By January 15, 2009 15 Comments Read More →

How To Use Timeboxing for Getting Results

TimeboxingForGettingResults

Time boxing is a way to chunk up time and get results. 

If you continuously miss windows of opportunity or spend all of your time in one area of your life at the expense of others, time boxing can be one of your best tools.  

A time box is simply a limited set of time to accomplish a result.  Think of it as how much work can you get done in a given block of time.  I use it to organize my day, drive project results, make incremental progress on problems and spend time on the right buckets in my life.

10 Reasons to Use Time Boxing

Using time as a constraint and forcing function for results is extremely effective:

  1. Avoid missing windows of opportunity.  Time’s a limited resource.  If you don’t treat it this way, you end up blowing project schedules, missing windows of opportunity, or doing too little, too late.
  2. Spread your results across key areas.   If you spend all of your time in one area of your life at the expense of another, you can use time boxes to allocate time for important areas (such as career, mind, body, social, spiritual … etc.)
  3. Prioritize more effectively.  If you know you only have three months for that project, you can be smarter about what you bite off that you can actually finish.
  4. Chunk up a problem.  Use time boxes to slice a problem down to size.  This works well if you have a daunting problem that seems too big to take on.  Timeboxes are also a more realistic way to deal with problems that spread over time.  If you can’t solve a problem in a single session, then figure out the right-size time chunks to throw at the problem.  How do you eat an Elephant?  One timebox at at time ;)
  5. Deliver incremental results.   You can use a time box to show progressive results.  For example, rather than all-or-nothing thinking, use time boxing to make incremental progress on a problem.
  6. Increase focus.  Giving yourself dedicated time boxes to focus on a problem help you avoid task switching, and help you stay engaged on the problem.  If you find yourself wandering too much, then chunk your timebox down even further. See
  7. Increase motivation.  Make a game of it.  For example, how many sit ups can you do in 60 seconds?  Between splitting problems down to size, staying engaged on the problem and making a game of it, time boxing is a sure-fire way to build momentum and results.
  8. Improve your effectiveness and efficiency.  use time boxing to tune your results.  Using a time box can help you identify areas to improve as well as refine your approach.  If you’re not getting enough done within your timebox, experiment with different approaches, while you tune your effectiveness and efficiency.
  9. Version your results.  It can be very liberating if you think in terms of revisiting a problem over a period of time, versus trying to get it all right up front.
  10. Defeat analysis paralysis.  Analysis paralysis can be the worst enemy of results.  Use a time box to switch gears from think mode to execution.

Summary of Steps

Here’s some prescriptive guidance for creating and using time boxes effectively:

  • Step 1.  Identify candidate areas for time boxing.
  • Step 2.  Identify your objectives.
  • Step 3.  Identify the appropriate time box.
  • Step 4.  Execute results within your time box.
  • Step 5.  Evaluate and adapt.

Step 1. Identify candidate areas for time boxing.

Identify candidates for time boxing.  This could be anything from work projects to personal projects.  Personally, I’ve found it the most effective to start with something small, such as starting a new exercise program.  I’ve also found it effective to use it to tackle my worst time bandits (any area where I lose a bunch of time, with either little ROI or at the expense of another area.)

Step 2.  Identify your objectives.
In this step, ask yourself what you need to accomplish with time boxing.  Examples include:

  • Meet a deadline.
  • Show incremental results.
  • Make incremental progress on a tough problem.
  • Build momentum.

Step 3.  Identify the appropriate time box.

In this step, figure out what a right-sized time box would be.  For example, you might have a project due in three weeks.  Within that three week time box, you might decide that if you allocate 2 hours a day, you’ll produce effective results.

The right-sized time box largely depends on what you determined in Step 1.  You might need to grow or shrink your time box depending on whether you’re trying to build momentum, show results or just make progress on a problem.

Step 4.  Execute results within your time box.

Execute within your timebox and stop when you run out of time.  This can be tough at first because you might be on a roll.  This can be really tough if you are used to doing things until they are done.  What you’re learning at this step is how to stay completely focused, how to treat time as a limited resource, and how to tune your results.  You’re also learning how to make time boxes effective for you.

Start with your time box as a baseline so you can evaluate your results.  The worst mistake is to give yourself an hour for results, spend two hours, and then say what a great job you did in your one hour timebox.  Instead, do the hour, then figure out whether you need longer time boxes or if your approach needs to change.

