Fix Time, Flex Scope (Day 25 of 30 Days of Getting Results)



“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” — Parkinson’s Law

Your Outcome: Learn how to master time management and set effective time limits for things and then bite off what you can chew within that time limit.  Your ability to use timeboxing and time budgets will help you manage your energy, free up your time, get more things done, and achieve work-life balance.

Welcome to day 25 of 30 Days of Getting Results, based on my book Getting Results the Agile Way.  In day 24, we learned how to bounce back with skill and to to draw from our four sources of strength (mind, body, emotions, and spirit.)  Today, we learn the single most effective way to master time management.  It’s the art of timeboxing.  Timeboxing is a simple way to treat time like a budget and choose how much time to spend on things.  This is how you avoid throwing “good time”, after “bad” or working past the point of diminishing returns, or simply put, spending $20 on a $5 problem.

If you’re a procrastinator, or if you have stuff you hate to do, or if you fall pray to ineffective thoughts or get stuck in analysis paralysis, or if you find yourself always running late or missing windows of opportunity, then this post will help you transition to a more effective approach.

Fixing the Time, While Flexing the Scope
One of the best patterns I know for mastering time management is called Fix Time, Flex Scope.   This is a practice we’ve used for several years on our patterns & practices team at Microsoft, to ship things on time and on budget.  I’ve used this pattern personally and for all my projects for a perfect track record of on time and on budget.  The idea is to fix or allocate a certain amount of time for something in advance, and then bite off what you can chew within that amount of time.  The opposite pattern is to simply work on something until you’re “done.”  That pattern is Fix Scope, Flex Time.  Basically, you keep throwing time at the problem until you eventually decide it’s done.  That pattern has several problems, including the following:

  1. You no longer have the benefit of time to help you prioritize
  2. You can no longer count on hitting your windows of opportunity
  3. You potentially run out of steam or go into a “death march” with no end in sight before you actually finish
  4. You end up throwing time at problems (time expands to fill it’s container)
  5. You end up with “scope creep” because of your moving timeline that just keeps moving out further and further.

3 Easy Steps for Timeboxing with Skill
Here are 3 key steps to creating effective timeboxes:

  • 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, etc.
  • 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.

10 Ways to Think in Terms of Fixing Time and Flexing Scope
Here are some ways to think in terms of fixing time and flexing scope:

  1. 3×3 system … use three stories for your day, for your week, for your month, and for your year.  This is  a simple and direct way to fix time, while flexing scope (you are varying your stories within the timeboxes of a day, week, month, and year.)
  2. Catch the next train.  Keep your trains leaving the station.  When you miss one, don’t hold your train back.  Instead, catch the next one.  It’s a simple metaphor but it keeps things flowing.  For example, if you missed completing one of your stories today, then you might add it to tomorrow’s metaphorical train, but only if it’s the next best thing for you to do.
  3. Ask yourself, “How much time should it take?
  4. Ask yourself, “How much time do you actually have for it?”
  5. Think in terms of “containers” of time to do your work in.  For example, you might have a 30 minute container, or a 2 hour container or a 1 day container or a week as a container, etc.    Give yourself enough space in this container.
  6. Have a time and a place for things.  Simply organizing your time this way will help you find peace of mind.  For example, I have a small windows on Sunday mornings that I use for creative work.  If I miss it, later in the day just doesn’t feel the same.  As such, I use this time for what it’s really meant for.  Don’t try to rob Peter to pay Paul.
  7. Ding … your time is up.  When your timebox expires and your time is up, treat it like it’s really up and be done with it.
  8. Think in terms of “good enough for now” and treat perfection as a “journey”, not a “destination.”
  9. Version your work.  Your first version might not be as good as your second, third, or fourth, but get in the habit of using versions as a way to share and improve your work over time.  For example, you might create an Alpha, Beta, Version 1, Version 2, etc.
  10. Chunk your work down.  This is key both to flowing value along the way, as well as having cuttable scope.   One unit that I find works well is using a story, where the story is a narrative of a task you’ll perform or a goal you’ll achieve.  Your stories can vary in size whether they are one of your stories for the day, the week, the month, or the year.   For example, a meaningful story for the year might be a much larger story than a story you would tackle within a single day.

A Story … “It’s Done When It’s Done”
Many moons ago, one of my early turning points in my career as a Program Manager at Microsoft was during a meeting with my manager about when my project would ship.  The conversation went roughly like this … My manager asked me when my project would be done, and I said I didn’t know.  I added that there was no way we could accurately estimate or even guestimate when we could finish everything left on the plate.  I was basically scope-driven and the project would be done, when I finished all the scope.

I remember a colleague saying, “What I’m hearing you say is … it’s done when it’s done.”

At the time, that seemed perfectly reasonable to me.  After all, something is done when it’s done, isn’t it?  The problem was that nobody was signed up to bet on something that didn’t have an end date.  Nobody wanted to keep supporting something where they could not see the end in sight and they could not see any results until after I shipped, sometime in the future.

To make a long story short, I ended up having to set a date and brutally cut scope to ship on time.  My biggest wake up call was that I didn’t actually have much cuttable scope (things that I could easily cut without killing the quality) and that trying to whittle something down was far worse than building something up with a timeframe in mind.

That was how I learned to go from scope-driven to time-driven and actually treat time as a first-class citizen.

