Throughout my technology career, I have seen many challenges faced by employees (especially remote employees) around difficulty focusing on tasks. This always results in lower-than-expected productivity.
Let’s look at some of these challenges and how timeboxing can help shorten that to-do list.
Let’s start with Parkinson’s Law. This is the adage that “work expands to fill the time available for its completion.” It was first coined by British naval historian and author C. Northcote Parkinson in a humorous essay published in The Economist in 1955.
The law suggests that people tend to use up all the time allotted for a task, even if it could be completed more quickly. This means that if you give yourself a lot of time to complete a task, you will likely take longer to finish it than if you had given yourself less time.
Parkinson’s Law is often cited in discussions of time management and productivity, as it suggests that setting strict deadlines can help people accomplish tasks more efficiently. It also highlights the importance of prioritization and focus, as people may waste time on low-priority tasks if they have too much time available.
My theory is that people tend to put off tasks until closer to the deadline or they start by spending time on pieces of the task that are relatively unimportant for its delivery.
Working Remotely and Time Management
Many people work remotely, which brings its own set of challenges.
Standard distractions of emails, phone calls, or messages from coworkers are also now joined by the distractions of social media and personal interruptions. Combine this with the increased feelings of isolation and disconnection from your co-workers and you can see how difficult it is to focus on any task. Time management skills are critical in this situation.
Remote workers also may miss out on the social interactions and sense of community that come with working in an office, leading to feelings of loneliness and disengagement.
Software Engineers Can Be Hyper-Detail Focused
Software engineers often have a long list of tasks to complete, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and unsure of where to start sometimes.
They are also very detail-oriented. They like knowing every detail so that a precise solution can be created. It’s part of the personality trait of many developers. This hyper-focus on detail can be a positive in some circumstances, but also a barrier to productivity at times.
I’ve seen some developers who can’t begin a project until they know every last detail of how it’s to look and work. This is not an ideal team member to have, but the behavior does exist. They need someone to tell them the details or they’re paralyzed with an almost fear that they’ll make a mistake. This needs to be fixed for both the company’s productivity and the developer’s career path.
Enter “Timeboxing” Time Management Techniques
So, how can we address these issues and improve our productivity in the process? One technique that I have found to be incredibly effective is to timebox my tasks.
Timeboxing is a time management technique that involves breaking down your workday into specific time intervals, or “boxes,” during which you focus on a particular task or set of tasks. For example, you might set aside an hour (“time blocking”) to work on a specific feature or bug fix, and then take a break before moving on to the next task. The real challenge is to hold yourself accountable for this time-blocking period. You must finish within the time frame.
I personally use this pomodoro timer on my desk every day. I set a timer to a 15 minute time limit, and force myself to complete the task before the timer goes off. Guess what? This “pomodoro technique” works. You’re hyper-focused on completing the task and your brain avoids the “noise” that gets in the way. I use this with decision-making tasks to avoid “overthinking” also. It is a period of intense focus time and has increased my productivity by a ton in some areas.
It is interesting to see how it helps with maximizing a team’s decision-making as well.
Benefits of Timeboxing
There are several benefits to using timeboxing as a productivity tool. First and foremost, it can help you overcome the feeling of being overwhelmed by breaking down your work into manageable chunks. Rather than trying to tackle your entire to-do list in one go, you can focus on one task at a time, knowing that you have set aside a specific amount of time to get it done.
Timeboxing can also help you improve your focus. By setting aside dedicated time slots for specific tasks, you can minimize distractions and ensure that you are fully immersed in your work during those periods. This can help you achieve a state of “flow,” where you are fully engaged and working at your most productive level.
Finally, timeboxing can help you manage your time more effectively. It can help ensure that you are allocating enough time to each task without overestimating or underestimating the required time. This can help you avoid rushed work or wasted time, leading to higher-quality output and increased productivity.
Personally, I enjoy being hyper-focused on the outcome. I ignore all the noise and move the task to “done”. If you’ve ever felt like you didn’t get anything done after a long day of work, try using a pomodoro timer. It will move tasks from “to do” to “done”.
How to Use Timeboxing Successfully
Of course, timeboxing isn’t a magic solution that will solve all your productivity problems overnight. There are a few things you can do to ensure that you get the most out of this technique.
Create a To-Do List
The first step is to have tasks broken down into a to-do list. By doing this, it helps you set up the timebox time management part to get a particular task to a “done” status.
Choose a time period that is 15 minutes or less. Longer time blocks(such as 25 minutes or longer), do not invoke the psychological phenomenon necessary for hyper-productivity. These shorter timeboxing “periods of time” lengths are critical for success.
I don’t use timeboxing for everything. If I’m finding myself stuck on something, I set the alarm for 15 minutes and it’s like being on a game show. I have to get it done or I don’t win a prize. It helps me not lose focus. I might take very short breaks after each timebox as well to recharge my mind.
For a large project
If you wish to timebox everything in a project, it’s important to plan your timeboxes in advance. This means taking the time to break down your tasks and allocate time slots to each one (similar to Agile project management with a sprint review). It’s also important to prioritize your tasks based on their importance and urgency so that you can ensure that you are allocating your time effectively.
Secondly, it’s important to stick to your time boxing as much as possible. This means avoiding distractions during your allocated time slots and resisting the urge to work on other tasks outside of those periods. Of course, there may be times when unexpected issues arise that require your attention, but where possible, follow good time management and stick to the plan.
Finally, it’s important to take short breaks between timeboxes. The timebox periods are times of being hyper-focus. Think of them like reps in a workout. Your brain needs to recover between the sets. This means stepping away from your computer and giving your brain a rest before moving on to the next task. This helps avoid burnout and ensures that you are working at your most productive level throughout the day.
Do this, and your time management skills will approach Jedi-like efficiency.
I personally use and recommend timeboxing to anyone who needs to increase their productivity. My pomodoro timer is on my desk and ranks as the best investment I’ve bought in the last year.
Timeboxing is a powerful productivity tool that can help anyone (especially software engineers following agile software development) manage their workload, improve their focus, and manage their time more effectively.
If you’re struggling with productivity issues in your software engineering department, I encourage you to give timeboxing a try. You may be surprised at how much more you can accomplish in a day using this and other time management techniques.
So, if you’re looking for ways to improve productivity and increase your time spent getting things done, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me. I’m always happy to share my knowledge and insights with others in the software engineering community, especially with regard to how to increase productivity.