Step 5.  Evaluate and adapt.

If it’s not working, change your approach.   Using time boxing is one of the most effective ways to experiment with different techniques to find the most efficient.

Examples of Effective Timeboxing

Here are some examples of putting timeboxes into practice:

  1. Software development.  Because our teams within patterns & practices do iterative and incremental development, we make heavy use of time boxing.  For example, within a two-week iteration, how much value can we deliver?
  2. Feed reading.  Give yourself a 10 minute window and see how many useful feeds you can read.  See how you tune your feed reading skills, including choice of reader, how you prioritize, and how you choose posts to read, as well as what links to follow.  You might choose to factor your exploratory, pleasure feed reading from your personal and professional development feed reading.
  3. Email.  Use time to help you outsmart your inbox.  For example, if you allocate 30 minutes for your email, but you’re falling behind, instead of throwing more time at the problem, experiment with different approaches.
  4. Time bandits.  Set limits on how much time you’ll throw at your worst time sinks.  For example, do you spend too much time in meetings?  Do you spend too much time stuck in analysis paralysis and not enough time in execution?  Tackle your time-bandits with some hard limits.   

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15 Comments on "How To Use Timeboxing for Getting Results"

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  1. Time boxing rocks.

    Working as a agile software developer myself we often use time boxing within single tasks/stories. If we want to see if something is going to work we will try it for 10 or 30 minutes and then re-evaluate.

    It also helps to enforce reflection periods.

    Also in learning japanese time-boxing my flashcard reviews makes it a whole lot easier to just do a few minutes. Rather than do 200 cards in an hour.

  2. Louisa says:

    I think this would be a great way to ensure you don’t get stuck on one task when you could be accomplishing more while spreading your focus a bit.

    Definitely something I could practice a bit more myself. ;-)

  3. I timebox every day as well. If something’s not done by a certain time it gets put away until the next day. That’s because really nothing has a hard deadline but I have many things on my plate.

    Great tips!

  4. I practice time boxing daily, weekly, monthly, yearly.
    It has proven to be most effective technique to get results for me.
    I treat time as budget:
    http://practicethis.com/2008/09/06/time-is-not-money-time-is-budget

  5. Kay Martin says:

    Thanks for comment on the 100 blogs looking back at 2008. I have another story from Aunt Eunice where she gave a moonshine gun shooting neighbor what for!

    I love this post. I am pursuing writing fulltime and I need every point for solutions that have eluded me.

    I will return…great blog.

  6. JD says:

    @ Jarrod

    I love the fact that time is a first-class citizen in agile. From stories to iterations, it’s a great forcing function to break things down. I’ve seen people get drained or stuck in life by throwing too much time at things, instead of just testing assumptions, getting the feedback, and taking the best actions forward based on learning. Agile is a great solution for software and life ;)

    @ Louisa

    That’s a great way to put it. It definitely helps get you past sticking points. Related to that, it helps you tackle big, scary things. Or better yet, when you don’t have the energy to do a lot or can’t find the motivation, it can be motivating to grab a small box of time and see what’s the best you can do in the timebox.

    @ Alex

    I’m a fan of plate management, and timeboxing is defintiely the best way to do it. I also, like to think of slicing my day by where I want to spend my time on and working backwards from that.

    @ Alik

    Time is definitely a budget.

    @ Kay

    Thank you. I can definitely say from experience that timeboxing will help you with your writing efforts. I can say that because I’ve used timeboxing to write the following books:

    - Application Architecture Guide 2.0
    - Improving Web Services Security
    - Team Development with Team System
    - Performance Testing Web Applications
    - Security Engineering Explained
    - Improving .NET Application Performance and Scalability
    - Improving Web Application Security
    - Building Secure ASP.NET Applications

    My smallest book is ~350 pages. The largest is ~ 1200.

  7. Praveen says:

    Really neat set of guidance. What I appreciate the most is the fact that Timeboxing allows me to set my expectations for a deliverable up-front.

    I grinned when I read this -”This can be tough at first because you might be on a roll.  This can be really tough if you are used to doing things until they are done. “. Wonder how many times I have done it. Excuse it may be, but I always find that your passion keeps driving you to finish the thing you started.

