Timeboxing Is the Time Management Tactic All Parents Need to Know

It's simple but wildly effective. Here's how to make it work for you.

by Matt Schneiderman

For parents, time management is always tricky. But now, amidst the COVID pandemic, it’s all the more difficult. When the pandemic started, and many parents were all sucked into a work-from-home-with-kids vortex, with professional life and family life tossed into a cosmic blender set to “Eff Up”. Any boundaries we had established between the two were destroyed. By now, this statement has collected dust. But it is still true — and we’re all searching for ways to organize ourselves in order to accomplish everything that needs to get done.

A time management technique that’s particularly useful for parents is timeboxing. Timeboxing is a calendar-based practice that re-imposes boundaries on your day (your time) with predetermined blocks of time (boxes). You simply devote a certain time box to a certain task. The effect is productivity for when you work and parent and rest when you’re not. Sound simple? Good — because it is. But that doesn’t make it any less useful. Here’s why parents should learn how to time box.

So, What Is Timeboxing?

Why Timeboxing Works

Paul Rulkens

How to Timebox: 10 Rules to Follow

  • Apply the two-minute rule: If you can address an email in two minutes or less, respond immediately after reading. If it takes more than two minutes, respond later and put an action note on your action list. “Use an egg timer or your phone to train yourself to stick to the two-minute rule,” Rulken says.
  • Break Parkinson’s law: Parkinson’s law states that a task will last the entire amount of time you make available. Set aside half the usual time for your email, and your results will be the same or even better.
  • Your inbox is not your action list: Create a separate action list. Use your email as input for this action list. And don’t use your inbox for action reminders.
  • Ruthlessly apply “strategic quitting”: Your ability to strategically quit equals your ability to succeed. “‘More work’ is no longer the answer to ‘too much to do,’” Rulken says. Therefore, always focus on stopping existing activities that are not the highest and best use of your time. “As a result, more time, energy, and money become available to focus on doing more valuable things,” Rulken says.
  • Practice and adapt: “Timeboxing is a habit,” Rulken says. “Once you start building the habit you get better at it. The first few times you do it, you’ll need to adapt – to calibrate. You’re answering the question, ‘How much time does a particular task take?’ Once you’re in the timeboxing mindset, you get better and better and become adept at estimating the amount of time you need to get to 80-to-90 percent of your time’s value, to succeed.” Don’t worry — it won’t take long. Expect to improve on your estimating abilities within a few days.
  • Be flexible, especially at the beginning: What do you do if you’ve underestimated how long you needed to complete a task? Do another timebox. “If you hit a wall and find that after your, say, two-hour timebox your report isn’t done, put another timebox around ‘Finalize report,’” Rulken says. “You’ll be much more focused on the results and finishing.”
  • Know your “golden hour”: No, the golden hour isn’t when to go photographing your kid — it’s when you’re most productive. “Mine is between 7 AM and 10 AM,” Rulken says. “If you understand yours, you’ll be exponentially more productive by scheduling tasks during this time.”
  • Prioritize: While you could apply timeboxing to all incoming tasks, you should make a distinction between meaningful work and non-essential activities, as well as time spent on relationships. “The worst use of your time is doing something that doesn’t need to be done in the first place,” Rulken says. “Apply timeboxing to high priorities.” Rulken takes a moment at the end of each day to define the three most important things for him to complete the following day. “My focus is, ‘I won’t rest until these three things are done,’” Rulken says.And while timeboxing should apply to chores and household activities — moving the lawn, for instance — do not timebox your time with your children. “Children prioritize the amount of time you spend with them,” Rulken says. “It’s not the quality of the time that is important to them. Spending time with your child is not about completing a task.”
  • “Swallow the frog”: When you timebox, schedule your most dreaded activity or project as the first thing you do that day. “Start your day by eating your frog — the thing you resist or fear the most,” Rulken says. “By eating that frog, you’ll feel like nothing can bring you down — you’ll be much more productive and it will help you to make the most progress on the things you need to do most.”

Tools for Timeboxing: Three Time Management Apps to Try

ClockifyFocus BoosterFocusmate