what is timeboxing?

What is Timeboxing?

Think back to a time when you were faced with a seemingly impossible task. Maybe you had to write a report that was due the next day, or study for a test that you were going to take in a few hours. How did you go about completing that task?

For the last-minute workers among us, it is often the adrenaline of impending doom that spurs us into action. However, there is a more structured way to put this adrenaline to good use: timeboxing.

Timeboxing is a productivity technique that involves breaking a task down into smaller, more manageable chunks and allotting a specific amount of time to complete each chunk. This limits the amount of time that you have to spend on any given task, which can be helpful when you are feeling overwhelmed or stressed.

In doing so, you give yourself a controlled deadline for completing the task. And, as an added bonus, you can often achieve a sense of satisfaction by completing tasks ahead of schedule.

Let’s talk about how to use timeboxing to get the most out of your day.

Timeboxing 101: How does it work?

In 2006, Piers Steel and Cornelius J. König released a paper entitled “Integrating theories of motivation”. In it, they proposed Temporal Motivation Theory; the theory that time pressure is a key motivating factor in human behavior.

This theory has been used to explain everything from the popularity of Sudoku puzzles to the rise in productivity during the Industrial Revolution. And, more recently, it has been applied to timeboxing as a way to help people achieve their goals.

In a nutshell, timeboxing works as a series of deadlines that motivate the individual to take action. Timeboxing involves breaking large tasks down into smaller subtasks, then allotting a realistic yet modest amount of time to complete each one.

discussing timeboxing

Who uses timeboxing?

Timeboxing is used by individuals from all walks of life. It can be helpful for students, busy professionals, and parents alike. In fact, many people find that timeboxing is especially useful when they are trying to change or improve their behavior.

Timeboxing in personal time management

For people who rely upon their own motivation to get work done — such as freelancers, students, and self-employed professionals — timeboxing can be a powerful way to increase productivity.

By breaking down a task into smaller, more manageable chunks, freelancers can avoid the dreaded “paralysis by analysis” and actually get work done. Additionally, setting a timer for each task helps to keep them on track and avoids the temptation to spend too much time on any one task.

Timeboxing in the classroom

Students can also benefit from using timeboxing in the classroom. In addition to helping them stay on track, it can also help students learn how to budget their time and set priorities.

Many teachers are now using timeboxing as a way to help students manage their time and complete homework assignments. For example, teachers may give students a specific amount of time to read a chapter, answer questions, or write a paper.

Timeboxing in the workplace

In the workplace, timeboxing can be used to manage projects and deadlines. Project managers can make the most of timeboxing by breaking down a project into smaller tasks and then assigning time limits to each one.

How does timeboxing help?

There are many benefits to using timeboxing, one of which we have already covered (motivation) — but there are others as well.

Increased ability to focus

Since timeboxing gives you a clear idea of when you’ll be able to stop working on a task, it can help you to focus more intensely while you are working. You know that you only have a limited amount of time to complete the task, so you’re less likely to allow yourself to be distracted — and better yet, you know that you’ll be able to take a break once the time is up.

an employee working on their laptop

Improved task management

By breaking down a large task into smaller, more manageable chunks, timeboxing can help you to better manage your time. This is especially helpful if you have a lot of work to do and not a lot of time in which to do it.

Enhanced productivity

Once you’ve gotten into the habit of using timeboxing, you’ll find it easier to slip into the productive mindset at the beginning of each box — especially if you use something tangible, like a timer, to signal the start of your work period. This can help you to get more done in a shorter amount of time, and ultimately boost your productivity.

Greater focus and less stress

There’s nothing more stressful than being aware of your deadlines, but confused as to when you’ll be able to meet them all. By using timeboxing, you can take the guesswork out of your day and focus on one task at a time. This will help to reduce your stress levels and allow you to concentrate more easily.

Better use of time

Life is short, and the days go quickly. By dedicating specific blocks of time to specific tasks, you can make the most efficient use of your time. You’ll be amazed at how much you can get done when you’re not wasting time on things that aren’t important.

All in all, there are many benefits to using timeboxing in your everyday life. Whether you’re looking for a way to boost your productivity, manage your time better, or simply reduce stress levels, this technique is definitely worth a try.

Where does timeboxing come from?

If you’ve been in the management or HR space for any amount of time, you’ll likely have heard of Agile methodology.

Agile is an overarching term for a variety of software development methodologies that focus on incremental, iterative work practices. One of the most popular Agile frameworks is Scrum, which features regular time-boxed iterations called “sprints.”

a person writing on a notepad

The concept of timeboxing has its roots in Agile, Lean Manufacturing, and the Theory of Constraints, which all emphasize the importance of flow and continuous improvement. In a nutshell, timeboxing is an approach to work that helps you focus on what’s important and get things done in a timely manner.

Agile companies tend to use timeboxing as a way to break down work into manageable chunks and ensure that they’re making progress on key initiatives. Timeboxing can also be helpful for individual contributors who want to stay focused and productive.

