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Workout

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Timeboxing is a concept which is easy to understand, easy to adapt, but that still is amazingly powerful when applied correctly. It helps preserving mental health and fights procrastination at the same time. A while ago, I wrote an article about using timeboxing to study languages (Chinese in this case), but the concept is equally applicable to almost any task you want to complete. Such as physical workout. Still, it took me until now before I combined the two and evaluated the result. In short, it works very well, and in this post I’ll share some thoughts with you. Since I’m lazy, some descriptions are borrowed from the article on Hacking Chinese, with some slight changes.

What is timeboxing?

The first part of the word is easy, but the second part isn’t that obvious. Are we about to engage in a fistfight with time? In a manner of speaking, perhaps, but actually the “boxing” part comes from the word “box” (i.e. a cuboid in which you can put things). It’s about dividing time into chunks and do something valuable with each chunk.

More time means less efficiency

The more time we have to complete a task, the less efficiently we work on it. This is quite obvious when you think about it and I’m sure most people have experienced this in their everyday lives. Didn’t you have homework assignments you didn’t complete until you really had to, because otherwise you’d fail the course? Having lots of time is not a guarantee for finishing anything, in fact, it’s usually an excuse to procrastinate more.

Realising this, timeboxing is about limiting the time you have available and creating for yourself a task you are 100% sure that you will be able to complete and that you will feel satisfied having completed. It means that rather saying that you’re going to clean your apartment before you go to bed, you say that you’re going to work hard on tidying up the kitchen for exactly ten minutes.

Deciding that you’re going to spend ten minutes doing as much as you can in the kitchen is guaranteed to be a success. You almost can’t fail. When you’re done, pat yourself on the back, take a deep breath and decide what you want to do next. If you feel up to it, you can set another ten minutes to get through the rest of the dishes or move on to the next room. If you get tired, spend the next ten minutes on a completely different task.

Making exercising enjoyable and efficient

The problem I have with exercising is that it sometimes becomes horrendously inefficient. I usually practise at home and it can take me hours to finish what I set out to do for that day, simply because I rest a lot or do many other things at the same time. This creates negative feelings related to exercising, and next time I feel less inclined to start.

However, during the last four weeks, I’ve experimented a bit and applied timeboxing to my workout program(s). It has worked out incredibly well, so well that I feel other people really should do this. If you already feel you know how to timebox, you can skip the next bit and start reading again at “Why do all this?”.

Below, I have described a program. Please note that this is a generic study and even if I do three exercises and use three minutes for each cycle, that doesn’t mean you have to do that. This is what I do. First, I start a stopwatch and put it somewhere clearly visible.

  • 00:00 – First set starts
    Exercise A, set 1
    Exercise B, set 1
    Exercise C, set 1
  • 03:00 – Second set starts
    Exercise A, set 2
    Exercise B, set 2
    Exercise C, set 2
  • 06:00 – Third set starts
  • 09:00 – Fourth set starts
  • 12:00 – Fifth set starts
  • 15:00 – Finished

The point is that each new cycle of sets start at a predefined interval, three minutes in this case, which is long enough to allow you to rest. This has several advantages, as we shall see. This could be done using any number of variations, but as long as you understand the basic principle, that will be enough.

Setting up your own timebox

You’ll have to experiment a bit and see what works, but here are some general steps to go through:

  1. Define a number of exercises you want to do
  2. Define how many sets and reps you will do (numbers can change through the session)
  3. Go through the program once with as much rest as you think is necessary
  4. Note how long each set took (or one cycle of sets if you do more than one exercise)
  5. Round that figure up to something nice and round (three minutes in my case)
  6. From now on, you should start a new cycle of sets each time that nice and round number has passed
  7. When you can comfortably survive a session, increase the numbers of reps

This mean that you should never fail a set because of lack of time. If you fail a set because you’re not strong enough, that’s okay. Simply move on to the next set. If you fail too often, you’ve probably made it too difficult for yourself.

