Try timeboxing: The goal-oriented time management strategy

Julia Martins 참여자 얼굴 사진Julia Martins2021년 3월 10일14 분 읽기 분량
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We’ve all had that 30-minute task that spirals out of control and takes up a whole day’s work. When you don’t set constraints or boundaries on your time, it’s easy for work to get dragged out over the course of the day. There’s even a name for this: Parkinson’s Law, which states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

Timeboxing is one of several time management strategies to help you take back control of your schedule. Instead of losing hours to easy tasks, timeboxing can help you fight procrastination, reclaim lost productivity, and focus on the work that matters. With timeboxing, you’ll practice assigning each task a specific amount of time, so you can spend less time planning work and more time in flow.

What is timeboxing?

Timeboxing is a goal-oriented time management strategy to help you increase productivity and reduce procrastination. When you create a “timebox,” you’re setting a goal to finish a particular task within a certain time frame.

Planning how long a task should take before getting started on it allows you to be intentional about where you’re spending your time and what you’re working on. This can help reduce work about work, which currently takes up 60% of our time. Instead of chasing down approvals or searching for documents, you can ensure you have everything you need right in front of you when you start your timebox.

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You can use timeboxing to schedule individual tasks, help your team get organized, or manage meetings more effectively. All three timeboxing strategies pull from the same methodology. But no matter what you’re using timeboxing for, the first step is to decide if you’re setting a “hard” or “soft” timebox.

Hard vs. soft timeboxing

Before creating a timebox, you first need to decide if it’s a hard or a soft timebox. A hard timebox means your task or activity must stop when your timebox is up—even if you haven’t completed the task. Creating hard timeboxes can be particularly helpful if you're prone to perfectionism and you frequently toil over work that’s already been completed. In a team setting, creating a hard timebox can ensure you address every task in your backlog—similarly, during a meeting, using hard timeboxes can help you hit every item on your agenda.

A soft timebox, on the other hand, is more flexible. In a soft timebox, the end of the timebox is a suggestion that you should wrap up what you’re doing and move on to the next task. You can use soft timeboxes for complex work, especially if you aren’t sure exactly how long the task will take when you get started. As a team, creating soft timeboxes gives your collaborators more flexibility while still helping everyone align on when work should be completed. During a meeting, using soft timeboxes can help you stay on track without interrupting the conversation, the way a hard timebox might.

Deciding whether to set a hard or soft timebox depends on what your work goals are—and you don’t just have to use one or another. At the beginning of each timebox you set, decide if it’s a hard or soft timebox, and hold yourself to that expectation accordingly.

How do I set up a timebox?

To set up a timebox, start by identifying a task or body of work that you need to get done. Then:

  1. Figure out how long that body of work should take.

  2. For personal or team timeboxes, find a time in your calendar to do that work.

  3. Decide if it’s a hard or soft timebox.

  4. Start the timebox.

  5. Avoid distractions during the timebox in order to maintain focus on the task at hand.

  6. Finish, then take a break.

How long is a timebox?

There’s no set rule for how long a timebox should be. In fact, some teams—in particular Agile teams—use “timebox” to mean weeks or months of work at a time. But for a truly effective timebox, plan to create a period of time where you can dive into deep work, home in on that particular task, and get into flow. When you timebox work, you should be able to snooze notifications with features like “Do not Disturb” and focus without distractions.

That isn’t to say you can’t timebox larger bodies of work. But if you want to use timeboxing on a task that will take more than two or three hours, start by breaking that work into smaller components.

For example, let’s say you’re creating an ebook. The ebook itself is going to be 25 pages long and take multiple rounds of reviews, revisions, and designs. This project will spread out over the course of a few weeks—and during that time you’ll likely be juggling other projects and tasks. By breaking up a large project into manageable chunks of time, timeboxing not only makes the task “create an ebook” easier to manage, it also helps you make steady progress towards your goal over the course of those weeks.

Timeboxing isn’t a strategy to get all of your work done faster—it’s just an effective way to break down and re-think tasks. In the case of the ebook, you’ll likely want to create several timeboxes for research before you even get started on your outline. Spreading these out over several days helps you make progress towards your goal without feeling like you’re never going to get to the end of your work. Once you’ve finished the research phase, create a few timeboxes to write, review, and approve your outline. Continue breaking the ebook creation into smaller tasks and giving yourself a few days’ break during the work in order to avoid burnout. By breaking this work down into smaller components you can avoid procrastination and make the task feel more manageable.

