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Timeboxing: what it is, how to do it

Last updated on
December 20, 2021
Timeboxing: what it is, how to do it

If you’re hoping to become more productive and use your time more efficiently, you certainly won’t be short of techniques and strategies to try. There are dozens of popular time management tools, apps and strategies out there, and some are utilized and lauded by the world’s most successful people. But in a recent survey, it was timeboxing that was ranked as the most effective productivity hack. So what exactly is timeboxing, and how can you use it to your advantage?

What is timeboxing?

Timeboxing—like time blocking—involves allocating finite periods of time to different tasks and activities. But whereas time blocking involves putting specific chunks of time aside to work on something, timeboxing involves placing limits on the amount of time you spend working on it.

So, rather than simply saying that you’re going to design a web page between 2pm and 4pm, your mission would to finish designing the page by 4pm—or to have created a certain number of designs. The point is to set a work-related goal and then complete that in the allocated time, no matter what.

Parkinson’s Law asserts that “work expands to fill the time available for its completion”, and for most of us this is true: if you have a month to complete a project, it’ll take a month; if you have a year to write a book, it’ll take a year. Time has a way of running away from us, and the whole point of timeboxing is to prevent us spending more time on tasks than is strictly necessary.

The biggest timeboxing benefits

Timeboxing forces us to work more efficiently because we know we have a limited time to finish our work. When faced with the pressure of a ticking clock, we’re far less likely to get distracted and are able to dedicate our focus entirely to the task in hand. Plus, if you feel like you’re lacking motivation, setting yourself a time limit and working against the clock can be an enjoyable challenge.

Timeboxing also stops us from trying to be perfectionists. If you know you have an unlimited time to finish a task, you can easily spend hours (or even days or weeks) trying to refine and perfect every single little detail. When you know you have a limited time, you can focus on getting the job done, and not fritter time away making insignificant tweaks.

Also, during a time when many of us are struggling to maintain boundaries between our personal and professional lives, timeboxing is an effective way to create a better work/life balance. If you’re someone who gets bogged down with work and finds it hard to know when it’s OK to stop, timeboxing can provide you with peace of mind. It can also help you make time for the activities that might otherwise be overlooked because you’re spending too long on other tasks.

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How to timebox your work

So now we know why you’d want to timebox, what’s the best way to do it?

1. Identify your tasks

The first step to timeboxing is to identify the tasks that are most suited to it. Pretty much any activity can be timeboxed, but it often works best for tasks that you don’t feel like doing, or tasks you don’t want to spend much time on.

2. Set your intention

Once you know which tasks you want to timebox, the next step is to define your goals. For example, if you’re writing an article, is your goal to complete the whole thing within the allocated time? Or is it a more reasonable goal to write 1,000 words within that time? Then, you need to set yourself a time frame—and because you want to push yourself, it should be realistic but also challenging.

3. Map out your boxes

To stay on top of all your timeboxed tasks, it’s extremely useful to plot them out. This lets you quickly visualize how much time you have to spend on each one, as well as when exactly you’ll be working on them. There are lots of task planning tools out there to help with this, letting you easily create a list of tasks, prioritize them, add time limits, and then schedule them into your calendar.

While very much a personal time management exercise, timeboxing still needs to exist within the context of team work. Task planners are particularly useful for signaling your availability and capacity to the rest of your team, as you structure your own focused work day—letting your coworkers to see how much time you have available, so they don’t interrupt or overbook you.

Crucially, you’ll also want to be able to review how you’re doing against your timeboxing plans, which is where task planning tools with time tracking features built in come into their own. Tools like Timely can automatically capture how you spend your day, allowing you to track the progress of everything you’re working on, as well as measure how accurate your goals are. The useful progress bar on your daily timeline is great for quickly gauging where you’re at against your plans, and by digging into your captured activities after the fact, you can see just how long you need for certain tasks to improve future timeboxing.

⚠️ Don't forget to timebox regular deep breaks throughout your day!
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