Time-boxing: An Introduction

    It took me two decades and a half to figure out how to fight procrastination. (A struggle that continues to this day.) My most successful strategy? Time-boxing.

    If you've read this blog or other productivity blogs, you may have heard the term "time-boxing" before. If the term is new to you, let me introduce it: Time-boxing is a strategy in which you take control of time and use it strategically to get things done. You set a clock for a set period of time, focus on whatever task is at hand, and when the timer goes off, you drop everything and take a break.

    The psychology behind it is this: When you know a break is coming, when you know your misery has an endpoint, you feel more motivated to move forward, even if the task is awful. In fact, starting a task often makes you realize that the task is not as awful as you thought it was. Getting started is the hardest part. 

    After your break, you're refreshed, and you start the clock again. When I use this method, I get far more done, I get it done in a shorter amount of time, and I feel much less spent. Instead of checking Twitter in the middle of a paragraph, I know that I can check Twitter on my break. Instead of checking my phone, I wait until my break. It gives me something to look forward to, and helps me get "in the zone." 

    Time-boxing is effective for the crucial "must-do" tasks, and it is effective for those chores around the house you have been dreading. Want to write a book? Set a clock and write words. Want to clean your garage? Do a time-boxing session. Even if it is just one short session! Remember, starting is often the hardest part. 

    The most popular time-boxing method is the Pomodoro Method. Put simply, a "Pomodoro" is 25 minutes of uninterrupted focus upon one clearly described task. Complete the Pomodoro, take a 5 minute break, do another Pomodoro. After 4 Pomodoros, you take a longer break of 15-30 minutes. (15 is almost never enough for me. I think 30 is well-earned.) 

   Another feature of the Pomodoro Method (which applies equally well to any time-boxing method) is its ability to provide data on how long certain tasks take. For example, when I was writing my dissertation, I figured out that writing a page took THREE TIMES more Pomodoros than I initially thought it did. You may find that other tasks take less time than you think. (For me, this often happens with tasks I am procrastinating. In my mind, they grow into venomous beasts of burden, but they're usually just annoying little pests.)
    But let's be honest: This is all well and good... but sometimes 25 minutes is too daunting. At least for me. 

    Sometimes it is because of anxiety associated with the task. Other times I am tired, or in a room with lots of distractions, or just plain feeling lazy. When I'm in this mode, I don't use the Pomodoro Method. I use my own method. 
    I call it the Airplane Method.  I can cruise at this altitude forever. It's like walking a mile... you aren't going to be winded at the end, but you'll get there. 

    It functions similarly to the Pomodoro Method. and has the same ultimate goals, but adds a third block of time in which I prep, outline, and/or think about the task I'm about to do. I call this phase the "Runway" phase. The plane is on the runway, the gates are closed, and we're preparing for liftoff. (I also allow myself to go get coffee or fiddle around my desk during this time... anything tangentially related to my task is fair game.) 

    This allows me to ease into my task. This period lasts 6 minutes. Then I focus for 18 minutes--the actual "Flight." And then I take a 6 minute break--the "Landing." (I use these numbers partly out of a strange obsession with even numbers, and to make it a little different than the Pomodoro Method.)  
    The important thing with time-boxing, whether it involves tomatoes or airplanes, is to stick to it! If you are loose with the rules, then it will simply become another vehicle for procrastination. 

    If you want to learn more about procrastination and ways to fight it, let's talk on Twitter. Or, if you are so inclined, sign up for my This Month in Productivity newsletter! If you are reading this on my website, you can sign up below. If you are reading this via e-mail or RSS feeder, contact me at mjmottajr@gmail.com and I'll set it up for you.

    Have a productive week! 


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