Given a task, there are essentially two ways we can approach it. Either, we can work as hard as we can until it is “done” or we can fix the amount of time we have available and do the “best” we can. The latter approach is known as “Time boxing“.

Time boxing is a very simple technique we often use in software development. It is an effective technique for tracking progress and simply getting things done. From a planning perspective, time boxing is useful, especially when things appear complex or daunting initially and we are unsure of how to begin.

From a personal management perspective, I’ve found that time boxing can greatly improve our productivity and effectiveness. Because it’s simple, anyone can do it – including you. I use it when working on open ended tasks, like writing, where neither the scope or the quality is well defined.

This article briefly discusses how we can apply time boxing to our daily lives and get things done.

What is time boxing?

Time boxing is about fixing the time we have available to work on a given task and then doing the best we can within that time frame. So instead working on something until it is “done” in one sitting, we only work on it for say 30 mins. It is either marked as done at the end of this period or we commit to another 30 mins at a later time or another day.

In software development, an agile team releases new versions of a product to the customer for testing in fixed length iterations, say weekly. The customer and the development team work together to identify the features to be included in each release based on the relative priority and complexity of each task.

What’s special about Time boxing?

There are always several things competing for our time. At any moment, each of us could have hundreds of outstanding things to do. This question immediately become important – How can we ensure we get as much done as possible?

I believe time boxing is special for four reasons. Firstly, by consciously being aware of time, it allows us to focus on doing the things that matter most. Secondly, it serves as a reality check on how much time we spend working on open ended tasks. Thirdly, because of the fixed time constraints, it can be an effective tool against procrastination. Finally, it allows us to work on things during the free gaps we have between our commitments and appointments.

Focus on doing the things that matter most

If the time available we have is limited, a rational person should immediately think about prioritising their outstanding tasks based on what’s important and urgent.

By using time boxing and ranking our outstanding tasks, we make ourselves consciously aware of how much time we have available. This allows us to focus our energies towards things that matter most. In this way, we get things that matter most done first.

There are many techniques for ranking tasks and I won’t go into them in this post. However, it’s worth mentioning “Quality Function Deployment” – which is a technique we use in software development and engineering to translate customer requirements into engineering specifications. In the simplest sense, for each feature, we multiply a number representing a customer’s perception of its importance by another number representing an engineer’s estimation of the complexity. The final result is ranked and the relative ordering gives us an indication of what we should implement given a certain time constraint.

Limiting the time spent on open ended tasks

Do you know people who are perfectionists? Those who are constantly tweaking things to make them incrementally better or just different? To a certain extend, I suffer from a perfectionist personality which is why I find working on open ended tasks difficult. I’ll use some examples relating to my writing to illustrate: Should this sentence be structured in a passive voice? Does this paragraph look ok here? Are there enough anecdotes in this article?

Because by their nature there is no distinction between done and not done, an arbitrary open ended task can take anywhere between 1 min and 3 weeks. Time boxing is particularly useful as a reality check when working on open ended tasks. By limiting the time we spend on a given task, as long as it is complete though not perfect, we can objectively decide when something is done. This frees us up to work on the next task.

Effective tool against procrastination

In my experience, people procrastinate for two reasons – firstly, when faced with a complex task they are unsure of how to start and secondly, the prospect of having to do something they’re not particularly interested in doing.

  • As a tool against complex tasks: Time boxing is useful here because it allows us to work on complex tasks over several iterations or in bite sized chunks. For example, writing a good article is a complex task for me and it is rare to be able to find one block of time in which I can write an article from start to finish. For me, it is more effective to write as best as I can within a fixed period, constantly refining and repeating this process until I finish.
  • As a tool against uninteresting things: Time boxing is useful here because it allows us to commit to an undesirable task for only a limited amount of time. It’s a lot easier to start working on something we don’t like if we knew we only need to work on it for the next 30 mins. For example, if you have to clean a messy house, instead of trying to get through the entire house in one go, try only doing as much as you can for 30 mins. When you have another 30 mins to spare another day and feel so inclined, you can continue.

Using free gaps between commitments

The composition of a day from person to person and day to day is different. For some of us, our calendars are completely filled with appointments and meetings. For others, our days are relatively unstructured. Irrespective of our calendars, we often have what I call “null” time. That is, gaps between commitments in which we are either waiting for something or have free brain cycles.