7 tips to use timeboxing for your own work

If you want to use timeboxing to help improve your focus or reduce procrastination, try these seven tips for effective time management.

1. Prioritize timeboxed time

If you have a busy day, it can be tempting to rearrange, reschedule, or cancel your timeboxes. Try to avoid this as much as possible. Once they’re set, think of timeboxes as meetings you’ve scheduled with yourself. You aren’t loosely planning to do something. Rather, you’re making a commitment to yourself that you will work on this task during the time you’ve set aside. Just like you wouldn’t cancel a meeting with a team member last minute unless you absolutely had to, you shouldn’t cancel a timebox either.

2. Visualize your time to better understand it

Timeboxing is most effective when you make it visual. It helps to actually schedule focus time on your calendar, so you can see what time limit you have on any particular task. This also helps you stick to your schedule—and lets team members know when you’re unavailable. Without scheduling focus time on your calendar, team members might think that’s open time and schedule a meeting or ping you with a question.

3. Set a timer

Whether you’re using a hard or soft timebox, set a timer so you know when your time is up. Remember: when you create a timebox, you’re setting a goal to complete a particular task in a certain amount of time. A timer can help you hold yourself accountable to that expectation, and alert you when that time is up.

Setting a timer also frees you from thinking about the time while you’re working. Instead of constantly checking the clock or making sure you aren’t late to your next meeting, you have dedicated time to dive into your work and get into flow.

In the case of a hard timebox, plan to move on to the next task once the timer is up. If you haven’t finished what you’re working on, you can come back to it in a later timebox. For soft timeboxes, use the timer as an indicator that you should wrap up what you’re doing in the next five or ten minutes and move on to the next task.

4. Turn off notifications or use “Do Not Disturb”

Timeboxes are effective because they help you focus on the task at hand and find flow. Too often, we allow our fractured attention to set our intention, which not only leads to reduced productivity but also hampers effective, high-impact work. In the same vein, you also don’t want to be unnecessarily distracted while you’re in your timebox.

By snoozing notifications or using a “Do Not Disturb” feature, you can ensure you aren’t disrupted while also letting team members know that you’ll get back to them as soon as possible. Most tools allow team members to “override” these settings if they need to get in contact, so you won’t be completely out of contact—just protected from unnecessary notifications while you’re in your timebox.

5. Take breaks between timeboxes

When we talk about productivity at Asana, we don’t mean “doing as much as you possibly can”—and that isn’t the goal with timeboxing, either. Rather, we think of time management strategies as a way to maximize your effectiveness and make the biggest impact with your work.

Similarly, timeboxing your work isn’t a way to eke out the absolute max productivity, but instead a way to help you be more intentional and effective with your time. Like all focused work, make sure you’re taking short breaks between timeboxes—even if you’re just standing to stretch or grabbing a drink of water.

6. Capture all of your work in a work management tool

In order to create a timebox, you need to know what you have to work on. If you haven’t already, set up a to-do list in a project or work management tool, like Asana. These tools help you identify what important tasks are coming up and what you need to do during each workday.

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7. Group like tasks

To timebox effectively, you should create individual timeboxes for most tasks or initiatives. But even with the advantage of timeboxing, switching between tasks takes time and mental energy. To best avoid this, group like tasks in adjacent timeboxes. That way, you can keep your brain on the same “track,” even as you work on individual initiatives. Grouping similar tasks can help you maintain focus and flow, even as you switch between timeboxes.

For example, if you’re on the sales team, you might have to create pitch decks and emails for various sales opportunities. Ideally, you want to create timeboxes for each task—but try to group tasks for the same customer in back to back timeboxes. For example, if you have to create a pitch deck and email for company A, and a pitch deck for company B, do both tasks for company A in back to back timeboxes before moving onto work for company B.

4 ways to use timeboxing with your team

In addition to being an effective personal productivity tool, timeboxing can help you lead and manage a team. Keep in mind that timeboxes shouldn’t be a punitive action, but rather a way for your team to better organize and prioritize work. Here’s how:

1. Decide why you’re using timeboxing

Timeboxing can be a great management tool—but make sure everyone on your team is aligned on why you’re using it, and for which tasks. Are you trying timeboxing out as a team to see if you like it? Is this a new strategy you want to implement to better understand how long work takes? Have there been issues with productivity that you want to address?

Take the time to sit down with your team to have this conversation. Make sure you allow space for questions and feedback to ensure your timeboxing strategy feels productive.

