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Mae Angeline

Timeboxing: An Indispensable Tool to Tackle Your To-Do List

Need the motivation to tackle that long to-do list? Timeboxing can help you harness a sense of urgency and get things done, quickly and efficiently.

We've all heard it before; time is more valuable than money. After all, it's the one resource we can never make more of. As such, it's no surprise that there are so many productivity techniques out there to help us manage our own and our team's time, while tackling seemingly endless to-do lists. From using focus mode on your computer, to earning your place in the 5am club, there's probably a trick for every working day of the year.

But for a lot of people, these hacks still leave them struggling to get motivated, and then facing a huge rush to complete tasks before their deadlines. Why? Because of a psychological phenomenon that motivates human beings to reach whole new productivity levels under the shadow of a looming deadline, which they can't access during regular daily life.

If that sounds familiar, then the good news is you can harness this motivation and use it to take control of your to-do list. Let us introduce you to the world of timeboxing.

What is timeboxing?

Timeboxing is a productivity and time management technique in which you set time limits for specific tasks. As Parkinson's law tells us, "work expands to fill the time available for its completion." This means that work progresses slowly when the deadline is far off, and a lot faster when the final countdown is ticking away.

The concept of the timeboxing approach is to allocate a fixed maximum amount of time to tasks in advance. Each fixed time period is known as a "time box." A time box has specific goals and deadlines attached to it. You work on the task during the allotted time, and once the set time is up, you stop working on it and move on to your next sprint.

Timeboxing can be used as part of your project management strategy for individual or project tasks. By applying these time constraints, we get the motivational benefit of a close deadline, procrastination is reduced, and productivity rises to the challenge. Timeboxing works to ensure you don't lose time, so each task takes its set time and doesn't stretch to fill the entire afternoon.

This time management system may sound new, but it was introduced in 1991 by James Martin in his book Rapid Application Development, as part of the agile software development technique.

What is the difference between time boxing and time blocking?

Timeboxing and time blocking are similar, in that you reserve time for a specific task or activity. The difference in timeboxing is that you limit the time you spend on that activity.

In time blocking, you block periods for every item in your agenda. However, the time blocks don't always have specific goals and deadlines attached. Developing a marketing proposal, for example, might not be completed in a single time block, and work would continue in that activity's next allocated time block. The technique has provided you with guidance on when to do the task, but doesn't control how long you spend on it overall.

Timeboxing, on the other hand, specifically allocates a chunk of time to a particular task. In the example of the marketing proposal above, this might mean performing a competitor analysis in this specific two hours. By incorporating fixed time periods and clear deadlines, timeboxing can help ensure productivity as well as protecting your time.

In other words, time blocking helps you make sure you allocate a certain amount of time to work on a specific task, but it doesn’t give you a goal or a deliverable you need to complete before the end of the time block. Instead, it is about the continuous process, about taking the time out of your calendar to focus on something. 

Timeboxing, on the other hand, brings a lot more urgency into the picture. Its primary goal is to get you to complete a certain task before your time for it runs out. It means to put you under the pressure of time constraints in order to bring out that productivity and motivation. 

But an important thing to note here is that for deadlines to make you more productive and not just stress you out, the time boxes need to be realistic. Timeboxing needs to help people try deep focus, not make them feel like they are underperforming or falling behind company goals because of late deliveries. 

Does timeboxing actually work?

Timeboxing has been around for a long time, in one form or another. People might call it various names, but the concept of giving yourself a deadline to reach something is far from novel. 

In his book “The Idiot Brain”, Dean Burnet, a recognized neuroscientist, breaks down many odd workings of the brain. Among other things, he explains how and why time boxing, or deadlines, and the stress that comes with it, make people more productive:

Or how about the fact that stress can actually increase your performance at a task? It’s a neurological process, not just “something people say.” Deadlines are one of the most common ways of inducing stress that provoke an increase in performance.”

In 2018, Filtered conducted a study to determine the 100 most useful productivity tips, and guess what…timeboxing ranked as #1 productivity hack!