Examples of “null” times are: At the station minutes before the train comes. In the car on a winter morning whilst waiting for the engine to warm up. At the desk, after you have kicked off a full compile on a complex codebase.

Time boxing can be immensely useful during these “null” times. If you knew the train will come soon, the car will warm up in moments or the code will compile in a few mins, you can choose to use that time effectively and work on a relatively simple task you know can be done within that short “null” time.

In conclusion

Time boxing is an effective way for getting things done. By fixing the amount of time we spend on a given set of tasks, we can focus on doing the things that matter, give us motivation to start, prevent overruns and use our “null” times effectively. In contrast, if we worked on things until completion in one sitting, we’re less likely to start on complex tasks, more likely to overrun on open ended tasks and leaves us with less time and motivation to work on the next set of tasks.

If you are interested in finding out more about time boxing, you may find these links useful:

Related Posts

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59 Responses to “Time Boxing is an Effective Getting Things Done Strategy”

  1. Drainedge Link Tank » Today’s Links says:

    [...] Time Boxing is an Effective Getting Things Done Strategy – Dave Cheong [...]

  2. Until its done at Kyun.org says:

    [...] Time Boxing as Dave Cheong calls it has worked for me each and every time. The basic idea behind this is to fix a time limit to what you are working on. At the end of that time limit, stop all tasks. Review what you have done, mark them as done and mark all the remaining items as unfinished. Then setup another time slot for all those things in the unfinished list. Repeat the process. [...]

  3. Creating a Better Life says:

    The Personal Development Carnival – July 30, 2006

    Welcome to the latest edition of the Personal Development Carnival.
    Let’s get right to the growth!

    Gleb Reys presents Recover From Personal Development Failure posted at Personal Development Ideas Blog.
    David Maister presents Are You D…

  4. Bob Walsh says:

    Great post Dave, but how do you specifically decide which tasks to Time Box? Do you have a checklist?

  5. 18 Ways to Stay Focused at Work says:

    [...] Apply time boxing. In a previous article, I wrote about the benefits of time boxing. Instead of working at something till it is done, try working on it for a limited period, say 30 mins. By that time, the task is either completed or you allocate another time slot, perhaps in another day, to pick it up again. This way, you keep your work fresh and engaging throughout the entire working day. [...]

  6. Erik says:

    I do something similar. I do 25 minute boxes, and then at the end of each box spend 5 minutes doing “tiny” tasks- checking email, replying to emails, going to the bathroom, allocating boxes for later in the day, etc. This allows me to spend the entirety of each box devoted to the task without worrying about if somebody has sent me an email- plus it encourages regular breaks.

    I also have a rule where I don’t allocate more than two consecutive boxes to the same task unless there’s a deadline looming.

  7. Dave Cheong says:

    Hi Erik,

    Your own recipe for time boxing is pretty neat. I’ll have to incorporate tiny task intervals between my regular time boxes also.

    Thanks for the tip!

    dave

  8. Dave Cheong says:

    Someone just send me a link to a great Calvin & Hobbes in which he touches on the time boxing principle.

    Thought I’d share.

    http://uwmike.com/wp-content/etm.png

  9. genzoeri says:

    thanx for information. I will try it to myself,hope will help me to be a success man.

  10. ARTbird309’s Blog » Article » links for 2006-08-21 says:

    [...] Time Boxing is an Effective Getting Things Done Strategy (tags: Productivity gtd lifehacks time management tips psychology) [...]

  11. healthynerd says:

    Hey, I really like your articles especially this one. I felt that the concision of your articles are much better than Steve Pavlina’s, or the wordpress theme (Phu’s Simpla) you are using could have also contributed to the experience lol :D

    Thanks for sharing your insights and more power!

  12. Dave Cheong says:

    Hi healthynerd,

    Wow. Thanks for the vote! I don’t presume to be anywhere near as good as the great man himself but it’s nice to know that you think so… :)

    Much appreciated!

    dave

  13. Matthew Butt says:

    Really interesting reading, I like the theories and thoughts behind it.

    However I have a few questions – per day how long does it take to plan the 30 minute boxes, and how long does it take to change between boxes?

