Big Time Chunks, Little Time Chunks

Big Time Chunks, Little Time Chunks

SUMMARY: For most of my life, I’ve assumed that commitment to a project meant pouring lots of hours into an unbroken block of time. However, making a commitment of that magnitude is mentally very taxing; I’ll do it, but it feels like I’m laboring beneath a giant weight, and it takes a lot of support from other areas to keep my spirits up. What if, though, my assumption about the required size of the time block is wrong?

I just had an insight about my attitude toward time when it comes to the creative act, and this may be a prime source of procrastination. It’s this:

I have the subconscious expectation that making things will take a long time.

In my mind, I need to have at least 4 uninterrupted hours to just start to make something really cool. I know, through past time tracking, that the stand-alone creative pieces have taken, on average, about 30 hours to get there to a certain level of polish. I know it takes about the same amount of time to produce one minute of well-polished, original motion graphics that I can feel good about.

This may be a realistic assessment, but it also creates a lot of resistance and triggers a kind of melancholy in me. If I have a choice, as I do in pursuing my personal projects, between creating a lot of work for myself and watching a lot of Mythbusters on NetFlix, then I end up watching Adam and Jamie blow up things real good. And even for work projects, there’s the sense that I have to steel myself for an epic push to start the whole freight train moving. It takes a lot of supplemental energy, a running start, and an absolutely clear mind. Interruptions or meetings destroy my focus, and this builds frustration and impatience. I have to push myself with music, a ready supply of tea, and enforced isolation to keep my mind from wandering off until “focus lock” occurs and the process catches fire.

But now I’m wondering: does it really need to be like this?

Earlier this week, I tried adopting what seemed-to-me like an irresponsible attitude: I set a limit of one hour for up to two projects each day. The rest of the time, I would do whatever I wanted. The idea came from my friend Elise, who told me her method for practicing her flute when she isn’t really feeling like it. She makes a deal with herself that she has to practice for just 15 minutes, and if by that time she’s still not feeling it, she takes a long break. Apparently, it works for her, and why shouldn’t it work for me?

The reason it seems irresponsible, I think, is that I have this expectation of myself: When I say I’m on the job, I’m on the job for 8 hours and until it’s done. Deciding to “work” for only a couple of hours during the day seems like a BAD attitude. However, I know from past working experiences that once I get going on something, I tend to keep going. By committing just one hour a day per project, I am lowering the expectations by eliminating the need to make a Herculean commitment of time. Making that commitment makes me feel trapped and unhappy, a necessary evil that is the cost of being productive. By comparison, an hour is very doable. For one thing, I was raised by missionaries and church people, and boy do I know how to sit through an hour sermon! Because of this, it could be that the hour is my ideal productivity time unit, just because I’ve practiced sitting still for that long :-)

It’s too early to tell, but it does seem like it’s working. I scheduled an hour on a design project, and ended up spending about 3-4 hours on it because I lost track of time. I could see a system involving other small increments of time for making microprogress on my other personal projects. So long as progress is continually accruing, “small increments more frequently” may be preferable to “large increments made less frequently”, as far as my psychological makeup is concerned.

I thought I’d throw this out there, to see if anyone had any similar experiences. I think it has a similar psychological underpinning with the two-minute rule in GTD, where if the task that’s on your plate will take 2 minutes or less, you should just do it. My tasks always seem more complicated.


  1. Kalle 14 years ago

    Hi Dave,

    Yes, the one hour rule is a good one! Have you read “The NOW habit” by Neil Fiore? In his Unschedule technique, he suggest that you should track of each 30 minutes block of quality work time so that you could see what you accomplished and move away the focus from what’s left to do.
    He stresses that you should keep starting on your projects, 30 minutes of work is a good start compared to wasting time worrying about how much work there is left.

    Slightly OT: In the book he tells an anecdote about B F Skinner (the behaviorist). Skinner had a time clock connected to his chair, so every time he sat down to work he “punched in” and when he left the chair he “punched out”. He keept track of the time he worked and rewarded himself with a gold star when he completed a segment of work. So, perhaps Skinner used a predecessor of the Printable CEO? I don’t know if this anecdote is true or not, but that is beside the point! :-D

  2. Dave Seah 14 years ago

    Hey Kalle,

    I haven’t read “The NOW Habit”! I went upstairs to check my bookshelf to see why this was, because I thought I had a copy, and realized that I was mistaking it for “The Power of Now” by Tolle, which I’ve tried to read several times and haven’t been able to get through because its structure baffles me. I’ll have to go pick it up now. Thanks!

    That’s a very cool anecdote too about BF Skinner. Maybe the moral is to be truly productive, one must be truly free of expectations when they work? The ZEN CEO? ;-)

  3. Lynn O'Connor 14 years ago

    This reminds me of something I think I first read about on 43 Folders, though I may have heard it somewhere else. It’s known as the 10 minute dash. I make myself sit down (or stand up) to some task, with total concentration, promising myself that after ten minutes I could stop. In one version of this, I can stop for ten minutes and then resume for another ten minutes etc. Taking me through an hour. In fact, whenever I’ve done a ten minute dash, I’m off and running and I keep working.

    I also pass this on to my doctoral students who are feeling blocked, wasting time, avoiding some project/assignment (often work on their dissertation). I find that the biggest problem is getting people (and myself) to commit to that first 10 minutes. Because of PCEO divisions of time into 15 minutes, I changed the ten minute dash to the 15 minute dash. And by the way, when I am wondering where my day went, I pull out one of your time trackers, and it really helps me get on track again, seeing what I am doing etc.

