All About Timeboxing

“If you give yourself 30 days to clean your home, it will take 30 days. But if you give yourself 3 hours, it will take only 3 hours.” Elon Musk

Allocating appropriate but relatively aggressive amounts of time to a task is one of the keys to high productivity. 

This concept is covered comprehensively in our Top Rated Time Management Courses!

Timeboxing is a well-known time management system that uses this to help people be productive.

Let’s take a look at it in more detail.  

Background To Timeboxing

People have used the principles of timeboxing for hundreds of years. 

Benjamin Franklin used timeboxing as his primary time management technique before it was called timeboxing!

Until recently, many people using this technique would have referred to using Parkinson’s Law which states that: “work expands to fill the time available for its completion.” 

This name derived from a humorous essay, ‘Parkinson’s Law’, published in The Economist by Cyril Northcote Parkinson in Nov 1955.

It acquired ‘timeboxing’ as a name more recently. 

In a 1991 book, Rapid Application Development, James Martin introduced timeboxing as an essential part of agile project management and agile software development.


clock boxing gloves

What Is Timeboxing? Why Is It Beneficial?

Timeboxing is the process of allocating specific timeframes to a task and focusing exclusively on that task for the allotted period. 

This technique offers many benefits:

  1. Timeboxing forces you to plan your day carefully. 

Many people do not plan their day’s properly, leading to poor performance.

This simple step alone offers a clear benefit to users of timeboxing before they even start their day.

  1. Timeboxing ensures that you are spending time on productive work. 

Your planning process should ensure that you focus on and allocate time to your most important tasks.

As a result, timeboxing will increase the proportion of your time you spend on your highest value tasks.

  1. Timeboxing ensures that you work efficiently. 

By imposing a strict and tight deadline on tasks, timeboxing ensures that you don’t spend more time than necessary on them.

  1. Timeboxing forces you to concentrate 100%.

The time constraint of timeboxing means you have to concentrate 100% on the task at hand and drive it to a conclusion.

Because you know once the time is up you’ll be putting this task down and picking up another, you don’t have the option of “coming back to it later”, which often means never.

This avoids wasting time on tasks that will be left half-completed and of little benefit to anyone.

  1. Timeboxing makes you better at estimating how long things take.

Timeboxing is a great way to get better at estimating how long tasks will take.

Forcing you to stop when the time is up clarifies how long each task actually takes.

This creates a direct feedback loop for people new to this technique, meaning that you quickly get much better at estimating task length.

Experienced practitioners are very good at estimating how long tasks take to complete.


Difference Between Timeboxing and Time blocking

Timeboxing and time blocking require you to allocate time for tasks, but they are NOT the same. 

Timeboxing places a strict limit on the duration of a task. 

For example, I timeboxed 2 hours 30 minutes to write this article. So I kept an eye on the calendar, knowing I would publish it 150 minutes after starting it wherever it had got to.

On the other hand, time blocking reserves a particular time on your calendar for specific activities but does not impose a hard stop on the activity.

For instance, I time block 6:00 am – 6:45 am every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday to run and maintain fitness. 

This means I can continue running at 6.45 am if I don’t have something else I need to do. 

When you time block for an activity, it just means that you will focus exclusively on that task for the set time. It does NOT mean you have to stop at the end of the allocated time. 

By doing this, timeblocking removes the time constraint from the activity. 

It is much better used to avoid strategic activities being crowded out by more immediate everyday tasks rather than enforce highly efficient working.


The 7 Steps of Timeboxing

To start timeboxing, follow these seven simple steps: 

  1. Review your tasks:

Make a to-do list of all the tasks that you need to complete.

If you plan and make “to do” lists weekly, this will show all the tasks you need to complete over the next week.

If you plan monthly, this will be your list of jobs for the month.

Adjust the timescale according to your planning cycle.

  1. Choose one task:

From the long list, choose a task.

Usually, people start with the most important task on the list first.

  1. Define your goals:

State the purpose of the task and define how you will know when it’s done. Make a shortlist of what you aim to achieve by completing the task.

  1. Allocate limited time:

Remember that tasks expand to fill the time available.

Set a strict limit to the time you’ll be spending on that task, try to make it short but not ridiculously so.

  1. Repeat steps 2-4 for each job on your to-do list until you have filled your day or week.
  1. Carry out the tasks as planned:

Adhere to the plan and work according to the timescales set.

  1. Track time and manage distractions:

Make sure that you stay aware of the time to stay on plan. You also need to manage potential distractions aggressively to ensure that you are not interrupted.

And one extra step for beginners!

Assess your results: 

When the allocated time is exhausted, measure your progress against the goals set to improve your time estimation in the future. 


a man analysing date of appointments

How I Implement Timeboxing

The principles of timeboxing are set in stone, but the exact way you implement those principles is not. 

Everyone experiments to see how to make timeboxing work best for them as part of their time management process

This is how I do it.

      1. Plan the day ahead:

The last thing I do each day is plan the following day.

I use a notepad and a calendar to do this.

        • On the notepad, I list out everything that needs to be done tomorrow and organise them in order of priority using an Pareto analysis.
        • Beside each task, I write an estimated time frame for completion.
        • I put these tasks into my calendar according to the priority set above.

Some people I know use a project management tool rather than a calendar. It makes no difference.

      1. Breakdown tasks:

I use the Pomodoro technique to maintain focus.

So, I break each task into smaller subtasks that would be completed in a Pomodoro session (mine are 45 minutes each – see The Pomodoro Technique for more details)

      1. Make time for flexibility:

I tend to overestimate my ability to complete tasks within a timeframe.

To avoid this, I allow a 15-minute window between significant tasks on my calendar to accommodate this and for breaks.

This window gives me a chance to catch up if I have underestimated the task length.

If I can’t complete the task in that window, I will leave it and plan to complete it at the end of the day.

      1. Timebox your admin:

I have three timeboxed sessions of ‘admin’ per day.

I use these sessions to answer emails, discuss things with colleagues etc.

My colleagues know that I will come back to them promptly because of these sessions, so asking them to leave me in peace during my timeboxed tasks is not an issue as they know I will answer them promptly.


Pros and Cons of Timeboxing

Ensures you work efficiently Requires intensive planning
Prevents perfectionism Hurrying tasks may affect the quality of the final product
Helps develop a better working rhythm
Improves timeliness


Who Does Timeboxing Work Best For?

A vast spectrum of people uses timeboxing because it harnesses universal human traits. 

The two categories of people that use it most are those who are very aware of how they spend their time:

      • Project managers use it a lot. 

Using the Scrum framework, managers can create sprints and sprint meetings etc. Large parts of the success of this process are based on timeboxing to keep things moving. 

      • Leaders like Elon Musk and Benjamin Franklin use timeboxing to ensure that they spend their days on what matters most. 


Final Words

Time is a finite resource and you should be miserly with it when allocating it to tasks. 

Research has shown that timeboxing reduces the average time spent completing a task. 

If you’ve not tried it yet, you should! 

Want a fun little brain teaser? See our Office Puzzle Challenge here!

About Ben Richardson

Ben is a director of Acuity Training. He writes about SQL, Power BI and Excel on a number of industry sites including SQLCentral, SQLshack and codingsight.