Use Timeboxing to Stop Procrastinating and Get Things Done

Use timeboxing to boost your productivity and stop procrastinating

Most of us have a tendency to put off work we don’t like very much, or work so daunting that we cannot see how we can ever finish it.

Do you postpone work because you don’t know where to start or how to finish it?

When I was a child, we had a large garden, and if it wasn’t winter, I regularly had to attend to it and pick weeds. To me, the vegetable patches appeared to be huge. I just could not see an end to my work. And actually, there was no end to it!
My concept of time was very different from my parents’.

I became increasingly frustrated and started killing time by engaging in dirt throwing competitions with my brother. Sometimes we spend more time procrastinating than working.

This is a pity, because our productivity could have been much higher. Instead of wasting time, we could have gone for a swim or played football with our friends. We lacked structure and possibly some rewards.

If you too are procrastinating because the task at hand is too complex or time consuming, you need to break it into consumable pieces and structure it.

I know, this is easier said than done, but here is what you can do…

Spend a few minutes to reflect on what you can do to move your task forward. Ask yourself, “What are the very next action steps I have to take to move this forward?”
Note down these steps, perhaps three or four, and then get going:

Timeboxing to the Rescue

Start working on your action steps in fixed time intervals of 30 to 40 minutes (timeboxes), interspersed with 5-minute breaks. For me, it is 40 minutes these days—more on this below.

During your breaks, get up from your desk and keep moving.

Whenever you don’t feel like working and want to distract yourself by doing something else, e.g., browsing the web, checking up on Facebook, or reading the news, pause for a moment and reinforce what your current timebox is for:

“I have committed my current timebox to task A. For the duration of this timebox, I am going to do nothing else, but working on task A.”

I you need to read a report, read only that report. Close all programs (including email and Facebook) not directly related to your task. If possible, even set the phone to silent, and do not take phone calls for the duration of your timebox.

If an important but unrelated thought crosses your mind, write it on a to-do list and continue with your task.

If you can’t completely avoid phone calls, tell the caller when you will get back to him / her, again make a note, and continue with your task.

To implement timeboxing, you need a countdown timer

Most modern operating systems already include such a timer. Here is the one in Windows:

Countdown timer app

On Android and iOS the timer is part of the clock app that comes with the phone or iPad.

These days I use a timer with vibration alarm and an additional mid-interval pace maker—more on this below.

  1. Set your timer to 40 minutes and start working until it goes off.
  2. After you have completed a timebox, take a 5-minute break. Set your countdown timer to 5 minutes and get up from your chair.
  3. When the timer rings again, start your next timebox, and so on.

As a variation to the 5-minute breaks, I allow myself two to three 10-minute breaks per day to do cardio exercise.

In addition to the short breaks, take a longer lunch break and possibly even a power nap. Don’t cut down on your lunch break!

Perhaps 40 minutes are too long for the kind of work you are doing. In that case make your timeboxes 20, 25, or 30 minutes.

But, to build some mental muscle, don’t just vary the length to suit your desires.

Rather, when you do want to change the length, make a conscious decision on a new standard duration and then stick to this new interval.

The Pomodoro Technique, a complete time management system based on timeboxing

Francesco Cirillo has developed a comprehensive time management system based on timeboxing. He prescribes pomodoros, 25-minute timeboxes, interspersed with 5-minute breaks. After 4 pomodoros he recommends a longer break. His system is called The Pomodoro Technique and available as book and e-book from Francesco’s website.

Pacing myself with a fitness tracker or a wrist watch with vibration alert has additionally improved my productivity

Now I work in timeboxes of 40 minutes.

To block out noise, I wear earmuffs or listen to music through noise canceling headphones. Getting rid of noise has been so helpful for my productivity that I can only recommend you try noise blockers too!

But this means, I often don’t hear my alarm.

A while ago, I got myself a Fitbit Charge 2 fitness tracker with vibration alarm. I got it to improve my exercise and track my sleep, but have come to love it as a productivity timer as well.

The Charge 2 has an interval timer, which is designed to be used for interval workouts, but it also works great for our purpose.

You set a move-interval, a break-interval, and the number of repetitions. I set both the move and the break intervals to 20 minutes (the maximum) and the number of repetitions to 1.

