• Call it what you want–time management, project management, life management–our calendars are critically involved in achieving our goals.
  • 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.
  • Alternatives to timeboxing include SMART goals and the Pomodoro Technique.
  • It’s also useful to recognize the emotions that can influence our productivity.

If you’ve ever felt overwhelmed by the scope of an undertaking, you know why good project management is important. Somehow huge tasks have to be broken down into reasonable increments. Lofty aspirations have to be divided into smaller goals and deliverables. The future you dream about has to be measured out in shorter time frames. 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. 

All big projects come with long to-do lists, and not just in the corporate world. For someone who is depressed and ruminating in their bed, for instance, their major objective is probably to feel better. But to do that they must haul themselves to the floor, brush their teeth, put on clothes, take a walk, call a friend, see their therapist, etc. Suddenly they feel overwhelmed again, unable to take the first step. 

Many project managers swear by a productivity hack that can help people achieve goals both large and small, in business and in mental health. Let’s take a look at what timeboxing is and how it might help someone overcome their obstacles using psychological insights.

What Is Timeboxing? What Are Its Benefits?

Simply put, timeboxing is the habit of putting your to-do list directly into your calendar. When we face a standard to-do list, we tend to do the easy things first and avoid the aspirational stuff like learning a new language. 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 when you finish. You’re not allowed 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. And in fact, the mind tends to rebel against leaving a task unfinished due to a cognitive bias called the Zeigarnik effect.

Additionally, in timeboxing you can be rewarded by small wins throughout the day. You can be more creative and focused when you’re not worn down by decision fatigue. The calendar dictates what you’re doing next. And you make the calendar, so it takes into account when you’re most productive throughout the day. It knows your energy levels in the morning versus the afternoon. It knows that you need to listen to your favorite music when you work. It knows that you can’t multitask. It knows that you need a 10-minute break to surf the web between projects. And it’s well aware of Parkinson’s Law, which is that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

Timeboxing also makes you accountable for your time. At home, you might feel a sense of satisfaction when you look back at all your daily accomplishments. At work, it might be helpful to share your digital calendar with your coworkers. Some people are more productive when they know they’re being watched (called the Hawthorne effect). 

Why Is Personal Time Management Important?

It turns out that all the 15- to 30- to 60-minute time slots within our days eventually add up to a life well-lived. So how we spend each increment of time is important. Being aware of this doesn’t mean that you have to calendarize your every aspiration. But when you have definite goals, productivity hacks like timeboxing can help. Alternatives strategies 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 5-minute break. After three or four work periods, you take a longer break.  
  • 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. We’re talking about what comprises our existence, after all. 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. 

And 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.