    Assuming a day is 9-5 with 1 hour lunch, that gives us 7 hours a day. This makes at most 14 time boxes. Now, if it takes only 3 minutes to plan each box that’s 42 minutes out of the day gone – that’s one and a half boxes.

    Also personally I find it better to concentrate on a job for a few hours rather than chop and change between jobs. It can often take several minutes to prepare for work on one project and this is wasted time.

    I’m not trying to put down the time boxing methods here, just interested in discussions about the two issues above and what can be done to minimise them.

    Thanks!!

  14. Dave Cheong says:

    Hi Matthew,

    That’s a good question. Firstly, for related tasks, you can group them into a single timebox so as to minimise how often you have to switch context.
    Secondly, you don’t have to set all your timeboxes to have the same interval.

    Let me explain a bit further.

    Let’s say you have a bunch of admin related tasks which require the computer (eg online bill paying, confirm an appointment via phone/email, reference document to look up). For these, I find it is best to batch the work into a single timebox. As you’ve rightly pointed out, switching context has associated overheads, so batching related tasks (eg tasks that require a computer), can help minimise the context switching involved. I also find if I am in an organising mood, it is best to do lots of organising rather that in bits, so again batching is useful here.

    Some tasks take less time than others. There’s no reason why all your timeboxes have to be the same 30 min length. For example, writing tends to take me longer (ie ramp up time), and a 30 min timebox isn’t enough – it’s more of a 2 hour timebox (45 mins ramp up and 1 hour 15 mins of actual work). For answering personal emails, my timebox for it tend to be much smaller (30 mins around 10am).

    Hope this addresses some of your concerns.

    Thanks for the great question.

    dave

  15. Genuine Curiosity says:

    Living in a box

    Having spent a lot of time in software companies, I’m familiar with a concept called “time boxing” to help prevent software development projects from going on forever. I didn’t realize I have been using a sort of “time box” approach

  16. How to do it all? at berchman.com says:

    [...] With family, work, health, “downtime”, and the things I am forgetting to mention because my brain feels stretched I wonder how to get it all done? That is the question everyone seems to want the answer to. Many magazines will feature strategies and methods of how to do it and others feature profiles of high-powered people and you can read a variety of ways to “get it all done.” [...]

  17. Trends and Issues in Extension » Blog Archive » Chunking and Time Boxing as a Middle Ground to Multitasking says:

    [...] Dwayne Melacon’s link to this post on Dave Cheong’s blog. Time boxing refers to setting a pre-determined time frame for each project or task. Dave’s post has a good overview of the process. I like the idea because I think we in Extension tend to suffer from Parkinson’s Law , which generally states that “work expands to fit the amount of time allotted to its completion” (see interpretations applied to other uses here). I really liked Dave’s connections to doing the most important things first and his discussion of “null time”.  [...]

  18. Overcoming Laziness » “18 Ways to Stay Focused at Work” says:

    [...] Dave has a good article about that called Time Boxing is an Effective Getting Things Done Strategy. [...]

  19. How to Overcome Distractions Anytime says:

    [...] Distractions as a whole are a huge drain on every aspect of who we are. It takes our focus away from what we should be doing – our tasks, goals and purpose. This is why we have to eliminate them from our lives if possible! Personally, I find if I was to indulge in a distraction, a hour could go by and before I know it, I’d blow away an entire time box. Generally, this makes me feel drained and disappointed, not just in myself for having been weak but also about the lost opportunities and productive time I could have spent working on an article or researching a business venture. [...]

  20. Reader Question: What Does a Time Box Look Like? says:

    [...] This is where I think Time boxing could really help. Time boxing is essentially fixing the amount of time you have available to work on things. When the time is up, you make a conscious decision at that point whether it is done or not. When working on a sketch, one can decide after 30 mins if the sketch is “good enough” and can be considered complete or not. If not, you allocate another time slot to continue working on it. This time slot can be the next thing you do, or it could be later in the week. It doesn’t matter which really. The most important thing about Time boxing is being aware of the passing of time. [...]

  21. Neville Ridley-Smith says:

    I did some extensive research trying to find a good timer/alarm-type software to implement my time boxes. I reckon the best one is this : http://www.sinnercomputing.com/Egg.htm
    To set a countdown in most cases requires literally only 2 clicks.

