I’ll be the first to admit that it is difficult for me to concentrate, to achieve flow. I’ll be the first to tell someone “I can’t focus because I have the brain and charisma of a goldfish.”
Yet at one point I was studying for the bar 12 hours a day and getting stuff done, from getting up to going back to sleep. Part of it was an honest admission that I need to work around the fact that I can’t concentrate for long.
I dub it the 20/10 cycle. I used the 20/10 cycle to crank the productivity dial to a level worthy of my middle name (Danger, unofficially) and churn out those condensed outlines, cooked essays, and even time for entertainment.
You can also tweak it to suit your needs. Maybe you can even make time to “work out” or “have brunch” or “watch the game” or “travel” or “sign up for Barbri” or whatever weird activities you people do.
To get started with this technique, first identify something you enjoy. Ideally something pleasant and passive. Then read on and try it out to see if this works for you. If you’re like me, you’ll find that your motivation will remain at a steady level rather than peaking and spiraling down into despair and never recovering.
What is the 20/10 cycle?
The 20/10 cycle is a method for maintaining productivity, focus, and motivation.
To get started with this technique, first identify something you enjoy. Ideally something pleasant and passive. Then you’re ready to do it:
For every 20 minutes of studying for the bar, I took 10 minutes of break. [Click to Tweet]
Not a strict formula—see below.
This is consciously setting a designated time, rather than allowing yourself to get steered by distractions around you.
This means, when you’re studying, all you need to do is study. You have consciously designated and decided that playtime will come in 20 minutes.
During the break, you do fun or passive things you actually want to do—something you don’t need to resist doing. This activity should not require too much active thinking.
Examples include resting, messaging a friend, catching up to a forum thread, browsing Facebook, watching animal videos, checking email, lying down on the floor… Take the 10 minutes to get it out of your system instead of thinking about it while studying.
But, if you feel like continuing to study, keep going!
I think it’s important to make the studying process as enjoyable as you can! I guess you could call it work-life integration rather than work-life balance (where you do all 8 hours of work and then all 8 hours of non-work).
By this way, this is not an exact formula. Base it on your personal preference and the work you have planned.
- Customize the ratio: Can you do 15/15 (for the lazy but equitable)? 40/20 (same ratio but longer)? 25/5 (Pomodoro)?
- Customize the length: Are you outlining an essay for 20 minutes? Are you doing a set of 34 MBE questions for 60 minutes? Are you doing a full performance test?
It turns out there is already something called the Pomodoro Technique, where you take 5 minutes of break for every 25 minutes of work. I personally found 5 minutes to be too short and not enough to get me back to a work mindset. I needed at least 10 minutes no matter how long I studied before. I could call it the X/10 cycle, but 20 minutes sounds like a good length of time for focusing.
It doesn’t matter as long as you find a natural break point and take that break. Test different cycles to see what works best for your neural style.
Before we proceed, how can we keep track of the time?
- You can use a customizable pomodoro timer online (like this or this) to set up alarms (block distracting sites first) that automatically cycles through work time and break time.
- Instead of a strict time period, try introducing the break after a certain task. For example, the 20/10 cycle works beautifully with the essay cooking technique. Because each essay will take up to 20–30 minutes to complete and review using the technique, taking a break after each essay lets you rest up for the next essay.
However, this technique does not apply when you’re testing your endurance. For instance, if you’re going simulate a three-hour session of full essays, a 200-question MBE practice session, or a performance test, don’t cycle through a 10-minute break every 20 minutes.
Why does this work?
Downtime replenishes your mental energy. Duh?
Research on taking mental breaks (even small ones) shows “[t]hat learning and memory depend on both sleep and waking rest may partially explain why some of the most exceptional artists and athletes among us fall into a daily routine of intense practice punctuated by breaks and followed by a lengthy period of recuperation” (emphasis added).
Moreover, as I suggest in my article on building study habits, research shows that “our mental resources are continuously depleted throughout the day and that various kinds of rest and downtime can both replenish those reserves and increase their volume. Consider, for instance, how even an incredibly brief midday nap enlivens the mind.”
And “[d]uring downtime, the brain also concerns itself with more mundane but equally important duties. . . . the brain consolidates recently accumulated data, memorizing the most salient information, and essentially rehearses recently learned skills, etching them into its tissue.”
Turns out deliberate restorative breaks can not only help you recover but actually improve your performance.
Check this out, from the book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing:
“Danish schoolchildren who take the tests in the afternoon score significantly worse than those who take the exams earlier in the day. To a school principal or education policy maker, the response seems obvious: Whatever it takes, move all the tests to the morning. However, the researchers also discovered another remedy, one with applications beyond schools and tests, that is remarkably easy to explain and implement.
