5 Reasons to Practice Timeboxing


Timeboxing is a time management technique that limits the time during which a task (or set of tasks) is accomplished. Although it’s commonly used by software development teams, more and more individuals (designers, writers, engineers — even students) are using it to boost personal productivity. Why? Here are five good reasons.

1. Timeboxing is free and easy.

You don’t need to buy anything. The only gadget you’ll need is a timer, which you probably have in your kitchen or on your cellphone and computer. In case you don’t, there are tons of timer software online.

You don’t need to read lengthy books or attend expensive seminars to learn it. Although there are many variations of timeboxing, the basic steps are essentially the same:

  1. Decide on a task or set of tasks.
  2. Get a timer and set it to a time commensurate with the task. (You can choose to set the duration before deciding on the tasks you can perform within it.)
  3. Start the timer and focus on performing the task, avoiding distractions as much as possible.
  4. Once the timer sounds (or blinks or vibrates), stop working. Ideally, you should trust the device to tell you that time’s up instead of interrupting yourself by checking the time occasionally.
  5. Reward yourself with a treat, a pleasurable activity, or simply with a well-deserved rest. (The activity and rest may also be timeboxed.)
  6. Repeat as necessary.

2. Timeboxing is flexible and customizable.

Any of the above steps can be varied. For those who suffer from severe perfectionism or procrastination, timeboxes can be made as short as 5 minutes to make the task less intimidating. On the other hand, workaholics can use timeboxes to limit work duration, thus making work less stressful.

When it comes to choosing the timeboxed tasks, you can be as specific (“Write a 100 word description of my main character.”) or as vague (“Make some progress on my novel.”) as you like.

Timeboxes can also be used for activities other than work. You can timebox chores to turn them into games (“Arrange my desk in less than ten minutes. Go!”) You can also timebox unproductive activities (“Check Facebook for no more than five minutes.”) You can even make combination timeboxes, like the ones used in the Procrastination Dash and the Pomodoro Technique.

3. Timeboxing curbs procrastination.

Getting started on a task is often more difficult than doing the task itself. Timeboxing makes getting started less intimidating. It’s a lot easier to begin on a task you only have to do for fifteen minutes than on something you have to spend an indefinite amount of time on. Because when you think of work and time in an indefinite way, it’s often excruciatingly long.

Setting the duration of a timebox also forces you to choose an appropriate amount of work. If you only have thirty minutes to work, you won’t try to “write a book.” “Write first draft of chapter 1″ is not only more realistic, it’s also less daunting — ask anyone who sat down and tried to write The Great American Novel.

4. Timeboxing keeps perfectionism in check.

Procrastination is often caused or at least related to perfectionism. Not only do perfectionists find it hard to start, they find it difficult to continue and sometimes, even finish. Timeboxing lessens the aversion to and stress from the task by limiting its duration.

But there’s another way timeboxing can curb perfectionism. By setting specific goals to accomplish before time is up, the perfectionist is forced to settle for good enough, prioritize the essentials, and avoid stressing the details. And if tinkering can’t be avoided, it can at least be timeboxed. This ensures that the work is finished on time — and not ruined by too much tinkering.

5. Timeboxing lets you flow.

Perfectionists make work too challenging by setting unrealistic goals, often with standards that are too high. On the other hand, when the goals are too trivial or the standards are set too low, work becomes too easy, resulting in boredom. When work is neither too easy nor too difficult, it becomes effortless, even pleasurable, and highly productive. This happy state is called flow.

The conditions that induce flow can easily be met by timeboxing:

  • A clear set of goals: You do a specific task within the allotted time
  • Confidence to do the task: Both the task and the time are freely chosen.
  • Clear and immediate feedback: Your focus during the timebox ensures that nothing escapes your attention; and the duration is short enough that you don’t have to wait long before you can evaluate your work.

During flow, you focus all your emotional and intellectual capacity on the task at hand, allowing you to achieve your best work. (Just make sure your timer is loud enough to bring you back to reality at the end of your timebox.)

Become a timeboxer.

