To-do lists. 5am wakeups. Task management apps. There’s a bounty of productivity “hacks” out there that claim to make your workflow more efficient.
But when it comes to actually increasing productivity, there’s one simple activity that experts say rules the day.
The activity in question is known as timeboxing. What is timeboxing, why is timeboxing so effective, and how can you start timeboxing yourself? We’ve got the answers.
Why it’s so hard to move the needle on productivity
Quite simply, our brains aren’t built to be “productive.” Instead, we’re wired to minimize our energy output and conserve calories for hunting big game, escaping predators, or surviving harsh conditions.
Modern life doesn’t ask us to do any of that. Having conquered our environment, we now live in a world where applying knowledge matters more than brute strength or stamina.
But our hunter-gatherer brains haven’t kept up with the times. When our immediate needs are met, our natural inclination is to be lazy rather than take on new challenges.
In addition, we’ve got an infinity of distractions at our fingertips. That may be great for winding down and relaxing, but it’s not ideal when we have knowledge work to get done.
Why timeboxing is different
Timeboxing aims to solve these issues by paring down your comfort just a tiny bit. And it does so with a tool you already have close at hand.
That tool is your calendar. Timeboxing is the process of migrating your to-do list into your calendar — with strict limits on each task.
The goal is simple: allot time for what you have to do in the hours available each day.
Getting started is simple too. You just compile the things you’d like to get done, estimate how long they’ll take, and block off time in your daily calendar for each activity.
According to productivity guru Jay Shetty, the genius of timeboxing is that it imposes a constraint. You know the saying in Parkinson’s Law, “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”? Timeboxing battles back against this phenomenon by putting a strict limit on planned activity.
In contrast to the “time bloat” of open-ended work, timeboxing asks you to set a finite number of important tasks to tackle each day. That will get you stuck in to more deep work. And it’s a great way to manage your daily schedule — especially compared to a to-do list, which Shetty compares to infinite scroll on a social media site.
Timeboxing gives you control — by empowering you to set enough time for each specific task — and takes it away in equal measure.
“I can just open up my calendar every day and look at what I have to do next,” Shetty told a CNBC conference. “I don’t have to think about [it].”
How to actually start timeboxing
Like sticking to any routine, timeboxing takes planning and discipline. Here’s what is needed to make timeboxing a success.
Break tasks into individual parts
Setting yourself big tasks like “create a sales outreach strategy for Q2” can make them seem daunting. Instead, as a first step in time boxing, think about the smaller pieces that each task will require.
For something like sales outreach strategy, that might be:
– Identify sales goals for Q2
– Look back at successful past outreach to determine how many touches were needed
– Estimate how much outreach it will take to hit your Q2 targets
– Plan an outreach cadence
– Speak to marketing about content availability to support the outreach
– Write the cadence scripts or emails
– Put the cadence into your CRM
Those single pieces aren’t just more manageable: they’re actionable. That means they can be scheduled into your calendar as discrete blocks of time.
Estimate your time requirements
Estimation might be the hardest thing about timeboxing. Before you start on your tasks, you probably won’t know how long they’re going to take.
The way forward is simple, though: just take your best guess. As you move forward with timeboxing, you’ll learn how much time different activities demand.
If you don’t finish what you need to do in the time allotted, it’s no big deal. Just box off more time for the undone work on a future day, and move on to your next time block.
Structure your day in a way that works for you
Knowing yourself is part of creating effective time blocks.
You might prefer getting unpleasant tasks out of the way first, leaving time for your personal life — e.g., a trip to the gym — at midday, or spending time on specific goals when you feel most energized.
Pay close attention to how your energy levels rise or fall throughout the day, what you really want to spend a lot of time on, or what you’d like to spend less time doing. Then start setting time periods that work.
Practice “time chunking”
When it comes time to actually complete tasks, time chunking might be your best friend. It’s a lot like timeboxing. The difference is, timeboxing is about migrating your entire to-do list onto your calendar. Chunking is how you approach each individual task.
Chunking involves breaking your tasks into half-hour increments. Within each increment, you spend 25 minutes on head-down work and then give yourself a 5-minute break.
This has been shown to be the most effective way to get into a flow state and the most productive way to work — once again due to the way our brains are wired.
“We can only give full focus to a particular task for short periods of time, and 25-minute work periods have been scientifically proven to be the most effective,” Rhodes College explains.
Share your calendar
Our brains struggle enough with productivity all on their own. That’s before other people, like our team members, come into the equation.
A famous study from the University of California-Irvine found that we take more than 23 minutes to get back on task after being interrupted.
To keep colleagues or your team leader from breaking into your periods of focused work, it’s vital to share your timeboxed calendar with them and mark specific time as “busy.”
You can then set a specific amount of time to interact with coworkers on your short breaks, or when you’ve got some free time at the end of the current timeboxed task.
Summing everything up
Like with a workout routine, the hardest thing about timeboxing might just be getting started.
What’s key is understanding the specific activities you need to get done, the specific amounts of time each one requires, and how to structure your different tasks.
As you practice timeboxing, you’ll get better at estimating each task’s time needs, productivity expert Shetty says. All you need to get started is your favorite calendaring app.
To take timeboxing to the next level and utilize time even more productively, think as well about how you communicate during your work schedule. Ideally, you should be able to see all of your communications at a glance, get caught up on what’s new, and respond quickly to important things you need to triage.
We built illumy to do all of this (and more). On illumy, all of your conversations — across chat, email, and voice channels — are organized by individual contact or group. It’s the best of all worlds: the asynchronicity of email, the real-time speed of IM, and the personal nature of calling.
illumy is available on desktop and mobile. It comes with a super-responsive UI. And it’s totally free. As the best way to engage across the many ways you communicate, it’s the perfect complement to successful timeboxing.
Photo by Marissa Grootes on Unsplash.