Japan: Nothing but Sincerity as Far as the Eye Can See

I have written about this at some length previously, so I'll keep my commentary on this video brief. I think this escaped zebra drill in a Japanese zoo nicely illustrates the tooth-aching levels of sincerity commonplace in Japanese society. In America such an exercise would inevitably deteriorate into bystanders flinging rocks and filth at the zebra--if the zoo staff doesn't do it first.

Introduction to Timeboxing

Photo by Linda Giddens

I first learned of the timeboxing technique a few years back. I since have found it a very useful item in my productivity arsenal.

I'll start with a scenario—the naked, unvarnished truth as it happened to me today. I had a report that needed to be worked on, didn't feel like doing it. Why? For no rational reason, just one of those things.

In such a situation it is all too easy to keep busy with other types of "work"—anything I could spend time on that appears useful, so that anyone watching won't think I'm slacking off. (This is true even though I'm working at home and nobody is watching but me.)

So what I did was....

Now that I have you hanging on the edge of your seat, let me digress for a little philosophical discussion. We are used to thinking of Man (and Woman) as the "rational animal," but look up "cognitive bias" and you will see that all too often people behave irrationally, and what's more in well-established ways. Faced with this knowledge, one can castigate oneself for being irrational and resolve to purify one's mind. Good luck with that—you might pull it off.

Or one can accept one's own irrationalities and work around them, even use them at times. Think of your mind as like Biff Tannen's car:

Remember? The one that no one but Biff could get started? In the same way, once you learn the idiosyncracies of your own mind you can learn how to work around them to coax better performance out of the old thing.

Now back to our exciting story. What I did was set my timer for 5 minutes (we'll come back to discuss the timer later), and tell myself to work on the report for just 5 minutes. This much motivation I could muster.

Frequently the hardest part of a task like this is merely getting started. And so it was today. As it turned out, once 5 minutes had gone by I could see I was almost finished and wrapped it up in approximately another 5 minutes. The rest of the day was then better without that report hanging over my head.

If I had required more than 10 minutes of work to finish the report, I would have perhaps done something like this: spend 5 minutes on the report, then spend 5 minutes either working on something else requiring less energy, or just goof off for 5 minutes. Then 5 minutes on the report again, then 5 minutes off, and so on and so on, until the report is finished or I have reached my quota of work for the day. And so I would be working at 50% efficiency. Not ideal, but better than zero.

This is an example of timeboxing, in other words breaking your time into predetermined blocks to be used according to a plan. In this case I used timeboxing to overcome resistance to getting started on a task, but there are other benefits such as time budgeting. You can devise endless alternatives depending on your energy and motivation level, difficulty of the task, other things to be done, etc.:

Plan B (gradual escalation): 
5 minutes on task, 5 minutes rest,
6 minutes on task, 5 minutes rest,
7 minutes on task, 5 minutes rest,
8 minutes on task, 5 minutes rest,

Plan C (overcoming extreme distaste):
2 minutes on task, 2 minutes rest,
3 minutes on task, 2 minutes rest,
4 minutes on task, 2 minutes rest,

Plan D (working when fatigued):
2 minutes on task, 5 minutes rest,
2 minutes on task, 5 minutes rest,

Plan E (balancing several tasks):
5 minutes on Task 1, 10 minutes on Task 2,
5 minutes on Task 1, 10 minutes on Task 2,
5 minutes rest,
5 minutes on Task 1, 10 minutes on Task 2,
5 minutes on Task 1, 10 minutes on Task 2,
5 minutes rest,
(The 5 minutes and 10 minutes to be adjusted depending on the percentage of effort you want to put into each task.)

All of the foregoing use relatively short intervals. Some would advise against such short intervals, saying that even a momentary interruption requires several minutes to recover from. Personally I haven't noticed this.

The timer. Today the "timer" that I used was a little shareware program called NX Free Light Timer. Other times I use a stand-alone electronic timer, which is easier to put out of sight. Or sometimes I use an old-fashioned mechanical kitchen timer (like the picture above). 

One drawback to each of these options is I would like a timer that goes off with a simple "ding" or other subtle sound. All of the options I can find are considerably more irritating. In particular, any mechanical timer I have found goes off like the alarm bell in the fire house. Apparently cooks have become quite hard of hearing since the old days.