This gives me 40 minutes, with an intermediate reminder to stay on task after 20 minutes. When I get my first vibration alert after 20 minutes, I tell myself, I better get going. Only 20 minutes left.

Then I get a second alert after another 20 minutes: It is time to get up from my desk.

I have found this setup very helpful and use it all the time now.

Depending on the task, the intermediate alert serves different purposes:

  • It is a pace maker: “20 minutes to go, speed up.”
  • It helps not to get stuck with a problem for too long: “Oh, 20 minutes are already gone. What am I doing here?”
  • It provides a small reward when working on a monotonous task: “Yeah, I am halfway through this crap!”
  • When I have completely lost it and gone into cyberspace, it reminds me to get back on task.
  • When I don’t have enough time to complete 40 minutes, I work for only half a timebox.

Hourly activity goals with reminders to move

In addition to all this, the Charge 2 detects when I haven’t yet taken at least 250 steps (during an hour) and vibrates at 10 minutes to the hour.  It keeps track of all hours where I have met my activity goal.

Sitting for too long is plain unhealthy. I know I should move at least once per hour, but sometimes I disrespect my interval timer or fail to start it. In this case, the reminders to move are worth gold!

Wrist watches with a vibration alarm and a repeating countdown timer are a great and inexpensive alternative

Granted, the Fitbit or a smartwatch is a bit expensive to be used only as a productivity timer.

If you don’t need the sleep, heart rate, and exercise tracking features, there are good wrist watches that cost a fraction and also feature a vibration alarm:

I own such a watch with vibration alarm—the Timex Expedition T49851. This watch has an automatically repeating countdown timer (perfect as a productivity timer and to pace yourself and stay on task), 3 alarms, multiple time zones, and a hydration timer (designed to remind you to drink enough water). Its vibration alarm is even stronger than the Fitbit’s. Alternatively, you can also set it to audible alarms or even a combination of vibration and sound.

What is my experience with this procedure?

  • I started working in timeboxes several years ago. As a result, I procrastinate less and am a lot more focused. This has made a huge difference to my productivity!
  • Even when I really despise a task, I can work on it for one box.
  • The 5-minute breaks help me to avoid getting stuck, and to look at things from a different perspective. In the past, I would sometimes ponder over difficult material for hours, and at some point run out of gas.
  • As long as I respect my timeboxes and break times, I am not really getting very tired during the day.
  • I started out with timeboxes of 20 minutes, then increased to pomodoros —25 minutes, but over time found them too short for the kind of work I am doing. After some experimentation I settled on 40 minutes with an intermediate pace-making alert after 20 minutes.

How about Facebook and the news?

If you want to lose yourself in Cyberspace, reserve a timebox specifically for surfing the web, chatting on Facebook, or reading the news. Just keep in mind that this is a normal timebox as well. Set your countdown timer, and when it goes off, get up and away from your computer.

You have to respect your timeboxes if you want to be successful with this method. Do you need more than one time interval for socializing on the net? Well, give it another timebox later during the day.

My timebox is over. Bye.


Notes:

1. As mentioned in an earlier version of this post, there used to be a free e-book, The Pommodoro Technique, version 1.3, 15 June 2007, licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). This free version hasn’t been available on Cirillo’s website for quite a while. I recommend getting the most current version. As of today, the old version is still available via the Wikipedia article (scroll down to the references to find the PDF).

2. For earlier versions of Windows, see the Free Countdown Timer.


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2 thoughts on “Use Timeboxing to Stop Procrastinating and Get Things Done

  1. Hey Helmut! Thanks for tweeting this oldie, but goodie. (A good post never goes out of style!) I definitely need to implement more time boxing throughout my day, and am going to work EXTRA HARD to become so good at it, I’ll be known as the Muhammad Ali of time boxing … well, at least in my own mind, anyway. 🙂

  2. Hi Wendy: thank you for stopping by. The term “time-boxing” was coined in the 1980s. TIme-boxing was then (and still is) used in software development. I have found time-boxing very effective when reading difficult stuff, or when I am completely unwilling to do anything. – That does happen. 😉 It does allow me to work a whole day without tiring too much. However, for writing, I need a lot longer time-boxes (50 minutes or so). Muhammad Ali usually sent people to the floor pretty fast. Three minutes is a bit short for most purposes though. 😉

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