Do you know Parkinson's Law? “It is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion,” British naval historian Cyril Northcote Parkinson wrote in a 1955 essay for The Economist. Fun fact: Parkinson wrote it because he was mad about bureaucratic bloat in the British Civil Service.
But take heart. It doesn’t have to be this way. There’s a time management technique called “timeboxing” that can help you get through your tasks more quickly without having to impose artificial deadlines.
What is timeboxing?
Timeboxing is a time management technique where you pre-determine how long you’re going to spend working on the task at hand before you start working and stick to that time limit. It’s the anti-Parkinson’s Law. It prevents you from allowing yourself to work on the task until it’s due.
Timeboxing vs time blocking
Time boxing and time blocking are similar enough that many think they’re the same thing. But there is one important difference. While time blocking emphasizes deciding when you’ll work on what, timeboxing focuses on limiting how long you spend on a task. You can time box without necessarily time blocking by just giving yourself an upper limit on how long you’ll spend on a to-do item regardless of when you start working on it. But you can’t really time block without also timeboxing. When you create your blocks, you’re also pre-determining both their start and end times.
So the two can be used simultaneously, and might actually work best that way. But if getting started or deciding what to work on when isn’t a problem for you then you can absolutely use timeboxing by itself. You might also want to use timeboxing by itself if your to-do list tends to change dramatically every day or throughout the day.
Does timeboxing work?
There are some studies that provide evidence for Parkinson’s Law. For example, after researchers “accidentally” gave a group of students extra time to complete a task, those students took longer to complete it than the control group. In another experiment, students who unexpectedly only had to look at only three sets of photos rather than four spent longer looking at the third set.
It stands to reason that a shorter deadline would lead to faster, more efficient work. But that doesn’t tell us whether timeboxing is an effective time management method. Simply procrastinating would also lead to faster, perhaps more efficient work.
The problem is procrastination is very stressful. According to one study, the most serious procrastination devotees earn less money, have shorter stays at their jobs, and are more likely to be unemployed or underemployed. Other research shows procrastination can even make you sick.
“When you have a deadline it’s like a storm ahead of you or having a truck around the corner,” Academics and authors Eldar Shafir and Sendhil Mullainathan write. “It’s menacing, so you focus heavily. You may at the same time forget to pick up your kid from school, your mom’s birthday, to feed the dog etc. That may be the price you pay.”
Timeboxing offers the benefit of a deadline without the stress.
How to start timeboxing
Once you have a prioritized list of things you need to get done, break each goal into tasks you can get done in one sitting. So if you absolutely need to write a 20-page white paper, for example, you need to decide how many work sessions that will require. Let’s say you think you can do it in 20 hours total. Assuming an eight-hour workday, you might say it’ll take you a day and a half. But that ignores how our brains actually work.
“When people sit down to do a task, they’ll put in a lot of effort initially,” writes Elizabeth Tenney, assistant professor at the University of Utah’s Eccles School of Business and author on time pressure and productivity. “At some point there’s going to be diminishing returns on extra effort. To optimise productivity, you need to maximise benefits and minimise costs and find that inflection point, which is where you should start to wrap up.”
Productivity experts like Cal Newport argue for two-hour unbroken stretches of work at a time. That way you’re spending less time context switching, which wreaks havoc on your productivity.
Alternatively, many people swear by Pomodoro technique for time management where you work for a predetermined amount of time, say 15 minutes, then take short breaks before starting up again. You do this several times within one “session.”
However you break up your work, the important thing is to set limits on how long you’ll work on a particular task. So if you think it will take you 20 hours to write your paper, only set aside 20 hours for it. And don’t let your individual session exceed their pre-set time frame either. If you decide each session will go one and a half hours, stop working when that time has elapsed.
Again, it can help to combine timeboxing with time blocking or time batching for maximum productivity. But also note that if any of these techniques don’t work for you, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing them wrong. Some methods work better for some and worse for others. The goal is to find what works best for you.
Timeboxing tools and apps
There are several tools and apps that can make timeboxing a little faster and less manual. The first step is to use your calendar app for time blocking and timeboxing. (Pro-tip, if you use Clockwise with your Google Calendar, we’ll carve out more Focus Time for you to use for timeboxing your tasks).
Here's one great timeboxing app: Beth Ziesenis, owner of Your Nerdy Best Friend, recently recommended RescueTime for timeboxing. RescueTime will tell you how much time you actually spend on various tasks and how much time you spend surfing the internet, checking email, or on social media.
Timeboxing in software development
The term “time box” actually originates with agile software development. It refers to a predefined period in which a scrum team must complete a task. Scrum timeboxing could involve tasks including testing, sprint planning, or daily scrum standups.
With software development as with anything else, the goal is to prevent teams from expanding work to fill the time allotted to it.
Whether you’re a Software Developer or a bureaucrat in the British Civil Service, you’ll get more done if you limit the amount of time you allow yourself to spend on a task. Timeboxing puts in place time constraints that can help you get more done in less time. And with less stress than alternatives like procrastination.