back on the side of “take a break between timeboxes, whether you feel you need to or not”. What gives? Like I’ve said, I’ve shifted between these points of view multiple times. And maybe I’ll shift again, who knows? So what’s different about this time? Tony Schwartz and Jim Loehr are what’s different. Loehr and the Schwartz have written several books on the issue I’m about to discuss, including but not limited to:

OK, but so what? So what indeed. I guess right about now would be as good a time as any to explain just who Schwartz and Loehr are and what their story is. Um…I’m recounting this from memory, so there may be some BS/abbreviation/inaccuracy on my part. Schwartz was originally a journalist by profession; tennis was a big hobby of his. Loehr was a sports (performance) psychologist. Using knowledge and techniques that he had personally arranged, discovered and developed, Loehr showed a middle-aged Schwartz how to beat a seeded twentysomething pro player, simply by relaxing more between plays, both physically and psychologically.

So what? Give me a chance here. I’m gettin’ there; I’m gettin’ there. Loehr and Schwartz’s spiel is that there is a personal resource that is even more precious than time: energy  ( = the capacity to do work). Their idea is that we build capacity by repeatedly cycling between (eu)stress and relaxation (= recovery = rest). Too much relaxation leads to atrophy, decay and unfulfilled potential; too much (eu)stress leads to pain, suffering, injury and disease. It turns out that, contrary to that constant nagging sense of guilt we always seem to be carrying around, most people don’t relax enough — and that’s everyone, from professional athletes to layfolk. And it also turns out that we all need far more relaxation than we think we do. In fact, if Schwartz and Loehr are to be believed, most of our time should be spent on relaxation 2, punctuated by short, intense bursts of exertion (=eustress).

So anyway, apparently, both eustress and relaxation are absolutely necessary for well-being and increased capacity: use it or lose it. Anyone who knows about how muscle is built is probably familiar with this idea: what happens is that exercise (= eustress) causes tiny tears in muscle tissue; these tears then heal, leaving you with tissue that’s bigger, better and stronger than before. In fact, a similar process seems to happen in bone as well (Wolff’s Law):

“bone in a healthy person or animal will adapt to the loads it is placed under. If loading on a particular bone increases, the bone will remodel itself over time to become stronger to resist that sort of loading…The racquet-holding arm bones of tennis players become much stronger than those of the other arm. Their bodies have strengthened the bones in their racquet-holding arm since it is routinely placed under higher than normal stresses.” ~ Wikipediation

What does this have to do with Japanese? For the answer to that question, you’re going to have to check out the QRG(no, seriously)! Haha :P . The short answer is: not a lot, but not nothing. I guess you can:

  • think of your SRS time (reps especially) as eustress, and
  • the rest of your “just chillin’ and passively enjoying Japanese time” as recovery.

To put it in concrete numbers, the state of the art in coaching experience and research literature suggests that you should maybe only do up to about 90 minutes per day of conscious Japanese “study” — pedalling. And this 90 minutes should not be all in one block. Instead, you have dozens of tiny “SRS sprints” spaced out throughout your day. The rest of the time, just chill, just coast.  Do Japanese, but in a chill way. Kick back. Catch some ‘toons. Let it wash over you. Pretend you’re at the beach and Japanese is the sun and the sea or something… Now, how does timeboxing fit into all this energy business? Well, what I’ve been doing is having incredibly short, incredibly intense timeboxes, punctuated by very long breaks. My breaks are now at least twice as long as my timeboxes (and sometimes five, ten or even a hundred times longer), even when the timebox itself is only 60~120 seconds long. So I’ll have:

  • A 90-second timebox followed by a 60-minute break.
  • Or I’ll have a 1-2-3-4-minute incremental timebox, followed by a 50+-minute break (meaning that, yes, I”ll only work 10 minutes/hour [1+2+3+4=10]…but boy will I work).

That kind of work-rest ratio may seem preposterous to you, but it’s:

  1. Highly sustainable — the golden goose of focus stays live — and
  2. Highly productive, no doubt because of Pareto/Parkinsonian side-effects — if I can only work so long, I’m forced to do only important work, and to work quickly and efficiently. There is no room for waste.

Anyhoo, that’s all from me today. I’ve only scratched the surface of this stuff,  so feel free to check out more of it on your own. You’re sure to find some life-changing hints and ideas:

Series Navigation<< Timeboxing Trilogy, Part 9: Birthlines And TimeboxingDecremental Timebox → Real Time Conversion Table >>

  27 comments for “Timeboxing Trilogy, Part 10: Timeboxing, Tony Schwartz and Recovery

  1. March 25, 2011 at 03:36

    Do you apply this concept in the long term as well, that is having days or weeks of fairly intense effort and then taking a few days or a week off, wash-rinse-repeat? I do this in a sort of haphazard way (i.e. it’s not really planned) and find that it works pretty well and if you don’t do it then you get burned out and your productivity is far worse than it would be if you had just taken the occasional break.


    • khatzumoto
      March 25, 2011 at 21:09

      You know what? Not yet, but that sounds like a REALLY cool idea. I’ve mostly focused on ultra-short-term things like this since that’s easier to control, test and implement — the results feel more immediate. But I like the sound of “having days or weeks of fairly intense effort and then taking a few days or a week off, wash-rinse-repeat”…smells like victory :D

      >if you don’t do it then you get burned out and your productivity is far worse than it would be if you had just taken the occasional break.
      Definitely. This is the part that a lot of people don’t get, even though they suffer from and because of it so much.

