Timeboxing: You Will Work Like Never Before

If you are an avid self-improvement reader, you know already what timeboxing is. But maybe you don't harness all its potential For the rest, timeboxing is a time management technique focused on time spent, not tasks done. Therefore, you will need to set aside some project tracking system to have a clear idea of what you are working on. The concept of timeboxing may sound really simple, but it is really very powerful. This post is as much about timeboxing as it is about my personal approach to timeboxing.

Do you remember your college or high school days? Those papers you only seemed to start writing 3 days before your due date? If you do, ask yourself another question: which day saw the best of you in terms of work done and work focus? If you ever did this, the answer will be, without doubt, the last night.

When we are in a real hurry to finish something, we start to produce our best work, or we break down. The good point is that timeboxing techniques can help both types of workers: those thriving under pressure and the ones who avoid deadlines. You can raise your productivity near your maximum without breaking down.

Timeboxing's basic premise is to allocate a certain amount of time (oddly named a time box) to your tasks. I. e. work for 1 hour in your lawn. But there are several ways to allocate this time, and also several ways to deal with your timer bell once the time box is over. And this is what makes timeboxing great: flexibility.

Allocating fixed amounts of time repeatedly

This is one of the simplest ways to do timeboxing. You allocate a certain number of timeboxes (of say, 30 minutes, 50 minutes) to your day's (or week's) tasks.

This method, simple as it is can work wonders. I found it out as The pomodoro technique, a freely downloadable ebook from here.

Allocating a variable amount of time repeatedly

This is of course more flexible than the previous system. You decide for how long you want to work on a certain task in your to do, either for the day or as a total amount. For example, today I may work no more than 30 minutes in drafting this post, and should not work on it for longer than 2 hours.

Ring the bell: keep on working or stop cold?

These are two possible approaches when the bell rings. There are other possibilities as well. You may set a "reserve time" for each task to keep on working if it can be completed in that time, or you can set a new box at the end of the day.

Keeping on working works better when your initial span was short and the task at hand is big (really big). You use the time box to get momentum on a big task to keep on working on it, assuming once you start it won't be that bad. I personally don't use this too much for a simple reason: it leads me to be really tired too early in the morning. Last Tuesday I was preparing an exam, and had to write the exam statement and solve it. It was a programming assignment, so it took quite a while. And despite I had clearly defined boxes of 30 minutes for each task, I just did around one hour and a half (according to my logs more like 2 hours) straight without even moving... And I felt wasted after that, took quite a few hours to get enough momentum to work more. I suggest you better adhere to a strict pausing regime.

Stopping cold means that when the alarm rings you just finish where it rang. You may write that last phrase, or compile to check if what you wrote works, but can't keep on working on the same task after this. This is what I have found definitely more useful! Why? Well, when there is a task I don't like, working for 30 minutes on it is really no big deal. And I can do it around three times a day. Think of it: with this approach you can work for 1h30 (or more, depends on you!) on the tasks you dislike! On a first read you may think just that!? I work a lot more! Ok, I ask you Really? Do you work more than that on your hard tasks? I mean those big things you never seem to start, or that long term project you are always deferring or procrastinating on. And of course, 1h30 is just for the big ones, and now I am starting. In between big tasks you can cram a lot more!

How I use timeboxing

My approach is based on the variable length schedule and stop at the bell, with some tweaks. I have a projects list (not complete: only short to mid term projects, future projects are not in this list until I have not cleared others) and each day I fill my to do of the day.

I usually schedule for 10-12 items in the list, adding up around 3 hours of purely work time. I'm currently gauging how much more I am able to add to the list, looking for my golden spot. I'm still juggling with it, this is why you may think 3 hours is too little, I think it too. But I've managed to do more in a day with this method than in a week of my previous state of continuous procrastination with a pinch of work in it.

My future plan (and currently I am already doing it but ignoring it) is to add a rest time to each task. For example, proving a theorem or doing LaTeX for 30 minutes are more tiring than proofreading one of your papers or reading an article for 30 minutes. I would then schedule for a 10 minutes break in the first two cases and for a 5 minutes break in the lat two cases. But as I said, for now I rest for as long as I want. Which is not that much, really, some days I've found that at 13:00 I was almost done with all my (scheduled) day worth of work!

If this happens you have two options, and which you decide is up to you and your current energy levels. If I'm feeling energetic, for example, if that happens on evening Tuesday, I might add a few more schedule tasks to the list, not a lot: from one to three.

How I tackle my day schedule depends on how I am feeling.

If I don't feel very much like working I start with some small task for 15 minutes with 5 (real) minutes for rest, something like doing LaTeX or proofreading, and then turn to a big task. After the big one, I turn to something unrelated and not very tiring: if I am at home I may fold the clothes or do the dishes, water plants. If I am at my office, I may sketch a blog post (if scheduled!) or read a page or two of some paper I am interested in, deeply but really slowly, as this is supposed to be a "relax" time. After this unrelated task I usually tackle another big task if I have enough time before lunch/dinner. That big task may be related to the previous big or not: it doesn't matter. After each four tasks (which I number 1-4 in my to do) I take a longer break, from 15 to 20 minutes. Repeat until you clean your day list.

If I feel like working big, I start straight with my first big task, and then go on with a more relaxed one. You can also start with two big tasks, if you are really in an amazing mood! You can continue with your small scheduled tasks and repeat until you clean your day list.

At the moment I am resting for quite a little longer than I schedule, but usually manage to finish all tasks on time (maybe late at night!). Why does it take so long?

What to do when distracted

If some external circumstance forces me to stop my current task before the timer runs out... I eithe write it down (if it can be deferred) or I solve it in the moment. If I have to solve it, I stop the timer and reset it at the start time again. This way I get to work a little more on that big task: basic probability (and Murphy's law) says that the hardest the task (i. e. the more time you give yourself to do the task) more easy it is for someone to come in and stop your work. See it as a way to overcome big tasks: one small step at a time.

I hope you enjoyed this post. If you did, please share with your friends with Twitter, Reddit or StumbleUpon. This would make a difference!

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Written by Ruben Berenguel