  4. Dave Seah 14 years ago

    Hey Lynn! Good to see ya again! Yes, the 10-minute dash I remember reading about in conjunction with Merlin Mann. I tried it once (using an interval watch timer) and liked it, but I don’t think I got over the psychology hurdle of “I have to spend a bazillion hours on this one project”, which sat like a flatulent elephant on my motivation. In all my PCEO forms, I had the subconscious expectation that I needed to knock down LOTS of bubbles in a row to be really “focused”; this isn’t in the design visibly, but was in my head that the ideal pattern was long unbroken strings of blocks. Because of that, I haven’t been using the trackers.

    So I like the idea of getting back to multi-tasking, because perception is everything right? Even the Apple Human Interface Guidelines back in the 1990s said that multitasking isn’t faster, but it APPEARS faster.

  5. penny 14 years ago

    I learned 5 min with this flylady thing years ago. I’ve mostly gleaned what I needed and mashed it up with all the other GTD processes out there, but I learned a few things: baby steps, 5 minutes (or 2 minutes) make a huge difference, and grouping like tasks or areas really helps me get stuff done. For example, pretend I have 100 different photos for 3 different clients to process and upload to their websites. Traditionally I would’ve thought of those as 3 different n hour chunks of work for a client which included photo processing. I’ve found by grouping and working at a smaller chunk of time, it’s turned into 15-20 minutes chunks for those photos—or I think and say let’s process 10 photos now before lunch and 10 after lunch. Bonus, it forces me to remember to eat lunch. I’ve found it could be 30 min of work instead of 3 hours. It’s probably not a bad thing I switched to projected based billing. ;)

    Also, adopting our kitten has taught me a lesson many friends who are parents have said. You find the time to do it. 5 min here 5 min there 1 minute over There. Before interruption. Those eleven minutes add up and stuff gets done. Perhaps not interruption, but if I set a deadline and say what can I get done before the kitten comes and pounces on the keyboard and demands snuggles has gotten more done than if I set a three hour chunk with him locked out of my office.

    Heck, I just gave myself 15 minutes as it got dark to do some weeding in the front yard. I have been thinking I need chunks of hours to do yardwork, but now I’m 15 minutes ahead of the game and because it was late I definitely couldn’t get another sunburn. I no longer need to deal with any of that tomorrow, I can mow the lawn, and I’ve timed that to take only 15 minutes. So it’s now a quite doable task instead of something looming. Sure, there’s plenty more gardening but it’ll get done.

  6. Scott 14 years ago

    Many years ago I listened to “Quality Work, Guilt-Free Play.” The author advocated a plan to get work done and spend time doing what you want without the guilt. Basically: Work for 1 hour; play for 1 hour. I did this regularly for a while. I set the timer and worked on a project for an hour. At the ding, I stopped working and chose to do something I wanted (read, watch TV, whatever) for an hour, resetting the timer. I switched back and forth, making great progress on projects and enjoying free time without the guilt. I still incorporate this plan from time to time, especially if I’m getting stuck.

  7. Elliott Bennett 14 years ago

    I’ve always felt the same way about needing to have large chunks of time to get anything substantial done.  When I worked at larger companies, people would pepper your calendar with 30-minute meetings all week, making it very difficult to get a nice, solid block of time. 

    I eventually started scheduling 3 to 4 hour meetings with myself just to block time off on the calendar—people rarely stomped on OTHER meetings if they were visible and scheduled.  I would make up important, pompous sounding acronyms for the subject of the meetings:  “AGSD Meeting”  (Actually Get Work Done). :)


  8. Dave Seah 14 years ago

    Thanks for all those stories! A friend of mine just sent me a book, “Rework”, that is a broader version of going against the kind of long drawn-out planning I thought I needed to be doing. It’s helping evolve my thoughts from thinking I need many large elephants (and their attendant logistical demands). Nibble away instead, and shorten the cycle of work + personal time reward. I’ve heard this advice before in various forms, and perhaps I’ve rejected it before because I don’t think in terms of work and play. I think in terms of tedious effort, satisfying curiosity, imagination, insight, and completion. When it’s all banging together I feel good, when it’s not I feel pretty bad. Maybe the closest thing to play I do is hang out with friends, but even then the activity tends to fall into those four categories.

  9. Paul Taylor 14 years ago

    Re Elliot’s comment about booking blocks of time as meetings – I have had to start using this too.  Breaking things up into 30 minute blocks is all very well, but I suffer from the ‘too many projects’ syndrome, where people from 5-6 different big projects all want a piece of me.  This has resulted, over the last month, in too many days booked back to back with meetings, and not enough actual time to do the work associated with the projects – not even the actions from the interminable meetings!  Often I was finding I’d go a whole day with only a half hour break for lunch and a few 15-minute gaps.  What I’ve now started to do is, a week or two ahead – to beat the rush – I mark an entire work day as a ‘seclusion’ day.  That makes it impossible for people to book meetings.  Then, when the day comes – I work from home but do IT stuff for a media company – I get up at a sensible hour, make a nice cup of tea, organise what needs doing in priority order, start at the top of the list and work down.  It’s a great feeling to finally get some work done and move some of those monkeys off my back!