A reader named Niles McAdams, who told me about his strength increase from bedtime honey, also wrote about his experience with magic dots (a way to mark progress):
I have become a HUGE fan of your Magic Dots idea for many reasons. I started using them to increase the time I spent at my standing desk but since then I’ve used them to keep my writing and programming projects on track.
Here are some of the advantages of Magic Dots:
They can be customized to the individual. Instead of using 10 points and lines to make a box with an X in it, I use six points and lines (10 min. increments) to make a triangle. I would imagine for almost any time increment that a person wished to use, a shape could be found. I used 10 minute increments but one wouldn’t have to — imagine, for example, a grade school child studying a spelling test. The parent could ask the child to study for one triangle or ½ hour where each dot or line represents a 5 minute increment. There are many many shape and increment possibilities – enough for any person or task.
They are mostly an intellectual tool not a physical tool. One doesn’t need a laptop, tablet, smart phone, Fitbit or any other modern technology to use Magic Dots. One could scratch them out in the dirt with a stick if need be (and in fact, I may do just that when it comes time to weed my garden next spring). Of course you need some way of telling time so a watch is handy but if the sun is shining you don’t even need that – a vertical stick in the ground and a few scratches in the ground could record the passage of time well enough. It goes without saying they don’t need electricity — pencil, paper and watch or clock and you are in business.
They can be used to show work history. For a while, I would mark my Magic Dots horizontally, side by side, on a piece of paper. Each new day I would start a new line. This allowed me to see at a glance how much standing I had done during the week.
They can be used to show work by category. A few times I have drawn vertical lines on the paper to represent different work categories, e.g., writing versus programming. I combined this with the line per day technique above. At a glance I could see “on Tuesday I had 3 triangles standing, 2 triangles writing, and 1 triangle programming.
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.
A New Jersey patent attorney named Jim D writes:
I’ve been using the magic dots as you described, marking a dot or line every six minutes. I use an online timer with an audible tone every six minutes. A portion of my work requires focus, as I have to review, compare and contrast technical documents. I’ve historically had limited ability to focus for extended periods of time. I’ve used an online bar graph countdown timer, but even with the visual feedback of the bar graph counting down, the longest I could go without a short break was 20 minutes. I’ve also tried online Pomodoro timers, with alternating work and break periods, but again, the longest I could go without a break was 20 minutes.
In contrast, by using the magic dots method, I can easily focus for 60 minutes. I’ve been working for 60 minutes until the box is completed, and then taking a short break before starting another 60 minute box. After a few more weeks, I will see if I can extend the focus length for a longer period of time. (As an aside, I wonder if completing an entire “box” is psychologically important, and, if so, would a 90 minute “box” shape work better than continuing with consecutive 60 minute boxes?).
I don’t think finishing a box matters. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t, it doesn’t seem to make a difference. A friend used a much different counting system; it also worked. After years of using six-minute intervals I have started to use five-minute intervals; they don’t interfere too much and shorter intervals are likely to be more powerful. I would like to compare different interval lengths but it is a difficult experiment to do.
I’ve posted several times about the use of what I call “magic dots” to get things done. You make a dot or line every six minutes of work. I use the counting method shown above. The effect was first seen in pigeons. A similar effect was discovered (by accident) in rats.
It works amazingly well. “The magic dots have been magic,” said a user named Joan. It would be nice to know why — maybe the effect can be made even stronger. Joan commented in an email:
I have been thinking about why this has worked for me – I think it’s that there is an almost immediate “reward”, so I get started right away. Since the reward does not have any associations, there’s no inner conflict sabotaging it. For instance, I might feel guilty if I ate a jelly bean every 6 minutes, or I might just eat them anyway. I’m not “deprived” if I don’t get to add more dots and lines, and I know I can just get back to work and start writing dots again.
Certainly the dots – or the act of making a dot — act as a reward. But why? If I’m writing something, why do the dots have an effect when I can already see my progress by looking at what I’ve written? I’m already making marks.
