We only have twenty-fours hours in a day. What we do in those twenty four hours is our choice. But twenty-four hours isn’t even that much time. If that is true, than why do we waste so much of it?
This is Parkinson’s Law. “Work expands to fill the time available for its completion”. What does this mean? Let’s take an example. You are given a school assignment due in one month. In some cases, you can feasibly finish the assignment before the deadline, but what Parkinsons law says is that your brain will subliminally expand the work so that you will only finish in the allocated month.
So how do we fix problems like this? We need to set a maximum amount of time for each task we want to do so. By doing this, work won’t expand to fill the time as Parkinson’s law states, and you will actually finish the work in the shortest possible time.
Timeboxing takes this concept and turns it into a time management method that you can use to do more work and in turn increase your productivity. So what is timeboxing? Timeboxing is a straightforward time management strategy that involves allocating a set unit of time for a task, ahead of time, and then performing it within the allotted time period. You work on the task that you need to finish during the time period and then when the period ends you move on to the next one. Each time period is called a time box.
There are multiple types of time boxes though. A Soft time box and a Hard time box. The hard time box is what I talked about earlier, where after the designated time period is finished, you drop everything you are working on and move to the next box. However, there is another type of time box. One that is not as hardcore as dropping everything and moving on. This is the soft time box. This is basically the same thing as the hard time box except, instead of immediately stopping after the budgeted time is over, you use it as a guideline of when to stop. This is a less extreme version of the timeboxing method.
Now that we know what a time box is and the different types, lets talk about how long each should be. First question is, what should be the maxiumum length of a time box? I think it should be around 45 minutes. If the time box is any longer than that, like an hour or an hour and a half, most people will lose focus and the quality of their work will be impacted. This, however depends on the who is actually doing the time boxing and often changes from person to person. In my experience, whenever I have done a timebox longer than 45 minutes the quality of my work has decreased.
Is there a minimum limit on how long your time boxes should be? I don’t think so. You could have time boxes 30 minutes long to work on a project or prepare for a presentation or you could have a time box for just 5 minutes to reply to Slack messages. Time boxes can be as short as you want them to be and if you are one of those people who never lose focus then your time boxes can also be as long as you want them to be.
Now that we have discussed time boxing, let’s talk about breaks. When to take them, and how to take them. First we will talk about when to take breaks. There are two types of breaks you should take, short breaks and long breaks. The best time to take short breaks is after you have worked about 45 minutes in your time boxes. This doesn’t mean that you should take a break in the middle of a time box. Here’s an example of when to take a break.
Let’s say you had a schedule that looked something like this:
- 30min -> Reply to emails
- 15min -> Prepare slide deck
- 45min -> Work on a home project
The first two are for work and the last one is for home. Between the slide deck preperation and home project is the perfect time to take a short break because you have been working for 45 minutes.
What about long breaks? The best time to take long breaks is every one and a half hours, so that is 90 minutes or two to three time boxes. Long breaks are best bewteen two unrelated time boxes. Long breaks aren’t useful between two related time boxes because the break takes you out of the zone or focus you were in before the break. This means that you will have to get back into the zone for the next time box. For unrelated tasks this is fine because usually the type of focus you will need will differ but if the tasks are for a common project or in some way related the long break may obstruct your productivity.
Benefits of Timeboxing
What are the benefits of timeboxing?
For starters, it will help you remain focused and do the things that matter. It will also keep you efficient because of it’s deadline system. The short and long break system helps you take breaks without reducing your productivity. So there are quite a few reasons that time boxing is great.
There is also another variation of time boxing called the Pomodoro method. This is a bit simpler because each time box is a set specific time and is consistent for all of your time boxes. It has the same idea. Set a list of tasks that you need to do and then work in pomodoros (basically time boxes). Each pomodoro is 25 minutes and after each pomodoro you take a 5 minute break. After four pomodoros, you take a 15 to 30 minute break. This is a bit easier for some people because they don’t have to keep deciding how long each time box should be. They just need to decide which tasks they want to do.
(Fun fact: The pomodoro method was named after a tomato shaped 25-minute timer)
So are timeboxing and the pomodoro method for everybody? No, because everybody has something different that works for them, but I believe that most people will take some value out of these methods (timeboxing and pomodoro). I personally have increased my producitivity by 50% thanks to timeboxing, so I highly recommend it.