Time Boxing: A Productivity Hack for Entrepreneurs

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Bailey Maybray
Bailey Maybray

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On a groggy Monday morning, you slowly open your laptop. A swarm of emails and calendar notifications blind you.

Time Boxing: A man holds a pencil over a calendar with sticky notes all over it.

As you sift through the clutter, your mind wanders. Did you remember to feed the dog? Should you check Twitter first? Did something important end up in the spam box?

By the time you get started on your tasks, it’s lunchtime.

If this productivity loss feels familiar, you’re not alone. Business owners waste almost 22 hours in a given week — a real burden, considering 57% work six or more days a week to keep up.

Time boxing might be the way to wrestle back your mornings. It’s a calendar tool Harvard Business Review ranked as number one out of 100 productivity hacks. You’ll feel more sane, in control of your time, and ready to tackle moody Mondays.

What Is Time Boxing?

Time boxing on a virtual calendar.

Time boxing is a productivity tool that optimizes your calendar and workflow. You set aside a specific, limited amount of time to complete a task. You might box off three hours to write, say, an article on time boxing. And if you end up not completing it in those three hours, you move on to the next time box.

Time boxing taps into a psychological technique called implementation intention. You write down when, where, and how to complete assignments — and you’re psychologically hooked into doing them. 

Through time boxing, you commit to a when and where for every work task. It’s a powerful way to shake up a sluggish schedule.

Time Boxing vs. Time Blocking

Time blocking sounds and looks a lot like time boxing, but they have different effects. This is where you block off a random amount of time to work on a project — often, professionals use time blocking to clear their calendar of calls.

Unlike time boxing, blocking out your calendar has little impact on productivity. You have an indefinite amount of time to complete an overwhelming amount of work. Time blocking can paralyze you while time boxing can feel motivating. 

Time management expert David Buck attributes the power of time boxing to its structure: “You’re integrating tasks you have. You’re actually putting a formality around [your calendar], which usually requires negotiating for protected time.”

So in short: 

Time Boxing: Limiting how much time you work on tasks

Time Blocking: Setting aside time to work on tasks — without limits

Benefits of Time Boxing

Time boxing will help streamline your workload — and make sure you stay on the right track. 

“[Time] boxing for business owners is very beneficial, because they wear a lot of hats and their business needs a lot from them,” says productivity specialist Amber de la Garza. “By time boxing, they can be very intentional with where they’re investing their time throughout the week to make sure they’re hitting all their high-value activities.”

Mitigates Distractions

When you set no limits on your time, you open yourself up to distractions. You might conduct market research and get pulled down an irrelevant rabbit hole. Your phone, a beacon of diversion, entices you to scroll through TikTok as you work throughout the day.

Time boxing incentivizes you to avoid those distractions, since you have to achieve your goals in a finite amount of time. Giving yourself a deadline of one, two, or three hours can heighten your focus.

Minimizes Decision Paralysis

Have you ever stared at a lengthy to-do list and struggled on where to start? You likely experienced decision paralysis, a psychological reaction people have when they feel overwhelmed. 

Converting a to-do list into a manageable series of time boxes can help minimize decision paralysis. Instead of knowing you have fifteen things to do at some point during the day, you have boxes lined up for each task. For example, the first items on your to-do list — say, complete an outline, conduct research, and draft a presentation — transform into three time boxes at the start of your workday.

Shifts Multitasking to Monotasking

Entrepreneurs often multitask – even though only 2.5% of people can multitask effectively. According to research, task switching hampers performance and makes you more prone to mistakes. 

Time boxing eliminates multitasking by making your calendar a succession of projects. By focusing on one thing at a time, monotasking can make you more productive.

Helps Assess Priorities

Business owners have to navigate the world of finance, marketing, operations, and more. By using time boxing, you learn to dedicate more time to some projects and less to others. 

“I think it’s critical for an entrepreneur to take their goals and time box anything that’s high priority,” Buck says.

You can assign must-do projects to time boxes when you feel the most productive. Are you an early bird? Schedule time for important tasks then. Feel lazy in the afternoons? Time box more passive tasks during that time.

Eliminates Perfectionism

Ensuring every detail is flawless can hinder entrepreneurs because nothing ever goes exactly according to plan. Time boxing prevents people from obsessing over every little thing. You’ve set aside time to complete tasks — emphasis on the word complete. You can only put your best foot forward during the allotted time and move on to the next. 

You might want to rewrite a sentence five times on an important email, but time boxing pushes you to execute rather than dilly-dally on unimportant details.

How To Do Time Boxing

1) Make a plan

Try to plan out your calendar for two weeks in advance. If you don’t put a structure in place, you leave your calendar open to random calls and errant tasks. 

