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February 22, 2023

Getting started with timeboxing in project management

Project Management
Agnieszka Sienkiewicz

Time is money, they say. When you do not manage it well, you risk wasting this precious resource on unproductive activities that hardly bring any business value (and money). So what can you do to make the most of your activities and remove fluff from your professional (and personal) life? You could try a powerful time-management technique called “timeboxing.” Here’s what it is and how it works.

What is timeboxing?

Timeboxing (or the calendar system) is one of the most powerful techniques you can use for getting things done. This method is about dividing your time into individual time periods (so-called “timeboxes”) where each has its own goal (and thus a deliverable), duration, and deadline. A timebox is a self-contained calendar event that you cannot extend once it has started. (Imagine a cardboard box that does not expand like rubber.)

The task you want to timebox should have a fixed and realistic timeline that could be several minutes or hours. Other tasks, depending on their type and complexity level, could take days or even weeks. The keyword here is “fixed.” It means that even when you do not manage to meet the goal of your task within the scheduled timebox, you stop your work and evaluate what you have managed to achieve.

There are two types of timeboxing: soft and hard. Let’s talk about them.

Hard and soft timeboxing

The fundamental principle underlying the timeboxing technique is that the time in timeboxes cannot shift. Once the time runs out, you stop your work, even if you have not finished your task. This is hard timeboxing. You may find the hard approach suitable if you need something that will help you deal with your perfectionism.

But, there is a slightly more liberal approach toward this principle that allows you to bend it a little bit. In a soft timebox, the end time is more like a suggestion than a hard deadline. It indicates the time you should wrap up your task and move on to the next one. You may find soft timeboxes suitable for complex work that you are not sure how much time you will need to finish it.

Soft timeboxes require some degree of discipline to avoid shifting the time too much. But, on the other hand, they also give you and your team the flexibility to finish what you have started without dropping it unfinished.

Whether you will need a hard or soft timeframe around the work you need to do will depend on your goals and type of work. If you cannot decide which one it is going to be, pick one and stick to it. The most important thing is that you control your timebox properly and work on other tasks as you have planned.

The benefits of timeboxing

In the article about Agile planning, we mentioned Parkinson’s Law with reference to the completion of tasks that were estimated in hours. According to this law, people tend to expand the work to fill the time available for its completion. Thereby, becoming less productive.

For example, let’s say you have allocated 2 weeks in your calendar to work on a certain task. Regardless of whether you can realistically finish it sooner, you will subconsciously expand your work so that you do not finish earlier than before those 2 weeks pass. Having some time left, you would typically spend it on perfecting the outcome of your work rather than delivering it as soon as you have finished.

A graph illustrating how Parkinson's Law works.

It is a common trap to fall in but the timeboxes can help you navigate such pitfalls and avoid them altogether. Therefore, ideally, you want to keep your timeboxes short. So if you have some larger work on your plate, slice it into smaller pieces and tackle one timebox at a time.

In essence, timeboxing is a great technique against Parkinon’s Law but not only because of the time-limitation factor. There is much more to it.

Consistent workflow

Before you commit to a task, you ask yourself: “How much time can I afford to invest in it?” And then, based on your answer, you timebox that activity accordingly. Let’s say you want to create a presentation for your stakeholders. You set your timebox to 25 minutes and started working on it. Once the 25 mins have passed, you stop and review the outcome. Before you move on to your next task, take a 5-minute break (using the Pomodoro technique).

A Pomodoro timeboxing technique.

 

But what if you have your report ready in only 80% or so? You could timebox additional 10-15 mins later in the same day. Or move on and focus on tasks that are more important than the remaining 20% of your report.

Easy visualization

Timeboxing allows you to leverage the relative positioning of your work. When you have a specific task at hand, you normally can estimate how long it will take and when you should deliver it.

For example, the report you should turn in on Friday will take you about 9 hours, including collecting data and writing. Here, you know the length of your work and when the deliverable should be ready. Thanks to this, looking at your calendar. you can figure out where to place your timebox.

A daily planner, pencil, and calendar against a green background.

Relative prioritization

When you think about the tasks that you need to go through during your day, you might realize that it is not always possible to squeeze them neatly into your daily workload—some of the tasks will take longer than others, especially when you plan to complete them in 100%. But when you organize your work around timeboxes, you can compare every task in relation to another and challenge yourself on their real importance.

