Tag Archive | Oscillation

On Work and Rest

A human being is the kind of machine that wears out from lack of use. There are limits, of course, and we do need healthful rest and relaxation, but for the most part we gain energy by using energy. (George Leonard, Mastery)

A change of work is as good as rest.

Fragments from imaginary dialogues

“Is a change of work really as good as rest?”

“Depends on the work.

Mental and physical work go beautifully together. They’re synergistic.

Physical work is wonderful rest from mental work, and energizes you for the next session of mental work.”

Beautiful Models: (Practical) Oscillation

To turn it on, learn to turn it off. (Josh Waitzkin, The Art of learning)

One of my most beautiful memories of Marcelo Garcia is at the World Championships, right before going into the semi-finals.

Everyone’s screaming, yelling. He’s sleeping. Sleeping in the bleachers. You’d wake him up. He’d sort of stumble into the ring. You’ve never seen a guy more relaxed before going into a World Championship fight. He can turn it off so deeply, and man, when he goes in the ring, you can’t turn it on with any more intensity than he can. His ability to turn it off is directly aligned with how intensely he can turn it on.

(Josh Waitzkin in conversation with Tim Ferris)

Fragments from imaginary dialogues

“This is such an important life principle. I like to call it the Oscillation principle. Undulating – to use Josh’s terminology – between periods of stress and recovery, engagement and disengagement, on and off. 

A key aspect of the principle is that the quality of engagement depends on the quality of disengagement. To be fully on, one must be fully off. Deep focus requires proportionally deep rest.”

“Any actionable insights?”

“Let us think what deep rest means. It means deep relaxation. Rest depends on one’s capacity to relax. One way to think of it is in terms of tension. While on, you’re accumulating tension. While off, through relaxation, you’re releasing tension.

The practice lies in finding the method of releasing tension that works best for you, and gradually condensing it so that it takes less and less time.”

Writing Optimization

Fragment from imaginary dialogues

“How can I optimize writing?”

“What does your writing practice look like?”

“There’s a beautiful practice which I know from Brian Johnson:

Be creative before you’re reactive.

I start every day with writing.

The first Deep-Work block of the day (DW1) is 6 pomodoro long, which I divide between writing and learning/reading. 

3 pomo writing
3 pomo learning/reading

“What’s the problem?”

“On most days it works great. However there are days when inspiration is harder to find.”

“In her book A Mind for Numbers [about learning how to learn], Barbara Oakley makes a distinction between two modes of thinking: the Focused Mode, and the Diffuse Mode.

She uses it in the context of problem-solving for Math and Science, but it applies to any creative endeavor with a problem-solving element. 

Like writing.”

“I hadn’t thought of writing as problem-solving.”

“Trying to figure out what you want to write about, clarifying your understanding of something, figuring out the best way to convey it in writing, all can be seen as a beautiful puzzle.

Focused Mode is a period of time deeply focused on the puzzle. 
Diffuse Mode is a period of time away from the puzzle.

In the Focused Mode you’re opening a process[<link; short read]. 
In the Diffuse Mode your subconscious mind is working on it in the background, making wild creative connections.

This can be used strategically, by alternating between the Focused and Diffuse Mode. I call it the Focused/Diffuse Oscillation.”

“So, in my case, I could start with a pomodoro of writing. If I’m feeling inspired, I can continue with another one. If not, I could switch to a learning/reading pomodoro, thus activating the Diffuse Mode, and then come back to writing.”

“There you go.”


Fragments from imaginary dialogues

“What if the length of the break was proportional to the number of pomodoros I did in a row?”

“Can you give an example?”

“Something like (where p stands for pomodoro):

p p 30min break
p p p p 60min break
p p p p p p 90min break
p p p p p p p p 120min break

“That’s an elegant system. But you’re focusing only on length. The quality of the break is also important. That is, how restful it is.

For instance, you could spend the break browsing the net, or taking a walk. The latter is a much higher-quality break. 

In terms of break content, some activities are more restful than others. We can think of it in terms of rest-density – the amount of energy recovered per unit of time. 

Walking is a higher-density break than browsing the net.
A nap is a higher-density break than walking. 

