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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.

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?

Timeboxing is a time management technique that involves assigning fixed units of time to an activity or task in advance and then completing that activity or task during the designated time frame. Each task, no matter how large or small, is given a specific time box that serves as a deadline. That’s your time to get it done. It’s both an organizing principle and time management technique that makes you acutely aware of what you need to do and how much time you should devote to it.  In practice, the designating of tasks replacing a to-do list with a calendar: whenever there’s a new activity for you to do, you devote a specific amount of time in your schedule to tackle it (i.e., put it in your calendar), and then commit to doing it in that “time box”.

Why Timeboxing Works

“Timeboxing works because it breaks Parkinson’s law,” says productivity expert Paul Rulkens, president of Agrippa Consulting International, whose clients include McKinsey, Uber, and ExxonMobil. Parkinson’s law states that the time you use to do an activity is the time you’ve planned for the activity. If you plan a meeting for one hour, you’ll meet for one hour — regardless of whether you’ve completed what you needed to in just 10 minutes.

“With timeboxing, you’re applying the 80-20 rule to your time — you derive 80 percent of your value from 20 percent of your time,” Rulkens says. “When you limit the amount of time you’ll spend on a task, you’ll get 90-to-95 percent of your time’s value. Adding time beyond that is wasted value; the tail-end of your time spent doing something is your least productive.”

Timeboxing forces you to think through how much time a task requires. And by blocking the time on your calendar to do it, you’ve carved out the time necessary. If you’re sharing your calendar with coworkers, they shouldn’t be able to schedule you for anything else during that time. Likewise, if you’re sharing at-home child-rearing duties with your partner, they should give you the time you need to work, uninterrupted.

When you time box, you cut procrastination off at the pass; even the tasks you don’t want to do are allocated time on your calendar, so you might as well spend the time getting them done.

Timeboxes are increments as small as one-to-two minutes or as big as several hours — but shouldn’t be so long as to be intimidating. Part of what makes timeboxes effective is that they’re limited — perfectionists can’t go over the time allocated to get it just right, and creatives will focus better given the added sense of urgency.

“Importantly, you focus on success rather than perfection,” Rulken says.

How to Timebox: 10 Rules to Follow

Timeboxing seems simple — and it is. But to do it right there are some principles to keep in mind. Here, per Rulken are some tips for improving productivity when timeboxing.

  • 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

Rulken uses an egg timer and an online calendar to timebox. “An egg timer is a great tool for limiting yourself to two minutes for your inbox,” Rulken says. “Eventually your brain will understand what two minutes is and how to focus. Until you build your internal clock, train your brain with an egg timer.” But there are also some apps that can help you throughout the process. Here are three timeboxing apps to try.

Clockify is a time tracker app that lets you define and track the time you spend on tasks in real-time and then analyze whether you’ve reached your goals.

Focus Booster is a time tracker app for applying the Pomodoro technique, a productivity technique that complements timeboxing by chunking work into 25-minute sessions followed by five-minute breaks.

Focusmate is a virtual co-working tool that provides accountability for getting things done. Sessions are self-scheduled, 50 minutes long, and start with you greeting your partner and declaring your goal. You work in tandem and check in at the end of the session.