Timeboxing 101: What, Why and How

The Passage of Time by ToniVC

With timeboxing, you can make the clock work to your advantage.

Timeboxing, or one of the many variations on it, is easily one of the best techniques for being more productive throughout the day. Timeboxing allows you to get the motivation up to do the things you don’t want to do, focuses your attention on the tasks that really need to be prioritized, stops you from wasting time on pointless tasks and makes Parkinson’s Law work for you. Oh, and I think it’s kind of fun too.

So what is timeboxing? Essentially, it’s taking a task and assigning a fixed period of time for its completion. Once you hit that time limit, you stop working and move on to something else, regardless of whether or not you actually completed your task.

How does quitting before we’re finished help? Well, let me show you.

Some Benefits of Timeboxing

Motivation

The first benefit of timeboxing is that it gets you rolling on daunting or unpleasant tasks. Think of something that you need to get done, but just can’t get the motivation up to do. Maybe it’s something huge like writing a 200 page thesis, maybe it’s something that you just really hate to do like clean out the garage, maybe it’s both.

When you’re faced with these kinds of tasks, most people’s natural inclination is to put it off. They procrastinate an do their best to avoid it, and waste a lot of valuable time in the process. The hardest step to take is always that first one.

Setting a timebox for these tasks removes that feeling of dread. For example, you could sit down and commit to working on your thesis for 30 minutes, after which you can go relax. Whether you write 5 words or 5,000 in that 30 minutes is irrelevant, as long as you sit and write for 30 minutes. Suddenly, that doesn’t seem so bad. 30 minutes is nothing, and its easy to sit down and start if you know you’ll only have to siffer through 30 minutes of work.

The same goes for my cleaning example. If you say you’re going to go work on cleaning the garage for an hour and then quit, it’s not too hard to commit to. You know you won’t be slaving away all day out there, and chances are even if you aren’t finished by the end of that hour you’ll have gotten a lot done.

Timeboxing also becomes a little bit of a game. It’s kind of like a race, or one of those really frustrating Super Mario levels where the screen moves to the right and you die if you go too slow. Trying to see just how much you can accomplish before that timer sounds is a really good way to get pumped about whatever you’re trying to work on. This is particularly great for tasks like cleaning that will need to be done again, because you can continually try to beat your previous best and accomplish more within that timebox.

Time Bandits

No, not the movie. The second benefit of timeboxing lies in managing time-sinks. A time-sink is more like a heatsink than a kitchen sink, in that it sucks up all of your time (although the visual of all your time going down the drain is a good metaphor for it too). Basically, anything that you are prone to spend way too much time on everyday is a time-sink.

Some very common culprits are checking e-mail, social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) and catching up on your RSS reader, but there are lots of others. Timeboxing this activities and having a set cut off time will not only force you from burning too much time away on them, but also help you speed up the task itself. If you only have 10 minutes everyday to process your inbox, before long you will have found every trick imaginable to make that process as speedy and efficient as possible.

Timeboxing relaxation and reward time can also help us not get too carried away when we take a break and need to get back to work. It’s cool if you want to take a little time to chill out and play a game or something, but when you completely lose track of time and spend 8 hours straight stabbing things in Azeroth, that tends to hurt your productivity a bit.

By setting a timebox, you can allow yourself to relax and play, but not run the risk of getting so carried away that nothing else gets done. Play for an hour, timer goes off, work for an hour or two, timer goes off, play for an hour, etc.

This also works for combating perfectionism. Being a perfectionist over things is like being a walking time-sink factory. If all you do is obsess over the details and fret about whether or not something is absolutely perfect before you consider it done then everything is going to take ages to finish. By putting things in timeboxes you force yourself to call it quits and consider something finished when your time is up, regardless of how well it’s done. It may hurt, but it’s for your own good.

Dining on Elephants

You know the old, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” saying. Honestly, it’s a little to cliche for me – but I have to admit it’s got a bit of a point. When you have some giant, monster task the best course of action is always to divide and conquer.

Timeboxing gives you the perfect way to do just that, since you can isolate a specific area of a project, devote a set amount of time to it, and then move on to the next area. Not only do you guarantee you won’t waste too much time on one specific area of the project, but you also break the whole thing down into tasty, manageable chunks.

Once you have the task divided up, progress will start accumulating incrementally and before you know it, you’ll be all finished. How easy is that?

Our Friend Parkinson

We’ve mentioned Parkinson’s Law a few times before – “Work expands to fill the time alotted for its completion.”

Timeboxing takes that law, which is normally a very annoying thing, and makes it into our friend. By limiting the amount of time allotted for the completion of a task, we also reduce the amount of work. When you only have a short time to finish something, the process gets streamlined and prioritized so that only the truly important things get completed.

Since time is usually the easiest variable to manipulate, using it to leverage Parkinson’s Law against a normally difficult task is a great way to maximize your efficiency when working on something. Having a restricted deadline gives you no choice but to focus on the task at hand and completely ignore any distractions that may pop up. If you only have 15 minutes to rock something out, you’re not going to waste that time to go answer the phone, stop to check your e-mail, or go see what people have been talking about on Twitter.

