As a PI, you’ll probably find that you do a lot more at work than just representing clients. You’ll be drawing up paperwork, handling queries, or even guest blogging. So it’s easy to get bogged down in the time-consuming tasks with few hours left to do the important things.
What Is Time Boxing?
As we discussed on The Rankings Podcast, Time Boxing is the practice of allotting specific time frames to tasks to help you manage projects and take on time-consuming or unpleasant jobs more efficiently. You can Time Box any length of task from a few minutes up to a few months. And the great thing is that you can break big tasks down into smaller ones! This gives you a sense of perspective and achievement as you complete your jobs.
There’s also some flexibility in Time Boxing as you can have either soft or hard Time Boxes. This means you can use the time frames as a rough guide for how long each activity could take (soft). Or you can have strict Time Boxes (hard), which dictate exactly when to stop and move on (hard).
The technique originated in software development and was discussed at length in Rapid Application Development by James Martin.
Clearly, the strategy had stood the test of time. So how do you implement Time Boxing? And how could it help you?
Why Should You Time Box?
You might already have a system for managing time and projects. For some, a to-do list is a great way to manage their workload. But, the humble to-do list has its drawbacks, including:
- They give us too many ‘to-dos’
- They make it too easy to prioritize simple but unimportant tasks
- They don’t give you an idea of the time you have available
- They don’t allow you to track the progress of larger tasks
That’s quite an attack on the to-do list. But, if that technique is leaving you with more to-dos than have-dones, Time Boxing might be the solution.
Timeboxing is great for many reasons, such as:
- It lets you break big tasks into smaller ones. This makes those long-term projects more manageable by splitting the overall job into sections that you can chip away at.
- It ensures no job is forgotten. Every task is planned for (even the dull ones). This stops you from having to scramble around at midnight trying to finish the things you’d been putting off.
- It gives you an absolute amount of time to work with. Having a series of smaller deadlines that accumulate to a bigger deadline gives you a more tangible time frame. This makes you more efficient with your time because your next deadline is now not several months away.
- It helps you to stop wasting time. When you have multiple deadlines to meet you start to realize which aspects of your work are most important. This allows you to focus on the critical points and not waste time on the unimportant things.
- It helps to create balance. Like the previous point said, Time Boxing prevents wasted time. This means your projects get done faster so you can move on to the next task or enjoy more personal time.
Now that we know some of the fantastic benefits that Time Boxing offers, let’s find out how to implement it.
How to Time Box
1. Choose your tasks
First, you need to choose some tasks you want to Time Box. The best place to start would be with the jobs that take up a lot of your time or you don’t particularly enjoy doing.
Take emails for example. As a PI you’ll get a ton of emails every day from prospective clients and colleagues. These can be overwhelming and they take up a lot of time that could otherwise be spent doing more important things – like helping your actual clients.
Also, look at unpleasant tasks such as tidying your office. Rather than having a big clean every Friday, set aside some moments throughout the week to break the process down into smaller chores. Maybe 10 minutes on a Wednesday to dust the bookshelf and 10 minutes on Thursday to polish all of your awards. And before you know it, you’ve got a continuously spotless workspace.
2. Set a target
Now that you know which jobs you’re going to Time Box, you need to establish some targets to meet within your specified windows. Going back to the email analogy, you might decide that you want to respond to 20 emails in an hour. So, given that you’re going to split that one hour into two half-hour slots, that’s 10 emails per session.
That’s a nice and manageable target and, if you need motivation, you can gamify the task. So rather than replying to 10 emails within 30 minutes as an absolute limit, you could try to beat that number.
As you use Time Boxing, you’ll be able to better gauge how long tasks will take you. So if you’re not quite sure how much time something is going to take, start off with some soft Time Boxes until you get the hang of it.
3. Choose a time limit
Deciding how much time for each Time Box gets easier with practice. But it doesn’t mean you should be shooting in the dark when trying to think up the numbers.
An important part of the technique is deciding how much time to allow yourself. If it’s a short-term activity, like responding to emails, you can set aside one to two hours a day for this. But, for long term projects like launching a new marketing campaign, you might have a Time Box of several months.
The way to approach any big project, whether it’s a few hours or a few days, is to break it down. Rather than setting a continuous 40-hour Time Box for a task that needs to be done in a week, break it down into sections – a few hours for planning, a few hours for writing, a few hours for revisions. This way you won’t have to face a daunting solid block in your calendar for the week and, by ticking off the Time Boxes and sub-tasks, the challenge becomes less abstract and you can measure your project and contextualize your achievements.
An important thing to remember is that people can usually hold their focus on something for about 45 minutes at a time. So for longer tasks, try not to exceed 45 minutes at a time and remember to take a short break between each Time Box
As mentioned earlier, it’ll take some time to get used to how long to allow for each job. What you think might take four hours might only take two or vice-versa. It just takes a bit of practice. So be patient and stick with it.
4. Monitor your results
Now you can finally do the work. By allocating this time to one task, you should hopefully be able to maintain your focus more easily without the distraction of your to-do list clouding your mind.
If you’ve got a good idea of how long it takes you to complete different activities, you’ll probably complete your Time Boxes on schedule. And if so, great! You can move onto the next task after the break you’ve hopefully planned for.
But, If you come to the end of your allotted time, you need to decide what to do next.
For example, if you’re in a meeting and had only allotted 15 minutes to discuss a certain topic and that time is up, you can either:
- Continue the discussion a bit longer (Soft Time Box)
- Wrap up and move on (Hard Time Box)
If you opt for the soft Time Box, there is a risk that (in the example of a meeting) discussions will continue, which could potentially affect subsequent Time Boxes. However, by setting a rough deadline, you allow everyone in the meeting the opportunity to act as timekeeper and encourage them to stick to the deadline.
If you choose the hard Time Box, it might be frustrating at first because you might not achieve everything you wanted to. However, in the long run, this strict adherence to the Time Box will help you to stick to time limits and focus your attention instead of drifting off-topic. If this is something you’re introducing to a team, it’ll make your co-workers more efficient also.
Now that you know how to Time Box, why not give it a try?
It’s a great tool to help you manage your own productivity, but it can also help teams maximize their potential. If you’d like more ideas about cutting out the waste from your firm, you should also check out our blog on Lean Six Sigma For Lawyers to find out.