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Time Blocking or Time Boxing? Two Time Management Techniques to Get More Done

To block or to box? What’s the difference, and which do you need?

Photos by Alexander Grey on Pexels and Kelli McClintock on Unsplash

This post was first published on my Medium blog—follow me there for the most up-to-date entries!

We often use the terms “time blocking” and “time boxing” interchangeably, but they are very different time management techniques.

In all likelihood, you can and should use both techniques; each involves a specific pre-planned number of minutes to work on a specific task. But they differ in several ways.

So, how will you know how and when to use time blocking or time boxing? Here, I’ll explain different aspects of each of these two different productivity techniques, along with some examples of how I’ve used each one.

Infographic by author

Time Blocking

Let’s look at what time blocking is, why you might want to use it, how to get started doing it, clues that you’ve achieved what you set out to do, and examples to demonstrate this time management technique.

What is time blocking?

Simply stated, time blocking means blocking minutes or hours that start and end at specific times to finish a specific task. Called “blocks,” each time period:

  • focuses on finishing.
  • establishes self-imposed, clear time constraints.
  • could be several minutes, or several hours in length.
  • can be used for professional or personal tasks.

A major benefit of time-blocking is that, with practice, you’ll be able to complete a specific task on time. A drawback is that people frequently underestimate the time it takes to complete a task, so they may walk away discouraged, assuming the technique didn’t “work” for them.

Why would you use time blocking?

Time blocking enables you to find time for all the tasks on your agenda. If you’re having trouble finding time to do everything, try time blocking.

Time blocking is about creating hard boundaries for yourself. If you’re a perfectionist, you may want to try time blocking. Why so? Perfectionists have a proclivity to tinker endlessly with a project. Hence, their slow process results in fewer outcomes. In the 1700s, Voltaire said, Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien, which translates, “the best is the enemy of the good.” Procrastinators stand a better chance of avoiding endless tinkering by creating clear constraints, and time blocking creates that constraint.

When is best to use time blocking?

You could use time blocking at any time during the day. But since the goal is to complete something, this time management technique is likely to work best for you when you have the most energy.

Research suggests that towards the end of the day, nearly all business owners have so-called decision-fatigue. Since time blocking works best for tasks that require more energy and creativity, try to avoid placing your blocks near the end of the day. Ask yourself, at what time of the day do I feel most clear and most energetic?

I’m most likely to block time for creative or analytical tasks between 8 AM and 10 AM each day, because my energy is highest then, and I want to hunker down, undisturbed, for a period of at least two hours.

Unless there is some extreme need or circumstance, I don’t book meetings, accept phone calls, or get into social media at that time. Instead, I work on issues such as my quarterly planning agenda, drafting my blog posts, or creating new course content.

How do you do time blocking?

Ask yourself these four questions to get your thinking clear first:

  1. What time of day is this task best suited for? Think about what kind of work it is, what faculties you need sharp for it, and when in the day you do these sorts of tasks best.
  2. How urgent is this task? What will happen if you don’t complete it on time, or don’t complete it at all?
  3. How long do you need to complete the task?
  4. How will you know if you have been successful?

Once you know that, you’re ready to start — but keep these tips in mind.

  • Especially at first, do not feel compelled to time-block the entire day. Try blocking one familiar task for one hour.
  • If you wish, block out time for non-tasks, e.g., eating lunch.
  • As you become more adept with this technique, look at the number of “awake” hours you have in a day and the number of tasks you plan to do that day, and plan accordingly.
  • Enter blocks you’ve already committed to; for example, you’re interviewing a prospective employee from 9 to 9:30 tomorrow morning. Then enter blocks for other tasks.
  • Make your best estimate of how long a task should take. Your estimate may be wrong at first, but if it’s a task you do frequently, try to estimate a reasonable amount of time to allot for this task in the future, and adjust as you get more experience.
  • If you’re having trouble disciplining yourself to finish on time, choose a block that ends at a time when you have a meeting with someone else. That creates a hard stop.

