The Lizard, the Camel and Duty Cycles
Adding structure to routine tasks

Every day, you wake up with a limited number of hours where you are actually productive in creative working or learning. This will vary from person to person, but its finite nature means that you have to be careful with it. Optimal efficiency might be a myth, or not actually what you want (a resilient habit might be better in the long run), but being more intentional in what you do is surely helpful, especially in times when social pressure is not there to drive your tasks to completion.

Not all tasks are made equal. While trying to streamline and give a modicum of system to my routine, I noticed one clear pattern: some tasks take up more energy and require significantly more downtime to be effective, sometimes counterintuitively.

I’ve been trying to build a writing habit for the longest time. While writing summaries or editing I could go on for hours without really affecting the quality. But when trying to write something new, if I kept on going for more than a couple of hours, the words would suffer and the authenticity would suffer. And, the next attempt to write would get pushed back much later. Then I stumbled onto Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing.

What can we learn from lizards, lift from birds? In quickness is truth. The faster you blurt, the more swiftly you write, the more honest you are … In between the scurries and flights, what? Be a chameleon, ink-blend, chromosome change with the landscape. Be a pet rock…

That this piece of advice was helpful is an understatement. Before, writing did not seem a necessarily exhausting thing, but later I found that the downtime helps accumulate more ideas, more gas in the creative tank. This idea of a lizard-esque task was in the back of my mind, only attributed to writing for a while.

When the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 began, I was getting back into playing video games. One dichotomy was very interesting. I could play Hollow Knight all day long, with a few tiny breaks, and be pretty much okay, physically and gameplay-wise. However, three straight hours of Dota and my eyes would start getting red, the urge to rage was more frequent, and my gameplay suffered. So, Dota was a lizard task, while Hollow Knight was not.

Camels. They have humps, they look ugly and are great mathematicians. They can also cover nearly a hundred kilometers in a day in harsh desert conditions, without keeling over the next day like horses. So I call non-lizard tasks as camel tasks, completing my binary classification.

To recap, in lizard tasks, you sit absorbing stimuli, like a lizard eyeing a fly, until it is time to move and you do so with all your energy. Your efficiency during the movement does not matter as much, since it’s for a short while anyways. While in camel tasks, you trudge along a long route, and focus on every step, trying to avoid waste as much as possible.

Of course, the scale of time matters a lot. Jogging and lifting weights are both forms of exercise, which can be considered lizard tasks when looking over the span of a day. But when we zoom in to the span of an hour, jogging suddenly looks more of a camel task while lifting is an even more lizardian task. On the flipside, drinking water is a macro-level camel task that is done in short bursts on the micro-level.

It is common that pursuits generally considered creative, or someone’s passion, are lizard tasks in a single day and camel tasks in the long run. Most forms of art, literature, research, invention seem to fit this bill. Being protective of these lizard tasks, whether making them the first big thing you do in the morning, or assigning a sacred time and space for them, seems a good place to start.

I came across duty cycles while reading monostable multivibrators (a fun conversation starter). Basically, it is the ratio of active time to total time for a signal or system. Ignoring time-of-day and all other factors, lizard tasks have a small duty cycle, while camel tasks have a larger, even close to unity, duty cycle.

For example, I can do creative writing for one and a half hour in eight active hours without affecting my ability significantly (sleep is ignored for the moment).

Writing: 1.5 hours/ 8 hours ~ 0.188

I can read fiction or binge sitcoms almost without interruption for eight hours.

Binging sitcoms/fiction: 7.75 hours/ 8 hours ~ 0.969

So, why does this matter at all? Understanding the nature of what you do, finding that ideal duty cycle might help in better scheduling and getting things done effectively (note, effectiveness does not have to purely equal efficiency). Of course, this ideal will vary individually and even for a single person through different times and environments. My opinion is that even terminating the often-discussed flow state is sometimes helpful, like ending a runner’s high to prevent injury (equating runner’s high to flow state is a gross oversimplification, of course).

Being aware of your goals, whether instrumental or terminal, can be very helpful in determining what are camel tasks and what are lizard tasks for you. For instance, right now, I am not in a position where the news matters to me a lot. If something is actually relevant, I will hear it from somebody. The rest of the transient noise I could not really care about. Thus, I decided that checking happenings once every two weeks was fine, along with checking r/depthhub. This intentional assignment of duty cycle means that I do not resort to clicking on news link on the internet during free time. This leads to less room for rabbit hole dives and unnecessary tangents of research.

There is a second axis, of course. The amount of effort any task requires varies, and seems inversely proportional to duty cycle. But different types of efforts are, obviously, different. I’m trying to figure out a minimal system to track and optimize routine tasks for myself, one that could survive complete upheaval of environment. If you, dear Reader, have any suggestions then please reach out to me. This article about an equation to predict effort, and this one concerning task adjustability might be interesting for curious readers.

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Written on 17 May 2020