Monday, November 25, 2013

Seven Ways a Stopwatch Can Change You

A few posts ago I mentioned that a stopwatch is one of my most important self-improvement gadgets. For years I've not only used it for workouts, but also to speed myself up at my dish-washing jobs.

It wasn't until a few nights ago that I fathomed how comprehensively a stopwatch actually changes me. It isn't just a mere tool of speed, but something that actually affects the character: It changes your habits, motivation, potential, psychology. Aside from enhancing efficiency, I've found it actually changes me as a person.

To elaborate, here's seven benefits I've noticed as of late:

1.) Increases Motivational Energy

As I stated in my original post, using a stopwatch can make some mundane tasks into a kind of game. For instance, at the start of my dishwashing shift it's usually terrible to slog through the pile of dishes that waits for you when you come in, and usually I can hardly dredge up 50% of my ability to deal with it.

In using a stopwatch, however, I feel pleasantly (though intensely) pressured to get through the load as soon as possible, and my motivation shoots through the roof, especially when I'm aiming for a certain time. Just the other night I witnessed a freakishly high and new level of motivation so intense it felt like my brain was spiraling in a braid; that definitely had to be a record for the fiercest I ever worked in starting a shift.

For boring, mundane, repetitive, or whatever kind of tasks, like raking leaves off the lawn, everything can be improved with a stopwatch. (Plus, you'll do away with the terrible task sooner!)

2.) Increases Your Ability

Another strange thing I noticed from that same night is that my whole style seemed to be improved. I never performed harder. Even the way my wrist moves when I slam a container on top of others on a high shelf felt different and poetic.

That particular height of ability was newfound to me, and made only possible by the previous training done timing myself. As you set standards, you have to push harder and harder to maintain them and beat them still, and in pursuit of that kind of excellence you get better and better still.

3.) Improves Cognition for Efficiency

Most significant in my thinking is that a stopwatch also changes your perception, literally. Despite being a dishwasher for nearly four years now I keep finding new shortcuts and ways to do things faster. The most significant fact is that the only way I've been able to find those shortcuts and efficiency enhancers is by using a stopwatch, because the pressure it imposes on you forces the mind's eye to be open and constantly looking for better ways, and I myself wouldn't be so intellectually alert to new possibilities unless I needed them, unless I was pushing myself with all my might and looking for something to makes things easier or faster. Working at as casual speed, my perception for new methods and shortcuts is totally shut off.

If you want to find new possibilities in the work you do, it would do well to apply this kind of pressure. It's a sort of "Necessity is the mother of all inventions" kind of thing.

4.) Trains New Habits

As you go the rounds again and again in stressing yourself to perform at your fastest, the repetitions form new habits. Not only do you better yourself, you gradually better yourself to the point that your new heights of performance become habituated, which will make those new heights less stressful and require less thought and focus. Plus, simply put, this is making you a better performer by inherent nature, rather than having to summon max willpower each and every time.

Though, as I said in my last article, as a precaution I advise being very wise on what you time yourself in -- (not everything!) -- and allow yourself to feel okay with approximate records, or even taking arbitrary breaks from timing yourself. In order to make this a sustainable practice we can't keep the high-stress pressure on ourselves too frequently, or else the temptation to give it up will be too great. Only so much stress is tolerable before we need a recharge.

5.) Holds You to a Consistent Standard

One thing that annoyed me for a short while in the beginnings of my restaurant career is that, without a stopwatch, there's not much justification for thinking myself faster or slower than usual. Without precise timing, it's all subjective, and it doesn't do well to feel like you're "off your game" when in reality you might be going faster than usual.

A stopwatch makes things very, very precise. Not only that, those very, very precise records give you very, very precise standards to hold yourself to. Ah, Ben, you cleaned that room in twelve minutes yesterday, and yet today it's taking sixteen! No excuse!

This is a compliment to item 1, because I've noticed that if I unfortunately fail to meet a record and see that my stopwatch is ticking past my previous standard, I up my game significantly to "catch up" and prevent myself from going too far in my violation.

This is also an aid to item 3 because you'll know for certain whether your new practices are gelling in the way you want.

6.) Offers Feedback to Surpass Yourself

You only get better at things if you strive to practice in a particular way that challenges your capacity, and overtime you improve that capacity. The precise records set by a stopwatch are not only a consistent standard to hold yourself to, but also something to "beat."

I can't access my record right now, but I recall that, during a time when I meticulously documented my times -- I stopped because I found approximate memories are sufficient -- my starting record for washing the floor of the dish pit was fifteen minutes, and in driving myself I got it down to seven or nine minutes, a DRAMATIC decrease. Now that's improvement!

7.) Trains Concentration

You know I'm a nut for concentration. My life and character just operate totally differently the more I nurture this skill.

The faster you go, and the faster you have to go in order to beat or maintain a record, demands intense focus, which supplements concentration over time. Boy, that last fit of motivation exhausted me so much I slept better that usual, like a lumberjack.

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Laid out like that, whose life wouldn't benefit from the aid of a stopwatch?

Though, again, I emphasize being cautious about some of its potential pitfalls, for I've found myself acting in goofy ways when I took the practice ultra-seriously. For instance, if someone fondled my stopwatch while I was using it and stopped it, I felt obligated to freeze in place lest I distort the precision of the record. Plus, sometimes I would actually get agitated in someone helped me while working, for their aid meant that my record wouldn't "count" since it's not something I'm doing by myself. I've loosened up a lot to accommodate a lot more approximation into the picture, and, while still an intense practice, it slackens the standards enough to make it sustainable without being over-stressing.

Now, how do you think a stopwatch would benefit you?

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