“The first week is very blocked. It’s a really kind of hard cement,” Buck says of his planning method. “In the second week, it’s more wet cement. It’s what I want to accomplish, but I’m going to give myself some flexibility.”

Set aside nonnegotiable time to work on assignments with approaching deadlines. If you have deliverables due on Thursday, schedule hard time boxes on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. 

For the week after, however, you might have less of an idea, so consider scheduling more loose time boxes. For example, set aside time for conducting general market research — then break that time box into more specific tasks as the week gets closer.

2) Use SMART goals

Dedicating time to complete a specific task marks a key difference between time boxing and time blocking. But the goals attached to your work sessions need to have five elements.

Specific: Define what you want to attain and how you plan to get there. 

Measurable: Set a goal in which you can measure progress.

Attainable: Don’t overload yourself with too much work per time box.

Relevant: Goals should align with your long-term mission.

Time-based: All SMART goals have a time frame — in this case, your time box.

For example, if you have a presentation due, you can use the SMART framework to get through the project. You first commit to writing at least three pages of the script (a specific, measurable goal), with the number of pages based on your past performance (attainable). 

Make sure the project is high value — the company will learn critical insights from your research (relevant). For the first time box, you set aside three hours to write the script (time-based). 

3) Share with others

As an entrepreneur, you likely work with a lot of stakeholders. To make the most out of time boxing, share your schedule with others. Let them know how they can best reach you outside of your defined work sessions. Thankfully, with Google Calendar and Microsoft, users can see your schedules automatically.

4) Assess the results

Time boxing takes time to master. You may underestimate or overestimate how long individual projects take. At the end of each week, assess your schedule. What went wrong? What went right? Use this information to better your time-boxing chops moving forward. 

Keep a journal of your thoughts and experiences with time boxing — tracking your feelings and activities can help you make the most out of time management.

5) Be kind to yourself

Time boxing will help you learn more about your workflow and productivity. But you need to remain kind to yourself if you fail to finish a task in an allotted time. You will keep learning as you go, so keep the process light and fulfilling. Assure yourself before each workday: You’re not getting graded on how you use time boxing.

6) Reward yourself

Creating positive associations with task completion will motivate you to do more tasks. Give yourself a pat on the back and spring for something you like, whether it be a good slice of chocolate cake, a stroll around the park, or a happy hour with your friends. 

How To Use Time Boxing

To tackle different parts of a project

If a project’s moving parts overwhelm you, time boxing will help you overcome that paralysis. It’s a great way to break down a large task into manageable parts. So, instead of dedicating Tuesday to finishing a big marketing project, you dedicate 9am to setting goals, 10am to writing five social posts, and so on.

To better understand your working style

By placing time on the calendar, you can see how long each task takes to complete. You might spend way too much time on writing blog posts, but only a short amount of time creating financial statements. Use insights from time boxing to decide what you may want to delegate and what you may want to keep as you manage your workload.

To give you more energy throughout the day

Every entrepreneur goes through slumps during the day. For some, this happens in the morning. For others, afternoons may feel unbearable and exhausting. Time boxing can help keep up your energy level — if you know talking with others wakes you up, consider time boxing calls when you feel tired. 

Make note of when you feel unmotivated and which tasks give you energy. Then merge these two aspects of your work to maintain productivity throughout the day. 

To diversify your skill set

If you find yourself working on the same project everyday, time boxing can break that monotony. When creating your schedule, try including a diverse array of tasks to work on. De la Garza recommends entrepreneurs divide their day into four focus buckets: marketing, sales, client service, and leadership. 

Instead of spending too much time on one task then glossing over another, time boxing ensures that you work on — and improve — each area of your business. 

Time-Boxing Example

It’s Monday morning, and you’re worrying about knocking out a long presentation by 6pm that Friday. You read an article from The Hustle on time boxing, so you’re giving it a go to get through this project.

You first look at the next week on your calendar, and move or cancel unnecessary calls. Next, you set a series of SMART goals to tackle different parts of the project. For example, you dedicate two hours to summarizing research from 10 different sources, and two hours to turn 10 important stats into three bar charts. Every goal has a similar structure.

You use Google Calendar, so your team already knows when you have free time. You start working through your time boxes. Research took less time than expected, but creating the charts ate up a lot of your schedule. At the end of Monday, you rework your time boxes for the remaining few days. You shut off your work laptop and decide to call up an old friend to chat.

You rinse and repeat the next day, and suddenly a huge project is just a series of simple tasks. That’s the beauty of time boxing — it’s a technique that can be used for projects big and small, and for entrepreneurs running on any schedule. 

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