    Not affiliated – just happy customer.

  22. Dave Cheong says:

    Hi Nev,

    Nice link – looks like a useful tool. Thanks for the link.

    dave

  23. Matthew Cornell says:

    Very nice article, Dave. Thanks!

  24. Trupti says:

    The article is very promising Dave!
    But sometimes the ’switch off’ to ’switch on’ from one task to the other is not that digitized.. So at the end of the fixed time slot, one can feel like nothing fruitful has happened..
    How to handle this?

  25. Dave Cheong says:

    Hi Trupti,

    The thing about time boxing is defining the outcomes and what you want to achieve within that time frame.

    Be specific.

    As with all goals, try to identify what it is you are trying to do. If you don’t know the outcome and can’t definitively say if you have done it or not, how can you then measure your progress?

    So, in response to your question, define clearly what you want to do in your time box. When the time box elapses, you can assess whether you’ve done what you’ve set out or not. If yes, tick it off and complete, otherwise schedule another time slot and go at it again.

    Hope this helps.

    Also you may find my article on Goals appropriate -

    http://www.davecheong.com/2006/08/03/5-steps-to-accomplishing-your-goals/

    dave

  26. A Rambling Man » Blog Archive » Time Boxing says:

    [...] So what’s this time boxing lark all about then? In the words of Dave Cheong, “Time boxing is about fixing the time we have available to perform a task and then doing the best we can within that time frame. So instead of working until it’s “done” in one sitting, we only work on it for say 30 mins. It’s either marked as done at the end of this period or we commit to another 30 mins at a later time or another day.” [...]

  27. Working on Open Ended Tasks « Dorai’s LearnLog says:

    [...] Working on Open Ended Tasks Filed under: Ideas, Improvement — dorai @ 6:32 am I am pretty bad at working on open ended tasks. The net result is that I keep putting them off. Some of them disappear altogether and others get done when I can’t delay them any further. I never heard about Time Boxing before. So when I saw a reference, I decided to find out what it is about. Here is some good advice on how you can use Time Boxing to get things done. Here is Dave Cheong on why Time Boxing is special. I believe time boxing is special for four reasons. Firstly, by consciously being aware of time, it allows us to focus on doing the things that matter most. Secondly, it serves as a reality check on how much time we spend working on open ended tasks. Thirdly, because of the fixed time constraints, it can be an effective tool against procrastination. Finally, it allows us to work on things during the free gaps we have between our commitments and appointments. [...]

  28. Why time boxing? « PierG (aka Piergiorgio Grossi) says:

    [...] time boxing? January 29, 2007 Posted by PierG in English, Management, Agile. trackback This post on Dave Cheong blog, gave me the idea of writing this post about timeboxing. [...]

  29. Jiri Novotny says:

    If you are looking for a time boxing software, we have created a simple one called “My Timeboxing” which is super user friendly and helps you to use time boxing while working with computer.

    You can check it out at our website: http://www.dextronet.com/my-timeboxing.php

  30. Dave Cheong says:

    Interesting.

    I haven’t had a chance to try it out yet, but from the screenshots and feature description, this looks like an app which could be very useful.

    If anyone out there has tried this, please leave a comment here for all to share.

    thanks,

    dave

  31. The Personal Development Carnival - July 30, 2006 - from Creating a Better Life says:

    [...] Dave Cheong presents Time Boxing is an Effective Getting Things Done Strategy posted at Dave Cheong | Engineer to Entrepreneur. [...]

  32. ARTOMO » Blog Archive » Time boxing, or boxing for time? says:

    [...] If you aren’t familiar with timeboxing you might want to head over to Dave Cheong’s excellent entry on the topic and have a little read up on it, as well as indulge in a few places like 43 Folders. Wordpress, in a way, have recently started applying the concept a little with their new experimental development cycle, attempting to constrain releases to a 120 day cycle. Timeboxing is an extremely effective tool, which also has several very creative perspectives that can be applied to it. [...]