You can recover from eight pomodoros in a row by taking a two-hour break… or by taking a nap.”

On Deep Work and Templating

Fragments from imaginary dialogues

“How can I optimize Deep Work?”

Think of it as a template.

I like to think of the work-day as consisting of a number of ‘slots‘ [another model].

Deep Work
Slot 1
Slot 2
Slot 3

The slots represent the fixed part of the template. 
Their content, number and order represent the variable part of the template.

Each slot corresponds to a single work-task, and they form a sequence [<link; short read], in the order of importance – from the most important to the least important.”

“What does your typical work day look like?”

“It looks like this:

Deep Work
Slot 1: Writing
Slot 2: Learning
Slot 3: Reward (work-related, random)”

“Do the slots have a fixed length?”

“No. This is a modular structure – it expands or contracts based on the available time.

The deep-work unit is the pomodoro – 25 minutes of deep focus, followed by a 5-minute break.

The 5 minutes are also a buffer, in case I have a hard time breaking away from the work. 25 minutes is the floor, 30 minutes is the ceiling. [floor/ceiling model]”

“That’s a nice problem to have.”

“When you’re doing deeply meaningful work, that’s usually the case, I imagine.

When I exceed the 5-minute buffer, it’s a subtle sign that I may need a longer rest.

For quality work, rest is essential.

Quality work requires alternating between work and rest. I call this the Oscillation System.

The beauty of the pomodoro structure is that it has a built-in break. I call this the micro-oscillation.

You’re able to maintain peak focus for 2-3 pomodoros in a row – what I call a deep-work-block. After that, the quality of the work starts to decline. After a deep-work-block, you need a longer break. I call this the macro-oscillation.”

“How long a break do you take after a deep-work-block?”

“The length of the break is proportional to the number of pomodoros I’ve done in a row, how rested I am, and the time of day. The later in the day, the longer breaks I need.

p p break
p p p longer break
p p p p even longer break

[p stands for pomodoro]

Ideally, each slot consists of at least one deep-work-block. But when time is limited, the minimum [the floor] is one pomodoro.”

“Don’t you take any days off?”


Beautiful Models: Focused/Diffuse Thinking

To turn it on, learn to turn it off. (Josh Waitzkin)

Fragments from imaginary dialogues

“What is Focused/Diffuse Thinking?”

“Focused/Diffuse Thinking is a beautiful idea I know from Barbara Oakley’s wonderful book A Mind for Numbers about learning how to learn.   

Focused Thinking is a state of concentration, of deep focused attention.
Diffuse Thinking is a state of relaxation.

When people think of problem-solving, they usually tend to think only of the former. However, counterintuitively, the optimal approach requires both: thinking deeply about the problem, and letting it go. 

Focused/Diffuse Thinking is an oscillation between the two.

Taking distance from the problem leaves room for the subconscious mind to work on it in the background and make intuitive leaps.”

“So it’s a kind of priming.”


Not taking distance from the problem prevents the subconscious mind from doing its magic.

Moreover, Focused Thinking is energy intensive and cannot be sustained for long periods of time. Breaking away from the problem, conserves energy.

I’d go so far as to say the Focused/Diffuse oscillation is essential. In optimizing it you’re optimizing creative-efficiency and energy-efficiency at the same time.”

On Beauty and Implementation

Fragments from imaginary dialogues

“One of the many facets of my Life-Art [<link; medium read] is trying to put an aesthetic touch on everything I do.”

“Does it serve a practical purpose?”

Every instance of Beauty can serve a practical purpose if you’re receptive to it.

But what I had in mind is something more particular.

Remember James Clear’s second rule of habit creation?”

“Make it attractive.”

“That one. The important question is,

How can you make it attractive?

One way is through the power of Beauty.

Make it beautiful.

Making something beautiful makes you more likely to engage in it.”

“Can you give an example?”

“Let’s take Deep Work, since we’ve talked about recently [<link; medium read].

In the context of Deep Work, my objective is
productivity maximization, and
perfect energy conservation.
To achieve this, how you optimize the work/rest oscillation is key.

We’ve talked before [<link; medium read] about the micro-oscillation and the macro-oscillation.