Which tasks are best for time blocking?

Certainly, time blocking can work for multiple situations. But in many or most cases, time blocking is the best time management technique for tasks, events, or activities that are:

  • Urgent.
  • Multiple-person events, e.g., a team meeting where you and others have agreed start and stop time.
  • Solo tasks and activities for which you need time to do deep work.
  • Vulnerable to the Parkinson’s Law, that is, the work will expand to fill the time allotted for its completion. For example, if you’re afraid you’ll get sucked into social media, set a timer for a specific number of minutes, and then stop.
  • A shorter time “working” time, perhaps minutes or hours long.

Here’s are some examples in my own life:

  • Tasks I do alone that reflect deep work, as described in Hal Newport’s book. Deep work is “professional activity performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”
  • My morning and evening routine and even my startup and shutdown routine.
  • Using social media.

How do you know if time blocking was successful?

Remember, the objective of time blocking is to finish a task. Hence, the indicator for success is completion of the task. It’s a simple “yes” or “no” determination.

Examples of time blocking

Professional time blocking: I need to draft a 1500-word blog post. I plan 120 minutes to complete the task. Here’s how this task looks for me:

  1. This is deep work; I must locate, read, comprehend, and distill information from multiple sources. In short, that means I need to block time when I will be undisturbed, and I can think clearly.
  2. It isn’t urgent, but because my post is published every week, getting behind would cause some consequences for me. Hence, I’m motivated to finish within the block.
  3. I will block about 120 minutes to write the first draft. (I consider the edits and second draft an entirely different task.)
  4. If I have 1500 words by the end of the 2 hours, I consider myself to be successful.

Personal time blocking: I need to bake a cake and make buttercream frosting from scratch. The recipe says it takes 20 minutes to prep the ingredients, and another 25 minutes in the oven. I calculate 20+25 minutes, plus 15 minutes to make the frosting while the cake is baking, plus 15 minutes of margin. Margin is time set aside — and might not be used — but it’s held in reserve for the “what if” or “what might be” scenarios.

  1. This is mostly fun work. I’ll schedule this task for late afternoon or early evening, because although I need to be careful of what I’m doing (baking is all about chemistry!), it certainly isn’t deep work.
  2. This is urgent, because I have a bunch of people coming to my house for a little get-together, so I can’t dilly dally.
  3. I will block 60 minutes. I know I can make the frosting while the cake is baking.
  4. I will be finished when the cake and the frosting are on the countertop. Because the cake needs to cool before I frost it, I consider that (and the clean-up!) a separate task.

Time Boxing

An article in Clockify says that the technique of “time boxing” was first introduced by James Martin, author of the book Rapid Application Development as part of agile software development. That article directed the reader to a helpful article in Harvard Business Review.

A major benefit of time boxing as a time management technique is that it helps one to simply get started. A possible drawback is that the task might be forever “in progress” but not finished, which could result in consequences.

What is time boxing?

Simply stated, time boxing means boxing off minutes or hours starting at a precise time, and plugging along on it until the specific number of minutes have elapsed. The aim is to make progress; not to finish. Called “boxes,” each time session:

  • focuses on making progress.
  • could be several minutes, or perhaps an hour or two, but typically no longer than two hours.
  • can be used for professional tasks, personal tasks, or both.
  • accommodates a deadline that is further out.

At least on the first day, the aim of time boxing is to start the task! To paraphrase what Newton told us in the 1600s about a physical body, “An object in motion is likely to stay in motion.”

The same is true for tasks. Surely you’ve noticed this at some point. You might not want to start, but once you get started, you’re likely — perhaps even eager — to stay in motion. Doing the task all in one day is not the aim. Sometimes, you’ll do time boxing over several days.Why would you use time boxing?

Remember, the aim is not task completion.