2. Capture team tasks in a work management tool

In order to timebox effectively as a team, you need insight into what everyone is working on, and when that work is due. With a work management tool, you can share a central source of truth with your entire team to increase visibility and team collaboration. When you know who’s doing what by when, you can better understand their workload and more effectively prioritize work.

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3. Align on how long—on average—tasks should take to complete

If you’re using timeboxing with your team members, take some time to align on average task lengths during your next 1:1. For example, if you’re on an engineering team, align on how long the average bug fix should take. If you’re on a design team, establish agreed-upon expectations for different types of creative work.

By deciding on these times together, you aren’t saying that everything needs to be completed in this exact amount of time—sometimes tasks are more complicated and their respective timeboxes should be longer. But having a baseline can help you and your team move forward with timeboxing as effectively as possible. Once you’ve set expectations, you can always revisit them during future 1:1s and adjust as needed.

4. Try timeboxing team breaks

Just like timeboxing for individuals, make sure you’re encouraging and making time for breaks on your team. In addition to using timeboxes for work, consider setting timeboxes for downtime to ensure your team members take breaks. Plus, by clarifying that break time is as important as time dedicated to work or tasks, you can proactively prevent burnout or workload stress.

3 ways to use timeboxing for meetings

When they’re effective, team meetings can be great avenues to get a ton of work done. But too often, meetings suffer from lack of focus and unclear goals—so team members spend less time actioning on work and more time talking in circles.

To make meetings more effective, it helps to always have a meeting purpose and agenda. But timeboxing can take meetings to the next level by helping you and your team stay on track and cover everything you want to discuss. Here’s how:

1. Share meeting agendas with meeting topics and time limits

The simplest way to timebox a meeting is something you’re probably already doing—creating an agenda. When you send out a meeting agenda, you’re making sure everyone is clear on the meeting’s purpose. With an agenda, you can ensure meetings are effective uses of your team’s time, where decisions are made and work moves forward.

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To timebox a meeting agenda, add a line for how long each agenda item will take. It’s also helpful to clarify if these are hard or soft timeboxes. Finally, make sure to share the meeting agenda—along with any pre-reading materials—with your team beforehand. That way, everyone can come to the meeting as prepared as possible. Then once the meeting starts, share the agenda again, or keep it on screen to help guide the discussion.

2. Decide if you’re using hard or soft timeboxes

Make sure to clarify if you’re using hard or soft timeboxes in the meeting agenda, and then again at the start of the meeting. Letting meeting attendees know the limits up front will reduce confusion during the meeting.

Examples of when to use soft timeboxes in a meeting

Unless your meeting agenda is tightly packed, aim to create soft timeboxes during a meeting. That way, you can let team members know they should be wrapping up, without feeling like you’re “kicking them off the air.” Example meetings include:

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Examples of when to use hard timeboxes in a meeting

Plan to use hard timeboxes if your meeting agenda is tight and you need to cover all of your content before the meeting is over. These meetings can include:

  • Design workshop or review

  • Discovery meeting

  • Meetings with action-packed agendas

  • Project plan

If you’re facilitating the meeting, setting hard timeboxes can feel awkward. No one likes interrupting presenters or team members mid-conversation. Making sure your team understands that you’re using a hard timebox before you get started can help ease this awkwardness. It might also help to remind them why you’re using hard timeboxes—for example, to ensure you cover every topic on the meeting agenda.

Examples of meetings that shouldn’t be timeboxed

Not every meeting should be timeboxed. Some meetings benefit most from a free-form style of conversation. While you should always send a meeting agenda—even if it’s just a loose outline of what you expect to discuss—avoid setting timeboxes for meetings like:

3. Inform presenters that the timebox is almost up

Whether you’re using a hard or soft timebox, make sure to let team members know when their time is almost up. It’s up to you to decide how much notice you give, and whether you’ll give multiple cues. Obviously, you want to avoid interrupting the conversation too many times, so play around with warning signs to see what works for you. For example, you could use a chime when there’s a minute left, or raise your left hand to indicate there are 30 seconds left. If your team is using video conferencing to meet, consider leaving a comment in the chat.

Read: Overcoming video conference fatigue: 7 tips from our customers

The benefits of timeboxing

There are a variety of ways to use timeboxing for your own productivity, to help your team align on work, or to facilitate meetings. The ultimate question is: should you use timeboxing?

While this time management technique isn’t perfect for every scenario, timeboxing can help you:

  • Be more intentional about your work. To create a timebox, you first need to prioritize which tasks to work on and decide how long each task should take. Thinking through these details for every task helps you be more mindful about where you’re spending your time.

