Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Timeboxing Chinese: Get more done in less time

There are three ways to improve how you learn Chinese. First, you can upgrade your method to become more efficient. Second, you can make sure you use the method to learn the most useful things first. Third, you can find ways of studying that enable you to invest more time.

Time is the most important of the three. You can learn Chinese by using a bad method and focusing on the wrong things if you invest enough time, but if you don’t spend the time, nothing else matters.

Thus, it’s important to talk about time and your motivation to invest it into learning Chinese rather than doing something else. In this article, I want to discuss timeboxing, a method that should be in everybody’s arsenal and is useful far beyond language learning.

Tune in to the Hacking Chinese Podcast to listen to the related episode:

Available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, YouTube and many other platforms!

If you’re interested in reading more about the three factors that determine how much Chinese you learn, I wrote more about that here: Three factors that decide how much Chinese you learn

Three factors that decide how much Chinese you learn

Long-term goals for learning Chinese are great…

I often stress the importance of knowing your long-term goals for learning Chinese. If you know where you want to go, this can inform your approach. However, setting the goal to be able to “speak fluently” or to “read a newspaper” won’t help much in your day-to-day studying.

Sure, every thousand-mile journey needs to start with the first step, but if you keep your gaze at the horizon, it’s easy to get the impression that you’re standing still. You can study for a hundred days and still not feel that you’ve come closer to your long-term goal. However, if you lower your gaze and look at your feet, things seem to fly by in comparison. You can cover a lot of ground in just half an hour.

…but it’s what you do that matters

Another issue with long-term goals is that you can do a goal. For example, “speak fluently” is not a learning activity you can do for thirty minutes, or if you can, you have already reached your goal. Instead, you need to do other things to reach the goal in question. A goal is just a line you pass on your journey, but it’s walking that will bring you over the line

I wrote more about a journey as an analogy for learning Chinese here: Learning Chinese is more like walking a thousand miles than running 100-metre dash

Learning Chinese is more like walking a thousand miles than running 100-metre dash

Timeboxing Chinese: Get more done in less time

Timeboxing is an effective method to focus on what’s right in front of you and get things done, even when you don’t feel motivated or feel that the journey ahead of you is daunting. To summarise, timeboxing is about allocating a specific amount of time to a certain activity.

The idea is that a longer deadline usually just means more procrastination, so by putting activities into clearly defined boxes of a certain duration, you’ll be able to stay more focus and get more things done.

In this article, I’m going to focus on short-term timeboxing, usually with durations of 30 minutes or lower. You can apply the same principles to longer projects that stretches over days, weeks and months, but like I said, the further away the deadline is, the less helpful the method is.

It’s important to understand that it’s the time that is in focus in these examples. It’s perfectly normal to say: “I spent 15 minutes tidying up at home” or “I spent 15 minutes looking for interesting podcasts”, but timeboxing is about setting a timer for the desired duration in advanced, then only stop when the timer goes off.

Let’s look at some more examples!

Everyday activities not related to Chinese:

  • Tidy up your home for 15 minutes
  • Go through emails you should have gone through earlier for 10 minutes
  • Discuss an important upcoming event for 20 minutes

Examples of activities related to learning Chinese

Why timeboxing feels like magic

Timeboxing seems plain, almost banal, but it works like magic. I have tried so many time-management tools and methods over the years, but timeboxing is one of the few I keep coming back to. There are several factors that contribute to the effectiveness of timeboxing and that might not be immediately obvious:

  • Starting a timer gives you a clearly defined beginning – Getting started is usually the hardest part, so by defining your starting point in a clear manner is helpful. Use a timer, preferably a physical one, but your phone’s timer app will suffice too. Set the timer to 10-30 minutes depending on the task, and when you start the time, you get started with the target activity immediately.
  • Working with a close deadline focuses the mind – As I think most will have experienced, having a deadline next week or next month might not influence what you do right now. However, having a deadline in 20 minutes doesn’t allow for procrastination.
  • Having a clearly defined end makes daunting tasks manageable – While the timer is running, you’re supposed to only work on the task you set for yourself. The task is usually part of a long-term project, such as becoming fluent in Chinese or being able to read a newspaper in the language, but this is not what you focus on during the timebox. Your only goal is to do what you have decided to do for the duration of the timebox. This feels more manageable, as anyone can practise reading for 20 minutes!
  • Deciding in advance when to stop gives you control – Timeboxing is great for getting started, but it’s also a great tool for stopping when you intended to. If you have an activity, you know you could spend ten hours on, setting a timer makes sure you only spend as much time as you intended. You can then set another time if you want, but you make choices between timeboxes, not during them.
  • Finishing what you said you would do feels good – For bigger tasks, it’s great to be able to tick a checkbox and say that you did what you set out to do. You didn’t finish the whole graded reader, but you did spend the twenty minutes you set out to do.  Breaking up more complex tasks into smaller, manageable components is an age-old trick for achieving more.

There are many variants of timeboxing that you can check out if you want, but I have personally never felt that adhering to a specific instantiation of the method is particularly helpful. The most famous variant of timeboxing is the Pomodoro Technique (Wikipedia), which simply defines some of the things I have encouraged you to experiment with here.