Today’s Assignment

  1. Pick one of your daily activities that eats too much time and set a time limit for it.  For example, one of the best moves I did long ago was decide that I would not spend more than 30 minutes a day on email (and I get a ton of email at Microsoft that requires my attention and actions.)  This one move forced me to both ruthlessly prioritize and find way better techniques to manage my email.
  2. Pick one thing that you’ve been spreading out over too much time and create a timebox for it.  Maybe it’s a pet project that you would love for it to see the light of day.  Maybe it’s write a book.  Decide how much more time is worth spending on it, at least for a strawman or whatever is “good enough for now.”  Maybe it’s worth spending another day, another week,  or another month, etc.  Whatever the timebox is, put your stake in the ground.  Then decide the most important things to complete for your project within that time.  Cherry pick the most important value, and work on that first, until you run out of time in your timebox.

My Related Posts

Photo by Dmitry Kichenko.


  1. I love the concept of ‘time boxing.’ I do something similar, but this has given me more direction and some new ideas to try. I’m really enjoying your series and have gotten tons of insight–I just don’t pop on to chat so much these days because my own time boxes are rather stuffed!

  2. Hi JD,
    Powerful stuff. I love the idea of “treating time like a first-class citizen.” In my experience whenever I set myself a deadline time will expand or contract to be sure I get it done. There is a self trust that arises when learn to manage time effectively. There is a “knowingness” and confidence in our ability to Take Care of Business when we trust our ability to master time management.

  3. Ahhhh…. time boxing was my personal guard for a long time. It protected me from so much evil. Combined with bouncing back skillfully timeboxing is so lethal it scares me… 😉

  4. The assignment today resonates with me. Not too long ago I decided to cut back on some of my online activities and it amazed me how much time that made for so that I could direct my focus back to my priorities. I’ll be looking at how much time email is taking up now too. 🙂

  5. @ Jean — Thank you — that is great to hear. I hope your timeboxes are stuffed with things that make you smile.

    @ Rob — Too true. I’ve found that rather than give myself more time for things I don’t want to do, I have to give myself less. It gets it over and done with 😉

    @ Alik — Time is a great allie when we get it on our side.

    @ Clearly Composed — It sounds like you are on the right path. I try to make sure that whatever I’m doing, it’s because it’s either helping me be who I want to be, or creating more of the experiences I want to create.

  6. I’m really keen on the idea of time boxing. It really resonates for me just like your article on how to set boundaries and slough off the rest. Similar idea but more finely tuned.

  7. Hi JD .. love this concept: time first – finish up .. and do as much as you can within that time scope – then that part is done .. a little like the build up for Christmas – that deadline always comes!

    Rocks in first, fix the time .. and fill in the nooks and crannies as you can .. ie draw the picture, the background can come later with whatever time is left ..

    Thanks – really useful idea .. Hilary

  8. @ Sandra — It’s about the best way I’ve found time and again to find balance, invest my time the right way, keep my energy strong, and streamline my routines.

    @ Hilary — The secret of making it work is being mindful of what you choose to spend time on, how much time you’ll give it, and what’s the value you want out of it. By figuring out what you want out of it, you can choose whether the time in your timebox should be exploring ideas, making progress, testing paths, etc.

    This has an amazing effect of making the time you spend even more valuable and more engaging, because you get to be the pathfinder and explorer or whatever makes the most sense.

  9. JD, this post has been incredibly important this week. Thanks for taking time to write out your own story about how you had to move from scope-driven to time-driven. That really drove this concept home.

  10. Timeboxing really helps to become more efficient especially with routines. I am still used to be scope-driven than time-driven though.

    The biggest accomplishment with the timeboxing was my home office desk cleanup. I’ve always had folders, pile of papers, or ‘things-to-do-later” spread across the table all the time. I stopped keeping those for ‘later’ one by one. I now have a clean surface. It brings a good energy… A simple change, a big difference…

    Thanks for the sticky one-liner reminders idea. I am using that as I read/lean/make note from M. Buckingham’s book… Here is my quote of the day: “Give up the feeling of responsibility, let go your hold, resign the care of your destiny to higher powers, be genuinely indifferent as to what becomes of it all and you will find not only that you gain a perfect inward relief, but often also, in addition, the particular goods you sincerely thought you were renouncing.” William James

    • Timeboxing really helps for those activities that tend to use up all of our time and spill over into other things.

      It also helps u figure out how much time an activity is worth investing in. I’ve seen far too many people spend $20 worth of time on $5 problems, and it takes away from their overall impact.

      It especially helps us manage our energy, so that we don’t just keep going until we run out of steam. And my favorite use of timeboxing is to get started on something. Some things seem just too big to get started, but if I can just “spend 20 minutes” on it, then I can start to chip away at it.

      When you really get comfortable with timeboxing, the best thing to use it for is to iterate on things. This way you can get something done end-to-end and then cycle through it again. Multiple times. In this way, you can incrementally and iteratively improve something, without falling into the trap of perfectionism. And always having something to show for your efforts. And always something to get feedback on, learn and improve.

      You can’t beat that.

      It’s a very powerful way to learn how to get rapid results, while learning how to play around with the 80/20 rule, as well as learning how to figure out and test what’s actually valued.

      The most important think you’ll take away from Go Put Your Strengths to Work should be the ongoing challenge of identifying your “secret sauce” and sharing your “secret sauce” with others in a way they understand.

      For example, people tend to know that I can chop big challenges down to executable size, or that I can organize massive mounds of information into simple information models.

      > you gain a perfect inward relief
      I like that. A lot. So much of what I do is about creating a powerful, peaceful, and purposeful mode of operation.

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