Have you ever heard of Parkinson’s Law? It’s the adage that says work expands to fill the time allotted.
And Temporal Motivation Theory—have you heard of it? It says that time is a critical and motivational factor when it comes to getting things done efficiently.
So how does this apply to us?
What it means in plain English is, we tend to stretch things out if we feel we have an unlimited amount of time to complete them, but we work like mad to accomplish things if there’s a deadline.
In a world where we pile on project after project, we need great ways to organize ourselves to get things done. We look to tech and techniques for the “best” time management tools, but the fact is there isn’t one.
Every time management system and app has its strengths and weaknesses depending on the needs of the person using it.
That’s why we talk about so many different methods and tools for optimizing effectiveness, efficiency, and productivity at the Paperless Movement. Every tool is different, and so is every person. The only way to find out if a tool or system is the right fit is to explore all the options.
One method nearly everyone seems to use is the good old to-do list. We jot down everything we need to get done onto one neverending list.
A to-do list certainly helps get things out of your head, but it isn’t a good method for organizing and prioritizing tasks. We tend to focus on the quick wins on our to-do list, but quick wins aren’t always top priority items. This means we end up feeling like we’re getting things done even when we’re putting the most important things off.
An amazing way to turn those to-dos into all-dones is with a method called timeboxing.
In a glance
What is timeboxing?
Timeboxing is setting a fixed amount of time for each task on your list and then integrating the time blocks into your schedule. In other words, instead of keeping a to-do list with items you need to complete and then working on each item until it’s finished, you assign an amount of time to each task and then reserve blocks of time in your calendar to work on those tasks. When the time is up, you stop working and move on to the next task.
Why use timeboxing?
With time management systems, we spend a lot of time focusing on organizing and scheduling our tasks, but that’s only part of what needs to be done. Beyond the scheduling, we need to work in a focused manner to get those tasks completed efficiently.
Timeboxing places a time limit on our tasks, instead of leaving them open-ended. As we established previously, having an undetermined amount of time to complete our tasks leaves us open to stretching out the time it takes to complete the task. But putting a time limit on the same task could cause us to get more done in the amount of time we allow.
Timeboxing allows you to see what you have to do and how fast you need to work to get it done. It’s a simple way to get more done in less time by doing nothing more than scheduling your tasks differently.
What are the benefits of timeboxing?
Timeboxing is a method used for taking action. It’s a working list, not a running list of to-dos—an execution list, not an information list.
With that in mind, the biggest benefit of timeboxing is it takes your to-do list from a vague list with no clear urgency or priorities, and transforms it into an actionable schedule with time limits to create a sense of focus and momentum.
Here are a few other benefits you get from timeboxing:
- Gives you a clear scope of your project by defining the objectives of the project along with the estimated time to completion
- Increases focus by limiting time and ensuring all of your focus is on only one task at a time
- Great way to add urgency and zest to mundane tasks by inserting them in between higher-urgency projects
- Knowing everything on your list has been accounted for gives you a sense of relief, so you can let go of outside thoughts and worries and truly focus on the task in front of you
- Over time, timeboxing will make you better at prioritizing and executing your tasks—and that includes accurately estimating how long a given task might take
- You won’t get caught in the trap of doing small and simple tasks first, since even the largest tasks can be broken down into smaller timeboxes and scheduled
- Can be used to schedule open-ended activities like returning phone calls and emails that have the tendency to bleed into other activities, turning them into activities with a clear end point
Where can timeboxing be used?
Timeboxing is a flexible system that can be used any place you want to get more out of your time.
It works well if you have a very open calendar, but you want to do highly-focused work like writing a book or blog post. It can also be used with a very full calendar that needs more clarity and structure to ensure things are getting accomplished. (It has been reported that Elon Musk and Bill Gates use timeboxing to organize their daily tasks.)
If your company uses Scrum or another agile system, you’ll be familiar with timeboxing. Timeboxing is used in all 5 steps of Scrum because it’s so effective at focusing the user on the task at hand and making sure things are done within a set time frame.
Timeboxing is also great for students. Students have a set schedule of classes and activities. Even though these events aren’t flexible, they provide structure to the schedule that students can use to build their remaining timeboxes around. Set events are assigned a timebox on the calendar, leaving the remaining time slots available for scheduling other important tasks.
