Last night, I had a discussion about time boxing with my wife, who's trying to keep all of her volunteer activities from consuming too much time. It's easy to perpetually do "just one more thing" and spend way more time than you intended on an activity, and I thought she could use time boxing to help her contain her time investment.
I pointed her at Dave Cheong's article on the subject, but she was looking for something shorter and more prescriptive so I thought I'd take a stab at a "Cliff's notes" overview of the basics of time boxing.
What is time boxing?
At its simplest, time boxing is the technique of declaring a finite time period to work on a task or project, then getting as much focused work done toward the task or project during that finite period of time. In essence, "I'm going to do as much work as I can on project x during the next 30 minutes," then stopping work when that 30 minutes is up.
Essentially, time boxing is about "I'll work until the appointed time is up," and not "I'll work til I get this done."
Why time boxing?
Time boxing creates artificial "sprints" of focus and intensity, and helps limit the amount of time you spend on any single activity. It can help with any activity - the ones you love (to keep you from going overboard), as well as the ones you dread (to help you see the light at the end of the tunnel).
How do you time box?
- Start with your goals and big projects
- Create a list of sub-goals or sub projects
- Identify "next actions" you need or want to complete
- Pick out a significant next action
Note: I find it helpful to start with a critical path item (a "constraint") or an item I would rather avoid.
- Estimate and schedule an appropriate block of time that you will block out everything and do nothing but work on that task or segment of the project. (make a note of your estimate and progress you expect to make - you'll need it in step 8).
- When that block of time comes, set a timer and work diligently on that task for the entire block of time - don't dawdle and don't stop until a) the time is up, or b) the task is complete.
- When the time is up, record your progress and make a note of what's left to do.
- Compare what you got done to what you expected to get done - how well did you estimate?
That's it in a nutshell. By doing this, you'll be amazed at how much you can get done through these "sprints" of focus. And the lightweight analysis (steps 5 and 8) will help you get better at estimating over time.
Does time boxing work for you? Any tips to share? I'd love to hear them.