  33. ARTOMO » Blog Archive » Time boxing, or boxing for time? says:

    [...] If you aren’t familiar with timeboxing you might want to head over to Dave Cheong’s excellent entry on the topic and have a little read up on it, as well as indulge in a few places like 43 Folders. Wordpress, in a way, have recently started applying the concept a little with their new experimental development cycle, attempting to constrain releases to a 120 day turnaround. [...]

  34. Software Creation Mystery » 5 steps to cooperate with you unconscious mind says:

    [...] Convince, induce or bribe your elephant to help with your goals – if he doesn’t agree, you’ll have problems. Try 30 day trials, 30 minutes time boxes or cheat days. [...]

  35. lolly pop says:

    time boxing is a way to use you time wisely.It makes every thing better.It just reastly started using it annnnd every thing is going verry well.Know i’m getting every thing finshed on time and it’s not late

  36. david says:

    Hi,

    I found all this very helpful. I don’t have a problem commiting to things, I put 14 hour days in at what I am doing. But I often find I can’t finish a particluar task because of perfectionism.

    I always have to make it better here and there, this in turn then gives me a headache at the thought of designing a website or doing a business plan, because I know I will make it take four times longer than it should.

    I never heard of time boxing, but after reading this, I dont feel so alone about needing this time management in my life, so thanks. I feel this working already!

    David

  37. Learning As I Go : Done, done, and done says:

    [...] Don’t research forever–timebox it. The danger here is that I had left myself so little time that I barely skimmed the articles I found. No time for fancy research techniques; scan, skim, ingest. But the earlier you can do this, the more facts you can feed your brain so it can go to work in the background. [...]

  38. Bootstrapper » The GTD Resource Motherload: 100+ Links says:

    [...] 92. Time Boxing is an Effective Getting Things Done Strategy: This post outlines the ways in which time boxing can help increase productivity by “fixing the time we have available to work on a given task and then doing the best we can within that time frame.” [...]

  39. 15 Time Boxing Strategies to Get Things Done says:

    [...] Many people already wrote about it (check Dave Cheong for a great start, as well as J.D Meier and Steve Pavlina). Although these guys made a great job presenting it, time boxing has helped me so much that I decided to share 15 specific ways that it can help you too be more productive. Here they are: [...]

  40. Journyx Project Management Blog :: Marketing Monday: Time Boxing Resolution says:

    [...] This year, as befits someone who works with timesheet software for a living, I’m going to approach my problems with time management. And I’m going to do it with time boxing. I’m not the sort who can dive whole-heartedly into a complete Getting Things Done methodology (I know, I’ve tried) – but time boxing I think I can get into. If nothing else, it will help me address my chronic near-ADD. It’s not really diagnosable ADD, of course, but a propensity for feeling soul-crushing boredom with whatever task I’m actually working on. I know that something more interesting is out there, just waiting for my attention, but normally I’m too bloody-minded to break my work up in the way that time boxing pushes you to. [...]

  41. Financial questions that need an answer » Open Question: How to use timeboxing? says:

    [...] I have read good reviews on the internet about a time management technique called timeboxing. I would like to use it, but haven’t come crossways any workable plans. Maybe I don’t understand how it works? Here are some of the articles I’ve read about this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Time_boxing http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timebox http://www.davecheong.com/2006/07/26/time-boxing-is-an-effective-getting-things-done-strategy/ http://www.stevepavlina.com/blog/2004/10/timeboxing/ http://litemind.com/time-boxing/ [...]

  42. How I Got to the 9-Hour Workweek (Part 3) says:

    [...] I also realized that I worked better when I used timeboxing. This helps me focus on work (and only work) during my working hours. To help myself focus, I didn’t check email or open my RSS feed reader until I was done working. [...]

  43. How I Got to the 9-Hour Workweek (Part 3) | money news blog says:

    [...] I also realized that I worked superior when I used timeboxing. This helps me focus on work (and only work) during my working hours. To help myself focus, I didn’t check email or open my RSS feed reader until I was done working. [...]

  44. Mateo Zachai says:

    Thanks so much Dave for this insightful advice. I am an artist and I am planning on applying your ideas to my creative work as well as the left brain stuff.