Timeboxing may be simple compared to other time management tools, but as I’ve shown you, its benefits are many. There are other reasons people practice timeboxing — it’s more sustainable, easier to schedule and measure, better for your health — but I’m sure that once you try it, you’ll find your own.

So why don’t you give it a try? Make a list of the tasks you’ve been procrastinating on. Go ahead. Launch your word processor, get your timer started and begin writing.


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Red Tani writes, designs, and consults for Redvisory, a communications consultancy he started in 2009. A former systems analyst, video game hacker, and Counter Strike sniping champion, he does all his computing a la Dvorak.
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Discussion

  1. Bret Juliano on the 3rd August

    It’s certainly worth a try.

  2. Cesare on the 3rd August

    Did not know of this technique.
    I still prefer Pomodoro but I might give it a try …

    • Red Tani on the 4th August

      If you’ve been doing Pomodoros, you’ll be right at home with timeboxing. The Pomodoro technique itself is a specific kind of timebox — a 25-minute work timebox followed by a 5-minute rest timebox, done for 4 sets. Please let us know how it goes!

    • Luca on the 22nd November

      This site http://arialdomartini.wordpress.com/2011/10/16/tomatoes-should-be-used-just-to-make-sauces/ claims “timeboxing” and “pomodoro technique” are very different, and the techniques you are describing in your post are the real and neat ones, whilst pomodoro’s ones are fluffy and very wrong.
      Actually, I found your post clicking on that article

  3. Hi,

    I think this technique really works. This is the third time I am reading this.

    When you are under time restrains, you are more productive. This happens with me too.

    Kindest,
    Nabeel

    • Red Tani on the 4th August

      It sure does. A lot of people think that the constraints will cause creativity to suffer, but I’ve found that just the reverse happens — productivity and creativity actually increase.

  4. Susan Saxx on the 4th August

    Thank you, Red, for this great article! People who work outside the home and then also are working on additional goals at home such as a business, or as a writer, have difficulty getting all of the things done that they wish. Including rest! This method makes a lot of sense to me, and I’m going to try it right now during my vacation.

    Much appreciated!

    P.s. I plan on linking to your article from my site.

    Susan Saxx
    http://Www.susansaxx.com

    • Red Tani on the 4th August

      You’re welcome, Susan! Timeboxing is particularly useful for when you have a lot of time on your hands — like when you’re on vacation. Without regular work hours or bosses to impose a kind of mandatory timebox, it’s very easy to procrastinate or waste time on the nonessentials — which when you have the whole day to yourself, you seem to find a lot of.

      Have fun during your vacation, and let us know if timeboxing works for you, too!

  5. Shiki on the 19th August

    This post has been a godsend.

    I work from home, and as you said, with no bosses or strict deadlines, I tend to turn the simplest tasks into time/effort consuming projects by overthinking every single detail.

    Timeboxing took care of that! I’m immensely more productive, and was amazed by appearance of this strange new thing… free time i think it’s called :D

    Thanx so much!

  6. Julio Barros on the 16th December

    Hi,

    Thanks for the post. I strongly agree and am a big fan of time boxing. So much so that I wrote an iPhone app to help me keep track of what I am and am not working on. I know one of your reasons is that time boxing is free and I think iTimeBox is worth the small fee. And its free to try out.

    My app http://bit.ly/iTimeBox is a countdown timer with a memory for time boxing/limiting activities. Its not a time tracker but rather is great for setting aside minimum (or maximum) time blocks to work on your long term goals. For example, studying, working out, accounting, breaks, etc. Its free for a limited number of activities and has an In App Purchase if it fits in your life and you want more.

    Thanks.

    Julio

  7. Joshua Ayson on the 7th February

    Great post! Simple and to the point. I recently read the Pomodoro book and have been researching time-boxing in my own life. Although the practice is simple, it really has a profound impact. Thanks in particular on “flow” bullet, me likes!

  8. Alex in Leeds on the 5th June

    I just switched to timeboxing instead of setting myself just a To Do list, I’m hoping it cuts the amount of procrastinating in my day…

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