Timeboxing: what is, its benefits, and how it works

What is timeboxing?

Timeboxing is one of the best time management techniques that limit a task to a fixed and realistic timeline. Also known as time blocking, this technique is a part of Scrum and Agile project management methodologies.

This timeline consists of a certain amount of minutes, hours, days, or even weeks and months, according to the complexity of the job at hand. 

What’s the value of timeboxing and why is it a favorite technique among many entrepreneurs, like Elon Musk? Let’s see how it works.

Most productivity tips, tools, or practices, consist of taking a task and working on it until completion. Timeboxing puts its focus on the timeline. The deadline needs to be the motivating factor for performing the task. 

Timeboxing allocates a fixed (and maximum) unit of time to an activity. This unit is called a timebox, where the planned activity occurs.

It’s a more goal-oriented management plan, setting that one timebox to complete a particular task. It’s considered to be a technique that effectively reduces procrastination.

Timeboxing helps you schedule an entire day to maximize productivity. You’ll check items off your to-do list in the most efficient way possible.

There’s a certain amount of intention behind deciding what you’ll be spending your time on. Eventually, you reduce the amount of time spent on work that needs to be done before the actual task.

You can use Timeboxing to schedule individual tasks, help your team get organized, or manage meetings more effectively

The benefits of timeboxing

  • helps to fight procrastination;
  • works for both individuals and teams;
  • defines the amount of time you have for each task;
  • prevents multitasking – an activity that might be the reason you’re feeling unproductive;
  • helps to measure productivity;
  • helps you to save time;
  • increases productivity;

Timeboxing leverages the psychological phenomenon of setting a deadline. Without a deadline, the time spent on a task will expand according to Parkinson’s law. Timeboxing simplifies an individual or team’s work.

Time blocking prevents procrastination

Timeboxing helps fight procrastination by imposing time limits, which helps with focusing on the task at hand. It helps individuals also to ignore distractions and prioritize other tasks since there is a deadline to be met.

Timeboxing is also a beneficial technique for perfectionists. It helps them avoid spending too much time stuck in a decision or concluding a project. Indeed, quick-decision making is important to improve work performance and in some cases for the business.

A men multitasking at work

Prevents multitasking

The technique will also prevent multitasking, as so much time is lost while switching between tasks. Indeed, our brains need on average 23 minutes to fully focus on a task. One task will be started only when the previous one is finished.

Timeboxing reduces the phenomenon known as decision paralysis; a psychological reaction people have when they feel overwhelmed. Converting a to-do list to time boxes is helpful, especially if you can group similar tasks together, for example.

Measures productivity

Another benefit of timeboxing is helping estimate deadlines. It determines whether there’s enough time available to accomplish a project. Therefore, helps teams to avoid the risk of over-promising.

Doing time-blocking also allows team leaders to measure the amount of time a certain team can dedicate to a new project.

If you’re prone to some procrastination as a remote worker, timeboxing your schedule/to-do list might be a solution to fight that tendency. The same applies to students dealing with exams or papers for different subjects.

How to timebox: put this technique into practice

1. Estimation

Start by estimating how long each task on your list may take to complete and dedicate a specific slot of time to it.

These estimations should include breaks and buffer periods for any unexpected interruptions.

If you’re struggling with this step, it might be a good idea to read our guide about time estimation.

2. Choose the length of time for your time boxes

Now it’s literally time to choose the length of your time box.

You can incorporate some other time management techniques, like the Pomodoro Technique. The Pomodoro is actually a form of timeboxing that involves working in time segments of 25 minutes, followed by a short 5 minutes break each. 

In alternative to the Pomodoro technique, there are many time management techniques you can apply. Remember to incorporate always breaks in your focus sessions. They’ll help you keep your energy levels high.

a glass clock as a timer

3. Set a timer

Use your smartphone alarm, or a time tracking app such as Timeular, to alert you when it’s time to finish one task and move on to the next.

4. Assess and review

What happens if you can’t finish the task during the allocated time to perform it? Every time you check off a time box, you should assess and review how it went.

Suppose you haven’t completed the task on time. Review your progress and try to understand what you should have done differently. Do you need more time for this type of work? Do you need to schedule your tasks in another order?

Reaching your goals does not always mean completing the task in one go. The answer is in assessing your needs and those of the project.

5. Reward yourself

Try to create positive associations with task completion, reward yourself!

This attitude will motivate you to check off more tasks from your to-do list. There are many ways you can reward yourself. Having a refreshing walk, playing with a pet, eating a delicious and healthy snack, or listening to some soothing music are simple yet effective ways to reward yourself.

