Project time management: Timeboxing
How to reach your maximum productivity
With a deadline looming, we often manage to complete tasks that we have been putting off for ages in the shortest amount of time. Simply because we have no other choice at that moment. This effect is exploited by the time management method Timeboxing, which is also sworn by well-known business magnates such as Elon Musk or Bill Gates. We explain how timeboxing works and how it can make you more productive.
What is timeboxing?
Simple to-do lists often do not help us to work through tasks in a structured and consistent way. This is because there are usually too many tasks on them, making it difficult to decide which task to start with. We then often decide on simple tasks that are easier to complete or that we prefer to complete over others. In addition, some tasks that are important but not urgent, such as continous learning or training, are often forgotten or we simply do not find the time to tackle them. Furthermore, it can be difficult to reconcile the to-do list with the time available to complete the tasks because there are no deadlines or the deadline for large tasks is still far away. In such a case, Parkinson’s Law can strike, which states that it takes exactly as long to complete a task as there is time available to do it.
The timeboxing method can help with these challenges. With it, you can structure your time and tasks, increase your productivity and optimise processes. To achieve this goal, you create a fixed block of time for a specific task, the so-called timebox, and set yourself the goal of completing the task within this time. To do this, you define exactly what is to be achieved at the end of the timebox. Depending on the task, such a timebox can last from a few minutes to several hours or even days.
Where is timeboxing used?
As the method is very flexible, you can use it not only for personal planning of your working day. It is also used in agile project management and when working according to Scrum as well as to coordinate tasks in the team or to conduct meetings more efficiently.
This is how timeboxing works
Whether you want to use timeboxing for your personal time management or for your team, you will find that the basics are similar.
Step 1: Overview
You can only plan effectively if you know exactly what needs to be done. Therefore you should get a detailled overview of your tasks. For this purpose, you can use your personal to-do list, the sprints of an agile project or a task management tool. You can also break down larger tasks into smaller sub-steps, as with the Pomodoro method. Also note down routine tasks that occur regularly or important tasks for which you generally do not find time. Describe the tasks as precisely as possible and avoid vague formulations. This will make the exact goal of the task clear, which will help you later when estimating the time needed, as well as when working through the set timebox.
You can also combine similar tasks by “batching” them and thus work through them collectively in one time box. This makes sense, for example, when processing e-mails, as you do not have to transfer individual messages to a timebox and process them, but you can process several messages in one set time box.
Step 2: Estimate the time needed to complete the tasks
The next step is to estimate how much time you will realistically need to complete each task. This can be a few minutes, but also several hours, days or even months. The more precisely you have described the task in the first step, the easier it should now be for you to estimate the time needed.
Step 3: Schedule a timebox
Now take a look at your calendar and find a time when you can do this work. This way you can plan your working day. Do you use timeboxing in your team? Then discuss at this point whether the estimation of the duration is correct and plan a time frame for the task in the team.
If preparation or follow-up times are necessary, you should enter them as close to the time of the respective task as possible. In order to maintain an optimal overview of your activities at all times, it can also help to colour code different categories of tasks.
Our tip: When planning your working days, also take your performance into account. Are you able to focus better than usual at a certain time of day? If so, try to schedule tasks that require a great deal of concentration and attention at a time when you are particularly fit.
Step 4: Breaks and buffers
Be sure to include breaks and a block of time as a buffer for unexpected disruptions or unplanned extra work. In our experience, it makes sense to plan buffers before the end of the day as well as on the last working day of the week. This way you can take care of anything urgent and shift unforeseen tasks to the buffer times. Even if you use timeboxing for your team, you should definitely think about breaks and buffers. This way, you take into account the needs of the team members and prevent an excessive workload.
Whether you want to write down the time blocks on a piece of paper, enter them in your calendar, use an app or an Excel list for this is up to you. The only important thing is that you have access to it at all times so that you can start working on the task when the time of the scheduled timebox arrives. Keep strictly to the processing of the tasks in your calendar. Have you noticed during the processing of your time blocks that you have overestimated the time required, or have new tasks been added? Then you should take the time after a completed working day to revise the planning for the next days. This way, when you are asked about the status of a task, you can always answer exactly when it is expected to be processed or completed.
How long should a timebox be?
There are no fixed rules for the length of a timebox. Therefore, there are teams that use time blocks that are several weeks or even months long. However, keep in mind that you or your team should be able to focus fully on the task during a timebox. In other words, you should not be distracted by anything. Since you will probably still have to work on additional tasks during larger tasks or projects and therefore cannot focus completely on the task of your timebox, it is often useful to break large tasks down into smaller sub-steps. This way it is easier to control the task and work continuously towards your goal. It can also be motivating to check off small steps as you complete a timebox, rather than feeling stuck with a large task.
Timeboxing for meetings
In addition to planning tasks for your personal workday or team, you can also use timeboxing for effective meetings. Setting strict time blocks for certain topics on an agenda can help you stay on track during a meeting and discuss all the important issues. All you need to do is set an agenda, add fixed times and make the agenda available to participants. During the meeting, you should then make sure that a timebox is kept.