When the Danish students had a twenty- to thirty-minute break ‘to eat, play, and chat’ before a test, their scores did not decline. In fact, they increased. As the researchers note, ‘A break causes an improvement that is larger than the hourly deterioration.’ That is, scores go down after noon. But scores go up by a higher amount after breaks.”
Resting more (guilt-free!) while being more productive sounds good to me.
Rituals can beat procrastination.
“For instance, I’m going to set a timer for five minutes. I’m going to surf the web for five minutes. As soon as the timer goes off, I’m going to do ‘X’. Whatever ‘X’ is, for the first step. One of the things that’s important, is to recognize that you can’t simply extinguish this craving for entertainment or novelty — the things that drive procrastination. Instead, what you need to do, is you need to indulge that craving but indulge it in such a way that the recovery is very easy. Pete Gollwitzer calls this ‘Implementation Intentions.’ He says, ‘Let yourself procrastinate for five minutes but set the timer. As soon as the beeper goes off, you know that you’re immediately going to start writing the memo or start answering emails.’ The lesson there is, ‘Don’t just try and power through not procrastinating.’ Instead, come up with a plan where you allow yourself to indulge this craving you have, which isn’t going to go away, but do it so the recovery is encapsulated.”—Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit
Things come in cycles.
Interesting things happen when there is contrast. If you’re in one state for too long, then you get stuck or overloaded. Everything in nature is in a constant flux. It’s a curious phenomenon.
If you study for six hours straight, you’re not going to feel very good. Save that for after you pass the bar and become a billing machine.
Cycling between work and non-work will enable you to go longer, focus better, learn better. I was told that I seemed happier studying the second time even though I was working harder.
More work is not necessarily the answer.
You might say that resting wastes too much time. You could squeeze in 10 more minutes of studying! More is always the answer!
Maybe. I don’t know your particular motivations and inclinations and level of self-discipline. As a healthy young man with too many distractions and temptations to balance, 20/10 was a schedule that worked out for me.
Also consider that just because you spend time trying to learn, it doesn’t mean you’re making any progress. Pushing on a car doesn’t make it move if it’s stuck in mud. Just like any resource, your time could be misused. Effort does not necessarily translate to results.
“Being busy is a form of laziness—lazy thinking and indiscriminate action. Being busy is often used as a guise for avoiding few critically important but uncomfortable actions.”—Tim Ferriss (if it was really him coming out of the Chipotle bathroom, we made eye contact one time)
Focus is maintained over long term in chunks.
“The most focused people maintain focus over long periods of time (months, years) rather than working obsessively on something over entire days (which is likely to lead to burnout), so make sure your daily schedule involves breaks where you deliberately don’t do anything productive. The idea here is to not fatigue your mind with focus, but to continually ‘re-attract’ it back to the thing you want to focus on.”—Yishan Wong
Ever hear of the phrase “work hard and play hard”? I hate it because people are better at it than I am.
Yes, the bar is your top priority, but don’t listen to people who tell you that you must study ’til you drop. There is a way to study productively and consistently. It’s a matter of not going through large motivation swings but keeping motivation moving within a reasonable range. Keep on truckin’.
You might be wondering…
“I can’t even go 20 minutes at a time [crying emoji]”
Motivation follows action! Try doing a tiny piece of work to start. For example, answer a few MBE questions. See if you feel any more motivated.
Chances are, 20 minutes will go by quickly, and then, if you wish, you can dust your hands off and enjoy your 10 guilt-free minutes. If you want to keep going, keep going!
“There is an attention-shifting cost whenever you change tasks!”
This idea is that when you keep switching between tasks, it takes time for your attentiveness to ramp up to the level it was at before, making you less productive.
But that’s exactly what you’ll do on the bar. You see an MBE question, answer it, and look at a completely new one that’s probably on another subject. You finish an essay and look at a new subject.
Learning how to change gears as quickly as you can is an important skill to learn, especially for the MBE, where you’ll have to do it at least 99 times per session.
Ultimately, I was able to do 12-hour study days (although not every day) because I wanted to pass the bar but not in a frantic, frazzled way. I was methodical and deliberate about what I wanted to do. And that was to accept that I can’t just study all the time. I think it’ll work for you too.
You can choose to do the same using the technique outlined above. That is, (1) know yourself and find out how your mental rhythm and tolerance, and (2) set a recurring cycle of work and restoration.
Besides, there’s something reassuring about a repetitive ritual you follow, isn’t there?
Now I want to ask you: What do you do to keep yourself productive? Drop a comment below.
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