How is Timeboxing used in Scrum?

Timeboxing in teams helps the members solve or reduce procrastination, avoid multitasking, stay on schedule and increase productivity.

It’s also a good way to help people who have a tendency to overthink or over-engineer work. It’s important that everyone agrees on the length of a timebox, so do take note of others’ feedback.

Strategies to organize the work day should be shared. The complete process needs to be reviewed at the end. Was the task finished? Was the length of the timebox appropriate?

Agile and Scrum frameworks include timeboxing as an essential component of work sprints.

A timebox in the Agile method determines when a team must reach a goal. Timeboxing in Agile minimizes the risk of missing deadlines.

In Scrum, all of the tasks are time-boxed. Timeboxing is used to define the length of the Sprint, which is usually one month or less. Within a Sprint, the team has to accomplish its objectives.

The ritual of the daily Scrum is itself a timebox of 5, 10, or 15 minutes. Other events, like the Sprint review or the retrospectives, are also time-boxed.

Helpful strategies for a successful timeboxing

1. Make your timeboxes visible and colored

This technique is the most effective. Make use of your calendars, both digital and analog.

Block time on your calendar, so you’ll prevent external interruptions during your workflow. To distinguish different task categories, use different colors for each time box.

2. Define the type of timeboxes

There are two types of time boxes: hard time boxes and soft time boxes.

A hard time box is a fixed period of time dedicated to a stand-alone task. The previous and the following time box are unrelated to the hard time box.

A soft time box is, instead, a timebox that is part of a set of related tasks. Once a soft timebox is finished, there’s the following one which is related and dependent on it.

An example of a hard time box could be hosting a Retrospective meeting. A soft time box could be, instead, researching an article idea, which is part of the more extensive story of writing a piece of content.

Priority word in a puzzle

3. Commit to your timeboxes

Think of timeboxes as meetings you’ve scheduled with yourself. Resist the temptation to cancel them. Commit to the timebox and respect its start and end.

4. Set a timer

Setting a timer will help you hold yourself accountable to the expectation of time you set yourself, and alert you when that time is up.

5. Protect your focus time

The secret to the effectiveness of timeboxing is helping you focus on the task at hand. Minimize the chance of interruptions when you’re in the flow. For example, mute your phone and computer notifications – one of the biggest enemies of productivity and time waster at work.

6. Don’t forget to take breaks

No time management or productivity technique is designed to burn people out. Make sure you’re taking short breaks between timeboxes: stretch, walk around for a bit, or drink some water.

7. Integrate your calendar with a time tracker

If you’re using a time tracker to measure timeboxes, compare the results of your workday with the time planned.

By integrating the time tracker with your calendar, you’ll see in reality how long you need to accomplish a task, and the next time you’ll be more accurate with your planning. See how to integrate Timeular with any calendar.

Common mistakes when starting with timeboxing

  • Not respecting the time limit of a timebox;
  • Tempted to disrespect the limits of a time box;
  • Pressuring a team to extend their timeboxes;
  • Filling the task calendar back to back without considering breaks and buffer time at the end of the day;
  • Not organizing the to-do list, and then the time boxes, according to which time of day you are usually more productive;
  • Falling into distractions like scrolling through social media;
  • Not setting an alarm through a time management app. 

Timeboxing FAQs

I’m finding it difficult to finish my task before the timebox ends.

This is an issue a lot of people may encounter right in the beginning. It’s actually part of the adaptation process of timeboxing. Begin by trying soft timeboxes, so you can still finish tasks if you underestimate how long they should take.

With time, and with the more timeboxes you set, the better you’ll get at estimating how long a task takes.

Time tracking also helps tremendously in learning how long a task will actually take.

What if timeboxing results in me rushing tasks, lowering the quality of my work?

It’s important to be realistic when setting goals for each timebox. The goal of this technique isn’t to squeeze out every ounce of productivity you have.

Make sure you’re being realistic about how long work will take.

What if my timeboxes are too short for my project?

The answer to this is planning, even though this situation might not be as problematic as you think.

When you’re starting your timeboxing journey, breaking work or a project into smaller chunks can be helpful in order to understand how you’re using time.

Something that is also very useful during a team project, as you can touch base in between tasks.

Who uses timeboxing?

Timeboxing is used by the likes of Elon Musk and Bill Gates. This method may take some effort to sharpen but definitely contributes to sharpening your focus and increases productivity.

The big takeaway from this method is the way it increases the awareness surrounding the time a task will eventually take.

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