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Productivity hacks: How timeboxing works

Productivity hacks: How timeboxing works

Call it what you want — time management, project management, life management — our calendars are critically involved in achieving our goals. All big projects come with long to-do lists, and not just in the corporate world. Somehow huge tasks have to be broken down into reasonable increments, and lofty aspirations have to be divided into smaller goals and deliverables. 

This all serves to keep our brains from getting overloaded by the magnitude of what’s ahead of us. And the principles of project management apply whether you’re doing some spring cleaning or organizing a multi-million-dollar business venture. 

Many project managers swear by a productivity hack that can help people achieve goals both large and small, in business and in mental health. Timeboxing can help us get our work done by limiting the amount of time we spend on certain tasks, giving us a set time when we’re supposed to stop working. Let’s take a look at what timeboxing is and how it might help someone overcome their obstacles using psychological insights.

What Is the Timeboxing Method?

Simply put, timeboxing is the habit of putting your to-do list — every element, from a task breakdown to the time it would take to do them — directly into your calendar. When we face a standard to-do list, we tend to do the easy things first and avoid the more aspirational stuff. To-do lists also lack a temporal element. They don’t impose time constraints for accomplishing A, B, or C — you can procrastinate as much as you want.

In contrast, timeboxing is a habit of personal time management that puts you back in the driver’s seat. When you calendarize a task, you’re taking control of exactly when you start and finish. 

Does Timeboxing Really Work?

There are many reasons that timeboxing works for people. For example, some find that it helps to quiet some perfectionist tendencies, as the time constraints make it difficult to be a perfectionist about something when your schedule dictates that you now need to complete your task and shift your attention to something else. 

Another reason that timeboxing helps with time management is that the mind tends to rebel against leaving a task unfinished due to a cognitive bias called the Zeigarnik effect. Even if the task isn’t finished within set time restraints, the strategy of timeboxing got you started, setting you up to finish tasks you may have been avoiding.

Additionally, in timeboxing, you can be rewarded with small wins throughout the day. Since the calendar dictates what you’re doing next, the weight of decision fatigue is relieved, allowing you to be more creative and focused. 

Finally, you can use your calendar to personalize your to-do list, making it suit your habits and patterns. This way, you can do your tasks in a way that’s most effective for you. Each of these benefits can help boost your motivation, focus, and productivity.

How Do You Practice Timeboxing?

It can take a moment to get used to the very specific scheduling that timeboxing requires. Everything goes in the schedule — from tasks to breaks to mealtimes and contingencies for anything that takes extra time.

Some people choose to integrate other techniques into their timeboxing, such as the Pomodoro technique, which implements a schedule of approximately 25 minutes of focused work, then five-minute breaks between each cycle of work. 

After you’ve completed your schedule and adhered to your schedule, it’s good to assess your day and work habits. What worked? What could be adjusted to work better for you? The purpose of this is not to give you an arbitrary strict schedule or to guilt you into working, but to help you be as productive as you want to be. Adjust your schedule and strategy until it is the most effective it can be for your work style and patterns.

Is Timeboxing Good for ADHD?

One of the main ways that timeboxing can be good for people with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is by reducing time blindness. People with ADHD often have trouble understanding or conceptualizing how long tasks actually take. The first few attempts to schedule tasks might allot too much or not enough time for things, but continuing to practice timeboxing creates a visible record of how long different tasks take to finish, teaching you what to expect from different tasks.

Surprisingly, timeboxing also allows for more flexibility in doing tasks. With ADHD, when things are on your to-do lists but aren’t scheduled for a specific time, they are always there. There is a sense of dread that follows you, trying to remind yourself to do the task. However, though the structure of scheduling tasks can feel more daunting than giving yourself the freedom to choose when it gets done, the constant dread and guilt that come from forgetting about the task or putting it off actually make it harder to do. 

By giving tasks an assigned time, your tasks no longer have to follow you around—they have their own time. Even if something comes up and forces you to push the task or your executive dysfunction acts up during your scheduled time, all you need to do is reschedule it for another time. That way, you don’t have to worry about forgetting it, but you still have to flexibility you need to cater to the way your brain works.

Since you are the one creating the calendar, it can also be attuned to your personal habits and patterns. For example, it can take into account when you’re usually most productive during the day. It knows your energy levels in the morning versus the afternoon. It knows that you can’t multitask. It knows that you need a 10-minute break to surf the web between projects. It takes the responsibility off of your shoulders to remember to do the task and find the motivation to get it done, reducing decision fatigue and ultimately giving you more energy to get things done.

What Is an Alternative to Timeboxing?

It turns out that all the 15- to 30- to 60-minute time slots or focus time within our days eventually add up to a life well-lived. Being aware of this doesn’t mean that you have to calendarize your every aspiration, but when you have definitive goals, productivity hacks like timeboxing can help. Alternative strategies for managing time include:

  • The Pomodoro Technique: When you want to complete a task, you set a timer for 25 minutes. After these 25 minutes of focus, you take a five-minute break. After three or four work periods, you take a longer break. This helps give you effective time dedicated to being productive without burning out your attention span or motivation reserves. This is especially helpful for people with ADHD.
  • SMART goals: SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. This method is a way of establishing clarity around what you want to accomplish. Therapists often use SMART goals to help their clients focus on their targets.
  • Time blocking: This method is similar to timeboxing in that it chunks periods of time, but it might not put the chunks directly into a calendar, and it might not impose specific time limits for completing important tasks. 

There are countless more approaches to managing time, probably as many as there are people in the world — you can figure out what works best for you. If you have a friend who seems to organize their life in admirable ways, ask them how they do it. If you’re in awe of someone’s fulfilling work-life balance, ask them what their secret is. 

Remember that time management, motivation, and productivity are also tied to emotions. We’re not just soulless automatons whose brains can be manipulated through agile software development, no matter how smart those computer programs are. 

Sometimes we procrastinate because we fear a certain outcome, or we self-sabotage our goals because we don’t feel that we deserve good things. Recognizing these emotional obstacles is the first step in learning to work around them. Or you can focus on self-compassion, scheduling a whole day just to enjoy all your minutes, and do absolutely nothing. Choosing happiness can be a time box, too.

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Hannah DeWittMental Health Writer

Hannah is a Junior Copywriter at Thriveworks. She received her bachelor’s degree in English: Creative Writing with a minor in Spanish from Seattle Pacific University. Previously, Hannah has worked in copywriting positions in the car insurance and trucking sectors doing blog-style and journalistic writing and editing.

We only use authoritative, trusted, and current sources in our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about our efforts to deliver factual, trustworthy information.

  • Kodden, B. (2020). The art of sustainable performance: the Zeigarnik effect. In Springer eBooks (pp. 67–73).

We update our content on a regular basis to ensure it reflects the most up-to-date, relevant, and valuable information. When we make a significant change, we summarize the updates and list the date on which they occurred. Read our editorial policy to learn more.

  • Originally published on May 13, 2022

    Author: Wistar Murray

  • Updated on September 15, 2023

    Author: Hannah DeWitt

    Changes: Update by the Thriveworks editorial team, adding more information regarding what timeboxing is, how and why it works, whether it can help people with ADHD, and how to practice it.

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