6 Productive Time-Boxing Techniques

Mon, Feb 3, 2014

Simplicity Rules

Over the years I’ve written many posts about productivity. For starters, it’s a topic that interests me, because I’m always looking to get more out of less (part of why I love Fancy Hands). Also, the tricks to be more productive are usually very simple to apply–and I think Simplicity Rules!

The most common and effective techniques for productivity involve some form of time-boxing, artificial constraints that help you focus on what is important. Though I had been practicing variations of time-boxing, I first heard the term in this Adaptive Path article about designers and chefs.

Here are six ways you can being productive with time-boxing.


“Yes, the capitalization is necessary,” I wrote about my POWER HOUR technique in 2005. I felt like uppercase helped explain the power in the simple process:
Eliminate the distractions of email, instant messaging, phones, radio and anything else that will take your attention. Then work on one project for 60 minutes.

Lately I have found tackling my POWER HOUR first thing in the morning works best for me. I don’t even have the distraction of someone else’s priorities in my head from reading email. More often than not, I spend this hour writing now, because that’s one of my highest-valued tasks.

What will you do in your POWER HOUR?

60 Second Deadlines

Which features are essential and nice-to-have?

If you don’t have an hour, how about a minute? This technique comes from my series on Designing the Obvious. Robert Hoekman, Jr., suggests taking 60 seconds to discover what is essential to a project:

“The project timeline has been cut in half. We have about 60 seconds to decide what to keep and what to throw away before we meet with the client in the conference room.”

Use this technique when you have a big project and want to get to something that is good enough. From your giant list of features, cross out things that aren’t absolutely essential.

Two Minute Rule

If you have more than 60 seconds, try the trick to get anything done in two minutes. That’s perhaps over-stated, but it plays on the reality that you can never do something you don’t start.

There are two parts to the two minute rule:

  1. If something can be done in two minutes, do it
  2. If something takes more than two minutes, start it

The Two Minute Rule comes from James Clear on Quora. It’s helped me jam through to-do lists by making just enough progress to have a better view of what to do next.

Pomodoro Technique

This one has its own website. The Pomodoro Technique is a way of scheduling an entire block of productive time.

Pomodoro technique

Work heads down on a specific task for 25 minutes, then take a short break. Then do another “pomodoro,” the 25 minute timed work session. Every four pomodoros, take a longer break, 20 or 30 minutes.

Sometimes I’ll use a variation of this technique on with the Vitamin R application on my Mac. It helps you set what it calls “time slices” and even hides distracting apps from your view.

Four Day Work Week

Don’t confuse this with the more-hyped Four Hour Work Week. While more realistic, my guess is most people don’t see this one as very achievable, either. But the idea is sound because it builds in constraints:

The problem wasn’t a time issue, it was a mental issue. I knew I had a whole week to finish my work, so I spread it out over five (or seven!) days. If I knew I only had four days to finish a whole week of work, it would’ve motivated me to get things done more efficiently.

Ryan Carson, who originated this idea, has made it a part of the culture of two companies. His latest, Treehouse has raised 4.75 million and still closes up its office (in Portland!) on Thursday.

Workstation Popcorn

This final technique is new to me and I haven’t actively tried it yet. But I think I have found myself naturally gravitating toward something similar when I look for a new work spot to change my perspective.

Workstation Popcorn says to group your tasks into three roughly equal time chunks. Then, work from a different coffee shop or cafe for each of those chunks. You focus only on the group of tasks you’ve set aside for that location.

Using this and other time-boxing techniques, you can get the important things done in less time. Which one will you try first?

1 Comments For This Post

  1. Russell Says:

    I’d heard of a different version of the two-minute rule in David Allen’s Getting Things Done. As you probably know, his is that when something enters the inbox to do it immediately if it takes under two minutes. I think of this in terms of tasks having a fairly fixed “overhead” in terms of what it takes to put them on a list, navigate the list, etc. and for short tasks it will just suck up too much time to keep track of it instead of just doing it. I like the part about starting it.

    The Pomodoro Technique was very helpful during certain parts of the dissertation process. I shared it a fair amount with students when I was tutoring in UNC’s Writing Center.

    The POWER HOUR is similar to what Robert Boice described as the work habits of the most successful faculty writers he studied. He said they tended to spend 30-90 minutes writing but to do it almost every day.

    We should chat about this the next time we meet up. And we should meet up soon!

1 Trackbacks For This Post

  1. Practice Subtraction | Simplicity Rules Says:

    […] you consider different possibilities and end up with more and better output. I’ve shared time boxing techniques before, but time is only one kind of constraint. Those in creative industries know this well. […]

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