So here’s more on how and why it works:

  • Adds urgency: You will always do timeboxing with the idea that the task needs to be completed before the allocated time runs out. Have you ever seen a flash sale with crazy discounts and a specific end date? It means to evoke urgency in potential buyers, playing on that FOMO and stimulating them to make a purchase. Productivity-related time boxing works in a similar way.
  • Removes the paradox of choice: When given too many options to choose from, people often get lost. Consider this: when you see a restaurant menu that’s more of a book, doesn’t it take you longer to pick a dish? Timeboxing removes that choice paralysis and helps you focus on the tasks that hold the biggest value. 
  • Clarifies priorities: With a deadline over your head, there is no time to wobble around. You will be able to tick off the things that matter most for you to successfully complete a task.

Reduces the “planning fallacy”: There are lots of studies proving that people tend to underestimate how long a task can take and overestimate how quickly they can complete it. In fact, that error can cost you up to three times as much time to complete a task. With regular timeboxing, you can know exactly how long each task takes when you are really focused on it.

What are the benefits of time boxing?

The timeboxing time management technique has certain benefits over other time management methods. Here are some of the major ones.

Promote focused deep work

It's easy to lose focus with the different distractions present at the workplace. One of the top benefits of using timeboxing is increased focus and self-discipline, which sets the stage for deep work.

By setting a timebox, you can commit to the task you set it for and it's easier to stay focused. This simple technique also prevents you from multitasking, which is not always an effective method when working on complex projects.

Prioritize important tasks

Not all items on your to-do list have the same level of importance. Traditional techniques can leave you prioritizing tasks by when they need to be completed, rather than how much of your time and mental resources they deserve.

With the timeboxing technique, you can plan and prioritize essential tasks by setting a strict limit on how much time they each get. This can keep you and your team energized and concentrated on the right priorities.

Avoid unnecessary perfectionism

Perfectionist tendencies can be a blessing, but they can also lead to a lot of time spent chasing the perfect output on one task. Trying to come up with the perfect solution for a simple task can take an entire day when you get too deep into it.

Implementing timeboxing forces you to work within a fixed time frame and come up with a solution that may not be perfect, but is sufficient for the project needs at that exact moment.

Increase employee engagement

As the team's productivity increases, it generates a sense of motivation which encourages the whole team to accomplish their tasks on time. Timeboxing helps team members communicate better and collaborate when roadblocks arise. It can also make it easier to measure individual performance, so staff can further improve their skills.

Track progress

Timeboxing gives you a visual of the progress of each task and team member in a project. With timeboxing, your team gets more focused on their respective tasks and is aware of any potential blockers or delays that need to be addressed. In addition, it's an effective way to keep track of the project status and review the workload management strategy you have in place.

Create balance

We're all guilty of spending too much time on specific activities and not having time for others. For example, how many meetings take longer than necessary (or perhaps didn't need a scheduled meeting at all)? You can limit each session to a 15-minute timebox, and make sure you stop once the set period is up.

Timeboxing doesn't just apply to working hours: you can use the technique to protect your break time, and to schedule events or tasks in your personal life as well.

How to get started with timeboxing

If you're ready to implement the timeboxing time management technique, here's a simple 4-step guide to get you started.

Step 1: Select the tasks

As with sprint planning, the first step is to develop to-do lists for you and your team. Generally, any task can be time-boxed, but it's best to identify the critical tasks or projects that must be completed within a deadline. It's usually an unpleasant task that needs a timebox because neither you nor a team member is motivated to complete it. You also wouldn't want to spend much time doing the smaller tasks.

Step 2: Set goals

Once the crucial tasks are highlighted, you need to decide what needs to be accomplished within a given period. For example, if you have a long-term project, set the milestones and what needs to be performed daily and weekly.

Step 3: Determine the timeframe

As soon as you've set your goals, decide the start and end period for your tasks and the spending time for each task. It's best to use timeboxing for short work intervals throughout the day, and a strict deadline for each task must be implemented. This is a good time to integrate your workload planning techniques to ensure your tasks are distributed well within the team.

