More About Magic Dots

Govind M., the Stanford grad student who recommended brown noise, has good things to say about magic dots:

I have been using magic dots for about two months now and they work. I have no idea why they work — maybe it’s the reinforcement — but they do. I enjoy making them and for me, I have to finish them. I use 9 min/mark for 90 min intervals, which also provides a very easy way to track time. A four box day is enormously productive, though the fourth box typically gets torpedoed by a meeting or something.

One of the advantages of magic dots is that instead of setting down an intimidating 90-minute chunk of time, my mental horizon is shortened to the next 9 minutes. After that, the box takes over. So in situations in which (1) it is difficult to get started and (2) I want to add structure to the day, I use magic dots.

I asked, “When you are using the magic dots, do you work for longer periods of time before taking a break?” Govind said:

Yes. However, it is possible that goal gets shifted from “be focused and attentive and not goofing off on facebook” to “work long enough make 10 marks on a piece of paper.” It makes it easier to start and to continue on working.

I too find that magic dots make it easier to start work. I think this happens because the task in front of me (getting work done) seems more doable.

3 Replies to “More About Magic Dots”

  1. I think the dots and paying attention to making them at fixed intervals distract the uppermost layer of consciousness, the one that otherwise distracts me.

    I find that some kinds of music achieve this for me, but not reliably. Dots distract that layer of consciousness reliably. When that part’s taken care of, it’s a lot easier for me to get into a “flow” state – because my own mind is not getting in my way. Another trick that works well for me is counting things – it seems to keep the same mental function too busy to distract me.

    N=1 of course.

    Seth: That’s an interesting analysis. I’m not sure what you mean by “counting things”. What things, for example? When do you count them? How does it help?

  2. Any counting works for distraction: birds passing by my window; words translated per time unit (15 minutes is good); occurrences of the letter q in my text; typos (times I have to use the backspace).

    For what it’s worth, counting things helps distract that layer of consciousness when I’m trying to go to sleep, as well. Not sheep (I don’t have any handy), but reviewing places I’ve seen and counting the number of roadbumps in a parking lot, or of branches in a tree work really well.

    My working explanation of this, which I came to while trying to build a model to describe my work, is that there are “deeper” processing layers (which I need to access professionally, so I can translate units of meaning rather than merely words) that get very distracted by the constant chatter of the top layer (which keeps wanting to talk to me, in words; that massively gets in the way of translating someone else’s words). Even deeper layers help get me over conceptual roadblocks (translating metaphors is fun, but tricky); distracting the layers that get between me and *them* requires more sensory involvement (going for a walk, for example).

  3. I combined magic dots with Govind’s recommendation for brown noise. This helps the time pass while working. It also seems to help me work longer hours. Thanks to Seth and Govind for these helpful productivity hacks.

    On iTunes and I downloaded “Brown Noise Loop” from the album “White Noise Loops for Sleep” by the artist “Sounds for Life”. (I find this mp3 more pleasant than the free brown noise mp3s I found online.)

    Brown Noise Loop is 9:30. I play it on low-volume on repeat. It fads out at the end, so without looking at the time I know about 10 minutes have past. I mark a dot. Then after five dots, or 50 minutes, I take a 10 minute break. I make a pattern like the five side of dice.

    The hourly breaks came from Cal Newport, and his book “How to Become a Straight-A Student”. Breaks between five to fifteen minutes on the hour seem to help extend the period of time people work.

    Newport wrote this book while completing his PHD at MIT. It’s helpful not just for students but also “knowledge workers”- those that read, write, and research in their work.

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