Timeboxing

March 3, 2011

iStock_000008734222XSmall{DISCLAIMER: I am not a productivity expert, nor do I play one on TV, but I would if I got an offer, this is just something that worked for me.}

Are you busy? Do you often feel like there isn’t enough time in the day/week/month/year/lifetime to do the things you want to do? Does this frustrate you and extinguish the passion you have for those things you want to do?

There have been a number of times in my life when I could answer yes to all of those questions. No more so than at the end of last year. I was feeling burned out. Frankly, I didn’t want to look at another line of code. Which isn’t a good thing if you happen to be a developer. I knew something(s) had to change, but I couldn’t put my finger on what those something(s) were. Then it hit me when I was re-reading a section in JD Meier’s book "Getting Results the Agile Way". One of the core practices of Agile Results is to timebox your day. Here’s how JD describes it:

If you keep time a constant (by ending your day at a certain time), it helps with a lot of things: work-life balance (days can chew into nights can chew into weekends), figuring out where to optimize your day, prioritizing (time is a great forcing function) Carve up your day into big buckets (e.g., administration, work time, think time, connect time), and then figure out how much time you’re willing to give them. If you’re not getting the throughput you want, you can ask yourself: Are you working on the right things? Are you spending too much time on lesser things? Are there some things you can do more efficiently or effectively? Without a timebox, you can easily spend all day reading mails, blogs, aliases, doing self-training, etc., and then wonder where your day went. Using timeboxes helps strike balance. Timeboxes also help with pacing. If you only have so many hours to produce results, you’re more careful to spend my high energy hours on the right things.

As I read, and re-read, this quote I realized that I wasn’t even coming close to doing this. I also came to the even bigger realization that if I couldn’t control my time I had no hope of controlling my life. It was this lack of control that was leading me to burn out. I needed to correct course, but how? Below are the steps I took to deal with the situation.

 

iStock_000008698171XSmallStep 0: Accept
This is something I do whenever I start a project. I’m an impatient person at times, and I want to do all that I can RIGHT NOW to get something done. However, putting in monumental efforts over long periods of time isn’t sustainable. In fact, it’s actually detrimental to the project and can often have the result of the project being abandoned in midstream. So, for me, I have to accept that for me to have the most success I need to maintain a consistent level of effort over the long term rather than expending an immediate burst of energy that drains me and prevents me from reaching the goal.

 

iStock_000004515617XSmallStep 1: Definition
You might think that the next step was to find all the inefficiencies in my day and take the appropriate action. I almost did that, but I wanted to take a different approach. I felt that if I took the step to deal with inefficiencies first I would be limiting myself in terms of finding time to do the things I currently wasn’t doing. For example, and this is just an example, if I felt I was spending 30 minutes too long on staying up to date on reading blogs, I would then have 30 minutes available to do something else. This had the potential of boxing me in. I wanted to avoid this. I wanted to define the box I put each task in rather than the other way around. To do this, I got out a pack of Post-It notes and wrote down the tasks I wanted/needed to along with the time I wanted to devote to each task. Each task got its own note. When I was done, I moved on to step two.

iStock_000003013231XSmallStep 2: Understand
I then needed to get an understanding of how I was spending my days. I actually did a rough pass  of this with JD in Redmond back in November. However, I really needed to dig into the details of how I spent my time each day to get a grip on the situation. I started by printing off a blank weekly calendar in Outlook, with the days across the top and the time running along the side. During the course of each day I wrote down on the calendar what I was doing during a given time interval (i.e. meetings, email, reading, etc.) I also highlighted a given time period if I felt I was exceptionally productive. It took some dedication and a couple of iterations, but I was eventually able to get a pretty clear picture as to what I was doing on a daily basis.

 

toolsStep 3: Maximize
This was the tricky one, and the one I keep revisiting. In this step I had to look at the items from steps one and two and figure out what needed to be adjusted, so I could done the things I wanted/needed to do in the timeboxes I had defined. To do this I created a simple excel spreadsheet with 15 minute time buckets in the first column. I then mapped the various tasks into buckets until an 8 hour work day was full. That’s right 8 hours only. Working 10-12 hours was one of the things I wanted to stop doing as a part of this process.

I won’t go in to all the dirty details of the process, but I will give a couple of examples.

  • I was spending over an hour or more a day processing email. When I defined my email task in step one, I gave it a time limit of 30 minutes. I thought I had done a pretty good job of keeping my inbox at zero, but there were some more efficiencies that had to be found. I’ll outline those in my next post.
  • I was spending close to an hour a day monitoring social networks. What was really interesting is that I didn’t even include social networking in the list of things I wanted/needed to do. This lead me to eventually delete my Twitter and Facebook accounts, but I’ll save the details behind that for my next post as well.
  • There were a number of instances were I was waiting around for a meeting to start because either (a) the organizer was late or (b) the organizer wouldn’t start until everybody was present. On the same note I was also waiting for meetings to end because either (a) they did not start on time or (b) the organizer was not running the meeting effectively and let it go long. I’m a stickler when it comes to things like this – just ask my wife and daughters. If a meeting is scheduled to start at 9:00 AM and end at 10:00 AM I expect the organizer to do exactly that. In fact, starting and ending late is disrespectful to those in attendance. It sends a message that their time isn’t valued, which in turn may actually result in less engagement during current and future meetings. However, rather than dwell on the negative I decided to take action. Now, I’m an understanding guy, I know there are some situations where a meeting might start and end late, so I decided I would have a buffer before moving on to other tasks. I set the buffer at two minutes. That’s right TWO MINUTES. "Why two minutes, why not five?" you may ask. Simple, two is less than five, let’s move on.

Of course, there were a number of other things that required addressing, but let’s stick with the meeting issue as we move into step four.

iStock_000005780399XSmallStep 4: Test It Out
Here’s where I put the plans I came up with in step three into action. I’ll be honest, adopting the strategy I decided to take around meetings was not an easy one. You can’t just stand up and walk out of a conference room. Well, you can, but it certainly won’t contribute to career growth. Each situation had to be handled tactfully so as not to offend those present, or not present as was often the case. Depending on the situation, I would either pull the organizer aside, or, if the organizer was late in showing up, send an email explaining my actions. Of course you have to be careful in delivering this message, but each time it basically came down to "I’m here to help you succeed and that’s what I intend to do. To accomplish our shared goal I believe it’s in our collective best interests for me to [insert activity] rather than letting you incur a cost for me sitting idle." The responses have been interesting. At first, some don’t like the approach. However, as a consultant I log my hours fairly thoroughly and I can easily show how much money a client has spent because I’m idle. When they see those numbers, a shift in attitude quickly follows. Most come to understand and respect the approach. This approach to meetings along with other approaches I’ve adopted in regards to time management have actually enabled me to get more done in less time over the past month or so.

iStock_000010334884XSmallStep 5: GOTO Step 1
At this point I could just coast and keep doing the things I’m doing, but that’s not improvement that’s laziness. Improvement is a continuous process. I’m not perfect – yes, I know that comes as a shocker. I’m a firm believer that I can ALWAYS find ways to do something better. I’m also aware that the things I want to do and need to do change over time. Addressing both of these concerns requires that this process be repeated (and refined). It will help me stay on top of time and keep me energized to do some great things over the course of this year, but you’ll have to wait a little while longer to hear about what those things are.