If you’ve got a 2-hour task and 5 days to do it in, how long will it take for you to complete it? Simple math says it should take 2 hours, but in reality, that’s probably not what will happen.
Parkinson’s Law says that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. In practice, this means that you will most likely spread the planning across the 5 days available before your deadline, rather than sitting down and just getting it done as soon as possible.
If this rings true to you, timeboxing could be the solution to your time management problem.
What is Timeboxing?
Timeboxing is a time management technique first introduced by James Martin in his book Rapid Application Development. It involves setting aside a fixed period to spend on a specific activity, with the goal being to complete the task within the timebox — stopping once your time is up.
Timeboxing vs Time Blocking
Time blocking is similar to timeboxing in that they both require time to be aside for tasks. Time blocking focuses on planning your week out by marking blocks of time out in your diary relating to activities on your agenda, providing a schedule that will allow you to finish your work. However, you aren’t limited in how long you can spend on a task when time blocking. If you need longer, you can extend or move the time blocks around. Timeboxing, comparatively, uses strict time limits and is not flexible; once your time is up, you mark the task as complete and assess whether you achieved your goal.
Hard vs Soft Timeboxing
There are two types of timeboxes: soft and hard. A soft timebox refers to a larger job that has been broken down into smaller, more manageable tasks. While the timeboxes are separate, they should be scheduled one after the other to keep your focus on the larger task.
Individual hard timeboxes are not connected by a larger task. Once you complete a timebox, you move on to the next unrelated task.
How to Timebox
The ultimate goal of timeboxing is to manage your time better and understand how much is required to accomplish your tasks at the desired level of quality. While it can be tempting to work on every task until you have reached perfection, this is unrealistic — there simply aren’t enough hours in the day.
Define Your Tasks
There is no template for the timeboxing model; it depends entirely on your to-do list. While you can use timeboxing for any task on your to-do list, it is recommended that you reserve strict timeboxes for those that you are overwhelmed by, have no motivation to complete, or don’t want to spend a lot of time on. These tasks are the ones you are likely to procrastinate doing and take 3 weeks to complete when you could get them done that afternoon.
Compile a list of everything you need to do, and break any larger projects into more manageable milestones.
Clarify Your Goals
Ask yourself what you want to accomplish and by when. Let’s say it’s Monday, and you have a project kick-off planned for Friday afternoon. Before then, you need to have devised a project plan and budget, a significant undertaking that will take 5 hours over the week to complete.
Break this down into distinct goals. This makes it much easier to understand what you need to do and what the task will look like once it’s ‘complete’. Clarifying your goals also helps define open-ended jobs and force prioritization, which is helpful for teams working within Scrum.
Set Up Your Time
Now each timebox needs to be assigned a time limit.
First, review your tasks and decide how long you’ll need to complete them. It’s critical that you set an upper time limit that cannot be exceeded. This will be determined by your availability and what resource you want to dedicate to each.
After defining your timings, decide when you’ll begin working on each task and mark these blocks in your diary. This allows you to visually plan your workweek and see how much time you’ve allocated to each day. If you can see you’ve assigned four hours on Tuesday alone to work on a daunting task, you may want to consider limiting the hours that day to keep your motivation and energy levels up.
Set a timer, get your head down, and focus on the task at hand during its planned timebox. Once the timer runs out, immediately cease working, even if you don’t consider the task ‘complete’.
Assess Your Results & Reward Yourself
Spending a moment assessing whether or not you reached the goal you set out to achieve in a timebox will help you better manage your time in the future. It can also teach you a lesson about perfectionism and not spending longer on a task than is necessary.
If you stick to your timebox without getting distracted AND hit your goal, this is an excellent opportunity to reward yourself.
The Benefits of Timeboxing
Less Multitasking = Increased Productivity
Multitasking is well-known to negatively affect the productivity of modern workers. Most people are overloaded with tasks and try to get more done by switching between them. This is counterproductive because it not only means you never get into a flow state but because multitasking is impossible. With timeboxing, you’ll get more done by managing your time better and allowing yourself to truly concentrate.
Manage Your Perfectionism
Perfectionism can be detrimental to productivity. It’s not usually necessary to be perfect and is rarely possible. Timeboxing nips the habit of spending too long on a task in the bud. It can also help you move on after completing a task if you’re prone to dwelling on the smaller details.
Increase Goal-Oriented Focus
Working with increased focus helps you get more done in less time. Having a specific goal limits distraction, especially if you’re likely to get preoccupied with tangential tasks. Timeboxing can also prevent you from feeling overwhelmed by simplifying larger projects.
Achieve Greater Work-Life Balance
Work schedules are typically unpredictable, but timeboxing can help introduce an element of the expected. Plus, limiting how long you spend on tasks can reduce your working hours, a bonus if you frequently find yourself working overtime. In fact, timeboxing is how Elon Musk manages to work 80 plus hours a week and be present for his children.
How to Get the Best Results When Timeboxing
Studies have shown our attention tends to drift after spending 90 minutes on a task, so take that into account when planning your timeboxes. Always factor in time for a break, whether to stretch your legs or fix a fresh pot of coffee. Frequent, short breaks have also been shown to improve our focus and motivation.
Turn Off Distractions
Emails and instant messaging are great for facilitating communication, especially when working from home. Yet, among other things, they can be incredibly distracting. Consider muting your notifications during your timeboxes or setting your status to busy.
Track Your Time
If you’re looking to improve your time management skills, tracking your time can help you understand how it is used. With Forecast, your tracked time is connected with your project schedules and budgets, helping with schedule and cost oversight.
Set a Timer
Set a timer to notify you when your timebox is over. This will stop you from looking at the clock every 5 minutes and keep your focus on your task.
Make Timeboxes Non-Negotiable
If you’ve planned enough breaks, there should be no reason why you would be ending your timeboxes early — except for if you’ve overestimated how long it will take to complete a task. Timeboxing works best when you respect the plan you’ve created for yourself.
Strategies for Timeboxing When Working Alone
Use Your Calendar
Putting all your tasks in your calendar will help you keep on track, with notifications informing you when your next timebox is starting. Plus, this will stop you from planning too many tasks in one day and even allow you to plan timeboxes over a longer period.
Make it Visual
Following on from using a calendar to plan your timeboxes, you can color-code each task by category or task type. This way, you can see what the day has in store for you with a single glance. Similarly, you can use a time-planning app or software to plan out your timeboxes.
The Pomodoro technique is a method of time management that prioritizes focused work. You work for an allotted time, take a break, repeat. A 2-hour Pomodoro session could include four 25-minute working blocks, with 5-minute intervals in between. After four blocks, it’s suggested you take a longer break.
Strategies for Timeboxing When Working in a Team
Timebox Project Plans
If you have a month to complete a project and 200 hours of development work for your team to perform before then, timeboxing can help you plan accordingly. Timeboxing makes it clear you’ll need multiple team members working on the same project concurrently, allowing you to quickly resource the support required to complete the task. See how you can do this with Forecast’s AI Work Automation.
Set Meeting Agendas
Don’t let your team get bogged down with meetings than constantly run over. While timeboxing isn’t suitable for all meetings, such as one-on-ones and brainstorming sessions, it can be used by Agile teams to set a structured agenda for workshops, kick-off calls and larger meetings with highly demanding schedules.
To optimize your planning process and get the most out of your time, sign up for a free 14-day trial of Forecast below.