Timeboxing Trilogy, Part 1: What Is Timeboxing, Why Does It Work, And Why Should You Care?

This entry is part 1 of 17 in the series Timeboxing Trilogy

This is the first post in a multi-part series on timeboxing. I’m expecting the series to run for about 3 parts, plus maybe 1 or 2 extra posts to answer any questions that come up along the way.

This first article is just a placeholder to help us get our bearings. The real tofu and potatoes will come in the next two parts, where I’ll discuss two timeboxing variants that I’ve recently been using — dual timeboxing and decremental timeboxing, both of which are “AJATT originals” AFAIK…

What Is Timeboxing?

If you’re not familiar with timeboxing, WikiPedia, Steve Pavlina, Litemind, J.D. Meier , WiseGeek, WorkAwesome and Dave Cheong all give great, easy-to-read introductions to the concept. My first exposure to the idea was Mr. Pavlina’s article.

While we’re being definitional, when I talk about timeboxing here at AJATT, I’m generally referring to what WikiPedia calls “personal timeboxing”.

Anyway, the short answer is this: timeboxing is a technique where we place deliberate, prior, artificial  limits on the time to perform a given task. Within reason, the tighter (shorter) the time limits, the better.

Why Timeboxing?

Why is timeboxing so powerful and useful? Well, recall the Temporal Motivation Theory (TMT) equation by Piers Steel. This equation tells as that for any given task:

U = EV / ΓD

  • U = Utility, i.e. fun. The idea is that humans always make the choice they believe maximizes U. IIRC, humans always want and choose to do the thing that has the highest U.
  • E = Expectancy. Your confidence in your ability to complete the task.
  • V = Value, i.e. importance of the task.
  • Γ =  Distractions.
  • D = Deadline, delay. How much time you have to do the task.

For a fuller discussion of the whole Temporal Motivation Theory (TMT) thing, you might want to check out the rather verbose article I wrote about winnable games, as well as the original TMT paper by Steel himself. In my humble, non-expert opinion, Steel has probably managed to compress virtually the entire body of work of the personal development industry into a workable equation using only simple arithmetic and just one Greek letter. Hot stuff.

So timeboxing works by artificially limiting D. By giving you a smaller delay – less time – to work with, the utility (U) shoots up and the power of distractions (Γ) is weakened. In fact, the more we shrink D, the weaker Γ becomes. So if you could only do one thing to help your situation with regard to some task you’ve been avoiding, reducing the amount of time you have to do it, would be it.

While we’re here, this seems like as good a time as any to bust out Parkinson’s Law – of course, it’s not a “real” law, but…it might as well be:

Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion

So reducing D makes Parkinson’s Law our friend rather than our enemy, because not only do we actually get the work done, but we also find that there is less work to do. More accurately, limiting the time causes us to make choices that reduce the quantity of work; we trim the task down to size.

That’s all for now. Come back for the next installment in the series! Feel free to share any ideas, info and/or insight you may have down below in the comments section. :P

Series NavigationTimeboxing Trilogy, Part 3: Dual Timeboxing >>

  34 comments for “Timeboxing Trilogy, Part 1: What Is Timeboxing, Why Does It Work, And Why Should You Care?

  1. Macca
    June 6, 2010 at 22:19

    I completely agree. It seems that about the only time I can focus on completing a school task is when I have scarce time to complete it. In any other case, I become lazy, get distracted etc. The remedy for this is to work away from home; if I’m at the library etc, in the company of people, I feel obligated to work and don’t stuff around.

  2. June 8, 2010 at 14:10

    When i first heard of time-boxing it was from this website and i thought of it more like chessboxing, not like putting time in boxes, and i like that way of thinking about it.

    June 29, 2010 at 03:21

    Link to the original Steel’s article is not working. Is there is a name of the article, so that I could look it up?

  4. July 20, 2010 at 14:55

    And here I thought I’d actually learning how to physically punch time in the face…

    While I’m disappointed that I don’t physically get to beat up ‘time’, I will continue reading the following posts. I think time management is probably my worst area in language learning.

  5. PhedUp
    August 20, 2010 at 14:32

    Great tip on Timeboxing. I guess I’ve been unconsciously performing this method on my short trips to and from work on the subway… I learn a word a day — it’s not much, but it’s something!

    Japanese companies really should look into Parkison’s Law. People pull crazy hours at work, but really, nothing more gets done. Chaps play their PSP’s and take naps during the day because they know that they’ll be there until 11pm. What a waste of your life.

    But I love Japan and learning Nihongo!

  6. aelephant
    December 22, 2011 at 17:52

    I recently read about the Zeigarnik Effect on a psychology blog and I think it also explains the benefits of this method of studying.

    The Zeigarnik Effect

    Basically, it discusses how our working memory preferentially keeps things around that are “unfinished” like waiters keeping orders in mind only until they are finished.

    But they also did an experiment asking people to solve difficult puzzles, then interrupted them and told them the study was over. About 90% of people kept working on the puzzle anyway. As the article says, this Zeignarnik Effect could also be called the “Cliffhanger Effect” because it keeps you interested the same way a TV episode with a cliffhanger ending keeps you wanting to watch the show again.

    Anyway, from this I can derive there are two benefits from this method of studying. The first is that it improves your memory since you are “interrupted” (by the timer) before completing the task. If my task is to study a chapter of Mandarin, but I only get through half of the material, it is an “unfinished task” (like a waiter’s order that hasn’t been filled) and gets preferential treatment. The second is that it improves motivation like a cliffhanger ending.

    • May 28, 2012 at 05:43

      A very interesting observation. The Zeigarnik Effect seems to be true in case of language learners as well. Whenever I leave students with unfinished puzzles, an exercise or a story they remember it well at the beginning of the next classes.

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