Timeboxing is not an alien concept—still, the first time I could materialize the notion was with the Pomodoro Technique. I was having troubles at work, constantly postponing tasks and eventually causing incoming tasks to pile up. What I experienced was a simple brain hijack: Procrastination. Having feared the unknowns the job will bring to my moment, I chose the easier route to get rewards. Instead of doing the task that I should do, I was reorganizing my desk or nailing the picture to the wall, which has been waiting for me for the last six months. Pomodoro Technique had a simple offer: Get a timer. Allocate 25 minutes for a task. For that 25 minutes, you are not allowed to do anything else. You have to spend that time trying to achieve it. Then, no matter the outcome, you stop what you’re doing at the end of that 25 minutes and take a 5-minute break. It helped me overcome my emotional brain and start the task. Once started, I would also often see that it was not a big deal after all.
What I’ve experienced was a perfect example of utilizing timeboxing. Pomodoro Technique is all about limits. First, 25 minutes is your timebox for your working self. Then 5 minutes is the timebox for the break. You repeat this four times, and then you take a more extended break—which is again a timebox for 30 minutes. The technique, although helpful, doesn’t matter. When you use timeboxes and respect the limits those timeboxes bring, you take control of your time. Timeboxing is a straightforward concept; the hard part is to follow the rules no matter what you’re experiencing.
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I’m not going to dive deep into broader applications of timeboxing in workplaces. However, I’d like to note that you’re probably already using timeboxes—perhaps without even knowing it. If you are working in the tech industry, there is a good chance that you’ve heard or even been working with Scrum methodology. In Scrum, you utilize one to four-week-long sprints, which are timeboxes to achieve iterative progress.1 If you watch any sports game like basketball, you’ll notice the game is timeboxed. When you’ve taken an exam in school, you were given a time interval to answer the questions. Although the world we live in adopted timeboxing extensively, I’d like to focus on the personal applications because I believe that’s where we’re missing the most benefit by not using timeboxes.
Artist: Gülfemin Buğu Tekcan — cosmodotart
Timeboxing may help you start a task. If you suffer from procrastination and cannot begin the tasks on time, setting a fixed amount of time to handle the task can provide the spark you need. Procrastination is linked with the amygdala, which is the part of our brains that controls decision-making and emotional responses.2 “Individuals with a higher amygdala volume may be more anxious about the negative consequences of an action—they tend to hesitate and put off things,”3 which explains the notion of procrastination. When you create a timebox for a specific task, you also override the emotional decision made by your amygdala and decide on the task’s starting point. This logical decision-making does not guarantee that you will finish the task, of course. But, hey, well begun is half done.
Timeboxing may also help you end a task. If you have perfectionist tendencies, you may be suffering from unfinished tasks. No matter how much you work on something, it’s never good enough. I know this feeling well: Whenever I find some task that I’m passionate about, I dream of achieving the best possible outcome—it never happens. Targeting a certain level of quality is a good sign; however, half a loaf is better than none. While explaining the “Follow the Sun” workflow to decrease time-to-market, the authors state that “personal timeboxing curbs perfectionist tendencies, decreases procrastination, and does not allow individuals to overcommit to a task.”4 When you create a timebox, you not only decide on the starting point, but you also set an ending point. If you can commit to your timebox with discipline, then you must leave the task precisely at the decided time—even if it’s not finished.
A good motivation to use timeboxing is the fact that we have limited time in our lives. Considering that we spend a good portion of our time on necessities like sleeping, eating, cleaning, etc., it makes sense to take back control of our time. When we procrastinate, we tend to spend our time on things that don’t really matter to us. So if there is a way to avoid procrastination, then that’s also protecting our time. It also goes without saying that by avoiding overcommitting, we gain time that we can spend elsewhere.
When we talk about how we can make the best use of our time, I also would like to mention Marc Zao-Sanders’ to-do list transformation. By moving from to-dos to placing boxes in his calendar, he explains, he not only controls his time but can also see where to set the timeboxes.5 Having a calendar-view to-dos, he can visually say no to incoming requests because he would know that there would be no capacity in his day. Of course, most people use calendars to block time for meetings anyway—why would the actual work/life be less important than them?
Lastly, a quick tip from me: Keep your timeboxes small and divide your tasks to fit into the timeboxes, if needed. There is an old, beautiful adage called Parkinson’s Law that states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”6 If you don’t set your timeboxes small, you’d also risk the benefits you can gain from timeboxing. What we fundamentally try to achieve with timeboxing is to create a fake deadline and finish the task until the deadline is passed.
Have you already been using timeboxing in your work/life? What are your experiences? Let me know in the comments.
There is a paper called Timeboxing: a process model for iterative software development by Pankaj Jalote, Aveejeet Palit, Priya Kurien, and V. T. Peethamber on ScienceDirect, which suggests leading a reduction in the delivery time for product releases.
How brains of doers differ from those of procrastinators: A press release on The structural and functional signature of action control published in Psychological Science, 2018.
“Follow the Sun” Workflow in Global Software Development by Erran Carmel, J. Alberto Espinosa, and Yael Dubinsky published in Journal of Management Information Systems.
How Timeboxing Works and Why It Will Make You More Productive by Marc Zao-Sanders on Harvard Business Review