Time Boxing the Right Way

Paico Oficial from Unsplash

With a list of successful supporters including Elon Musk, Bill Gates, and Cal Newport, you know I had to time box too.

For those unfamiliar, time boxing is the act of turning your sad, empty calendar into a colorful masterpiece of productivity. The idea is that every morning (or night before) you plan your day by boxing out time to complete the tasks you want done.

Your calendar is your game plan, motivation, and accountability partner.

Six and a half months ago, when I first started with aesthetic dreams of productivity, that’s exactly what it was. But as time went on it became frustrating and plain unhelpful. Every morning I was just filling in the calendar to do it, nothing more.

I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know what. Following my mentor’s advice, I spent a week time logging on top of my regular time-blocking. This is where you go about your day doing whatever you do, but keep track of everything. No self-judgement, this is just data collection.

So if you spend 3 hours researching how to cure cancer, on the calendar it goes. If you spend 30 mins looking at pictures of Michael Jordan’s house (not from experience of course) track that too.

Colors are my time boxing, dark grey is what I actually did.

By the end of the week you’ll be able to take a step back and look at what you did from the view of a spectator. Understand what went well, and what you could have improved on. But most importantly, understand why.

For myself, I discovered what sabotaged me most was ambiguity, unexpected events, and doing breaks wrong.

Since time logging, here are the day planning changes I’ve made that’ve got me feeling like Elon.

Adding More Buffers

Buffers serve a variety of purposes. One job is for if you’re in a flow state and don’t want to stop working quite yet. Or the other way around where you’re feeling stuck and would rather start early on the next task.

Two buffers ensure that even if there’s traffic, I’ll still be on schedule

If you put buffers next to things with flexible timing, such as commuting, they can keep up your motivation. The buffer will absorb the extra time in traffic and you’ll still be on track according to your calendar.

Finally, buffers can also be a break from your work to stretch, walk around, or get a snack. When you don’t feel like you’re constantly hopping from task to task, you’ll be more effective in your work. Plus, you won’t be yearning for a break after 5 mins of folding the laundry.

Buffers aren’t an invitation to be lazy though. Think of them as precious time to check in with yourself and your progress. I recommend keeping them capped at 15 minutes, so that you still do get your work done. But of course they can be shorter if you’re excited to move to your next task.

Including an Agenda

1st is the goal for the time allotted, then the SFS, then agenda in a couple bullets

A couple of bullet points in the description of your time box can make a world of a difference to beating your procrastination.

For me, ambiguity was my biggest excuse for not getting things done. I didn’t know what the one word phrases on my calendar were really telling me to do, so no wonder I wasn’t getting them done!

45 mins of homework could mean 1 history assignment, 10 mins of deciding what to do next, and then 15 mins researching snail species to get a better feel for French cuisine. Or, it could be taking 5 practice French tests and finishing my math homework for the week.

You can probably guess which option my monkey mind chooses, when given the choice. So there’s no choice anymore.

The most important bullet to include in the list is your “simplest first step”. This is a step so easy, that you have no reason not to do it. Checking a box right when you start will set things into motion and get you in the swing of things.

Obviously this shouldn’t be like “sit in my chair” unless your task is testing seat cushions. But if you’re cooking a healthy dinner for example you could choose which veggies from the fridge to cook. If you’re making content, your SFS could be to write an outline or look at other peoples’ content for inspiration.

Choose something that will contribute to your end goal, but isn’t too intimidating to get over with.

(Also, the SFS isn’t an original idea but I can’t remember where I got it from :( )

Make a Priority List

A priority list
Suzy Hazelwood from Pexels

Every day, after you time box, rank your tasks in order of importance. Unexpected things will come up. And that’s fine, as long as you can acknowledge that then move on.

Buffers help with this, but since they’re short they won’t help if something like a spontaneous get together or injury happens.

Knowing the most important tasks to complete everyday will help you make adjustments if something comes up. This way, no matter what life throws at you, you’ll still have crossed your most important items off your list.

Schedule in Random Tasks

Doing random tasks before a meal doesn’t disrupt your flow because they’re both low brainpower activities

Boxing in time for random things has been another game changer. Throughout the day, everybody has things to do that randomly pop into their mind while working on totally unrelated tasks.

Often what you think of aren’t the most productive tasks, but are things that you’ll need to do at some point in the day. Instead of interrupting your work to do it, leaving it lingering in the back of your head, it’s much more efficient to do it all in a set time.

Because these are usually a string of unrelated tasks, I’ve found the best times to box them in are next to meals. These are already a break from intense thinking so you won’t be disrupting anything.

When such a thought pops into your mind, write it down. If it’s a website you’d like to look further into, keep it in a new tab. This way you can keep on working knowing that you’ve scheduled a time to do whatever it is you need to do.

Theme Days

I had different tasks, but everything in red was for the same project

If you’ve tried all four tips above and it still hasn’t been working for you, try Theme Days. By time-logging, I learned that a significant amount of my time was spent transitioning between tasks.

Trying to concentrate on writing with my day littered with Zoom calls meant that I was never really getting into a flow state, at least not for long. And trying to convince yourself to go running after watching an hour of Netflix is not an easy battle.

Instead of switching between opposing tasks throughout the day, it’s helpful for some people to only focus on tasks in one area. I know people who schedule meetings only on Thursdays or spend every Monday focused intently on finishing their week’s school assignments.

This isn’t for everyone though, and you need to have a good attention span to do this everyday. Because of this, I’ll often only have one Theme Day a week, but it’s usually worth it when I do.

Final Words

My Google Calendar and I have had a turbulent relationship. But as I’ve implemented these tips more regularly, my calendar has become a valuable tool again.

This is by no means to say that I’m a productivity god now — I still struggle. Halfway through writing this I started researching plastic free yoga mats.

But then I remembered that I had a block in my calendar exactly for that, my Random Time. So added it to my extra window, then kept working.

These tips aren’t magical. They won’t transform your time boxing overnight. But with practice and habit, you’ll begin to see changes in how ready you are to tackle your work.

To Summarize

My top 5 tips for how to improve your time boxing are utilizing buffers, including an agenda for each task, making a priority list, scheduling time for random tasks, and having Theme Days. I also recommend that you try out time logging for yourself to learn where you struggle personally.

I hope this was helpful to you! Before you go, I’m Klara — a curious 14 y/o at The Knowledge Society, a human accelerator program. Everyday, I make it a goal to learn something new and share it with others around me. Most recently, I worked on a project to mimic hedgehog spines for better impact protection materials.

If you want to grow your knowledge along with me, be sure to follow me here on Medium, connect on LinkedIn, or get in touch with me at klaradzietlow@gmail.com! Also subscribe to my newsletter to get monthly updates on what I’ve been up to and cool resources I’ve found!

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Klara Zietlow

Klara Zietlow

15 year passionate about the future of food and the environment. Likes animals too :)