Maximizing your work time — or any time you’re spending on tasks that feel like work — can give you more room in your day for the fun stuff. Productivity hacks, like the timeboxing time management technique, can help you get the job done with the incentive of a ticking clock, which can keep you from whiling your time away via procrastination.
If you’re ready to learn more about timeboxing and how it can make your work life, and your home life, run smoother and more efficiently, read on. With this guide, you’ll be ready to timebox your way through life like a pro.
What is timeboxing?
First, let’s break down timeboxing. When there’s a particular task to be done, some people just hunker down and work until they finish. Others might distract themselves with minor chores or busy work before settling into the task at hand. Still others might work a little on one task, answer emails, work a little more, until somehow it’s 5pm and nothing ever got fully finished.
With timeboxing, you take a task and you give yourself a finite deadline of how long you’ll spend on that task, laying out what measurable results you need to have completed by the end of that time. For instance, you might say you need to write three pages of a report in 30 minutes starting at 9am. This box of time is measurable, and there’s a deliverable that needs to be met within a set time frame.
The experts say…
Experts say that timeboxes should be no longer than 45 minutes for a given task, so that you don’t set yourself up for failure, lose focus, or spend hours at your desk under the gun without a break. If you need more time for a given task, the advice is to break up the task into a few measurable parts and then schedule time boxes accordingly. This works whether your task will last a few hours or even a few weeks.
Soft timeboxes and hard timeboxes
There are two types of timeboxes: soft timeboxes and hard timeboxes.
A soft timebox is where you have a quasi strict limit, but can wrap up the task or the discussion, going over a few minutes if needed, before you ultimately switch tasks. On the other hand, a hard timebox is when the timer goes off and you drop everything sort of situation. With hard timeboxes, you move on immediately to the next task (or a break).
Don’t forget the old maxim, work expands to fill the time you give it, so an allocated time is always best. As you start experimenting with timeboxing you’ll be able to determine which tasks and situations work better with soft and hard time constraints.
Another way to think about timeboxing is via the Pomodoro Technique, which is credited to entrepreneur Francesco Cirillo. Named after Cirillo’s tomato-shaped timer, The Pomodoro Technique works by breaking down all of your tasks into 25 minute time blocks.
These short spurts of time keep you focused, while (hopefully) staving off feeling burnt out or getting distracted. This technique is a great way to get started with timeboxing to see how you can adapt it into your schedule.
Benefits of timeboxing as a time management technique
From a productivity standpoint, there are a number of reasons why timeboxing is an efficient and effective time management technique. From making project management run more smoothly to giving team members more accountability, timeboxing can be a gamechanger in the workplace. Here are a few of the key benefits:
Timeboxing delivers results for important tasks
Timeboxing increases productivity, hands down. When each timebox clearly states what measurable progress you need to make during a set amount of time, you come away with clear, consistent results.
You also have a record of your progress on work related tasks and of your strategic goals for meetings since your calendar not only states what you need to do but when you completed each component.
Timeboxing helps curb perfectionism
Timeboxing works well for people who have a hard time with over-doing certains tasks, or who tend to take too long getting everything just right. If you have perfectionist tendencies, try timeboxing so that you have a hard deadline for just being done with a given task. When the time is up, the task is complete.
Timeboxing helps you focus
When there’s no time limit or measurable goal, people usually spend more time on a given task than they should. Timeboxing helps you avoid distractions and stay focused, making work take less time than it would have without the constraints. It can also increase motivation knowing that once you get a task done, you have a break to enjoy afterward.
Timeboxing adds predictability to your schedule
Talk about time management: When you know what time work, meetings and brainstorm sessions start and end, you can plan your life more efficiently. With your calendar set up in predictable boxes, you can schedule meetings and appointments without worrying about running over and create a more solid schedule that doesn’t leave you rushing, stressing or second-guessing.
Timeboxing holds people accountable
We’ve all been there. You’re in a meeting and someone hijacks the conversation, taking everyone down a completely irrelevant path. Not anymore. You can use timeboxing in meetings to set an agenda for discussion. You might borrow a technique called “sprint planning” in these situations.
Sprint planning is where, at the start of the meeting (or work session) you define what can be delivered in the sprint, and how that work will be achieved. With a little structure, those that start to meander or hijack the conversation can be politely but firmly led back to a predetermined path. Since the clock is ticking, team members can hold each other accountable and blame the time for getting everyone back on point.
Downsides of timeboxing
There are a few drawbacks to using the timebox technique, especially for people who are just starting out. If you’re considering implementing timeboxing, think about how you might avoid the following pitfalls:
Timeboxing could lead to rushed work
While timeboxing does help curb perfectionist tendencies, it can also lead to poor quality work if you’re scheduling too few minutes for projects that require more time and attention. In many cases, lost productivity is better than low quality deliverables.
Timeboxing can be frustrating during project management
Having a timer go off when you’re working, or when you’re mid-sentence in a meeting, can be super jarring at first, both for you and for your team members. Having a clear plan on whether you’re going to start with soft timeboxing or hard timeboxing can help ease people into this time management technique but expect some growing pains.