There are lots more reasons why timeboxing is so effective, but I don’t want to get into too much here. There will be time for that later. The important thing, now that you know how much better you life can be with timeboxing, is that you know how to get started in the first place.

How to Start Timeboxing

Getting started using timeboxing is easy and, best of all in my opinion since I am a raging cheapskate, it’s free. Well, it can be free. You can buy stuff to help out too. All you need to get started is yourself, a task to accomplish, and some way to keep time. Since you probably have a watch, clock, phone, computer and various other electronic devices with clocks or timers on them, this shouldn’t be a problem.

Cheap though I may be, I actually went out and bought a mechanical kitchen timer for like $2, and made it my official timeboxing timer. I like using it a lot better, both because it’s loud and mechanical not electronic so I have less worries about it malfunctioning, but also because having bought something specifically for timeboxing makes me want to do it even more. Even if it is just a $2 hunk of plastic and springs.

Now that you have what you need, time for step one.

Find a Task

The first step to get started is to find a task. This can be any task at all, but there are some that lend themselves a little better to timeboxing. The first are tasks that you are having a lot of issues getting the motivation up to do. Usually, these are either big things, like writing a novel, or unpleasant things, like cleaning out the attic.

The second category of tasks that lend themselves to timeboxing are time-sink tasks. Things that you waste way too much time on when you do them. Like I said before, e-mail is one of the biggest culprits here with social media being a close second for most people.

It’s good to start small until you get the hang of it, but pick something and move on to step two.

Consider Your Goals

There are lots of things you can accomplish with timeboxing, and knowing why you’re getting into it in the first place is important. Once you’ve picked your task, take a few minutes to think about what you want to really accomplish by timeboxing it.

It may be that you want to get the motivation to take the first step, chip a little into some monumental task or just mitigate the damage of something you usually spend too much time on.

Regardless of your reason, it’s important to take a second to figure out what it is before you move on to step three…

Set a Time

How much time you set is going to depend largely on what your goals for the action are.

Do you want to get the courage up to get started on a hard or boring task? Set a short time, 15 to 30 minutes maybe, that you know won’t be too painful or difficult to commit to.

Do you want to make incrememntal progress in something big? Set a longer time frame of an hour or maybe even two hours if you’re feeling motivated, just don’t go too overboard and burn yourself out.

In the beginning, the important thing is to just wing it and not worry too much about setting the perfect amount of time for your timebox, the more you play around with it, the more you’ll develop a nice intuitive feel for how long you should set for each task.

Get Busy

I would say this is the easiest step, but come on, this whole process is cake, and it’s not even a lie. No party submission position necessary here. Once you have your time set, get to work on your task, but make sure to always stop working when your time ends.

This is really important, because if you don’t, you’re not timeboxing. You’re pretending to timebox, but just doing what you always do anyway. That cake is a lie.

Work until time runs out, and then move on to step five.

Reward Yourself

When the timer goes off and you’re done with your task, reward yourself! There are lots of reasons why using rewards is great, but the best one is that this will keep you motivated and excited about timeboxing. On top of that, it will keep you fresh and happy when you move on to your next task, timeboxed or not.

Congratulations! You now know everything you need to know to get started timeboxing! Be sure to come back and let us know how it goes, and if you’ve been doing it for a while, we’d love for you to share any tips you’ve come up with to make timeboxing more effective.

Adam is a former English teacher turned personal trainer and writer. He’s addicted to learning, parkour and martial arts. In addition to being a voracious bibliophile Adam’s fascinated by anything related to health, fitness and language. When not studying or training he can usually be found curled up with a good piece of fiction. You can e-mail Adam at Adam@RoadtoEpic.com

  • Dust Huynh

    This is a really easy and simple read to introduce to smaller relatives to read.

    I really like the humor and couple of personal examples which helped me relate and feel genuine.
    I’ve timeboxing for a couple of days now after reading this article and so far it’s been okay.
    Thanks for the read and new world into timeboxing, dude!

    • Thanks! I’m really glad it was helpful.

  • kdramafan

    Can you suggest some rewards?

    • It can be anything really, although I suggest not using something contrary to goals you’re working on (e.g., don’t eat a pint of ice cream as a reward for exercising),

      Some people might use 15 minutes on Facebook or Reddit as a reward, going and doing something fun for a bit outside, reading a book for a bit – really anything you find fun or relaxing.

      Work time is over and it’s time to have some fun.

  • Jonathan Booth

    I love this 101 article so much that I am going to share it with my whole team!

  • Ida

    Since you’re a personal trainer you might have an answer to this… coz I’m a personal trainer and one of the things I’m kinda stumped about now is that as a trainer my schedule tends to change week to week depending on my clients… how do you timebox effectively? I can’t plan a sample week coz it changes too much… is the only other way to plan the week every week? Or counting out x number of hours per task per week and trying to stuff it in somewhere? Ack sorry rambling! haha!