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:
- Decide on a task or set of tasks.
- 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.)
- Start the timer and focus on performing the task, avoiding distractions as much as possible.
- 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.
- Reward yourself with a treat, a pleasurable activity, or simply with a well-deserved rest. (The activity and rest may also be timeboxed.)
- 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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