For several years now, I have been an enthusiastic practitioner of time boxing—working in fixed time intervals (time boxes) of 25 to 40 minutes, interspersed with short breaks during which I get up from my desk and do some physical activity.
Over the years, I have tweaked my time box length several times to optimize my productivity.
If I made it too short, I would interrupt work too often; if I made it too long the time box would drag on and exceed my attention span.
I also needed a shorter time box length for reading than for writing, in particular when learning complicated material.
What you should also know is that I usually wear noise cancelling headphones or earmuffs to block out distractions.
But that also means that I might miss the alarm going off at the end of a time box. Often, I just didn’t hear it.
So I started using the vibration alarm of my Fitbit. That worked great because a brief vibration would always alert me to the end of a time box. I also didn’t disturb others with audible alarms.
Paced Time Boxing (PTB): Augmenting time boxing with intermediate reminders to pace yourself
Many fitness trackers, such as the Fitbit, have an interval timer, designed for high intensity interval training (HIIT), where you alternate between move and rest intervals.
This got me thinking:
“I could solve the problem of dealing with different time box lengths for different tasks and at the same time introduce a pace setter.”
So this is how I have been doing for a while now:
I set both the move and the rest interval in my Fitbit to 20 minutes (the maximum) to make up a time box with a total length of 40 minutes. In other words, I use both the move and the rest interval to make up a time box.
To begin a time box I start my interval timer, and it starts counting down. After 20 minutes I get two brief vibrations on my wrist.
But this first vibration alert only signals that half of my time box is over.
It serves as a pace setter, telling me, “Half your work time is over, you better get going.”
After another 20 minutes, I get a second vibration alert (a single vibration): “Your time box is over. Get up from your desk and do some exercise.”
And that’s exactly what I do. The task I am currently working on gets two strokes in my to-do list—one for each 20-minute interval.
The total length of my time box is 40 minutes, which is a lot longer than the 25 minutes used in the popular Pomodoro technique, but I get my first win after 20 minutes.
What I call Paced Time Boxing (PTB)—time boxing augmented with an additional alert right in the middle — has increased my productivity significantly beyond what I was able to achieve with time boxing alone.
There are other advantages that make PTB one of my all-time favorite productivity hacks
- The intermediate signal keeps me from looking at the clock as I would normally do with a time box as long as 40 minutes.
- If I need to attend to something important, I can finish after 20 minutes—half a time box—and still record one stroke.
- If I get stuck somewhere in my work, the half-time reminder puts me back on track. “Twenty minutes are over. Don’t slow down.”
- A lot of work involves checking information on the web: That, however, also brings about the risk of getting side tracked or lost in cyberspace. But because I never go for more than 20 minutes without a vibration, at worst I get lost for 20 minutes, whereas before I could have lost 40.
- Don’t forget the final 20 minutes before lunch and before calling it a day. When 40 minutes would take me beyond lunch, I can usually squeeze in another 20.
- And—even if I detest what I am supposed to do, I can always commit to 20 minutes and start my timer. Chances are I don’t stop before the end of 40 minutes.
PTB is flexible: Use several, more closely spaced reminders if you find your mind wandering off the task you need to attend to.
Periodic keep-on-task reminders are successfully being employed with students who easily lose focus and get distracted and with people suffering from ADHD.
A silent vibration every couple of minutes keeps them on task or brings them back should their mind have wandered off.
If you find that you get easily distracted and lose focus, experiment with Paced Time Boxing and try different interval lengths to see what works best for you.
For example, set your time box length to 30 minutes with a reminder at the 15-minute mark, or introduce two intermediate reminders, each spaced by ten minutes.
Tools to implement Paced Time Boxing
Most interval timers and countdown timers that can be set on repeat can be employed.
1. Smartphone countdown apps with a silent alert are available, but there is always the risk that you might reach out for your phone to check the time and end up getting lost in social media.
Perhaps start with a separate timer with vibration alarm so that you won’t annoy others, should you work in a public space like a library, an open office, or a café.
What’s more, this allows you to additionally wear a noise blocker (earmuffs, noise cancelling headphones earplugs, etc.) to further improve your focus.
2. Fitness trackers and smart watches that have an interval timer or a recurring countdown timer plus vibration alert are great tools for implementing this productivity technique.
I use the Fitbit Charge 2. In the Fitbit, the timer is easy to start and reset, which is paramount for productivity. You don’t want to dive down into some second-level menu whenever you start a new time box.
The Fitbit also records each time interval you have completed in its smartphone app.
For a while, I also used an app that automatically tracked my time boxes, but I have reverted back to the manual method:
I want to add the strokes to my to-do list. This is my reward for having completed a time box.
3. A great economical option is to get one of these gym interval timers. You can choose between vibration and audible alert and just clip it to your pants or shirt. The AAA battery can easily be changed.
4. I also have an inexpensive traditional digital wrist watch, the Timex T49851 Expedition Vibration Alarm that has a countdown timer with repeat function and a vibration alert.
This is a great sports watch, but the battery change is more of a hassle than just recharging the Fitbit or replacing the AAA-battery in the Gymboss.
Paced Time Boxing—working in time boxes, augmented with one or more intermediate reminders—has given my productivity a big boost.
Try it! I think you will like it too.
Additionally, recording all accomplished time boxes and half-time-boxes (two strokes for a complete 40-min interval / one stroke for 20 minutes) on your to-do list will give you a sense of achievement.
It can become addictive: You want to complete at least 20 minutes so that you can add a stroke to your task in progress.
Even if you only have 20 minutes left before lunch, start anyway.
Many thanks for reading. Let me know how it goes in the comments.
- Image credits: business-dates-baiting-clock-time, by geralt via Pixabay.com
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