Micro-Oscillation unit: pomodoro – 25 minutes of deep-focus, 5-minute break
Macro-Oscillation unit: deep-work-block – 3 pomodoros, longer break

It looks great on paper, but I’d been struggling for a while with implementation.”

“What was the failure-point?

“The Macro-Oscillation.

Micro-Oscillation: I strictly respected the pomodoro. 
Macro-Oscillation: I often yielded to the temptation to do too many pomodoros in a row, which sapped my energy, which triggered a downward spiral of inefficiency and poor decision-making.”

“How did you solve this problem?”

When you struggle, it’s time to evolve a system.

I asked myself a macro-question:

What do you want the structure of your work-day to look like?

Then I sat down to answer it, in writing, with Simplicity and Beauty as guides.

The outcome is a pattern that looks like this:

30 30 30 15
30 30 30 30

“What am I looking at?”

“The bolded numbers represent pomodoros.
The un-bolded numbers represent breaks.

I do a deep-work-block, and take a 15 minute break.”

“Why 15 and not, say, 10?”

“It’s a littler aesthetic touch. 15 is 5 multiplied by 3.

Then I do another deep-work-block, and take a 30 minute break.

These form a cycle.

So if I were to extend it in time, it would look like this:

30 30 30 15
30 30 30 30
30 30 30 15
30 30 30 30

Or, more exactly, like this:

(25 + 5) (25 + 5) (25 + 5) 15
(25 + 5) (25 + 5) (25 + 5) 30
(25 + 5) (25 + 5) (25 + 5) 15
(25 + 5) (25 + 5) (25 + 5) 30

Four deep-work-blocks is 5 hours of deep-focused work, and 2.30 hours of rest in a beautifully balanced distribution.

Having this detailed aesthetic view has made implementing it a joy.”

Beautiful Systems: Deep Work

High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus) (Cal Newport, Deep Work)

Fragments from imaginary dialogues

“Deep Work is a beautiful concept I know from Cal Newport. In his words,

Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task.

I’ve tweaked it however to suit my own purposes.

I refer to the ability to focus without distraction as ‘Deep Focus‘. 
And I like to think of ‘Deep Work’ as a system, whose function is to maximize daily productivity.”

Basically, to maximize productivity, you need to maximize the time spent in Deep Focus. However Deep Focus is energy intensive, so it’s not possible to maintain it for long periods of time.

To maintain Deep Focus, rest is essential.

This requires creating a beautiful oscillation, alternating between periods of Focus and rest. And the quality of rest is also important.”

“So we could say the quality of work depends on the quality of focus and the quality of rest.”

“Indeed. I call quality rest ‘Deep Rest‘.

Ideally, while resting, you want to disengage completely from the work. I prefer to move away from the computer, to give my eyes some rest as well.

The micro-unit of the system is the ‘pomodoro‘, 25 minutes of Deep Focus, followed by 5 minutes of Deep Rest. I like to think of this as the ‘micro-oscillation‘.”

“I thought you’d stopped using the pomodoro.”

“I had initially, because I lacked the Discipline to make it work. I’ve since realized the pomodoro is a beautiful opportunity to actually practice Discipline [<link; long].

The macro-unit of the system is what I call a ‘deep-work block‘: 2-3 pomodoros one after another, followed by a longer break. I like to think of this as the ‘macro-oscillation‘.”

“What does an ideal work day look like for you?”

“It starts in the morning, to capitalize on the very first hours of the day, when energy is at its peak, and has at least 3 deep-work blocks.

The beauty of the system is that it’s modular. It can expand or contract based on the available time.”

“What do you do during breaks?”

“Breaks are a design space [<link; medium]. I seek to fill it up beautifully. I play with movement, meditate, take a (cold) shower, go for a short walk, take a nap, etc.

As for the work itself, the content, it falls within three main systems, which every single day must contain:

Creating (writing, playing with ideas)
Learning (absorbing information, eg reading; reflecting/reviewing)
Optimizing/Organizing (eg systems optimization)

I arrange the deep-work blocks in the order of priority: the most important first.

There’s a beautiful directive I know from Brian Johnson:

Be creative before you’re reactive.

I’ve taken that to heart.

I always start the day with a deep-work block dedicated to writing.”