The consistency of the marks — the same mark, again and again — may make a difference. Presumably the brain needs to notice a correlation: Writing (or whatever the difficult task is) produces both marks and progress (= a sense of satisfaction). Other activities produce neither. The more identical the marks, the easier to see the correlation. When I write, there is not one consistent mark of progress.
Maybe other people have independently discovered this, without knowing about the pigeon results. Their methods might shed light on what you need to do to get the effect. I don’t know of any independent discoveries. The closest thing I can think of is most computer games provide markers of your progress throughout the game, such as level advancement.
Previous posts about the magic dots method of getting work done are here. Recently, Patrick Dwyer, a solo-practitioner lawyer in Chicago, started using them. He explained how they help:
When I use the magic dots for brief writing it helps me in a few ways. First, it is much less intimidating to set a goal to write for 15 minutes than for 50 hours. Second, it also does not seem so bad to work for just a few more minutes when I am bored or out of ideas rather than wait for that elusive “flow.” Third, it gives me an ability to keep a precise account of my time and what I was doing so that I can show the client a specific task when I send the bill. Fourth, after I have made several boxes at the end of a day, it gives me a sense of accomplishment. All these things help me not to procrastinate. There is also something pleasing about drawing the boxes which seems to be more satisfying than merely writing non-graphic sentences or notes about my time.
I agree with all this, but would add that the method was suggested to me by pigeon research in which none of these factors could have mattered (e.g., pigeons do not bill clients). If the pigeon research and the magic dots method really involve the same mechanism — which seems to be true — then that mechanism is remarkably old. According to this, the common ancestor of birds and humans lived 300 million years ago. Maybe it is hard to notice the mechanism because it is buried so deep in our brains.
Animal learning researchers have always said that by studying animals (such as rats and pigeons) we will learn about humans. This example supports that claim. (As does the Shangri-La Diet.) The pigeon research, which had a very counter-intuitive result, led me to try the magic dots method, which seems like it can’t possibly work, but did. Yet when this actually happened it was hard to notice. I talked about the pigeon results, which I thought were astonishing, for many years before I realized they might help me.
Based on research by Neuringer and Chung, I started marking my work progress by making a mark (such as a dot) every six minutes of work. I did it for difficult tasks, such as writing. Neuringer and Chung found that markers of progress made pigeons peck twice as much. The dots seemed to enable me to work twice as much — e.g., twice as long.
I think a friend came up with the name magic dots. It did seem magic that such a tiny thing — making a dot on a piece of paper — could be so useful. A recent post about procrastination software led a reader named Joan to start using it. I’ve already described her experience (“the magic dots have been magic”) and someone else’s experience here.
Two more people have told me about their experience. I’ll describe what one of them said today and what the other one said tomorrow. Alex Chernavsky wrote:
I tried the Magic Dots system yesterday, and I liked it a lot. I ended up with two-and-a-half completed squares. I was more productive than usual. (By the way, have you heard of the Pomodoro technique? It’s similar.) I didn’t use a stopwatch. I download an iPhone app called Interval Timer, by Delta Works. It’s free, but it shows small, unobtrusive ads. I set it to do continuously-repeating six-minute countdowns. The end of each cycle is marked by a short vibration. The iPhone screen stays lit-up the whole time that the application is running, so you can easily check the remaining time. If I remember to glance at the screen, I will make a mark if the application shows a remaining time of less than three minutes. If I forget to check, I make a mark when I hear the vibration. I was home alone most of the day, and I was able to get a lot of work done. I didn’t use the technique when I was doing menial chores, like washing dishes. I only used it when I was working at my desk.
Alex also asked several questions:
What happens if you end up getting distracted by a non-productive, time-wasting activity, like checking Facebook? Should you reset the six-minute countdown cycle back to the beginning, or…?
I would just stop the stopwatch, not reset the timer. I would hate to lose the 2 minutes or whatever.
What’s the best way to account for unplanned, unintentional changes in focus from one productive activity (e.g., balancing your checkbook) to a different productive activity (e.g., replying to important email messages)?
I don’t change anything, as long as I am being productive I keep racking up the dots.
What happens if you need to take a bathroom break or other short break? Should you pause the timer?
