What is timeboxing?

Timeboxing is often conflated and confused with similar-sounding approaches to time management: time-blocking, scheduling, daily planning, single-tasking, calendar management and timetabling.

Disparate, inconsistent, overlapping definitions of timeboxing will not do for a book on the topic! They are collectively and individually unsatisfactory. I propose that timeboxing is the method and mindset of: Selecting what to do, before the day’s distractions arise; specifying each task in a calendar, including when it will start and finish; focusing on one thing at a time; doing each to an acceptable (rather than perfect) standard.

This definition accommodates the most important elements of the practice: intentionality, focus, achievement, order, completion and the creation of the timebox itself. It also makes the important point that we should box the time when, and only when, we have the wherewithal to do so. All the rules we make (the law, coding conventions, household policies) as a civilized society are examples of making a set of decisions at the outset, in a moment of cerebral calm and consideration (often by a carefully appointed committee), to help make life smoother in the long run. Timeboxing applies that principle to a special and specific circumstance: you.

Though not quite a definition, an alternative and also useful way of thinking about timeboxing is as a synthesis of your to-do list and your calendar. The to-do list tells us what to do. The calendar tells us when to do it. The combination is much more readily actionable and useful than either on its own.

It’s also worth distinguishing timeboxing from time-blocking. Time-blocking is the blocking off of time to do something. Timeboxing is time-blocking + committing to getting the task done in time, within the box. In other words, time-blocking is about exclusive focus; timeboxing is exclusive focus + specified outcome.

What problem does it solve?

The problem is that we don’t use our time well. We procrastinate. We achieve less than we ought to. We don’t feel free, even in our free time. We overcommit. We feel anxious. Most of us exhibit many of the characteristics listed in the Introduction.

We struggle to use our time well today, especially because:

  • Knowledge work is never-ending.

  • We are constantly faced with many choices. That choice brings an unpleasant pressure to choose well. And most of what we have to choose from is crap; the abundance of choice stems from an abundance of crap.

  • We’ve developed a fear of missing out (FOMO), which stems from a heightened awareness of what’s going on elsewhere, largely served up by social media feeds.

  • Control is ceded to algorithms and other people. We have lost a lot of our freedom, our agency.

  • We don’t have long here just four thousand weeks, as Oliver Burkeman put it. And we have far fewer for certain special, limited opportunities, such as time with grandparents, grandkids, our dear old parents, our finest friends.

But the question of what we should do at a given moment is a constant. Philosophy has grappled with it through the ages, from Plato’s ethics to Kant’s hypothetical imperative to the existentialists wondering about the purpose of being here, and what to do while we are. The question permeates fiction too consider the plight and behaviour of Camus’s Meursault (L’Étranger), George Cockcroft’s The Dice Man or Beckett’s Didi and Gogo in Waiting for Godot.

There’s a simple, compelling logic to the idea that our lives are the cumulative sum of our experiences, and that as a smart species endowed with free will, we can, to a large extent, choose those experiences. Choose well and live a good life. Choose badly, and don’t. The problem is that we often choose badly. The problem is that we don’t live as good a life as we could.

The features that make timeboxing exceptional

Some of the features of timeboxing demonstrate its inherent strengths, as a mindset and method. To be clear, features are the characteristics of the method what it is. Benefits, on the other hand, are the ways in which the method will improve your life. In commercial business parlance: features tell, benefits sell. This chapter is about timeboxing’s features, while the remainder of this part of the book focuses on the evidence that it works and the benefits it brings to its devotees.

Timeboxing is logical. We systematically decide on the most important aspects of our lives, prioritize them and give them due attention. As we do so, we ensure that our succession of experiences, our use of time, is systematically optimised, hour by hour and day by day. To those of us who do, the question is: how can one not timebox?

Timeboxing is natural. Specifically, it’s a natural extension of what we already do. Approximately half of our working lives (meetings, commutes, collaborative work sessions) and some of our leisure time (a driving lesson, a cinema showing, a massage, a restaurant booking) are prearranged with start and endpoints. Let’s say that roughly four hours of your working day and two hours of your leisure time are already prearranged six hours in total. Timeboxing is simply an extension of this and therefore should feel natural. The practice involves looking at the rest of your waking hours (with the example given, there are approximately ten left) and encourages you to decide how some of that time would be better spent too. The habit is less of a daunting encumbrance if you think of it as moving from a baseline of six up to eight, ten, or 12 timeboxed hours, rather than from a base of zero. Since you timebox already, you can use your existing systems and processes, and over the course of the book we will review and try to improve on these. All this by way of saying, unlike many other self-help methods, timeboxing is not an alien practice needing to force its way into an already jam-packed life of set ways and established behaviours.

Timeboxing is actionable. Add a single item to your calendar, set an appropriate duration, and you’re up and running. The approach here is to take the single most effective method, focus entirely on that and fully immerse you in it learning by doing wherever possible in order that you master it and make it your own.

Timeboxing is complementary. There are many approaches to time management. Timeboxing is not only consistent with them, it’s able to support any and all of them. If you have adopted Eisenhower’s Matrix (categorizing tasks into a 2 x 2 matrix of important vs urgent), you would take the most important, most urgent items and place them into your timeboxed calendar sooner rather than later. If you believe in eating frogs8 (getting the most difficult work done at the start of the day), you can place those frogs upfront in your calendar. If you think prioritizing rocks before pebbles and sand (that smaller tasks should be arranged around bigger tasks) then slot them in accordingly, largest first. If you subscribe to the 80/20 rule (that 80 per cent of the consequences are derived from 20 per cent of the causes), you will work to identify the vital few and stick them in your calendar ahead of the trivial many. If you are a chunker, chunk away, and timebox the chunks. If you consider your energy levels to be a major driver of your personal productivity, then choose to carry out creative work, administrative tasks, meals, exercises and breaks at the times of day that suit. If nutrition is part of your personal productivity plan, timeboxing will serve up reminders of the snacks or drinks you need, when you need them. Timeboxing is the flexible friend of any and all other time management techniques the one habit to rule them all.

(But notice that many of these techniques do conflict with each other: what if your energy levels require you to deal with bigger tasks later in the day? What if the ordering of tasks by difficulty does not perfectly align and, of course, it frequently won’t with an ordering by size or importance?)

Timeboxing is relatively undiscovered. The general public searches online for “timeboxing” much less than they do for other techniques. The terms “Eisenhower Matrix” and “Pomodoro Technique”, for example, are both searched for many times more than ‘timeboxing’. For now, you will be in a relatively small and special minority of timeboxers. The group of adherents who see and enjoy the benefits is growing steadily. And it’s not one of those game-theoretical secrets that must be kept by a critical minority in order to preserve its value; timeboxing is a tide that lifts all boats. In fact, the more people who timebox, the greater the collective synchronisation and collaborative harmony.

Excerpted with permission from Timeboxing: The Power of Doing One Thing at a Time, Marc Zao-Sanders, Penguin Random House.