Timeboxing is a simple and extremely powerful technique for creating focus, urgency, and measurement for activities. It also serves as a building block for more complex time management schemes.
Despite its simplicity, few people take full advantage of timeboxing. Let’s look at what timeboxing is, some familiar examples, and some tips on applying it to the best effect.
What is a timebox?
A timebox is a choice of activity and a time dedicated exclusively to that activity. During the allotted time, you work exclusively on the chosen activity. When the activity is complete, or when time runs out, stop. That’s all there is to it. Simple, right? Consider some examples:
- An hour spent exercising at the gym each week
- Half of a soccer match, with time kept on the referee’s watch
- Watching TV news every evening
- The 24 Hours of Le Mans
- An hour spent in introspection, meditation, or prayer
- An hour spent writing your novel
- An hour spent reading to your children
Each of these satisfies the definition: an activity and a time dedicated exclusively to that activity. These examples also highlight what is not included in the definition.
Your routine at the gym may vary from session to session. But you are still exercising. This shows that an activity is not merely a fixed task or set of tasks.
A half of a soccer match is a team activity. This shows that a timebox may use either a solo or group activity.
The 24 Hours of Le Mans is an extremely complex race, with large teams spending huge sums in competition. This shows that the activity does not need to be simple.
When writing your novel you will make progress in an hour, but you are unlikely to complete the job. This shows that you do not necessarily need to complete the activity in the time alloted to it.
Why is timeboxing useful?
A timebox provides focus by excluding distractions. When working in a timebox, avoid all activities other than the one you chose. Don’t check your email. Don’t answer the phone. Don’t order lunch. Focus fully on your chosen activity.
A timebox provides urgency. With a timebox you create a self-imposed deadline. How much can you accomplish before that deadline arrives? Challenge yourself to see what you can accomplish.
A timebox helps make activities measurable. How much time does an activity take? Use a sequence of timebox to find out. After several novel-writing timeboxes you’ll have good idea how much you write in a given amount of time. The timebox lets you measure your incremental progress and extrapolate over the entire job.
The timebox is a building block
A simple technique like timeboxing naturally lends itself to combining into more complex arrangements. Here are several examples of those structures that use the timebox as a building block.
The Pomodoro Technique pairs a work timebox with a break timebox: 25 minutes of work followed by 5 minutes of break. This simple pattern encourages timeboxing all of your work activity, while avoiding a death march of incessant work. While the Pomodoro Technique adds some additional task tracking, its fundamental power comes from the focus and measurement that timeboxing provides.
Lean Coffee is a method for running a meeting with a dynamic agenda. These are the steps:
- Generate topics
- Introduce topics (summarize the idea in one sentence)
- Vote on topics to
- Talk about topics
Timeboxing each step keeps things moving quickly. When talking about topics, set a timer for 3-5 minutes. When the timer goes off, participants should show thumbs up, down, or sideways to indicate keep going, stop, or no preference. When the majority votes down, move to the next topic. Lean coffee focuses attention on the topics of most interest, ensures that each topic gets as much time as it needs, and moves on to the next topic without delay. The short timer for each discussion segment keeps the conversation focused.
Scrum uses timeboxed elements to create boundaries around product development. All of the scrum ceremonies are timeboxed: daily stand-up, sprint review, sprint retrospective, sprint planning. The sprint itself is a timebox for the complex activity of product development. The exclusion of distracting activities during the sprint timebox provides focus for the team.
Common difficulties in timeboxing
Like any other tool, timeboxing can be applied poorly. Here are some of the difficulties people encounter in attempting to use timeboxes.
When you are immersed in an activity, and interruption imposes a high cost. You must pull yourself away from your focused effort and refocus elsewhere. And when you return to your timebox you must reimmerse yourself. It’s very easy to underestimate the impact of interruptions.
Do other people interrupt you? Create an indicator that lets them know you are in a timebox and that interruptions are expensive. Wear ear muffs or headphones. Put up a sign that tells them not to interrupt you.
Do you lose focus and wander from your chosen task? Try shortening your timeboxes. Make sure you are taking enough breaks. Try the Pomodoro Technique.
Don’t simply accept interruptions of your timebox as a fact. And certainly don’t just add up the times between interrupts and say that was the time spent on your chosen activity. Experiment with ways to avoid the interruptions altogether and find out what works best for you.
If you work on multiple activities at once, you’re not really timeboxing. This is another form of self-imposed interruption that breaks your timebox and your focus. You cannot be in two places at once. Avoid the multitasking.
Activities that must complete
Some activities cannot stop when time runs out, so timeboxing does not apply. Can you timebox your commute to work? What do you do when time runs out before you arrive at your destination? You cannot simply stop, so you cannot timebox this activity.
Timebox some activity
Timeboxing is an extremely powerful technique, and one that you can put into use immediately. Try it now: spend 3 minutes thinking of activities that you can timebox. Then pick one and go!
Posted by William Baxter on Aug 4, 2015