  45. 5 Minute Book Review - The Four Hour Work Week | Work-Life Innovation says:

    [...] Once you have dared to dream a new life for yourself, and have defined some key things you would like to do with your new found time, the book then get’s down to explaining several techniques for eliminating time spent at work. Key ideas here are the 80/20 rule – focusing only on those key, high return tasks; managing information intake with media diets, strict email management and interruption avoidance tactics; and timeboxing (setting aggressive deadlines for work tasks). These techniques can be found in many other productivity methods. However, their presentation in T4HWW is refreshing because they sit within the book’s philosophy of figuring out ways of doing less, not more. The focus is on increasing meaningful productivity (as apposed to simply doing more to look busy – see my post on the Slacktivity Manifesto for more on this). [...]

  46. Salih says:

    The time boxing is a concept,known by everybody but not noticed concept while working for obvious time boxing. as if it is something known as a logic , if in pratic , broken out whole on open ended time.
    in conclude , it is something eveyone need to be interested in doing constantly while working on open ended time.

  47. What is Time Boxing? | Christoph Jahn says:

    [...] For a more thorough discussion check out this article. [...]

  48. How to stay focused | A Fool and His Money says:

    [...] Use time boxing Ermm… Yes i know. Here you go: Time Boxing [...]

  49. Time Management Links/Information « Jo Doran, M.F.A. says:

    [...] “Time Boxing” – An effective way to get things done [...]

  50. Michal Piekarczyk says:

    This is a comment on the topic of filling in the “null” time at the end of the day before your “bed time”. So I was thinking, why not pretend you have to assign work to someone else. I think I am way too easy on my tired ’self’. But instead, create tasks for some junior high school student with low patience. Then do as you are told.

  51. Dieter van Baarle says:

    This reminds me of some methods in the book “Do It Tomorrow” by Mark Forster. I really liked his methods for getting things done.

    One of his methods is very similar, he suggests to spend a little bit of time at the start of every day to get a (big or complex) task done.

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0340909129?ie=UTF8&tag=zigo-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=0340909129

  52. ToolBlog » Die Zeit in der Kiste says:

    [...] Dave Cheong: Time Boxing is an Effective Getting Things Done Strategy [...]

  53. ene says:

    so what is supposed to be done if not all the planned deliverables are not ready at the end of the stated timebox?

  54. Code Whisperer: Time Box to Overcome Fear, Stress and Anxiety | Derek Neighbors says:

    [...] Okay, Okay how the hell does this have anything do with me? I noticed recently that developers have similar problems. Whether it be velocity concerns, deadlines, poor acceptance criteria or something else that is preoccupying their mind, they can get fearful, stressed and ultimately produce enough anxiety to not be able to effectively do the work at hand. I find that in agile we have a principle of time boxing. I believe that by time boxing things like releases, iterations/sprints, stories and even tasks that like the dog fearing the toaster it allows us to be focused on something other than our fear for long enough to produce a calm. [...]

  55. Guillaume, for MacMation says:

    TimeBoxing is indeed a very powerful concept against perfectionism and procrastination.

    Many people will sometimes procrastinates for an hour, because they don’t want to start a task that takes only 30 minutes to do when well focused.
    It can be because they want to do it so perfectly that it becomes scary to even start it.

    TimeBoxed is a neat timer for Mac OS X that is perfect in this kind of situation (Disclaimer: I am the main developer of this app).
    Check it out at:
    http://www.macmation.com/TimeBoxed

  56. Why Getting Personal Stuff Done Is Hard says:

    [...] I know I’ve been writing about Time Boxing, but it seems the strategies there alone aren’t sufficient to help me Get Things Done. [...]

  57. SOA, Simples Assim! » 10 Princípios de Gerenciamento de Tempo (Projetos Ágeis) says:

    [...] Leitura recomendada: “Time Boxing is an Effective Getting Things Done Strategy” [...]

  58. Inflating Effort » Study Shack says:

    [...] is all similar to the idea of Timeboxing where we can make goals of time rather than completion. By giving yourself 10 minutes to look at [...]

  59. Toimistofetisistin tunnustuksia | Kirjoittajatreffit says:

    [...] Perehdyin tiiviissä tahdissa mitä moninaisimpiin tehokkuustekniikoihin monivaiheunesta GTD:hen ja timeboxingista selkeisiin tehtävälistoihin. Monista kokeilemistani asioista on tullut korvaamaton osa [...]

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