The Pomodoro Technique. This deserves mention as one of the best-known timeboxing systems, and was also my first introduction to the idea. It's called "Pomodoro" because the inventor used a kitchen timer shaped like a tomato. In terms of time intervals it works like this:

The Pomodoro Technique:
25 minutes on task, 5 minutes rest,
25 minutes on task, 5 minutes rest,

I would say the primary benefit of this schedule is focusing on a task and controlling distractions. 25 minutes is supposedly the maximum time one can focus on work. I would say this may be too optimistic, depending on the nature of the work.  If you read the Pomodoro book you will find several higher-level enhancements to the method, such as distraction tracking.

The Pomodoro technique has gone big-time since I first read about it. I note the Pomodoro site now offers for sale a tomato-shaped timer—for 60 Euros. That had better be one really nice timer.


Check out the podcast I contributed to the Being James Bond site on visiting Tokyo.

Precepts for Living Like James Bond

Plagiarizing myself from the Being James Bond forum:

1. Seek out new experiences.
2. Nothing is "out of your league."
3. Every crisis is an opportunity to be cool.
4. Always be learning.
5. Keep looking for ways to "level up"--physically, mentally, and financially.
6. If you're not savoring your life, figure out what needs to change, and change it.
7. Do it with style.

"If You're not Paranoid, You're Crazy"

Worthwhile article at The Atlantic.

Personally I find it reassuring how often the so-called "expert" algorithms yield wildly inappropriate Web ads ("Burmese mail-order brides!").

Some Standard Language-Learning Resources

If you plan on teaching yourself one or more foreign languages—especially some less common ones—you owe it to yourself to have some familiarity with the following resources. This post will be followed up with one offering some specific plans for using these to attack a new language.

Teach Yourself Books: These have a venerable history in the United Kingdom and figure prominently in my own personal history. Some decades ago they were practically the only available resource for many less common languages. I have bought over a score of these (and even read a few of them). Teach Yourself offers roughly 60 languages as well as other topics. These are probably the most traditional resource on this list. Each book offers a series of lessons, each of which typically consists of dialogs, vocabulary lists, some explanatory material, and some exercises. A "Teach Yourself Complete" course comes with a couple of CD's which may prove critically useful.

Strong points: Good for all-around learning, probably the best resource on this list for learning grammar.

Language/30 courses: 33 languages available. One course consists of 2 CDs plus a booklet (or the digital equivalent). The content is essentially like a phrase book, with a few basic vocabulary lists. There is no explanation of grammar, and only the scantiest introduction to non-Latin scripts (if relevant). As limited as these are, I have sometimes found them a useful first introduction to a language. And it doesn't hurt to commit a sizeable stock of standard phrases to memory.

Strong points: Good for pronunciation. The booklet provides a useful transcript.

Weak points: You won't learn grammar with these, unless you're extremely good at making inferences.

Pimsleur method: 50 languages available. I keep intending to do a separate post on this system. It is essentially an all-audio method. A full course consists of 30 half-hour lessons on CD (or the digital equivalent). The structure is simple: listen and say what they tell you to say. It is an easy ramp up into the language. Vocabulary and grammar are introduced gradually. Explanations of grammar are avoided as much as possible in favor of learning by imitation and repetition. The program also uses a spaced-repetition principle to maintain what you learn. Short courses are also available consisting of the first 10 lessons or whatever. For the more popular languages, as many as three courses are available (meaning 90 lessons). By the 90th lesson, you will have developed some nontrivial conversations skills.

Most courses have a smaller set of "reading lessons" that provide a basic introduction to the writing system. Unfortunately these are not closely connected to the audio lessons.

Strong points: Lots of speaking practice. Can be multitasked with walking, driving, etc. Helps develop an intuitive feel for the language.

Weak points: Could be so much better with a transcript. You may want to add a grammar resource.

Foreign Service Institute (FSI) courses. I want to mention these, although I have yet to try working with one. These were designed by the U.S. government for training diplomats. Many courses are available. The approach is traditional, generally comprising both a text and audio files. Since you pay taxes, you've already paid for them; i.e. they are copyright-free. Altruistic citizens have been digitizing and uploading these; see the preceding links. As of this writing, courses for 48 different languages are available; more may appear in the future.