What is Timeboxing?

Timeboxing is a goal-based strategy that people use to increase productivity and reduce the time spent plotting how to get the work done.  

The concept is simple. You put a time limit on tasks, meeting agenda points, investigation time, anything, so you or the team stays focused on the common end goal and the precious commodity of time isn’t wasted.

There are two flavours to timeboxing:

Agile Methodology – Hard Limits

Agile methodology uses hard timeboxes around some of their ritual meetings. The scrum master might seem like a bully when you first join a team. However, they are trying to ensure that developers, designers, and business owners don’t drone on and waste time getting too far into the weeds when larger audiences are present. Everyone gets two minutes. Then, the scrum master moves it along, using key phrases of, “We can sidebar that for later. Who’s taking responsibility for this?” And they actually set up follow-up meetings. 

The beauty is standups are fast meetings and can be over in 15 minutes. Everyone is debriefed. As a result, necessary side conversations are identified and established without putting pressure on everyone else to coordinate calendars or be tortured by meaningless information.

Soft Limits

Soft-limit timeboxes are more flexible and allow interested parties time to reflect on solutions, collaborate more, and pick up new skills. 

There are many times as a developer that I’m doing something I haven’t tried before. I might think of three different paths to get to the right solution suggested by team members and google searches. I set a soft limit for each trial I might run of 30 minutes to one day each.

Other times, I might know my co-worker has the magic skills to do something in 20 minutes, but it’s my first time, so I’m giving myself 1 hour or five errors before asking for help. 

Timeboxing

Once I knew what timeboxing was, I realized that I have been doing it naturally most of my life. Not just with work but with life tasks. I hate cleaning the house, but I know it must be done. Otherwise, those nasty ants will come marching in. So, I break it down into priority tasks – bathroom, common areas, kitchen, and then bedrooms. I might even do dusting first, then circle back to each room, making it orderly, then sweep, vacuum and mop. But the bedrooms are always my lowest priority because the guests don’t see them. I use soft limits on house cleaning, but it gets done almost every weekend.

The other horrible task was the morning gauntlet of getting four boys fed and out the door with their homework and sports gear in a timely fashion. I have hard limits on these. Generally, I wake up 30 minutes before the boys. I prepare their food and then wake them up. I allow them 10 minutes to dress and hit the bathroom. Then, I give them 20 minutes to eat. Then, it’s three minutes to stuff the backpacks, check for sports gear and get in the car. GO GO GO!. No shoes, not my problem. 

Benefits of Timeboxing

Whether personal life or as a developer, timeboxing helps me increase my productivity while aligning my tasks to a common goal. It might not be the perfect thing for every scenario, but it has definitely helped me to:

Try new things

If I know I have 45 minutes to a day to try to do something I’m not sure about before asking for help, I’ll put an honest effort into proving I can learn new things, and I won’t waste too much time if I can’t figure it out.

Increased motivation

When doing smaller tasks that I find tedious in a given time limit, such as dusting the house or reviewing depend-a-bot pull requests, I have a higher success rate if I know I will only be tortured for a short time.

Stay Focused

Although I like to think I’m a great multitasker, if you ask me to schedule a doctor’s appointment, switch laundry around, and review others’ code while I triage a website in the same hour, I’m going to miss something. However, if I pivot and make a quick priority list, with five minutes for this, two minutes for that, and ten for something else and cross them off, I’m time boxing. The result of timeboxing is that I don’t miss something important because the doctor’s answered while I was writing code. I don’t waste time trying to remember the forgotten task.

Be Predictable and Dependable

I have so many tasks to do as a mom and developer daily, and if I’m in the on-call rotation, it doubles. My co-workers know I’ll get those depend-a-bot things merged on Monday and Thursday Mornings by having order and slotted time associated with work routine things. They know I’ll review pull requests around 5 pm each day.

How To Timebox

I’m pretty casual about my timeboxes. I don’t necessarily set timers unless I have a two-day warning that my mother-in-law is on her way for a visit. However, the Pomodoro Technique or Tomato Timer, as my kids call it, is pretty cool if you are just starting.  

My laziest kid, that hated school work, started using the http://www.tomatotimers.com/ site in high school, and he went from B’s, C’s and the occasional A to A’s and B’s, and he doesn’t get blindsided by quizzes anymore. Also, I’m not nagging him incessantly to be aware of his work.

Here are the magic steps to timeboxing.

  • Step 1: Create a list of tasks and order them by importance
  • Step 2: Set a time for 25 minutes
  • Step 3: Work on a task for the allotted time.
  • Step 4: Take a five-minute break.
  • Step 5: After four timers, take a longer break, 10-30 minutes.

If you want the back history of the Pomodoro Technique, visit here.

Malia Havlicek, Code Institute Student.

Sample timeboxing

If you want to sample timeboxing while learning to code and managing your daily life, try our free 5 Day Coding Challenge. See if you can juggle life with learning by using Malia’s timeboxing guide. Register now through the form below.

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