Productivity • Using Evernote

Timeboxing Like the Pros: Practical Advice to Up Your Productivity Game

Between work, family, hobbies, doctor’s appointments, grocery shopping, and a million other things, it’s no wonder we sometimes fall behind. That’s where a productivity system can help—but which one is right for you? Maybe it’s time you took a page out of the productivity experts’ playbook and considered timeboxing.

Rather than task-based work, where you work on a certain task until it is finished, timeboxing is a time-management system where you set a certain amount of time to finish each task.

Having a clear idea of how long a task will take helps keep you and your team goal-oriented. As a result, timeboxing can greatly improve efficiency and productivity.

The problem

Task-based work can lead to over-engineered solutions that take more time than necessary. It’s nothing to feel guilty about—we all do it. But the quest for perfection can lead you down a meandering path. As Parkinson’s Law states, “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” In other words, a project will fill the time allotted for it, no matter how much that may be. Failing to establish task deadlines effectively wastes time, energy, and resources.

The solution

At its core, timeboxing is a strategy to reduce procrastination and improve productivity. It entails assigning time for each task on your to-do list. This practice maps out your goals on a clearly-defined schedule, so you know exactly how long a project will take. Setting a fixed amount of time for a certain task allows you to stay rooted in the bigger picture instead of getting lost in the weeds. Granted, timeboxing does hold you to a higher level of dedication. As such, you must be realistic in your time allotments and then commit to following them.

Benefits of timeboxing

Timeboxing works well for personal projects and groups, and it’s not hard to start. Granted, finding the time management strategy that works best for you or your team can require trial and error. But when you do, you’ll enjoy significant benefits.

woman managing project
Source: Shutterstock
  • Improved focus: Timeboxing can significantly improve your focus. That’s because multitasking kills productivity, and boxing time helps keep you focused on one small task at a time. Since you’ve planned out your boxes, you won’t get distracted worrying if there’s time for other tasks—because you’ve already established that there is.
  • Easier flow state: Achieving this sense of deep work is a key aspect of timeboxing. With your improved focus, you’ll find yourself falling into the rhythm of the timeboxes and staying in the flow state much more optimally. As a result, your productivity will increase alongside your motivation and sense of purpose.
  • A sense of what’s coming: Once you’ve created your timebox calendar, you’ll have a much more predictable schedule. No more staying late to finish a project the night before a deadline—you can clearly see what tasks are on your docket for the week. With timeboxing, you’ll start each day with a clear picture of what needs to be done and how long it will take.
  • More time for yourself: Timeboxing helps alleviate the perfectionist mindset. You planned better and worked smarter because of it. Really, what more can you ask of yourself? Timeboxing, and its ensuing sense of gratification, will result in more time for your passions and self-care after clocking out. Furthermore, properly managed time reduces the risk of burnout since you’re being more intentional about your time and not over-committing.

Setting up a timebox

A full to-do list can be discouraging, generating feelings of overwhelm that quickly affect your ability to focus. It’s a vicious cycle of needing to work so badly that you can’t. Setting up a timebox for yourself or your team creates order in your chaotic schedule and will have you checking off boxes before you know it. Best of all, it’s easy to set up.

Timeboxing for personal tasks

Timeboxing techniques aren’t only good for work tasks—they can help you manage personal tasks as well, by holding you to a higher level of accountability. To get started, set up a plan for your timeboxes using this general structure:

Estimate the time needed for a task

The first step to timeboxing is to estimate how long a task will take (i.e., setting up your timebox). This is how long it will take from start to finish, also accounting for breaks and unexpected interruptions. You want to give yourself enough time to get into the groove but not so much that you’ll lose focus.

“The demands on your professional time can only be one of three things: quick and easy tasks, longer tasks, rubbish for the bin. Allocate time in your calendar to handle the first two of these as well as time to rid yourself of the third. Just make your calendar do the leg work.”

—Evernote Certified Expert, Neil Maxfield

Hard vs. soft timeboxes

In a hard timebox, you stop working on the task when the timer goes off, whether you are done or not. If you are using a soft timebox, you can be a bit more flexible. Depending on the needs of your project, it might make sense to label different tasks as one or the other.

