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How To Use Time Boxing for Getting Results

How To Use Time Boxing for Getting Results

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

Why Use Time Boxing
Using time as a constraint and forcing function for results is extremely effective:

  • 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.
  • 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.)
  • 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.
  • 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 ;)
  • 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. 
  • 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
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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's some examples of putting timeboxes into practice:

  • 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?
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.    

Additional Resources

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  • Nice article! The two primary keys to timeboxes for me are strictly limiting the amount of time that a tasks takes to prevent analysis paralysis, and forcing yourself to evaluate, improve, and act upon your work and improve next time. The forced retrospective that a timebox provides (as long as you actually do the retrospective) encourages continuous improvement.

    Many agile techniques are all about timeboxing. Instead of buffering with time and pushing out the deadline when you fall behind, agile techniques often buffer with scope, i.e. let's keep the delivery date constant and continually adjust how much we are going to build to fit within that time.

  • I like the phrasing "buffer with scope"

  • Book building is art and science. I've built a few books over the years at patterns & practices.

  • What is your life frame?  What are the key buckets in your life that you need to balance across? 

  • Time boxing External links Agile Requirements Change Management

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