In 2012, I read Daniel Markovitz’s article, explaining that to-do list do not work and make us less productive due to the paradox of choice. Simply put, with a to-do list, we tend to become overwhelm with choices (our brain can only handle a max of 7 choice whilst some of our to-do list may have up to 50+ options of tasks!) and so become crippled in trying to figure out what to do. With to-do list, we tend to focus on the easier tasks and sometimes leaving the tougher (possibly more important) tasks for never.
A better way instead of to-do list, is to transfer your task into your calendar. Putting your work into your calendar, helps you overcome the crippling “paradox of choice” and allows you to focus on what needs to be done. So, how do we do this?
Putting items into your calendar is sometimes termed “time-boxing,” a term taken from agile project management and introduced by James Martin in his book, Rapid Application Development. Generally, what you schedule into the calendar, gets done. Don’t schedule it, there is a high likelihood it doesn’t get completed. And personally, from my own experience, when I actually allocate time to complete a task (on my calendar), only then do I have the time to complete it. With non-stop meetings and constant distractions happening all around (especially now with so many people working from home), ensuring we block time in our calendars for the task we need to do is critical. But blocking alone is not enough.
In fact, there is a reason why we call the concept time-box and not just time-block (i.e blocking time on your calendar). There is a huge difference between the timeblock and timeboxing. Here is a quick understanding of simply blocking time in your calendar vs timeboxing.
When you block time in your calendar (timeblock), you allocate a certain period to do a piece of activity or work. At the end of the timeblock, if you haven’t finished your work, you would add additional time to your calendar to finish the work. With timeboxing, at the end of the time period you culled out for the work, you declare the work done, regardless of whether the work was completed or done partially. This means that you very strictly adhere to the time limits to get the work done. This drives you to completion.
Why is this so? According to Parkinson’s Law, “work expands continuously as to fill up the time available for its completion.” Simply stated, if you allocate 4 hours to complete a task, even if the task may take only 30 minutes to complete, you somehow will subconsciously expand your work so that the task would take 4 hours. Work keeps expanding the longer you have. By timeboxing, you force yourself to be efficient and complete the work in the given time.
There are many other benefits to Timeboxing. Here are a few more benefits:
- Some tasks which you hate to do (which more likely will be schedule to the later parts of your calendar) will eventually get done. In your to-do list, somehow those tough tasks never see the light of day as new tasks crop up and are given priority over older, harder tasks. By scheduling it, one day, eventually, the day you scheduled it for will come up, and then you will work on it.
- Because of the strict time limits you impose on specific tasks, you will become more efficient and find the best and fastest way to get those tasks completed.
- As you know there is only a limited time (say 25 minutes to complete this task), you will probably end up being less distracted and more focused on closing this task. You will also be mindful that once the 25 minutes is over, your task is done, regardless if you did a half-baked job on it. Knowing that time you have is all the time you have on this task will make you a lot more focused on the task.
- For perfectionists, timeboxing will allow you to be OK with good work (but not necessarily perfect). Once the time is up, the time is up. Timeboxing is a great tool for perfectionists who never quite complete any work, as they are constantly working and improving on it. Not necessarily bad, but we do need to close out and ship our work.
So, how do we start timeboxing? Start by opening your calendar and blocking out specific amounts of time in your calendar for tasks that need to be completed. If your to-do list has 150 tasks, start spacing them out in your calendar based on the time you think you will need to complete the task. Don’t worry if you make mistakes initially on time allocation. You get better with experience on how much time would be needed for the task. But block specific time.
You will also notice something very quickly. If you have 100 task to complete for this week and you start allocating them based on your calendar, you will quickly realise you just don’t have the time to complete all the task. If that is the case with you, then you must learn to say no. Many of us take on way too much and just by this simple activity of calendaring our tasks, we learn how “crazy” we are in expecting to finish so much in the limited time we have. Just say No!
Read More: Stand Up and Say No
Remember, timeboxing means setting a fixed amount of time for a particular task. Just as you would schedule a meeting for 30 minutes, followed by another meeting for an hour after that meeting, the same applies for the task you have scheduled. At the end of the 30 minutes, you allocated for meeting 1, you close out the meeting (even if there is much more to discuss) and move to meeting 2. The same goes with your task. You close out after the allocated time and move on to the next scheduled task. And remember, for bigger, more complex task, you can break it down into smaller chunks of timeboxes and schedule it over a week or a few weeks (depending on your deadlines).