Time boxing is a great time management technique for any task or project that has any or all of these characteristics:

  • Exciting but lengthy
  • Boring/tedious
  • Non-urgent
  • Stalled
  • Doesn’t depend on others/others aren’t depending on it

When is best to use time boxing?

Time boxing works well for tasks that require a low-level energy, and/or can be done after regular business.

Which tasks are best for time boxing?

Time boxing works well for tasks to which you attach some feeling. Perhaps you’re excited about them, or you’re looking forward to them; once you get going, you don’t want to stop! Conversely, perhaps you find them boring or difficult, and dread taking them on; you can’t get going. Those tasks are well suited for time boxing. Also, tasks that can be broken up into several chunks, with a far-off deadline, are best for time boxing.

How do you do time boxing?

Here’s what you can do to get started with this time management technique.

  1. Especially at first, avoid time boxing more than one task. Similarly, avoid time boxing more than 30 or 45 minutes.
  2. Identify a time that “fits” with your energy level for the task.
  3. Consider any task that is very long, tedious, frustrating or boring; find a way to break it down into smaller chunks.

Let me explain more about picking a time for time boxing. Remember, the aim here is progress, not completion. Look at when your energy level is high, and when it’s low. For example, my energy is greatest in the morning, so a task with multiple difficult parts would be best placed then. Conversely, during the evening when my energy is low, I’d box time for a tedious chore that doesn’t take much brain power, and one that isn’t something I look forward to.

How do you know if time boxing was successful?

Remember, the objective of time boxing is to start a task. Hence, the indicator for success is making some progress. Find a way to measure your progress.

Let’s say you need to make some cold calls. Give yourself one hour to make as many cold calls as you can in 30 minutes; there’s no pressure to make the sale, but rather, to make the calls.

Or, maybe you have a cluttered office. You could box 30 minutes to declutter. Filling 1 or 2 boxes with junk by the end of the 30 minutes is evidence of progress.

However, you might have a project. By definition, a project has a deadline and a fixed end point. A project consists of several tasks, and usually has specific milestones. Very often, the project is due weeks or days from when it was undertaken. Here, I’d just caution that some projects take deep work. If so, that project might not be a good candidate for time boxing.

Examples of time boxing

Professional time boxing: I need to post to LinkedIn. I plan 20 minutes to complete the task. Here’s how this task looks for me:

  • This is not deep work. I just need to find opportunities to respond to someone else’s post or start my own post. This is a just a social activity, so I don’t need to be at my best and brightest.
  • I’ve heard it said that “frequency is the currency of LinkedIn.” Hence, I’m motivated to post something rather than skip it entirely.
  • I will box about 20 minutes to do the task. I might answer one of those “you’re an expert please comment” invitations, or plug in an image with a few words of wisdom, or whatever. “Whatever” is the operative word here. The aim is doing something, rather than nothing.

Personal time boxing: I currently need to address about 50 envelopes to friends and family for an upcoming party. I need to finish within one week. Here’s how this task looks to me:

  • It doesn’t take much thinking; it’s a matter of either copying the addresses by hand or printing them out onto labels. Hence, I’ll box time for the evening when my energy is low.
  • It isn’t urgent. If I don’t get all 50 done tonight — which I probably won’t — that’s okay.
  • I will box about 30 minutes this evening to tackle the task. I won’t be finished in that 30 minutes, but that’s okay. I will have made significant progress, and I can schedule more time another day.
  • If I have a good handful of the invitations done in one evening, I consider myself to have succeeded with time boxing. Seeing the big handful all set to go out the door is proof of progress; doing a certain number is unimportant.
Infographic by author

Time Blocking or Time Boxing?

Though their names lead people to mix them up, now you see just how different time blocking and time boxing are. So which time management technique is right for you? My guess is, both! So pick a task that could use some timing help, figure out which one will work better for it, and try it out today.

This post was first published on my Medium blog—follow me there for the most up-to-date entries!

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