Tips for using timeboxing
1. Stick to the timeboxes
In order to get the most out of timeboxing, it is advisable not to change the scheduled time frames, even if this sometimes seems reasonable. Especially when you start working with the method, this is important so that you do not fall back into old working patterns. For the same reason, you should be disciplined about keeping to the time frames for a task. It can help you to set a timer to remind you of the end of each timebox.
2. Plan buffers and breaks
Especially when there are a lot of tasks to be done, it is very tempting to schedule the whole day for their completion. However, this is not useful. On the one hand, you urgently need breaks between the individual tasks to recharge your batteries and to be able to focus on the other tasks. On the other hand, it can happen that individual tasks take longer than planned or that there are disturbances and interruptions. Therefore, you should definitely plan for sufficient buffers. After you have worked with timeboxing for some time, you will quickly realise how much buffer is optimal for you.
3. Realistic timeboxes
At the beginning of working with Timeboxing in particular, the blocks of time you have planned may be too short or too long. We often tend to overestimate ourselves or underestimate the amount of work. This can lead to frustration or stress. With some experience with timeboxing, however, you can usually estimate the effort realistically.
Our tip: Make a note of the times you actually needed to complete a task in the beginning and adjust future, similar tasks to your experience.
Advantages of timeboxing
- Better estimation of time needed: To create a timebox, you first need to prioritise your tasks and then estimate them. This allows you to quickly learn how much time you actually spend on a task, improving your future planning.
- Increased productivity: The set time frame for completing a task helps you to focus on the task at hand, complete it within the set time frame and thus increase your productivity.
- Less multitasking: During a timebox, you focus on a single task. This prevents less productive multitasking and brings a sense of calmness to your workday.
- Increased motivation: When you create a timebox, you set yourself the goal of completing a certain task within that time frame. This can be very motivating. In addition, you will quickly notice that fewer tasks are put off and you can tick off one item after another on your to-do list. This also increases your motivation.
- Improved overview: The set time boxes provide a good overview of the tasks that need to be done. This is not only important for your personal time management, but also helps you with enquiries about when a task will be completed.
- Less perfectionism: For people who tend to perfect tasks, a fixed time block can help to draw a line, because as soon as one timebox ends, the next one must be started. So the rule is that the result does not have to be perfect, but a task must be completed within its time frame.
- Less procrastination: Everyone knows tasks that tend to get left undone because they are unpleasant. In such cases, a set timebox ensures that the tasks are completed. The exact time frame prevents tasks from being ignored and additionally helps with motivation, as an end to the tasks is always in sight.
- Optimised communication: If all your tasks are fixed in your calendar and your colleagues can view this calendar, this helps with collaboration and gives colleagues a good overview of your work. This way they can coordinate tasks with each other. This works even better if the whole team uses the method, so that you can also easily adapt your schedule to your colleagues’ needs.
Challenges of Timeboxing
- Rigid concept: Especially for creative tasks, it can be difficult to set a time frame, and a rigid timebox can hinder the process of creativity. However, depending on your personal preference, timeboxing can support creative processes when you or your team don’t have to think about what’s next, but can tackle tasks according to a plan. It can also help to plan routine activities with timeboxing and keep the rest of the day free for creative tasks. This way, necessary tasks get done and there is still enough flexibility for creative work phases.
- Difficulties in estimation: When you start using timeboxing or are given new, unfamiliar tasks, it can be difficult to estimate the actual time required for a task at first. However, this is part of the normal learning process and should not demotivate you to work with Timeboxing.
- Interruption of the flow: There are phases in which we get into the so-called flow and the work is easy for us. Rigid time frames can lead to an interruption in the flow of work, which may not be able to be resumed at a later point in time. Here it is important to find the best possible solution for you. For example, it may make sense to group similar tasks together in order to process them all at the same time in the flow.
- Poorer quality: Timeboxing is not about working through a task perfectly, but completing it within a set time frame. This can lead to working too hastily so that the quality of the results suffers. Therefore, make sure that a timebox is not too long, but also not too short. The method is also not suitable for tasks where the quality of the result is more important than the time spent.
- Overload: Timeboxing can help you schedule your tasks, but it is not the right method for everyone, as there are people who quickly feel overwhelmed by a busy schedule. Have you tried timeboxing and found that the method is not for you? Then try other time management strategies, such as the Pomodoro Technique or Timeblocking.
Timeboxing can help you work through your tasks in a structured way and increase your productivity by assigning a fixed time frame to tasks. However, timeboxing, like other time management methods, is only helpful if it suits you and the way you work. To adapt Timeboxing to your way of working, it can also be combined with other time management methods, such as the Pomodoro technique or Getting Things Done.
We advise you to simply test the method once, both for you personally as well as for your team and meetings. A task management tool such as the one integrated in the project management software myPARM can help you here. You can use it not only to note down your tasks, divide them into sub-steps and allocate the necessary processing time, but also to schedule the tasks in your calendar, process them, save documents relating to them or allocate them to team members. A personal task overview also shows you and your team members which tasks are currently scheduled for processing.
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