Pair timeboxing with Pomodoros

This is an optional step that adds a second time-based productivity technique, such as the Pomodoro Technique. Pomodoros are specific intervals of focused work and brief breaks that help reduce burnout by breaking down larger timeboxes into bite-sized pieces. The classic Pomodoro rotation is 25 minutes of focused work followed by a five-minute break. The breaks are a great opportunity to get moving and improve your focus if you’re working at a desk.

Set a timer

Use alarms on your phone or a time-tracking app to hold you accountable for the time.


After each timebox, give yourself a few minutes to reflect. How did it go? Did you get everything done? Was your time estimation correct, or do projects like this need more time allotted in the future?

Positive feedback

Once you’ve completed a timebox, reward yourself. Get yourself a treat, or take your dog for a walk. You’ve earned it!

Timeboxing for teams

Setting up a timebox planner for teams looks similar to creating one for personal use. But, as you’d imagine, it will be much more collaborative. When crafting your team’s timeboxing strategy, here are a few steps you can add to reflect everyone’s input.

Start on the same page

Before starting to timebox, or when onboarding a new team member, hold a team meeting to get everyone on the same page. Be sure to thoroughly explain what it is and why it’ll be beneficial. A clear, shared vision can only increase productivity.

Create baseline timeboxes

Discuss how long certain tasks take. Does it take about 90 minutes to design a homepage? Does your team of writers need three hours to write a 1200-word article? Though you may need to adjust the timebox lengths in practice, creating baselines with full team input will help align everybody’s expectations.

Track progress in a shared digital space

Use a work management tool to organize everyone’s tasks and timeboxes. A productivity tool, like Evernote, provides a shared space for all team members to track the progress of their timeboxes.

Take breaks and reflect

Breaks are key to working efficiently, and taking breaks as a team is a great way to keep morale high. When your timeboxes are complete, allot time for team reflection. If your team members all finished their tasks, great! But if they didn’t, refrain from playing the blame game. Instead, use the opportunity to troubleshoot: Did the project need more time from the start? Were there too many distractions? As a team leader or project manager, it’s your job to support your team by finding the best productivity practices.

Increase your productivity through timeboxing

Whether you use timeboxing at work or around the house, the strategy helps you get more done each day. Apply these productivity tips to get the most out of timeboxing:

  • Protect your focus time: Focusing is a challenge, especially with the number of distractions we have in the digital age. Responding to emails is a necessary chore, but don’t let it distract you from completing your tasks. Help yourself get in the zone by muting notifications or using the “Do Not Disturb” function on your phone and computer.
  • Keep yourself accountable: Treat timeboxes like a meeting with yourself. The entire strategy only works if you actually stick to your plan. Make your timeboxes non-negotiable to hold yourself accountable.
  • Group similar tasks together: Here’s the uncomfortable truth: the human mind isn’t designed to multitask. It works best when sequential tasks build off of each other. When designing your timebox planner, organize similar tasks together. This will save you the headache of refocusing your attention on something completely different with each timebox.
  • Create boxes for reactive work: Author and computer scientist Cal Newport uses timeboxing to map out his daily schedule. By doing so, he enjoys high levels of productivity and creativity. He believes that timeboxing is even beneficial for reactive work, or work that’s harder to predict. You can create time boxes dedicated to ‘reactive time’—with alternate plans in case nothing comes up.
  • Track and record: Use a timer for each of your boxes, so you actually know how long you’re spending. Solely monitoring the clock leaves you susceptible to distractions. Additionally, record your efforts on your calendar. Better yet, create a timeboxing template or use a timeboxing app. The more specificity you add to your plan, the more clarity you will have for each task.

Timeboxing with confidence

Timeboxing is a time management tool aimed at upping productivity and reducing procrastination. As you become more efficient at your professional or personal projects, you’ll start to reap the benefits in the form of more time for you and your passions. Whether that’s learning to play piano, or spending time with family and friends, better planning today frees you to do more of what you love tomorrow.

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