Timeboxes in Agile and Hybrid project management

Timebox is a fixed maximum time period you define for a process within a project that has its own tasks, a goal, and deliverables. You strive to execute the content and scope of a single timebox within a planned time. For that reason, to make it possible, a timebox should be short enough to ensure productivity but also long enough to let you deliver quality results.

The timeboxing technique is iterative in nature—you maximize your efforts within a specific time period to achieve a certain goal. And afterward, you review your work and move on to the next timebox, thereby forming a cycle of consecutive time periods, like in an Iteration and Sprint.

The main goal of timeboxes is to control iterative development. After all, the iteration loops are what you and your team follow to evolve the stakeholder’s requirements. Why short timeboxes/loops? Because most of the time, you can only estimate how long it is going to take since you cannot tell for sure what the changing business might want. Therefore, you must have some sort of idea of controlling the time you will spend on it that will let you deliver a certain output within a certain timeframe.

If you use Jira for project management, you can add the BigPicture PPM app that will let you create and track the progress of your timeboxes (Iterations, Sprints, Program Increments, and Hybrid Stages) on the Agile board. With BigPicture, you can also create and control Sprints on a Gantt chart.

You can visualize Hybrid Stages, Program Increments, and Sprints on the Agile Board in BigPicture. Each timebox, by definition, has a scope, duration, and tasks (which you simply drag from the backlog).

Which Scrum events you can timebox

The Sprint is a timebox itself and could take a week, two, three, or four. This is the time frame for the Agile teams to deliver some outputs that meet a Sprint goal. But the Sprint itself consists of a series of events that you can timebox as well.

  • Sprint Planning takes a maximum of 2 hours for every 1 week of Sprint length. So if your Sprints take a month, then the planning should not take longer than 8 hours in total.
  • Daily Scrum is a timebox of 15 minutes (or less) for every day of the Sprint.
  • Sprint Review should not exceed a maximum of 1 hour for Sprint Review every 1-week Sprint. It means your team would timebox Sprint Review to 2 hours for a 2-week Sprint and 4 hours for a 1-month Sprint.
  • Sprint Retrospective takes a maximum of 45 minutes for each week of Sprint length. Therefore, a 2-week Sprint would cap the Sprint Retrospective at 1.5 hours, while a 4-week Sprint at 3 hours.

How to timebox your activities right (3 steps)

As we talked about it earlier, a timebox is a generic name for the iterative time periods in Agile project management. Those time periods are usually the same, therefore, you do not need to worry about timeboxing your next iteration every single time.

But there might be many other daily managerial activities for which you could use the timeboxing technique. For example, regular meetings with your team or stakeholders, running analysis and drafting reports, and many more. If you run group activities, like brainstorming, timeboxes will help you align and motivate your colleagues.

The timeboxing workflow.

 

We will follow the Plan→Act→Evaluate structure based on the example that involves a group meeting. (You can apply the same logic when timeboxing “solo” tasks.)

Example: You manage a team of creatives and want to find out which landing page design and copy would be the best for your upcoming promo campaign. There are 3 landing pages to discuss. Each page does not differ from the others significantly but highlights different aspects of the services your business offers. You and your team of 6 are about to assess each page and decide on one. And since each of you has a different point of view, you will timebox the meeting to avoid neverending discussions.

#1 Plan your activity

You timebox the activity to 7 minutes and ask everyone to write down 3 cons and pros for each landing page. Afterward, they will read out their ideas and based on them, you will pick the design and copy for your campaign.

The plan is simple but clearly defines what you want your team to do (come up with cons and pros); for how long (7 mins); and what output you expect (6 ideas for each landing page).

#2 Act on your plan

When everything is clear, you set the timer and your team begins working on their ideas. In other words, they act on your timebox plan to deliver certain outputs within a certain time frame.

#Evaluate the outcomes

Seven minutes are getting close to passing and you start checking how your team members are doing on their way toward the timebox goal (output). Are they getting close or do they need more time? Was there any obstacle that prevented them from completing the task?

Draw conclusions from completing your latest timebox and, if necessary, adjust the plan for your upcoming activity respectively.