An example with sets and reps

This is what I do for pull-ups and handstand push-ups at the moment.

  • First cycle (start 00:00): 9 pull-ups, 8 handstand push-ups, rest
  • Second cycle (start 03:00): 12 chin-ups, 11 handstand push-ups, rest
  • Third cycle (start 06:00): 9 pull-ups, 9 handstand push-ups, rest
  • Fourth cycle (start 09:00): 9 chin-ups, 9 handstand push-ups, rest
  • Fifth cycle (start 12:00): 11 pull-ups, 10 handstand push-ups, rest and stretch

As soon as I finish either the pushing or the pulling part of this program in a comfortable manner, I will increase numbers a little bit and keep going. The numbers you use will be heavily dependent on who you are, how much you rest, the nature of the exercises and so on. Sorry, I can’t help you there, but this guy can.

Why do all this?

There are two reasons why I’m convinced this approach is very, very useful. First, it means that when I start exercising, I know that it will take no more than fifteen minutes. If I do the fifth set for exercises A, B and C quickly, I might be finished before fifteen minutes, but never after. This is of tremendous psychological value. It suddenly becomes easy to schedule workout sessions. It isn’t very daunting at all, because it only takes fifteen minutes. Compare this to the vague concept of just working out a bit or engaging in a routine you’re not sure how long it will take to finish.

Second, this is excellent for benchmarking purposes. If you’re doing something like the 100 push-ups challenge (I’m not, it’s just an example), it’s very easy to cheat yourself into believing that more reps means that you’re making progress. However, you might be manipulating a variable you’re not aware of: time. If you rest longer, of course you will be able to do a few more push-ups. However, if you always start each new cycle after exactly three minutes, you know that if you make more reps, you really have become stronger (I am aware there might be other variables, but let’s ignore them for now).

Conclusion

Try this. Really. I’ve practised some sport or other since I was five. I’ve done various bodyweight strength work for many, many years. I haven’t tried everything, but I have tried a lot. And this works better than anything I’ve tried before. If you try, please share your experience below!

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I usually only publish pictures I take when they are relevant for what I plan to write anyway, but that means that I collect quite a number of photos which haven’t merited posts of their own, but still, gathered together, deserves publication. So, like I did for the spring of 2009, I’ll now publish some more or less miscellaneous pictures taken during my time in Linkou (all pictures aren’t mine, so credit where credit is due). I will also take the opportunity to talk a little bit about the pictures and what they signify. This is part 1 of 2 (go to the first part).


There are trees in Linkou, but they can be quite hard to find (assuming that you don’t leave the built up area, because then everything turns either to trees or fields). This is a particularly nice one.


The pond on the campus is nice, as I’ve said before; I found it extra beautiful in this light.


Walking around in Linkou one winter day when for once it didn’t rain, I stumbled upon this place, which lies secluded behind buildings I’d seen almost every day, but never cared to look closer at.


Same place as above, and in the background you can see the buildings walling the place in.


Not the same place, but it’s still nice what random wanderings can reveal.


The pond at the campus again, this time in mist. The mist (or humidity) is generally speaking really annoying, but it can also be very beautiful.


Another example of the fascinating combination of mist and water.


The pond again. I wish the weather was as comfortable as it is beautiful.


This is an example of what goes for efficiency here. The exam in question consists of letting a single student score as many points in basketball as possible in thirty seconds. This might be stupid in itself, but having all the other student watch (and thus waste an entire class just doing that) goes beyond me; I simply can’t understand this.


This must be the most depressing place I’ve ever seen when it comes to classrooms. Of course, it’s not a real classroom, but rather turned into one for the purpose of holding final exams. Still, it makes me depressed now, even though I didn’t have to take any exams even close to this place.


I started calling this place The Dungeon, although it’s supposed to be a gym.


I trusted only things with no movable parts here, most equipment was stained with rust and wearing gloves was a must. I heard rumours of bars that had snapped, so I only took refuge here when I really couldn’t do my workout outside.

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