  • Work with increased focus. By setting aside time to work, you’re also telling your brain that this is valuable focus time. This can help you improve focus and, by extension, productivity.

  • Reduce multitasking. The truth is, the human brain can’t multitask. Whenever we switch tasks, our brain needs to “re-upload” the information for that task—and that takes precious time and energy, even if you don’t realize it. By timeboxing, you’re focusing on one task (or a related group of tasks) at a time. That way, you aren’t jumping around from project to project.

  • Increase motivation with goal-oriented time management. When you create a timebox, you’re setting a goal for yourself: to complete a particular task within these pre-set time constraints. Even if you don’t always succeed, giving yourself something to work towards can be motivating—especially if you aren’t excited about the work.

  • Establish a predictable work schedule. Timeboxing can help you gain a clearer sense of what your day will look like. By scheduling your timeboxes in your calendar, you can clearly see when you’ll accomplish which tasks. This can reduce the “guessing game” element of scheduling work and help you tackle each day with confidence and clarity.

  • Reduce perfectionism. If you frequently agonize over already-finished tasks, timeboxing can unblock you and help you increase productivity. Timeboxing operates off of the principle of progress over perfection. Once your timebox is up, you need to move on—even if the task you’re working on isn’t perfect.

The drawbacks of timeboxing

Though there are a lot of benefits to timeboxing, this time management strategy isn’t for everyone. Here are the most common drawbacks of timeboxing, and how you can combat them.

Problem: I’m struggling to finish my task before the timebox is up.

Solution: You may run into issues early on where you simply didn’t set aside enough time to finish the task. That’s ok—it’s part of the learning process. At first, try soft timeboxes, so you can still finish tasks if you underestimate how long they should take. The more timeboxes you set, the better you’ll get at estimating how long a task takes.

Problem: Timeboxes are too short

Solution: In our opinion, this is actually a plus. Breaking work down into smaller chunks can help you better understand where your time is actually going. If your team is timeboxing together, breaking large tasks into smaller components also gives your team a better sense of what you’re doing and by when. Make sure to track work in a work management system, like Asana, so you can easily view not only the full body of work but its smaller components.

Problem: When the timer goes off, it interrupts my flow

Solution: The best part of timeboxing is when you get into flow—and it can be frustrating when the timer rings and you have to switch tasks. That’s why we recommend grouping like tasks in back-to-back timeboxes. Say you have to create a sales pitch and prepare an email for the same client. Putting those timeboxes side by side—with an optional five minute break in the middle—can help you roll from one task to another.

Remember, timeboxing is a tool for you to use. If you’re totally in the groove and want to break the rules a little—go for it. Use the timebox framework as a launching pad for effective work, no matter what that looks like for you.

Problem: Timeboxing makes me rush to finish tasks, which results in low-quality work

Solution: Make sure you’re being realistic when you set a timebox. The goal of time management techniques like timeboxing isn’t to squeeze out every ounce of productivity you have. Trying to do that will lead to burnout—not success. Instead, make sure you’re being realistic about how long work will take, and don’t forget to schedule downtime between tasks.

If you’re using timeboxing with your team and you feel too rushed, discuss the issue with your team member or manager. Would breaking the task into smaller components help? Is there a blocker that’s keeping you from getting work done effectively? Timeboxing should help empower you to work better—not force you to work too quickly. Identifying what might be holding you back can not only improve your time management skills, but also make you more effective at work.

Problem: I’ve added all of my timeboxes to my calendar, but I’m a little overwhelmed

Solution: Timeboxing is a goal-oriented time management strategy that can help you take back control over your calendar—but this time management strategy isn’t for everyone. That’s ok! If you’re feeling a little overwhelmed, try another time management strategy, like time blocking.

Similar to timeboxing, time blocking can help you schedule your time more intentionally. But instead of scheduling a start and stop time for each individual task, you will create time blocks where you can focus on similar tasks—for example, answering all of your emails, or doing all of your design critique work. If this seems more your style, read our article on how to get started with time blocking.

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Time to timebox

Like most time management techniques, timeboxing is only valuable if it feels valuable for you. Try it out, or check out other time management techniques that incorporate timeboxes, like the Pomodoro technique.

No matter what time management technique you’re using, make sure to track work in a shared work management system like Asana. With a shared central source of truth, you can increase visibility, help you break work down into smaller chunks, and enable cross-team collaboration.

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