What Is Timeboxing? Maximize Your Time With This Simple Technique

2 years ago   •   5 min read

By Colton Hicks
“What gets scheduled gets done.” — Daniel Pink

Maximize your time by using a technique called "timeboxing."

Your entire life is a sequence of time intervals, and how you spend them determines your success. There are intervals that we're forced to engage in, such as the biological need to sleep 6-8 hours each day. But when we’re awake, we have the power to plan, execute, and optimize these time intervals.

Let’s explore how to maximize your time using timeboxes.

What Is Timeboxing?

Timeboxing simply means planning to perform a future task during a specific time frame.

We naturally do this when scheduling meetings. We choose a day, duration of time, specify the meeting purpose, and put it on our calendars.  But when it comes to personal productivity and work tasks, people often overlook this technique due to its simplicity.

Dismissing timeboxing has a significant cost.

Humans are susceptible to the "planning fallacy." This is a cognitive bias where we tend to underestimate the time needed to accomplish future tasks. Having indefinite time frames lead to laziness, procrastination, and inefficient performance. And working on a task "until it's complete" without clear time constraints is a recipe for failure.

Timeboxing is how we overcome this challenge, as it enables us to:

  • Turn vague goals into manageable tasks and sub-tasks, providing more clarity.
  • Focus on a single task at a time, allowing for deeper concentration and creativity.
  • Beat procrastination, since tasks are less intimidating. It's easier to get started when there are clear time frames and objectives.
  • Overcome perfectionism. You'll over-analyze every detail of a task if you give yourself an indefinite time frame to finish it. But a two-hour timebox will force you to work in a more focused way, prioritize important parts of the task, leave out trivial details, and find creative solutions.

Don't let its simplicity fool you. Timeboxing will enhance your workflow and productivity throughout the day.

Why Timeboxing Works

There are two reasons why timeboxing works:

  1. Parkinson’s Law
  2. Implementation Intention

Let’s cover each.

Parkinson’s Law

Parkinson’s Law states, “Your work expands to fill the time available for its completion.”

Cyril Northcote Parkinson first introduced this phrase in 1955. Although it wasn't a time management dictum at the time, it’s now a widely used principle for enhancing productivity and work efficiency.

If I give you a day to finish a project, the time constraint forces you to focus on the bare essentials.  If you're given a week to perform the same task, you'll probably create activities to fill the time.  God forbid I give you 3 months to complete it.

Here's the main takeaway from Parkinson's law: A time constraint facilitates clarity of purpose, deeper focus, and creative thinking.

Implementation Intentions

In the 1990s, Peter M. Gollwitzer introduced the idea of "implementation intentions" based on his research on goal-setting.

Gollwitzer found that positive intentions alone weren't effective for attaining goals. Affirming statements like, "I'm going to grow my business," or "I'm going to hire a software engineer" weren't good enough for consistent results.

Positive intentions, when paired with an implementation plan, are more effective for achieving goals.

To summarize Gollwitzer's research: Planning out what you’re going to do, and when you’re going to do it increase its likelihood of success.

Creating timeboxes utilizes both Parkinson’s Law and Implementation Intentions.  A timebox is a constraint that enhances clarity, focus, and creativity. And this constraint forces you to plan out what you're going to do.

How To Use Timeboxing

There are a few steps to start timeboxing:

  1. Set timeboxes with intention
  2. Set time constraints and define outcomes
  3. Make it visible and schedule it
  4. Stay disciplined and execute
  5. Take a break and audit your work performance

Let’s break each down.

Set timeboxes with intention

Timeboxing is a great way to boost work efficiency.  But if you’re timeboxing the wrong tasks, then you’re efficiently wasting your time.

You can create timeboxes for anything in your life—ranging from health goals to spending time with loved ones. But since we’re talking about work productivity, we'll focus on setting timeboxes that serve your vocational goals.  These timeboxes should be geared towards:

  • High impact tasks that move you towards important goals.
  • Low-impact tasks that you’ve batched together, maximizing your efficiency and freeing up time to work on high-impact tasks.

Read: 3 Simple Steps For Being More Effective At Work

Set time constraints and define outcomes

A timebox consists of a set time interval and clear outcomes.

Start by looking at the task you want to complete:

  • What outcome do you want, and how are you measuring its success?
  • How much time will you need to complete this? If you’re unsure, then estimate.

A helpful tip: if your task is too big and takes more than 5 hours to complete, break it down into sub-tasks. Chunking bigger tasks into manageable pieces will help with clarity.

Make it visible and schedule it

Now, add your timeboxes to your calendar.  

Don’t overthink this part. Look at your current availability throughout the week, and schedule a time you're willing to take action on your tasks.

Then add your timeboxes to your current calendar tool. Here’s a simple Google Calendar example:

Visualizing your timeboxes will help you better manage your time.

Stay disciplined and execute

“Discipline equals freedom.” - Jocko Willink

The next step is execution.

Turning plans into action can be tough.  And following through with your timeboxes takes discipline.

To help assist you, here are two tools you can use during your timeboxed tasks:

  • Brain.fm: This app provides functional music that elicits neural activity, helping you focus. They also have a timer that plays the music for a set period of time. It's a paid service, but they have a free sample on YouTube.
  • Simple timer: Use a digital timer or buy a physical one. This gives your tasks clear constraints: Starting a timebox (when you start the timer) and ending a timebox (when the timer goes off).

Take a break and audit your work performance

Take a break after each timebox.

This ensures that you don’t get burnt out and come back refreshed.  It's also a great opportunity to audit your work performance:

  • Did you accomplish everything you wanted to?
  • Did you underestimate or overestimate the time required to complete it?
  • Did you get distracted during your timebox?

Give yourself constructive feedback, and improve for your next timebox.

Next Steps

It can be challenging to enhance your workflow and productivity throughout the day. But now you can use timeboxing to help you maximize your time.

Want to learn more strategies for improving your workflow? Check out our article: How To Accomplish More Tasks And Be Efficient At Work.

And if you want a more efficient way to schedule meetings with others, join Undock. It's free!

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