How to become a Chinese timeboxing champion

Learning how to timebox properly is a matter of practise. I know what works for me, but I don’t know what works for you, and neither do you, if you haven’t tried it). Here is some practical advice I’ve picked over the years I’ve been using timeboxing to learn Chinese and get things done:

  • Define the activity in advance – It’s important that you define what you will use the timebox for before you start. You should not say “I want to study Chinese”, then start a timer, and only then ask yourself what you should do next. Instead, you should be perfectly clear about what you’re going to do before you press start.
  • Experiment with duration – In the above examples, I used10-30 minutes, but that’s a broad range, and for some activities, the appropriate duration might be outside the range. My advice is to start low and then increase the duration. 10 minutes is a good place to start, then increase until you feel that you start losing concentration or motivation begins to flag at the end of the interval.
  • Use a physical timer – It helps to have a physical timer with real buttons. It makes the start and end points of the timebox more tangible somehow. I suggest that you put the timer somewhere close so you can look at it if you want to, but not so close that you see it without trying to. You should focus on the activity, not the timer, but at the same time, it’s good to know if you have five or ten minutes left.
  • Stop when the timer goes off – For many people, the greatest value in timeboxing is getting started, but the ending is equally important. Don’t dilute the method’s usefulness by working past the set time. Instead, take a short break and set another timer. I usually don’t find it difficult to pick up where I left, but if you do, spend an extra ten seconds making a note about what you were doing when the timer interrupted you.
  • Take breaks – Timeboxing gives you an excellent opportunity to take well-needed breaks. Don’t expect to be able to do sixteen half-hour timeboxes for an eight-hour workday, which will just lead to you burning out. Instead, take short breaks between sessions and do something else. Stand up, stretch, get some water, go to the bathroom, think about unicorns or just stare off into space. If you rely on timeboxing a lot, insert longer breaks every now and then.
  • Practise with everyday activities – To be honest, I think timeboxing is even more useful for everyday chores than it is for learning Chinese, although it obviously works for both. Practise and experiment with timeboxing using other activities you need to get done but struggle to get started with. This also works well with family and friends. Don’t suggest that the whole family tidies up your entire home, suggest that everybody does as much as they can in 25 minutes. It’s amazing how much you can get done in 25 minutes.

Your mission this week: Timebox everything

Try timeboxing for any activity you find difficult to get started with, whether it’s related to learning Chinese or not. Follow the advice I gave above and see what works for different activities. Take notes whenever something works or you arrive at some insight into how you function, then rely on these notes to further refine the method.

Don’t think of the thousand miles you have ahead of you to your goal, don’t think about the steps you’ve already taken. Think about the next step, that’s all that matters. That’s what you’re doing now.

Just do it, just take that one step. A single step will get you farther than you think.

More about time management on Hacking Chinese

The forking path: A human approach to learning Chinese

The forking path: A human approach to learning Chinese

The time barrel: How to find more time to study Chinese

The time barrel: How to find more time to study Chinese

How long have you studied Chinese?

How long have you studied Chinese?

Have you tried timeboxing? Leave a comment below and share your ex perience!

Editor’s note: This article, originally published in 2011, was rewritten from scratch and massively updated in July, 2023.

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  1. Dillon says:

    Thank you for the article. I have quite a bit of work to do tomorrow (lots of Chinese things in fact) and will put this method to the test. It sounds like it could very well be an effective way to conquer procrastination without feeling miserable. Often the prospect of studying for long periods of time does indeed leave me feeling like goals are so far away. I hope these micro goals will do the trick.

    I’m still not totally clear what the difference is between micro goals and timeboxing. In each case, it appears I’m making an easily accomplished goal for myself that would thus require less time to be completed. Could you clear up the difference for me?

  2. Jacky says:

    I agree with Dillon, timeboxing sounds usefull, and I think I did something quite alike that already. There are days when I can study for two hours without getting distracted noticeable, and then there are days – late in the evening, nothing studied so far – when I just don’t feel like studying anymore. Most of the time I managed to get myself to study thinking “At least I can get *some* of the work done if I only study for a few minutes.” (with no clear goal of how long I will study in mind)

    Getting started is some kind of super micro goal to me, I think. After having achieved that, my motivation grows quite fast to do some more.
    I’ll definitely try to use timeboxing on a more concsious basis.

  3. Olle Linge says:

    @Dillon: How did it go? You are right that timeboxing and micro goals are quite similar. They both strive to give a more immediate sense of achievement instead of postponing it for later and they both make you responsible for what’s going on now, not what you will achieve this month. The main difference is that timeboxing is all about approximating the correct size of periods of time and then use those as efficiently as possible. You can do that with micro goals too, but i’s not the main idea. Is that any clearer?

    @Jacky: I think the situation you describe is more or less what I feel sometimes and I think most students feel now and then. Perhaps what you say about getting started is part of the key to the solution. By setting a very short period of time (like ten minutes), it’s very easy to get started. Once we’re moving, it’s easier to continue. That’s a very insightful thought, thank you!

    1. Jacqueline says:

      I also believe it and intend to approach my goal of learning this fantastic language exactly the same way I approach exercise. It becomes a welcome part of a lifestyle, which in this case is directly related to one’s well-being in general. Does the brain good also. The brain is a muscle…. ;>)

  4. 亚历山大 says:

    Incredible article.

  5. Graham Bond says:

    I believe, I believe! This may well be the most useful thing I’ve yet read in my increasingly attritional battle with procrastination. The fact I read it during a moment of mid-afternoon procrastination is no more than an ironic detail. Great stuff. Though many of the ideas and themes are common to pedagogy and project planning the world over, you’ve done us a service in tying them together so eloquently. Thank you!

  6. 火龙果 says:

    Daily commutes can be excellent time boxing opportunities 🙂

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Yes! Or parts of commutes if they are long. I have an hour and forty minutes to work, one way, and I often set a 30-minute timebox at the very beginning to clear flashcards. Fortunately, I don’t have to go more than once a week, but I agree that timeboxing is a good approach to making sure a commute isn’t just wasted time.

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