Timeboxing is also appropriate for use in personal life. We all have things we want to prioritize and accomplish in our personal lives. Timeboxing will give structure and time frames for all of our important work.
How to use timeboxing:
You can begin timeboxing right now with a notebook or calendar (hopefully the digital versions). To timebox, you will plan your day in predetermined time increments and have everything planned in advance. The goal is to assign a set amount of time to a task—not only to schedule your day, but to also increase your efficiency by putting time borders around your tasks.
Get your list of to-dos, along with any other planning materials that affect your schedule, and follow the list below:
- Dedicate 10 to 20 minutes at the end of each day to plan for the following day
- Refer to your running task list, appointment calendar, project calendar, or anything that plays a part in your daily schedule
- Write out your daily task list and estimate the time each task will take
- Determine which tasks are the highest priority
- After you’ve determined how long each task will take and which need to be done first, add the tasks to your calendar at the appropriate times throughout the day
- Plan short breaks between tasks to allow for buffer time, and don’t forget to schedule time for open-ended tasks like returning phone calls and sending emails
- When you start using your timebox system, keep your eye on the time or use a timer. When you’ve reached the time limit for the task you’re on, stop working and move to the next task
- Assess your outcome at the end of the day and use that information to help you plan the following day
Expert tip: Add a “reaction” timebox to your calendar to address unexpected things that come up during the day. Or you could leave a few open spaces in your calendar for “flex” time. (This might work for some, and others may find it gives them a reason to slack on their timeboxes because they know there’s a little extra time baked in. Find out which you are and adapt accordingly.)
You won’t always run your schedule perfectly each day. That’s not the point. The point is to have a system that is reliable and directs your day. An 80% success rate on your schedule will drastically change the trajectory of your productivity, so don’t get bent out of shape if the plan has to be adjusted in real time or has an unexpected hiccup.
One other thing to keep in mind: it takes time to optimize a system. The longer you spend using the system, the better you’ll get. So don’t be afraid to use it imperfectly—just jump in and start timeboxing. Take notes as you go along to track how long a task actually took, what interruptions came up, or what adjustments you had to make. Then you can use your notes to find ways to adjust and customize the system to fit your needs.
A note for productivity junkies:
The purpose of timeboxing is to organize and set time limits on our tasks. Realistic time limits. The point is not to try and force ourselves to get more done by giving ourselves tiny blocks of time to complete our tasks. (Don’t tell me this thought didn’t cross your mind.)
If you use timeboxing to impose unrealistic times onto your tasks you’ll end up getting things started but not completed. Your tasks will spill over into the next timebox slot leaving you with untouched tasks at the end of the day. This is the quickest path to overwhelm and the belief that timeboxing just doesn’t work. It can work, if you use it correctly.
Isn’t this just a version of the pomodoro technique?
You may have noticed a similarity between timeboxing and the pomodoro technique, where you set a timer and work for 25 minutes, take a 5 minute break, and then set the timer for another 25 minute block of work. They are certainly similar, but there are differences.
With timeboxing, the aim is to use the timeboxes to schedule various activities throughout an entire day, week, month, etc., and use the timeboxes to create structure and urgency to keep your day humming along like a well-oiled machine. Timeboxing focuses on the time boundaries. Basically, you do as much as you can in the allotted time, and when the time is up you move to the next task.
The Pomodoro technique breaks work into 25 minute chunks with 5 minute breaks for recharging. With the pomodoro technique, you can work on a singular task in 25 minute chunks until that task is finished.
While both methods are similar, I view the pomodoro technique as more ideal for larger marathon-type projects that need a lot of time. You can devote an entire day to the project, and the 25 minute time chunks with 5 minute breaks help to focus the work and minimize fatigue.
Do I need a timeboxing app?
Timeboxing is one of those time management techniques that was developed before we relied on smart devices with apps and programs to organize our days. Because of that, you can use this method with a paper, or digital, notebook or calendar. You just need a space to write out your tasks with assigned start and stop times.
But that hasn’t stopped app producers from making apps that can help you with timeboxing. Just do an internet search for ‘apps to use for timeboxing’ and you’ll see a big list of apps and tools you can look into.
In my opinion, the easiest way to use timeboxing is to incorporate your timeboxes into the digital calendar of your choice. It creates a highly visual representation of your day and it’s a tool you’re likely already using. Now that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun to try new apps to see if something works well for you, but if you’re looking to get started now just use your calendar and start timeboxing your tasks.