      • URAHARA
        March 29, 2011 at 01:58

        I think it can work together: ultra-short-term and long term change (activity and recovery).
        It is true in economics as well – those cycles, there are short term -3-5 years, and long term – 60-70 years. And in sport as well: they train and recover every week (several/many times per week). And when they play the tournament / competition they stress even more for a longer period of time (including intense preparation). After that they take a rest (e.g. don’t train at all for several days). Interesting, they don’t train often a couple of days before the competition as well, to recover and give all 100% they are capable of.

        So we can have ultra-short-term things but do them more often in an “intensive week” and less often in the “recovery week”.

      • March 30, 2011 at 21:55

        Kind of like how Steve Pavlina would play video games for days without end, kind of like getting it out of your system so you have more room in your system for work to do.

  2. 魔法少女☆かなたん
    March 25, 2011 at 06:44

    I find this to be true as it relates to language learning.

    Doing a 1 1/2 hour SRS marathon when I got home every day actually discouraged me from wanting to do it. Buying a good mobile phone where I can randomly do it anywhere for a few minutes at a time turned out to be really effective.

    And because it was so effective, it actually made me want to add more cards, so I’ll have new things to review.

  3. Mattholomew III, Esquire
    March 25, 2011 at 20:16

    Spending ~7 minutes of intense Anki time on my daily subway commute = obliteration of Anki backup.

    Morning Anki sprint -> 8 hours rest (work) -> Afternoon Anki sprint -> watch French-dubbed Star Trek on my big screen.

    Chicks dig it.

  4. March 25, 2011 at 20:56

    I’d say those ideas relate to learning Japanese pretty well, and it’s certainly true that time without energy doesn’t get you very far. I personally do about 250 – 300 sentence reps a day, but in many many blocks of 12 between other things. It’s an intensive 60 seconds or so, but as it’s over so quick it doesn’t matter.

  5. March 25, 2011 at 22:40

    Since Khatsumoto Keep changing things up, I think the take home lesson is not to listen to Khatz, but to do what works best for you, because if you try to follow everything that guy does, you’ll be spinning around in circles confused. I mean, no disrespect to Khatzu, but why stop doing something that’s working for you?

  6. Lang
    March 25, 2011 at 23:37

    It think I figured this on my own actually, but its nice to have Khatz on board me with.

    I use to dread doing my Reps for Kanji, it just seemed like “work”, so boring, wasting like 30 mins of my time at home doing them.

    Now I have an iphone and do really really short burts of reps, every 2 or three songs of japanese that I listen to .

    So for example, I listen to 2 japanese songs, then I do my 2 minute timeboxed anki Lazy Mod.

    Then If I run out of that Lazy mod, I bust out the Remembering the Kanji deck, which is like a few weeks behind in terms of Kanji, but gives me the awesome feeling of I know dis shiz….

    and If I get tired i just stop, I might change the timeboxing to 1 minute and then with more frequency…

  7. Drewskie
    March 25, 2011 at 23:54

    I’ve been trying to manage my energy better for a while now—it was immediately clear upon trying time boxes that they are in every way a sprint. Inserting rests is something I hadn’t tried, but it feels like it’s worth giving a shot.

  8. March 27, 2011 at 16:52

    Thanks for this khatz, it is really great information. I highly reccomend everyone follow the links khatzumoto-sempai so graciously left for us, specifically the Leader@google talks with Tony Schwartz. Yes it is English, and I almost passed on it for that reason. But this is information so powerful, if you’ll truly begin applying it immediately, it will not just make up for the time spent in English, it has the potential to transform your life. Schwartz is teaching us how to put in place a lifestyle that will allow our capacities for productivity to expand well beyond the range they would be stuck at if left alone. I’m especially intrigued by the idea of building sustainable, highly specific rituals for modifying behavior. That’s essentially what khatzumotto has inspired so many of us to do unconsciously, and it’s one good reason ajatt is so effective. Even if you apply these techniques to only one small corner of your life (learning a second language), i think that you’ll begin to benefit in other ways.

    Just by making a few minute, tiny tweaks to my own personal study cycle based on what khatz wrote here and what i heard in the videos from schwartz, i’ve been able to double the amount of srs cards, videos watched AND pages read today, and yet i feel more rested and less stressed than ever. Now to set some mechanisms in place to help me ritualize these changes and make them sustainable. がんばってね!

    March 29, 2011 at 01:50

    Great stuff!
    I was going slowly to build an understanding and system similar to this. But I was years behind before clearly formulating ideas like Mr. Schwarz presented it.
    Renewal and energy flow. Such a great enhancement into my quality of life.
    Now, I better set up the environment for good and effective recovery ;)
    Thanks for sharing!

  10. god
    March 31, 2011 at 03:11

    Interesting post. I have to say I am excited to see a little more written about time boxing.

    One thing I would like to add, though, is it seems that this it would be slightly difficult to apply this to other forms of learning (such as reading with a dictionary or learning through an audio book) as with some activities a more intense time focus would be needed. Shorter time boxes would be less useful and longer sessions would be needed. Additionally, such activities might not need a break in the middle as they are more engaging than activities that are more prone to mental burnout, such as SRS.

    It’s fascinating to consider time boxing in relation to everything that can be built into doing it. I think you have written quite extensively on the subject so far, but I look forward to hearing about your next big development.

    Good to see your back into form!

    • calvin
      May 2, 2011 at 16:24

      Well IMO reading a book with or without a dictionary should just be fun time. If you aren’t having fun with it then either find a better book that you like, or switch to manga or another input source. At least in my case I found that by buying books I would normally want to read in English, and making sure the material wasn’t way over my level, I look forward to it.

      And then inputting the sentences that I’ve mined is the “work” part but that only takes a few minutes so whatever.

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