No, I count anything necessary, including bathroom breaks and making tea. This is one reason I like the method: getting credit for making tea.
In 2012 I posted about using “magic dots” to get work done. You make a mark on a piece of paper every six minutes you work. The idea derives from the quasi-reinforcement effect of Neuringer and Chung. They found that giving pigeons markers of progress toward food, such as a blackout, doubled how much the pigeons pecked for food — that is, doubled how much they worked.
I found magic dots very helpful. The future will be different from the past was my reaction. (In the future I will get more work done.) So did a reader named Joan. Now a reader named David Johnston tells his experience: Continue reading “Magic Dots: User Experience (Person 2)”
One of my recent posts about anti-procrastination software led a reader named Joan to an earlier post about magic dots, which is a low-tech way of getting work done. Every six minutes of work, you make a dot or line in a certain pattern on a piece of paper. I got the idea from the quasi-reinforcement effect of Neuringer and Chung. Studying pigeons, they found that markers of progress act like rewards. What was amazing was that they got pigeons to work twice as hard (= peck twice as fast) without increasing their salary (= food reward). The dots mark progress. Continue reading “Magic Dots User Experience (Person 1)”
This photo illustrates a method I have used for many years to get work done, usually writing. Every six minutes of work, I make a dot or line. One hour = 10 marks = a box (counting method from Exploratory Data Analysis). I use a stopwatch. I make a mark when I am more than halfway to the goal. If I glance at the clock and it says 4 minutes (more than halfway to 6 minutes), I make a mark. If I glance at the clock and it says 10 minutes (more than halfway to 12 minutes from 6 minutes), I make a mark. I only zero the clock when I take a break. I use one piece of paper per day.
I devised this. It is based on an effect discovered by Allen Neuringer and Shin-Ho Chung called quasi-reinforcement. Neuringer and Chung studied pigeons. They found that if you give a pigeon food every 500 times it pecks a key, it will peck the key slowly (say, 2 pecks/minute). If you give the pigeon a brief flash of light every 20 pecks — a marker that shows it is doing the right thing to get food — it will peck much faster (say, 4 pecks/minute). The flashes of light are quasi-reinforcement, said Neuringer and Chung — they have some but not all of the properties of ordinary reinforcement, such as food. By themselves, the flashes of light don’t interest the pigeon. It won’t peck a key to get them. The amazing thing about this effect is that it doubles how hard the pigeon works without raising its salary.
I noticed improvement — it was easier to write — within about 20 minutes the first time I tried this. I chose six minutes as the unit because shorter times were more distracting and longer times less effective.
I told Gary Wolf about the dots method two years ago and he’s been using it ever since. He says it is good for getting started on something he needs to write. After he gets going, he stops doing it. He uses it as an example of the value of self-tracking. I too find that after I get going on something, I need it less. If I stop, however, I drift backwards toward doing less productive stuff or nothing.
Gary asked me about this a month ago and I started doing it again (instead of percentile feedback). I noticed something I had never noticed before, which was that the system lifted my whole energy level and gave me a “can’t wait to get started” feeling in the morning. This too made it easier to get stuff done. It reminded me of some rat research I’d done. Put a rat in a Skinner box and it will explore for a while. If it doesn’t get any food, after a while (10 minutes?) it will stop exploring and curl up in the middle of the box. However, if I give the rat a pellet of food at random times (at the rate of one pellet/minute), it will keep exploring the box indefinitely. Learning psychologists have emphasized that when you reward an action, you make it more likely. The rat experiment I just described suggests a second effect: when you give reward — at least, when reward is rare — you make all actions more likely. You increase exploration, not just the rewarded response. When I was a young professor I went to a two-week neuroscience program at Dartmouth. It was all lectures. The other attendees were graduate students. I had little in common with them. There was little to do in the town, besides eat Ben & Jerry’s. The next town was 8 miles away. I couldn’t find anything I enjoyed doing. After a week, I had trouble getting out of bed, like the rat curled up in the middle of the Skinner box. A psychiatrist might have said I had major depression. I flew home and was fine.