In this post we explore two powerful, yet underutilized productivity tools: Timeboxing and Prioritization. Read on to take your productivity to the next level.
Productivity Tool #1: Timeboxing
Personal productivity is all about goal setting and taming our To Do list, right? Wrong. Psychologists have found, in countless peer-reviewed scientific studies, that implementation intentions are far more likely to get us to follow through than goals (Brandstätter et al., 2001; Gollwitzer & Sheeran, 2006; Moshontz & Hoyle, 2021). Implementation intentions are concrete plans that specify what we will do and when.
Time blocking and timeboxing are methods that use implementation intentions to plan our days. They involve transferring tasks from our to-do list to our calendars by estimating how long they will each take and identifying the best time to work on them (Figure 1). Time blocking refers to scheduling time for tasks in our calendar, whereas timeboxing, a term borrowed from agile project management, also means imposing a limit on the time for each task (Scroggs, n.d.; Zao-Sanders, 2018). For example, ‘Write’ scheduled from 9 – 11 am today is an example of time blocking. ‘Write 500 words’ in the same calendar timeslot constitutes timeboxing.
Figure 1. An example of time blocking (Scroggs, n.d.).
Management consultant Daniel Markovitz describes these techniques as “making a production plan for your work” because “to-do lists don’t work” (Markovitz, 2012). Nir Eyal, author of Indistractable (2019), calls timeboxing “the most powerful time management technique you’re probably not using” (Eyal, n.d.). Computer science professor at Georgetown University and author of Deep Work, Cal Newport, concurs:
“Sometimes people ask why I bother with such a detailed level of planning. My answer is simple: it generates a massive amount of productivity. A 40 hour time-blocked work week, I estimate, produces the same amount of output as a 60+ hour work week pursued without structure” (Newport, 2016).
Parkinson’s Law, time constraints and utility
In a 1955 essay published in The Economist, British naval historian C. Northcote Parkinson wrote:
“It is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion” (Parkinson, 1955).
In the decades since this observation, researchers have shown that ‘Parkinson’s Law’ does indeed have merit (Wen, 2020). For example, in one study, some subjects were “accidentally” allowed fifteen minutes to complete an activity which could be performed in five. These individuals spent significantly more time working on the task than those allowed the minimum time (Aronson & Landy, 1967).
Such research confirms that a lack of constraints makes us less productive. Timeboxing is the antidote to Parkinson’s Law; it forces us to work efficiently as we have limited time allocated to tasks. But you may be wondering, what about the impact of time constraints on quality?
The relationship between time pressure, performance and productivity has been studied extensively. Management researchers Don Moore and Elizabeth Tenney refer to the quantity and quality of an output as ‘performance’, and ‘productivity’ as performance per unit time (Moore & Tenney, 2012). After surveying the extensive literature on these topics, they concluded:
“…time pressure generally impairs performance because it places constraints on the capacity for thought and action that limit exploration…Thus, time pressure increases speed at the expense of quality. However, performance is different from productivity. Giving people more time is not always better for productivity because time spent on a task yields marginal returns to performance” (Moore & Tenney, 2012).
What this really points to is that there is a ‘Goldilocks’ phenomenon at play here. We need to find the ‘just right’ point. Too little time on a task and the quality and quantity suffer – rushing causes us to make errors and be less creative (Moore & Tenney, 2012). Too much and we are simply wasting time as there is limited improvement in the overall outcome. Overly generous deadlines make room for overthinking and distractions (Moore & Tenney, 2012). Moore and Tenney argue that what we should really be aiming for is neither performance, nor productivity, but a measure that combines the two called utility (Figure 2).
Figure 2. Performance, Productivity and Utility of Work as a Function of Time (Moore & Tenney, 2012).
As we spend more time on a task, our performance increases. For example, if we have one hour to write, we can produce a certain number of words. If we have twice the time, we will produce more words or better words (or both). But, as we can see from the graph, the increase in performance is not linear. “When people sit down to do a task, they’ll put in a lot of effort initially. [But] At some point there’s going to be diminishing returns on extra effort”, says Tenney (Wen, 2020). The reason we achieve less in the tenth hour than in the first hour is that there are limits to our mental bandwidth – our memory, attention and fatigue – according to Princeton professor Eldar Shafir (Wen, 2020).
Because additional time translates into lower productivity, productivity is highest initially. The “just right” point, “sweet spot” or what Moore and Tenney (2012) call the “inflection point” is where utility is at the maximum, and what we should base our deadlines on.
Productivity Tool #2: Prioritization and effectiveness
Where do efficiency and effectiveness fit into the performance – productivity – utility story? Utility is about producing high quality work with maximum efficiency. However, we must always remember that it’s possible to focus on the wrong tasks. We can fill out a form with no mistakes (high quality) quickly (maximum efficiency), and therefore achieve utility.
However, our guiding principle as knowledge workers should always be “Am I being effective? Am I doing the work that matters?” We need to remember the principles of prioritization: “Should I be the person filling out the form? Should I outsource this task or drop it completely?”
The take home message here is: Timebox the right tasks.
- Aronson, E., & Landy, D. (1967). Further steps beyond Parkinson’s Law: A replication and extension of the excess time effect. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 3(3), 274-285. https://doi.org/10.1016/0022-1031(67)90029-7
- Brandstätter, V., Lengfelder, A., & Gollwitzer, P. M. (2001). Implementation intentions and efficient action initiation. J Pers Soc Psychol, 81(5), 946-960. https://doi.org/10.1037//0022-3518.104.22.1686
- Eyal, N. (n.d.). Timeboxing: The Magical Productivity Hack You’re Not Using. Retrieved 7 June 2022 from https://www.nirandfar.com/timeboxing/
- Eyal, N. (2019). Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. BenBella books.
- Gollwitzer, P. M., & Sheeran, P. (2006). Implementation Intentions and Goal Achievement: A Meta‐analysis of Effects and Processes. In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Vol. 38, pp. 69-119). Academic Press. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0065-2601(06)38002-1
- Markovitz, D. (2012). To-Do Lists Don’t Work. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved 5 June 2022 from https://hbr.org/2012/01/to-do-lists-dont-work
- Moore, D. A., & Tenney, E. R. (2012). “Time pressure, performance, and productivity”, in Neale, M.A. and Mannix, E.A. (Ed.) Looking Back, Moving Forward: A Review of Group and Team-Based Research (Research on Managing Groups and Teams, Vol. 15), Emerald Publishing Limited, Bingley, pp. 305–326. https://doi.org/10.1108/S1534-0856(2012)0000015015
- Moshontz, H., & Hoyle, R. H. (2021). Resisting, Recognizing, and Returning: A Three-Component Model and Review of Persistence in Episodic Goals. Soc Personal Psychol Compass, 15(1). https://doi.org/10.1111/spc3.12576
- Newport, C. (2016). Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Grand Central Publishing.
- Parkinson, C. N. (1955). Parkinson’s Law. The Economist. Retrieved 4 June 2022 from https://www.economist.com/news/1955/11/19/parkinsons-law
- Scroggs, L. (n.d.). Time blocking. Retrieved 7 June 2022 from https://todoist.com/productivity-methods/time-blocking
- Wen, T. (2020). The ‘law’ that explains why you can’t get anything done. BBC Worklife. Retrieved 3 June 2022 from https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20191107-the-law-that-explains-why-you-cant-get-anything-done
- Zao-Sanders, M. (2018). How Timeboxing Works and Why It Will Make You More Productive. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved 7 June 2022 from https://hbr.org/2018/12/how-timeboxing-works-and-why-it-will-make-you-more-productive