Now, a question you will invariably ask me is “what if I start working on a task and I get into the zone/flow and am really really productive and don’t want to stop when my time is up?” I usually respond with this simple analogy. Sometimes, I start watching a movie, and it turns out to be a really bad movie. Yet I somehow can’t remove myself from switching off the TV and moving to another better movie. And likewise, I sometimes watch a great episode of one of my favourite Marvel heroes and after the episode is over, I get so excited, I want to watch the next episode. Before long, I have watch 5 episodes and 4+ hours have passed by.
Being in flow is great, but more importantly, is to understand and appreciate the importance of time. Time is perishable and not replaceable. We need to guard our time precociously. Even if we are in the flow, once the time is up, we need to move to the next task or meeting or activity in our schedule. More importantly, is we need to be wise about our scheduling. Schedule appropriately and we will become extremely productive.
Timeboxing not only works for tasks. I personally actually even timebox activities that are important to me. I timebox exercise and even lunch. You do need to get your nutrients to remain healthy. We sometimes work ourselves to death, we forget to schedule in basic necessities like exercise and good food. And when I say good food, do allocate time to possibly walk the extra 10 minutes to a “healthier” lunch option vs grabbing some junk food from the office pantry or the nearby 7Eleven. And don’t forget to timebox in time for family and activities with kids and your significant other.
Also, it is critical to take breaks after each task. Schedule in the break. Even if it is a 5-minute break. These breaks are critical for us to rejuvenate and refresh ourselves to take on the next task scheduled.
I have written previously on meetings and how sometimes it can be a waste of time. By timeboxing meetings where specific decisions need to be made, you force everyone collectively to make decisions based on the time allocated. Remember, regardless of time allocated, people will always use the full extend of the time. So if its just a quick decision that needs to be made, allocate very short time and get the consensus to move forward.
You can also timebox your own personal morning planning meetings. Each day, start the day with a short 15 minute planning meeting for yourself. Start your day by going through your schedule, making an necessary changes (based on urgency and importance) and prepare yourself for the day. This ritual should be timeboxed into your calendar and it is a critical ritual to start the day. If you don’t do this, you may end up questioning your schedule later in the day (i.e why am I doing this task, when my boss told me yesterday to get this other task done). Get this all out of the way at the start of your day, so when you start, you can go full steam ahead with no distraction or questioning your schedule.
Supplementary reading: Time Management is Not Clock Management
Remember, when you first start off it may be painful, especially for big tasks. You will get better at breaking down that book that you want to complete in 2 years, into writing 1000 words daily for 2 hours and timeboxing the 2 hours in your calendar. But once you figure out how to break down the big tasks, you will find yourself extremely productive.
A few more quick tips:
- Always try to schedule your hard tasks first. No one likes pain but by completing your hard tasks first, you get to work on the easier tasks later in the day, and when you complete, you will feel less pain (pain was earlier in the day). I wrote about this I my article about pain, and also shared the Wayne Rooney Story.
- Make sure you reward yourself after each task. The rewards can be simple rewards, like, taking a break, a short snooze. food, or a nice drink or a short YouTube video (But do note that if you keep rewarding yourself with ice-cream after each task, you may end up with diabetes!). Charles Duhigg in his excellent book “The Power of Habit” shares that when you create a habit like timeboxing, the end of the cycle needs to end with a reward. So, find simple rewards (i.e a hug from your significant other) that excites you at the end of completion of a task or a number of tasks.
- Use the Pomodoro technique developed by Francesco Cirillo. The technique basically recommends that you should schedule your task into 25 minute periods, followed by a 5 minute rest or reward period (this is where you can reward yourself with an ice-cream or chocolate for the great work you did the past 25 minutes)
- Finally, make time visual. Keep a timer near you. Make sure the alarm rings when it your time is up. These visual cues are critical for you to be conscious of your time limit and to make sure you are aware of the need to keep to your commitments and timing. Also, make sure your task is set for a time set that works for you. The human mind cannot concentrate on a task for more than 90 minutes. So, ideally never allocate any tasks for more than 90 minutes.
To a productive and exciting time ahead. Happy timeboxing!
This article is also available in Chinese.
Supplement the tips in this article with this video by Robin Sharma. Note: Watch Robin speak about scheduling (i.e timeboxing) the first 90 minutes of the start of your day to focus on your single most game changing opportunity.