    However, I wanted to know who would appreciate this approach more. One who works on defined deadlines (Developer), or one who defines the deadlines (Manager)?
    I guess the former can also timebox his/her options, but I’m wondering if it will be any effective.

  8. JD says:

    @ Praveen

    Thank you.

    Great question. It’s rare to have carte blanche so it’s likely the manager already has time constraints imposed by the stakeholders. Hopefully these are explicit vs. implicit. This is the larger timebox.

    Ideally, the manager sets the execution rhythm that the team buys into. I’m a fan of weekly iterations because it’s easy for people to estimate a week’s results. I know a lot of team’s do two week iterations successfully, but I like figuring out on Monday, what a great Friday would be looking back on results. People feel good for their week of work.

    On the dev side, what’s important is that the timeboxes help chunk the task down into something that can be estimated with some degree of confidence, and so that it’s possible to make useful progress.

    The manager should be resetting expectations on scope based on what’s possible by time (a fix time, flex scope pattern.) The dev should be resetting expectations as necessary so the manager knows how to reset expectations or readjust plans as needed.

    An anti-pattern is for the manager to set the timebox for the work without agreement from the person doing the work. The person doing the work, should be able to give a baseline estimate.

    In either case, timeboxes work well for anybody to chunk up the day. For me, I refuse to spend more than 30 minutes on administration or less than 2 hours on execution. I allocate a 30 minute timebox in the afternoon to beat the streets and quickly touch base with folks face to face. I adjust as necessary.

  9. Dror Engel says:

    One of your best posts JD.
    I would be happy to get your advice about the following situation.
    I have some project to complete until the end of the next month.
    I figure out that in order to achieve this goal I need to work on it 2 hours per day. however, I have problem to work effiecently on this project and I find myself working only half an hour per day. how time boxing can help me to achieve this goal? what are the questions I need to ask myself and what are the ways to measure my success on this project in order to improve it every day and on the next project..

    Again – Thank you.

    Dror

  10. Dror Engel says:

    One more question JD:
    Can you give an example of timebox for writing? (like your books)
    I want to write 3 blog posts every week but without success

    Thanks

  11. JD says:

    @ Dror

    Thank you.

    How to put in your 2 hours per day to complete your project?

    Here’s some things to test:
    1. Schedule the first 2 hours each day to get your hours in.
    2. Find a way to enjoy the time. For example, play your favorite music.

    Always knock your biggest challenges off your plate first thing. It’s when you have your energy and can tackle the tough stuff. The thing to really keep in mind, it’s not so much about putting in the time, it’s about putting in the energy.

    Here’s the ultimate secret — find a way to add as many “power hours” to your week as possible. Seriously. I’ll leave that to you to get creative, but that’s the goal. One power hour beats 5 unproductive hours.

    How to write 3 blog posts per week?
    Batch and focus. Pick your favorite writing time — whether it’s Monday night or Sunday or whenever it is, and write them in one session. The publish them over the week. Each time you have your writing session, focus on creating more drafts. If you do this each week, you’ll build up a nice queue.

    If this gives you any inspiration, I accidentally created six months worth of posts in a couple of weeks. The downside was, I no longer wanted to use them. The lesson is, don’t get too far ahead of yourself.

    Here’s another tip. Use notepad when you write your posts. It’s fast and clean. It helps you focus.

    If you find yourself getting stuck on writing, simply identify questions first and then write to answer the questions.

  12. Maya says:

    JD,
    Awesome post! And wonderfully resourceful answers.
    I have been trying to use timeboxing since the time I read our other post that touched on it – I have been loving it – I produce a LOT and am exhausted :)
    I will open this post again first thing in the morning and follow along …
    Like most things the struggle is to persist long enough so as to make this tool a part of me – so that I just flow along and the tool becomes me …. I will hang in there and keep working :)

  13. JD says:

    @ Maya

    Thank you.

    That is great to hear!

    You’ll definitely get the hang of it as you go.

    Here’s a few tricks that help keep your energy with timeboxes:
    - shorten the timebox, if you find yourself running out of steam (or just take more breaks)
    - pay attention to activities that drain you (for example, some activities might give you energy, some might rob you)
    - find your own rhythms (you might find that blocking time in the morning might be more effective than night, or vice-versa)

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