Timeboxing could make you or team members feel burnt out
Many people thrive under a time crunch and feel almost exhilarated by completing tasks under a certain amount of pressure. Many other people need a more fluid process and can feel rushed or overwhelmed by constant deadlines and result-driven scheduling. The timeboxing technique isn’t for everyone, and that’s more than okay.
Examples of timeboxing in and out of work
Timeboxing can be used both in the office and at home, for important tasks and nonessential tasks alike. Use this time management technique when you want to stay on track and feel the sense of accomplishment that comes from completion. Here are just two examples of how you can use timeboxing:
Timeboxing during meetings
One of people’s biggest gripes about work is how meetings can drag on—and how sometimes you’re not even sure why there’s a meeting happening in the first place. When meeting agendas are timeboxed, not only do you only have a set amount of time for each topic, but the topics chosen need to be worth everyone’s time. (No more free-for-all discussions, unless, of course, there’s a timebox on it.) During the meeting you set a timer and when time is up, you move on to the next topic.
Timeboxing when cleaning
At home, you can timebox for straightening up your house. Pick a room and set a time for five or ten minutes. Whatever you can do in that time, you get done. This can also be a helpful technique for encouraging kids and teenagers to help clean up as well.
Instead of a timer, you can even put on a song or a short playlist and everyone can clean up together to the sound of music.
Getting started With timeboxing
Timeboxing is a skill and it may take, well, time to really get into the groove of things. As you determine which tasks work best for timeboxing there may be some trial and error (and anger at the clock). It’s normal. Give yourself a few days or weeks to get the hang of this productivity hack.
If you’re implementing timeboxing with your team members, allow everyone a chance to voice their concerns (and feelings of anticipation) as you switch gears into new scheduling territory.
Once you’re ready to get started, here’s a step-by-step for making timboxing part of your life:
Determine which to do list tasks can be timeboxed
Before you schedule out those time boxes on your calendar, start by analyzing your to-do list of tasks to see which ones would work well for timeboxing. Then, gauge how long each of those tasks will take and how often these items should appear within your week and week-to-week.
Overestimate how long tasks will take
Underestimating how long a task will take can set you up for failure from the get-go. Get into timeboxing slowly by overestimating the time it should take you to complete tasks—you can always finish early, after all. By setting more time than you think you need, you’ll set yourself up for success. And if you end up procrastinating or stalling, then you’ll know you can cut the time down.
Make your timer visual
Having a timer you can see is key for timeboxing success. You can use a tablet app, a traditional kitchen timer or an hourglass—a wall clock isn’t enough. You don’t just need to see the time, you need to see the time ticking downward.
Some apps use fun graphics, instead of numbers, that can help you visualize how much time is remaining, which can be less stressful and more motivating. Make sure that when you’re using timeboxing with other people that everyone can see the timer. That way all team members can keep one another accountable.
Schedule timeboxes strategically
You know when you do your best work and when you need an extra kick in the proverbial pants for motivation. If you’re typically super productive in the morning, you might want to schedule longer timeboxes for deep work. If you tend to get less motivated in the afternoon, this could be a perfect time for short bursts of work in smaller timeboxes where you can answer emails and do the more mindless busy work with frequent short breaks in between.
Add personal timeboxes for reactive tasks each day
Of course, unexpected tasks are going to crop up each day that you didn’t account for. Be sure to box time for answering emails and taking care of any random tasks that come up. Being proactive about these reactive to-dos will ensure that your days stay on track.
Schedule in breaks
To avoid getting totally burnt out, it’s important to schedule break time in between each timebox. These breaks allow your brain to recharge and relax so you can take on the next task feeling energized.
Aside from a necessary lunch break, you might schedule in a mid-morning power walk or an afternoon coffee run as something you can look forward to as a reward for your results-driven work.
When you set aside time dedicated for a certain topic or task, it’s important to stick to it. At first, time boxing will cause pushback from a team member here and there when you enforce a time limit on them. But once everyone starts getting used to the process, teams can adapt quickly and will soon really appreciate having that strict deadline.
Other productivity hacks that are similar to timeboxing
If timeboxing isn’t quite right for you, there are other ways to maximize your calendar to make your schedule run more efficiently. These productivity hacks aren’t quite as rigid and they can give you some of the same benefits when you’re tackling important tasks:
This hack is a more flexible form of timeboxing. With time blocking, you set a dedicated time for a given task, but you don’t necessarily focus on completing that task within the block. You might devote an hour to brainstorming or writing, but you may not commit to producing results in each block of time.
By grouping smaller tasks into a timeblock or timebox, you can knock out emails, schedule posts to social media accounts, make personal calls, or even run errands around town. Having a catch-all for similar tasks ensures you don’t waste time—for example, if you’re already out and about to drop off your dry cleaning, you may as well hit the post office and grab your groceries instead of making each of these individual tasks their own trip.
Productivity for the win!
While there is clearly more to life than being productive, maximizing your work time does usually lead to more downtime. So while timeboxing’s benefits for how to focus may lean toward producing results, any productivity hack is really designed to help you work smarter, not harder, so you can make more time for the things that really matter—your creative outlets, your social life, or family.
When you implement a tool like timeboxing in your life you can essentially get more of your life back.