New Time Units for Higher Productivity
August 9, 2022 - Productivity
Time management based on our usual units of time is broken.
Over the last couple of years I've developed a new set of time units that has changed how I work forever.
I call it the "Cycles Protocol", because it's cycles all the way down.
Time Management is Broken
Maybe you're better at this than I am, but I've always sucked at time management.
Mostly because the units of time we use seem kind of arbitrary and just don't map to how my brain works.
An hour is both too long and too short to wrap by head around – it's too easy to get distracted, but when I get into flow it's not enough. It's weird.
The same goes for days: I can get a lot of stuff done in a day – if I don't get derailed at 10am because some external force imposes itself on me. Or I get a spontaneous invitation for coffee with a friend I haven't seen in a long time at 2pm. Days are brittle.
A couple of years ago then I found a new way to approach this challenge of time management, and I've formalized this into a system that spans everything from a 30 minute block of time to half a year.
Let's get into it:
A New System of Time Units
The smallest useful unit of time is the Nano Cycle, which last 30 minutes.
Thirty minutes are easy to plan and scope your work for, with a bit of practice. I say with a bit of practice because the first five or six times you do this, you'll actually be way off in your estimate. How long does it actually take to write an email to your boss? How long does it take to run that analysis in Excel? Thirty minutes are the perfect duration to measure this and then evaluate. Over time you'll get freakishly good at estimating how long a task takes and only count in Nano Cycles.
An added bonus is that you have a bounded loss when you get derailed. Get distracted and check Twitter five minutes into your cycle? Not great, not terrible. You lose 25 minutes before the bell rings, and then you can reset.
Why 30 and not 25 minutes, like a Pomodoro? Great question!
Pomodoros give you a five minute break every 25 minutes. In my experience it's better to structure this differently, which leads us directly to the next unit of time: Micro Cycles!
The next higher unit of time are Micro Cycles, which last two hours.
Through science we have figured out that our brain works in 90-minute increments – our sleep runs in these 90 minute cycles, and during the day our focus also moves in 90-minute blocks.
But we don't get into focus automatically every 90 minutes, it takes time to set our focus and also to come out of it again.
This is why I plan with three Nano Cycles per two-hour Micro Cycle:
10 minutes to plan what I'm going to work on and prepare to get into deep focus. Then three Nano Cycles, with two 5-minute breaks between them. The breaks help to keep focus and to bound the lost time if I do get distracted. At the end, for another 10 minutes, I debrief the Micro Cycle, write down any lessons learned, and detach a bit. Walk around, widen my visual field and look at things far away to rest my eyes. Then I'm ready to run another Micro Cycle, repeating the process.
These two time units have had an immeasurable impact on my productivity. They make focused, creative work like writing or coding much, much more effective and allow me to keep going much longer in a day then if I just worked without any structure – or basing my rhythm on the measure of hours alone.
The next unit of time is the familiar week, which I call a Meso Cycle to keep with the theme.
Why go from two-hour blocks directly to a week, and skip days?
Because in my experience days are very brittle. Too many interruptions can happen that derail a whole day – it's much easier to control 2h blocks and it's much rarer that something derails a whole week.
A week is also a solid chunk of time that's reasonable to oversee and that allows you to route around any unforeseen problems. If you have a bad Tuesday, you can still recover during the rest of the week – and this sort of possible slack I find very helpful in the reality of life.
A solid weekly review and planning session is also great for collecting and evaluating all the lessons learned during the week. If you record one lesson learned per Micro Cycle and do four Micro Cycles per day, that's 20 lessons learned per workweek! That's a fantastic feedback cycle that's going to help you improve with anything really quickly.
Stepping up from Meso Cycles we go to Macro Cycles, which last six weeks.
For reasons I find hard to explain the four weeks of a month are too short for sensible planning and execution.
It might be that months don't always start on a Monday, I find that personally very annoying when I'm planning things.
It's also the case that if you have a bad week, as they happen, you've already lost a quarter of available time in a month – that's too big a hit to recover from.
In any case, I find that six weeks just seem to work better in reality than four weeks do.
The final unit of time in this system is the Super Cycle, which lasts for six months.
In my experience a year is too long to actually, properly plan for – too much can happen in that timeframe, to many opportunities come up that you can't foresee. So it makes no sense to plan for that long, and six months seem to be the correct cutoff.
Six months allow you to be nimble and take advantage of short-notice opportunities while still having a solid plan to work with.
Now you might say "Wait, Macro Cycles don't fit neatly into Super Cycles!"
And you're right: in practice you get 26 weeks per 6 months, instead of the 24 from six Macro Cycles.
This is a feature and not a bug, however: it prices in vacation and rest time. By having two spare weeks, you can take one week off per two Macro Cycles (12 weeks) – which I find to be a good pace of work and rest. (You obviously can take more vacation time, of course, or schedule it differently. This is just an example.)
Now what does using this system get you?
I can tell you that using Nano and Micro Cycles in particular has revolutionized my work and dramatically increased my output.
The periods in my life where I've been most productive have been those where I've run my work in the cadence of 30 minute and two hour blocks of time. I wrote essays at University much quicker than my peers, while still getting As on them. I have a much easier time producing courses and other content (I'm using them right now!) and even in my dayjob they help to structure my day.
Even Meso, Macro, and Super Cycles, for which I don't have quite as much as polished planning and execution process like I have for Nano and Micro Cycles, still work incredibly well.
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