The Reverse-Timing Trick

This is about a trick I recently started using to improve my focus.

I only have a few hours a day I can work work — as opposed to house work or being-a-dad work or cooking work or what I call sleep work because it sounds more productive than just sleep. Sleep work is awesome.

And in those few hours I have to work work, I sometimes also manage to fit in some time for reading-twitter work and playing-piano work and reading-a-good-book work. Maybe, to be quite honest, I do more of those other types of work than I really want to.

Which brings me to the reverse-timing trick. It works like this:

  • Choose a few core hours during which you’d like to work each day. An easy default is 9–5 if that happens to be when you’re in your workplace.
  • Whenever you’re not work working during core hours, turn on a timer.
  • Record your time-not-work-worked daily.

To be clear, the timer is meant to be cumulative throughout any single day, so that if you took two 30-minute breaks, then you’ll have measured a total of 1 hour not worked.

Why this is good

There a couple good things happening here.

You started by choosing core hours. This means that whatever work work you do outside of core hours won’t be measured. There’s no reward for it — which is intentional. I love having a life, and I think having designated time to not work boosts long-term productivity. So I don’t want any encouragement for working outside my core hours.

More importantly, it designates working as the default state of mind.

Let’s compare this technique to standard timing where I would simply measure the time I do work. When I turn on a timer, I’m aware that it’s on. It makes me feel as if I’ve entered a temporary status, and it adds just the tiniest bit of stress that I might forget to turn it off. It’s better to feel this way about a temporary break than about a chunk of getting-stuff-done time.

Ideal work density

Did you know I went to grad school? Well, I did. Not highly recommended, but anyway — one thing I learned is that 8 hours a day of concentrated, technical attention is not sustainable. So when I use this technique, I don’t shoot for zero down-time. I observe my actual behavior, see if I can get a little improvement over time, but try to keep my long-term goal reasonable. I’m a believer of incremental changes in personal productivity, and a no-judgment use of this technique fits in well with that philosophy.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.