How to get started with timeboxing

Whether you’re part of an Agile company or not, you can easily begin using timeboxing in your own work. Here are a few tips:

1. Define what you want to achieve in a specific time period.

This is the most important part of your timeboxing process. If you’re unclear on what you want to achieve, there’s nothing to base your timeboxes off of.

One of the best ways to do this is to use the SMART framework:

  • Specific — Define the task in specific terms.
  • Measurable — How will you know when the task is complete?
  • Achievable — Is the task something you can actually complete in the given time period?
  • Realistic — Are you setting a realistic goal?
  • Time-bound — Put a time limit on the task.

For example: Your goal might be to write a report that outlines your company’s marketing strategy for the next six months, to be completed by the end of the week.

2. Break your goal down into subtasks.

Once you have a clear goal, it’s time to break it down into smaller tasks that you can complete in a specific time period. This is where the SMART framework comes in handy again — you want each task to be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-bound.

Also keep in mind that it’s easiest to separate tasks by domain or area of expertise. So if you’re writing a report, you might break down the task into the following subtasks:

  • Researching marketing strategies
  • Writing an outline of the report
  • Writing the body of the report
  • Finalizing and editing the report
  • Proofreading the report

That way, you can ensure that each subtask is manageable, and you aren’t needing to switch between headspaces too often.

timeboxing paperwork

3. Create a timebox for each task.

You’re ready to create your timeboxes. This can be done in a variety of ways, but a good rule of thumb is to treat each subtask as its own task. If all you needed to do was research a topic, how long would it take you roughly?

Approaching each subtask separately helps you to better estimate the amount of time you’ll need for a particular task. If you’re thinking about the entire report, it can feel overwhelming, and you may be more likely to over or underestimate how long it will take you to complete.

4. Create a visual representation of your timeboxes.

This can be as simple as a to-do list or calendar, or you could use a more complex tool like Trello or Asana. The important thing is that you have a way to see your tasks and their respective timeboxes at a glance.

If you’re someone who enjoys the feeling of crossing items off a list, this will also help to keep you motivated. And seeing your tasks in calendar form can be helpful for those who prefer to work in a more linear way.

a person using their laptop

5. Stick to your timeboxes!

This is crucial. If you don’t stick to one timebox, the rest will easily fall apart. And that’s not the goal of timeboxing!

The whole point of Agile is to help you focus on what’s important and get things done in a timely manner. Of course, there will be times when something comes up, and you need to adjust your timebox — but try to be as consistent as possible.

What if I go overtime on a timebox?

This is definitely a possibility, but it’s important to try and avoid it if you can. If you find that you consistently go overtime on a particular task, it may be time to re-evaluate the task itself or the time slot you’ve given yourself.

There are two main reasons why you might go overtime on a timebox:

  1. You haven’t broken the task down into small enough subtasks.
  2. You’ve given yourself too little time to complete the task.

Both of these can be addressed by using the SMART framework and adjusting your timeboxes as needed.

Remember: If you run overtime, don’t throw the whole timeboxing process out with the bathwater. Simply set yourself another timebox (ideally with a more accurate estimate) and try again. You haven’t failed, you’ve just learned something that will help you be more successful in the future.

an employee going over their timeboxing

Tips for sticking to your timeboxes

Timeboxing may sound simple, but it’s easy to get off track. In the instance that you find yourself struggling to stay on schedule, here are a few tips to help you stay on track:

1. Set realistic goals. The point of timeboxing is not to cram as much work as possible into a tiny window. You still need to be able to shut the box once it’s full! Make sure your goals are realistic and achievable, so you don’t feel discouraged or overwhelmed.

2. Use a timer. A physical timer can be a great way to stay focused and on track. If you’re using an online timer, make sure you disable notifications so you’re not interrupted.

3. Take breaks. This one is especially important! When you’re working on a timeboxed task, make sure to take regular breaks to avoid burnout. Get up and move around, or take a few minutes to relax and clear your mind.

4. Plan ahead. If you know there are going to be periods of time when you’ll be busier than usual, try to schedule more timeboxing sessions during those times. This will help you avoid feeling overwhelmed and stressed.

5. Adjust as needed. As with any productivity technique, it’s important to adjust your timeboxing routine as needed. If something isn’t working for you, try a different approach. The key is to find a system that helps you stay organized and productive without feeling overwhelmed or stressed.

With a little practice, timeboxing can be a great way to stay on track and get more done in less time. Just remember to be realistic with your goals, take breaks, and adjust as needed.

Final thoughts: What if timeboxes don’t work for me?

We all work in different ways. Some people thrive off of deadlines and adrenaline, while others prefer to take their time and work at a slower pace. Timeboxing is not a one-size-fits-all solution, and it might not be the best option for everyone.

If you’re someone who doesn’t work well with timeboxes, don’t despair — there are plenty of options available to you! Some people prefer to work with untimed task lists, while others create visualizations like Kanban boards to keep track of their progress.

There are also a number of time management tools and techniques that can help you stay on track, including Pomodoro timers, time tracking software, and goal setting tools.

The most important thing is to find a system that works for you — something that helps you stay organized and focused, without feeling overwhelmed or stressed.