Remember the law of gases from science class—that gas expands to fill the space that it is given? Did you know about Parkinson's law, which says "work expands to fill the time available for its completion?"
Timeboxing is a method of limiting the amount of time you allocate to tasks so that you can get them done faster. Parkinson’s belief was that if you give a task less time, it will get done faster.
And it works. Timeboxing was named the number one "productivity hack" in Harvard Business Review.
How Timeboxing Works
Timeboxing is best suited for work that you love or tasks that you dread, but it applies to just about any project that risks getting dragged out.
- With projects that you dread, you tend to procrastinate, and they don't get done. The work is dreaded because you find it difficult.
- With tasks that you love, you risk spending too much time on them and revising your work until it is perfect. While inefficient, these tasks are not difficult because you like what you’re doing.
- Giant tasks that seem overwhelming are also great candidates for timeboxing.
- You’re a perfectionist and have a hard time declaring tasks “finished.”
Here's how timeboxing works.
- You estimate the amount of time required to complete a task.
- You schedule that time into your workweek.
- You complete the work within the allotted time.
Timeboxing for Large, Gnarly Projects
Timeboxing sounds simple, and it can be. For easy tasks that you do every week, it's just a matter of blocking off the time and serves as more of a reminder. However, timeboxing gets a little complex when it comes to large, gnarly projects that you dread or tasks that you love so much that you lose track of time. These require a more disciplined approach.
- Break the project down into its smallest components or steps.
- Estimate the time each step will take.
- Schedule time to complete each step.
- Get 'er done step by step.
You can compare a timeboxing project to learning a new language. Before you start, the project seems daunting. Learn to speak Spanish. You can't do it all at once. You need to set aside time each day or week to practice in order to reach your goal.
Example of Timeboxing
Let's look at a business example. You might be a sales leader planning your annual sales kickoff meeting. You are responsible for the introductory presentation that sets the tone for the meeting. You love speaking and rallying your team, but you hate PowerPoint and developing presentations. Here's how you could break down this dreaded project into small steps.
- Plan—outline what you want to communicate.
- Research—gather the data for the numbers that you want to present.
- Draft—create a text-only draft for each slide.
- Design—allocate time for the design team to create the graphics for the presentation.
- Review—review and revise.
See, that wasn't too hard, was it?
Breaking down a large, time-consuming project into smaller steps can make it much easier to a) get started, often half the battle; and b) finish, which is the other half of the battle.
Some best practices can help make timeboxing work for you and your business.
- Accurate estimates. The heart of timeboxing is "Goldielocks-ing" your time estimates for each step of your project. Make the blocks not too big and not too small, but just right.
- Remove distractions. When you're in your timebox, turn off message notifications and other tempting distractions from your environment. You're supposed to be in a box!
- Force accountability. In Agile software development, teams typically hold daily 15-minute meetings to update one another on the status of their goals for the week and to remove any blockers.
- Start small. Don't start with your gnarliest, scariest project. Instead, start with something challenging but manageable.
- Start smaller. If possible, break your project down to 15–30-minute blocks, even if one of the blocks is "get started."
Regarding tip #5, many fans of the timeboxing method report that the most challenging part is getting started. Once they try it, and it works, they get hooked.
The goal of timeboxing is to give your tasks and projects right-sized increments of time to get things done, avoiding both Parkinson's law and the concept that "if you wait until the last minute, it will only take you a minute." Neither approach improves productivity.
How to Get Started with Timeboxing
It’s not always easy to know how much time to allocate for a task. One way to start with timeboxing is to audit how you currently spend your time at work in general and on specific projects and tasks. A time audit is keeping track of what you do during the day. Track your time over a period of several days so that you can get a better idea of how you are spending your time. This way you can examine and analyze how you spend your time versus how you want to spend your time.
To conduct a time audit:
- Determine how you will track daily activities. Apps like Time Doctor can be helpful as it is easy to forget to track your time.
- Analyze the data to identify tasks that take longer than they should relative to their value.
You can then organize your tasks by importance and priority.
- Very important: Tasks are core to your job and have to be done by you.
- Not as important: Tasks that need to be done but can be scheduled for later.
- Not important: Low-value tasks that you probably shouldn’t be doing.
Anything that you avoid doing or that is consistently late are good candidates for timeboxing.
Get Help from a Virtual Assistant
One critique of timeboxing is, ironically, that it takes a lot of time to schedule every task. A virtual assistant can do the scheduling for you, and as you work together, your assistant will get better and better at helping you manage your time and get those daunting projects done.
Want to learn more? Download our guide to working with a Prialto VA.
About the Author: Bill is Prialto's senior content marketing manager and writes about the future of work and how businesses can be more productive and successful. His work has appeared in the World Economic Forum Agenda blog and CIO magazine.