A time box is both a limit and a commitment

Time Boxing is an interesting technique that’s found at all sorts of sizes in all sorts of places. My favourite time boxes probably belong to the Pomodoro Technique.

The Pomodoro Technique is not only a great practice in itself, it’s also a great way to understand what a time box is, and explain it to others.

If you’re not familiar with the Pomodoro Technique, the basics of it are insanely simple:1

  1. Pick a thing to do
  2. Do that thing and only that thing for the next 25 minutes
  3. Stop and take a five minute break
  4. Decide whether to continue to work on your original thing for another 25 minutes, or switch to a new thing and do THAT for 25 minutes2
  5. Repeat

You get the idea.

This also beautifully illustrates the dual nature of the time box.

On the one hand a time box is a commitment to:

  1. Focus exclusively on just one thing
  2. To maintain that focus for a full 25 minutes3

It’s the perfect antidote to today’s attention scattered world. You’re not committing to finishing something, you’re just committing to working on it and only it for the next 25 minutes. And if you’re not willing to commit to spending 25 minutes, then perhaps it’s not that important.

On the other hand a time box is also a limit

So whilst you have to work on your thing for at least 25 minutes, you can also only work on your thing for a maximum of 25 minutes.4

In my experience, this actually makes picking what to work on a lot easier. Knowing that the maximum investment is going to be limited to 25 minutes, you can worry less about ensuring that you’re working on the absolutely positively highest value thing. The time box caps the amount of time you can “waste”5 before you realise you should be doing something else.6

What’s brilliant about this system, is that it exploits the fact that humans best understand the following three things not by thinking about them, but by doing them:

  1. How important something is
  2. What’s important about it
  3. How long it’s really likely to take

So through this process, we not only Get Stuff Done, but also learn to make better, more informed decisions (in shorter amounts of time).

The commitment aspect helps us to get more done.7

The limiting aspect helps us to get the right things done, the right way at the right time. Thus maximising the return we get on our overall investment in time.

  1. Although like so many things of this nature, it’s very easy to make it more comprehensive if that works for you. 
  2. Now that I’ve written it out, it looks a lot like Lean Coffee, which in 2019 more people may be familiar with. The Pomodoro Technique, pre-dates Lean Coffee by a good ten years (at least) — and whilst it was originally designed as a personally productivity tool I have memories of running meetings using it. I remember running a planning day in 2007 using the Pomodoro technique which was both productive and exhausting. 
  3. Actually, you can focus for any length of time, 25 minutes is just the most popular, possibly because you can fit both the work and the break into a half hour, which makes them easy to schedule and plan with. It’s also just a good length of time for most personal tasks. 
  4. This can for some people actually be the harder thing to do. 
  5. I personally don’t think time is wasted if you discover what your real priorities are. I defy most people to do this well through 25 minutes of inaction. 
  6. Whilst at the same time allowing you to progress something that was important enough for you to start
  7. It’s a WIP limiting technique if you think about it, except it’s not using stickies, it’s using time.