Step 4: Performance assessment

Now that you've set up timeboxing, ensure you and your team follow the timeboxes. Get your team together from time to time to discuss their performance, and don't forget to reward them for their consistent efforts to complete their tasks according to the timeboxes given to them.

Timeboxing tips for tackling your to-do list

If you're looking to get more out of your timeboxing, here are some top tips for adding to your success:

Create timeboxes that are colored and visible

Timeboxing creates a visual image of your workload. It reminds you how much time you have to complete the current task. Distinguish the different tasks by setting different colors for types of work. Don't forget to set a timer, so you'll get notified when it's time to move on to your next task. As a project manager, ensure you inform your team members when it's almost the end of a timebox, so they'll know that they need to wrap up their current tasks.

Define the timeboxes

It can help to differentiate whether a timebox is hard or soft.

A hard timebox applies to stand-alone tasks, which aren't related to the timeboxes either side. These usually have set periods of time that should not be adjusted. Once you finish the timebox, you can move on to an unrelated task.

A soft timebox is a part of a set of correlated tasks. As you complete each one, you move on to the next in the series. The workflow is continuous, and there is usually a little more flexibility in the cut-offs.

Manage your timeboxes

Working with sprints yields positive results when managing big and complex projects. According to the ultradian rhythm, our minds can entirely focus on a specific task for 90 minutes. You can set the length of your timeboxes differently for individual tasks, as long as you ensure that breaks are taken on or before the 90-minute limit is up.

As well as controlling what happens within the timeboxes, you need to ensure the time between time boxes is managed well. Ensure you and your team take short breaks in between by setting guidelines for downtime to prevent workload stress.

Reward your champion timeboxers

More often than not, motivation is a fair-weather friend. Some people get hyped and motivated right before falling asleep, others right after waking up at 5AM. But the one certain thing is that motivation is not ever-present, and most people don’t even have that intrinsic motivation and need external stimuli to help them move forward with their progress. 

There aren’t many things that stimulate motivation as much as rewards and recognition. When people feel appreciated and recognized for their success, they are more likely to try and get it again. And the rewards don’t even have to be monetary if you are strapped for resources. Consider starting an appreciation channel in Slack or any other communication tool you’re using, where you point out someone’s achievements. On top of that, consider giving people other perks like extra remote work days or extra days off.

Timeboxing traps to avoid

Productivity hacks don't exactly have a large rule book to follow, but here are some of the things to keep in mind before you try to make timeboxing work for you. 

Don’t question it before you try it

“What-aboutism” is a common mistake people make before trying something new. Unnecessarily, they try exploring all the possible outcomes that might never even happen. With that said, this what-aboutism helps them come up with lots of reasons why timeboxing does not apply in their case or might be of little help. 

There are lots of studies confirming just how helpful timeboxing is. And with science backing its ways, there is little naysayers can say against it. So make it your goal to get timeboxing to work for you, adjust it to your situation and track its influence on your productivity overtime. As you get into it, chances are high that the benefits you extract from timeboxing will keep increasing. 

Don’t see it as authority threat

Timeboxing is a great strategy to use both in professional and personal life. But when it comes as a recommendation or even a request from your managers, it’s not uncommon to experience what is called psychological reactance. 

Psychological reactance is this inner resistance people tend to feel when things come as a recommendation for them, especially when it’s something that sounds like it will make them work more. 

Don’t overdo it

Timeboxing means to help you or your team with productivity and deep focus. But it’s not a good idea to plan out the whole day full of tasks and deadlines. In fact, that might have an adverse effect and stress people out instead of making them more productive.

To extract maximum value from timeboxing, be sure to strategically place it into the calendars you’re planning out. 

Experience the benefits of timeboxing

It's human nature to need motivation for challenging tasks, and successful timeboxing can help stir up our energy, while ensuring we don't lose track of time on a single task. As you start to implement timeboxing, and experience the many benefits it brings, remember to prioritize both productivity and balance.

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