Hints & Tips Blog

‘Timeboxing’ – is it time to throw out your ‘to do list?

As a previously self-confessed fan of the ‘to-do list,’ this is a tough question to consider. But a few years ago Daniel Markovitz published an article in the Harvard Business Review entitled ‘To-do lists don’t work’, and it got my attention.

The key reasons he gave were that they overwhelm us with choices and we are naturally drawn to simpler or shorter-term tasks we can tick off more easily to get the achievement hit. As a consequence, we may not prioritise the ‘important-but-not-urgent tasks’. Plus on their own to-do lists also lack the essential context of what time you have available and in isolation, they lack what he called a ‘commitment device, to keep us honest’ i.e. they are often driven by others’ rather than our own timescales and deadlines.

The ‘list lover’ in me argues that many of these issues can be addressed by disciplined prioritisation, yet there is undoubted merit in what he says. So what’s the alternative?

The term ‘timeboxing’ has been borrowed from agile project management and in essence, involves migrating our to-do lists into our calendar. A simple idea that many of us probably already do to some extent, after all, meetings, calls and project deadlines are likely to feature in most diaries. However, by taking this further still and mapping out preparation and ‘doing time’,  thinking time and collaboration time there are a number of additional benefits;

  • Timeboxing into a calendar allows us to see how the different tasks and deadlines fit together. You know where to place the timebox: it’s visual and clear.
  • Plus it can be seen by others and allows you and them to get the right thing done at the right time.
  • It also provides a record of what you’ve done. Some weeks pass in a blizzard of ‘busyness’ and by Friday you’ve forgotten what you were doing on Monday, let alone a few weeks earlier! Having it in your calendar can be a good way to remind yourself just how much you got done – and provide that sense of achievement that keeps you going. And being able to look back is also a good way to assess whether the amount of time you allocated to a particular task was correct, and use this for more accurate planning in the future.
  • It will help you feel more in control. This is important because not feeling in control is a key driver of stress. Constant interruptions make us less productive and more impacted by pressure. Timeboxing can help with this. While it’s unlikely we can ever eliminate interruptions entirely, being clear ourselves about when we will do something and other people knowing what we’re working on and when makes it easier for them to know the best time to engage with us.
  • It increases our productivity. We’re all probably familiar with, and may even concede to albeit grudgingly, the concept that work can expand to fill the time available for its completion. Assuming that your time allocation for tasks is reasonably realistic, timeboxing can help with this, especially over time as we get better at allocating the right amount of time as outlined above. But even those highly disciplined individuals who might refute tasks ever expand to fit the available time might concede that a task is broken up due to interruptions and other unplanned tasks needing to be done, often takes longer than when done in one single, focused effort.

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