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Published 18 October 2020 at Yours, Kewbish. 1278 words. Subscribe via RSS.


We are now very comfortably in the middle of the term, and while I’m lucky not to have proper midterms, I think enough work has piled up to be counted as sufficiently midterm-studying-feels inducing. As I was going through my todo list1, I’ve realized that school ends up being a lot of small things. We do have longer assignments, but I try to break things up into smaller chunks. That ends up leaving me with a lot of small things to do, which is fine, but it prompted a rather interesting thought chain regarding small things.

School fosters a small, interconnected environment. Everything can be contained in its own box, but I feel I can really get ahead and do well if only if I join them together. For example, I can write the materials and methods section for my lab in a couple minutes, but I’m not going to get proper marks if I hand just that in. As well, I’ve noticed that we have a lot of classes (4 a day, like most other high schools), and that ends up equating to about four-ish sections of homework a day. If those assignments are due the next day or in the next week, they’ll likely be smaller, and I can finish them faster. However, I’m still going to have to end up doing a lot of mental context switching, and I’m not entirely sure how efficient I am at that.

Perhaps I need to get better at doing small things.2

The Workshop Analogy

There was a book I read somewhere that I cannot find now, but somewhere buried amidst a sea of rather boring copy, they touched on the fair point that people (in this context, they were discussing manufacturing) are more productive when creating something from beginning to end. It described a workshop, in which several workers had a specified quota to fill each day. Once their quota was done, they were free to leave. Each item had rigid production steps, which had to be repeated for each of the sets of raw materials. Something like building an electronics project: one had to assemble the shell, put in the wiring, solder things together, and then close the entire thing up.

There were two types of workers: one sort that moved sort of like an assembly line, doing each individual step for all the items, and then repeating for each individual step; and the other sort, that completely finished one object from beginning to end. What they found was the completionists (people who completed one object from beginning to end) worked faster - which makes sense, since they’d have to switch contexts less. The efficiency of each step was the same for each person, but the assembly line-style workers did a lot of picking up and putting down and switching tools. That time added up, especially when the high amounts of product made each day were factored in.

The American Psychological Association3’s done research on this topic as well (and other independent studies as well, of course) and found that context switching, similar to the time spent for the workshop people in switching between objects, is quite detrimental. In the piece linked above, they relate this a bit more to multitasking than task ordering, but the point still stands - context switching and multitasking isn’t a superpower, it’s something that slows people down.

Time Boxing

Or task batching, the productivity gurus call it. Essentially, it’s the practise of grouping similar tasks together, or working through a series of related projects. Not quite multitasking, but it’s apparently supposed to reduce context switching.

The way I attempted to implement this is by cutting my day into small chunks, and assigning those chunks to a backlog of tasks. Each backlog list contains items in one school subject, for example, or one related action, like reading and annotating different papers across subjects. It works well enough, and I do get my work done (slightly ahead of schedule, at the loss of a variety of other things). But still, it doesn’t quite feel right.

See, the people who advocate for and sing the praises of time boxing all seem to be proper adults, going about their jobs. While the concept of a ‘job’ seems rather mundane compared to school, that also likely means that they don’t have to switch between seven or eight subjects, and process a set amount of information for each. Their batches are more closely related, and their projects are more overarching.

Perhaps this is an intended effect of the school system, keeping us flexible and on our toes. We jump between English essay to maths problems to chemistry problem set to history documentary to physics derivations. That seems like an awful lot of context switching, doesn’t it? I’d really like to sit down for a day and dive nicely into a topic. Take a day to fully finish a lab, and not leave a piece or two left for the next work session. And if I properly’d finished all my homework, take some time to spend more than a haphazard, rushed hour or two at night to work on programming.

No one has enough time

But no one seems to have enough time, a condition I also suffer (?) from. What ends up happening is I have to split my days into larger and larger chunks if I’d like to take advantage of ‘deep work’, and focus on one subject and one project, but then I forget to take breaks. Which aren’t entirely necessary, but they’re nice. Even if I did spend the entire morning on one task, I’d be paying for it in the afternoon, when I’d have to speedrun through the rest of my work.

I don’t think the amount of work I throughput would be entirely different if I had one or two focuses to work on. Last summer was a fine example - I dedicated a day to one topic, and that was a nice break from flipping through all eight subjects. But the weekend is only two days, and I always seem to have more than two or even three topics to work on.

I also think that constantly switching between contexts and things probably leads me to feeling like I never got much done (even though I am very conscious of the fact that I indeed have). It never really feels like we’ve had a proper break. Thanksgiving weekend was supposed to be a nice weekend where I promised myself I could have a day of reading random papers and posts and programming, but I ended up working on a lab. Though not out of necessity, so maybe that’s just me being a nerd.


Work hard, play hard, as they say. I don’t entirely find I have time or the desire to play hard (mode Minecraft), but that’s alright. Having a lot of context switches now keeps me flexible, and used to having to switch things every hour or so. Would I prefer a system where I could focus on one or two subjects a week, and rotate? Probably. Would my education suffer? I don’t know yet. Winter break feels like it’s just on the horizon, so I’m looking forward to when I can experiment with more proper time batching, but for now, I’m doing fine.

  1. calcurse is absolutely amazing. I can have all my Zoom links and one-off notes about things and todos in one place. Also, cool terminal interface. ↩︎

  2. Go ahead, make the joke. ↩︎

  3. Don’t think I’m going to implement a Literature Cited section in my posts anytime soon, so for now, direct links will have to suffice. ↩︎

- Yours, Kewbish

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