Yoda Timers 2

by radimentary

This is part 12 of 30 of Hammertime. Click here for the intro.

Anyone who can muster their willpower for thirty seconds, can make a desperate effort to lift more weight than they usually could.  But what if the weight that needs lifting is a truck?  Then desperate efforts won’t suffice; you’ll have to do something out of the ordinary to succeed.  You may have to do something that you weren’t taught to do in school.  Something that others aren’t expecting you to do, and might not understand.  You may have to go outside your comfortable routine, take on difficulties you don’t have an existing mental program for handling, and bypass the System.

Make an Extraordinary Effort

I don’t know if I’ve ever made an extraordinary effort (that’s probably evidence I haven’t), but I’ve certainly made desperate efforts. The philosophy of Yoda Timers is that it might be enough to make desperate efforts all the time: to do the known thing as well and quickly as can be done. Past that is the realm of rare genius.

CFAR calls Yoda Timers “Resolve Cycles,” a sub-skill of Resolve – the ability to make a desperate effort. Least glamorous of all rationality techniques, Resolve deserves its own book. How much could you accomplish just by more brute force all the time?

Day 12: Yoda Timers

Previously: Day 2.

Resolve is the main skill being trained by Yoda Timers, but there are a number of other useful reasons to build timers and deadlines into your life. Today I’ll share three ideas to make the most out of Yoda Timers.

Yoda Deadlines

Sometimes, you surprise yourself with what can be done in five minutes. But sometimes, there are things that can’t be done in five minutes. In this case, the generalization of Yoda Timers is to set absurdly short deadlines for these tasks.

How long does it take to write a novel? NanoWriMo is a Yoda Deadline for one month.

How long does it take to solve long-standing research problems? The IMO says: sometimes, only four and a half hours.

How long does it take to turn your life around? How many people waste away for years or decades before accelerating back through life in the span of weeks, tipped by a single conversation or book or trip?

The short answer to all these questions is: you have no idea how fast you can be without practicing for speed.


The Harvard-MIT Math Tournament (HMMT) has an easier version, the Harvard-MIT November Tournament (HMNT), which is run for local and less experienced (middle and early high school) students. HMNT is composed of several individual and team-based rounds, the most exciting of which is the Guts Round. Teams of 4-6 students work together on problems that come in sets of three to solve a total of 36 questions in 80 minutes.

A handful of older students, myself included, helped out at the HMNT of 2011. The coach of the IMO team challenged us to participate in the Guts Round, except instead of working in teams of 6 we would work alone, and without scratch paper.

And so it came to pass that, behind an auditorium full of teenagers loudly whispering ideas and trading scratch paper, the five of us sat silently in a row, staring problems down and writing down answers.

Tallying our scores at the end, each of us individually beat all of the actual teams by a wide margin.

From that day on, I did HMMT practice problems with half the time and only mental math. I won the thing twice.

The Race Against Decay

“My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that.”

~ Alice in Wonderland

There’s a common failure mode with writing projects: if you work too slowly, ideas become stale before you’re even close to finishing.

How many unfinished thoughts get the backspace because they don’t stand up to reflective endorsement?

A half-finished blog post rusts overnight.

After a week, the first chapter of your novel reads like a child’s writing.

That proof you jotted down months ago? You haven’t a clue how to fill in the details.

I give examples in writing because I’m preoccupied with writing, but staleness and motivation decay apply to all creative pursuits, especially for episodic people. One solution is to try to solve the control problem, build trust with your future self, and otherwise learn to plan for the long term. That we covered on Days 8, 9, and 10. But another solution is simply to do things faster.

Murphyjitsu should have no trouble detecting these failure modes. There are ideas that you know you won’t follow through on if you don’t finish them immediately. If you put something off for months, even when you end up doing them, they’ll take twice as much effort.

Set Yoda Timers and Deadlines. Motivations and values drift – make the most of those you have today.

Take it Slow

Usually, five minutes is an absurdly short time to try something. But sometimes five minutes is an eternity. The secondary use of Yoda Timers is to draw your focused attention to tasks that you normally spend seconds on.

How much time do you spend planning your day? Set a Yoda Timer and move things around on your schedule to maximize efficiency.

How much time do you spend expressing gratitude? Set a Yoda Timer and searching for the perfect gift, or writing a thoughtful note, for a loved one.

Are there muscles you never exercise? Set a Yoda Timer and train that one muscle group (see Sore in Six Minutes to learn how). Notice what flexing and relaxing it feels like. Explore the full range of motion. Accept the lovely burn of lactic acid.

Do you dive into things without enough planning? Set a Yoda Timer to slow down and Murphyjitsu.

Meta-Yoda

Today’s exercise: set a Yoda Timer for five minutes and build a plan to incorporate timers and deadlines into your life.

Daily Challenge

Set a Yoda Timer and share the most important idea you haven’t had time to express. Five minutes is all you get.