How to achieve more as a programmer using timeboxing

Timeboxing is a time management technique that programmers can use to stay on task and get more done. Programmers can better focus on the tasks at hand and avoid distractions. We can also use timeboxing as a problem-solving technique when we get stuck on a problem.

A timeglass standing on the rocks
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Programmers are constantly juggling time between meetings, coding time, time to write documentation or do QA testing, time to learn new skills, or time to take care of other responsibilities like family and personal time. The constant pressure makes it difficult for programmers to stay on top of everything. But with the proper organizational habits like timeboxing, we can alleviate the problem.

Learn how you can use timeboxing to get more done!

What are timeboxing and timeblocking

Timeboxing and timeblocking are two organizational habits that can help deal with the pressure of juggling time. They are very similar, but there are some key differences.

Timeblocking is the act of dividing your time into fixed periods for specific tasks. You might allocate 3 hours to work on a project, 25 minutes to eat lunch, and 1 hour to attend a meeting. This allows you to better plan and track your time.

You put the timeblocks on your calendar, and you know that between 9 and 12, you write code, 12 to 12:25 you eat, then you have a break followed by a one-hour long meeting.

Timeboxing is similar, but it is more focused on the allocation of time for specific activities without scheduling them. For example, you might block out 2 hours to write code, 1 hour to do research, and 30 minutes to take a break. This allows you to focus more intensely on specific tasks. You don't schedule the coding time explicitly.

I prefer timeboxing because I like to use the calendar only for events that must happen at the prescheduled time. Instead of prescheduling work, I have a time limit on the tasks. I use the Pomodoro Technique while working, so my task estimates are usually in pomodori instead of minutes.

A stopwatch
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The benefits of timeboxing and timeblocking

Timeboxing can be a great way to get more done and stay focused on tasks. Some of the benefits include:

Increased productivity

When you know that you have limited time for a specific task, you are more likely to focus and get it done quickly. The time limit can lead to increased productivity overall.

I routinely finish tasks estimated for two days of work in less than 4 hours. I can do it only because timeboxing forces me to cut off distractions and multitasking. When I start working on a task, I know I have only one task and eight pomodori of solid work.

Improved time management skills

Timeboxing teaches you how to better manage your time. You learn to plan and track your time, and this can carry over into other areas of your life. You may even get good at estimating the time required to finish a new feature. Imagine that ;)

Although the improvement of time estimation skills has not happened to me yet, I can quite accurately estimate the required effort in the number of pomodori.

Easier scheduling

When you timeblock your tasks, it becomes easier to schedule them on your calendar. It is less likely that tasks will fall through the cracks if you preplanned time to work on them.

Improved focus

You are more likely to stay on task with timeboxing. You know that time is limited, so you are more likely to focus and get things done quickly.

Focus is crucial. If you timebox a task and then allow yourself to be distracted or work on multiple things simultaneously, you will waste time and the effort you put in deciding about the timeboxes.

Reduced stress

When you timebox your tasks, it becomes easier for you to deal with time pressure. You have a time constraint, but timeboxing lets you also plan the time buffer. This can reduce stress overall. I don't know about you, but having a plan calms me down.

A personal planner with a few appointments and a hand holding a pen
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How to timebox/timeblock your day

For timeblock to be effective, you need to schedule your timeblocks on your calendar. This will ensure that you are not overbooked and have time for everything you need to do.

Choosing the most important task

The first step is to figure out what your priorities are. What are the tasks that are most important to you? Once you have identified them, it is time to put them on your calendar.

Estimating the time

Next, determine how much time you realistically need for each task. You can do it by estimating the time required for each activity or using the Pomodoro Technique.

At first glance, both methods are the same. After all, 1 Pomodoro = 25 minutes. However, the Pomodoro-based estimate has one advantage over time-based estimates. When something interrupts your work, you don't need to change your estimate.

If you say that you finish the task in 6 pomodori of focused work and you get interrupted, you have a break from the task. On the other hand, if you say that you finish the task at 3 pm and you get interrupted, you have to change the estimate.

Timeblocking your calendar

Once you have determined the time required for each task, it is time to put them on your calendar. You should block out enough time to work on each task, but it is better to give yourself some buffer time. Once you have all of your tasks scheduled, it is time to start working!

Timeboxing vs calendar

If you prefer timeboxing instead of timeblocking, your planning will look similar. However, instead of putting individual tasks on your schedule, you will either leave the calendar blank or put a "working time" event on your calendar.

Scheduling working time explicitly prevents overbooking. When a task takes longer than expected, you have to reschedule everything. If there is not enough time to do all tasks, you have to eliminate some of them.

On the other hand, leaving the calendar blank helps you build a habit that the calendar is nonnegotiable. If something is on the calendar, you must do it during the scheduled time.

A programmer staring at the screen. On the screen we see the code editor.
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Timeboxing for programmers

What should we timebox? I prefer to use the technique only for the most important tasks. Otherwise, the burden of setting time limits diminishes the benefits. (But it has additional benefits when you deal with trivial tasks, more on that later.)

First, we need a task with a fixed scope. If the scope is unknown, we should use timeboxing to work on a research task. Research tasks are perfect for timeboxing because we can spend years researching without a strict deadline.

We can break the task into its building blocks and estimate them independently when we know the scope. Nothing extraordinary has happened yet.

Timeboxing is our next step. Now we plan how much time we need to finish the work. However, it is not sprint planning! I'm talking about personal time management done by the person who starts working on a new task. Everyone timeboxes their work individually.

After all, having a strict deadline imposed on the development team is a common planning error in software engineering. It almost always leads to missed deadlines.

A typewritter
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Using timeboxing to enhance creativity

Somehow, if we put a strict limit on time and have a fixed scope of the project, we are more likely to achieve the project goal.

It seems to be the time management technique used by all of Elon Musk's companies. They commit to an ambitious goal with a ridiculously short deadline. They always miss the deadline, but they also achieve more than anyone else.

Apparently, deadlines are good for focused concentration because they force you to work on the most critical aspect of the project. You will spend less time working on unimportant details when you have a complex system to build and not enough time. Also, instead of overengineering the solution, you will have to be creative and find clever methods to achieve the goal.

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Timeboxing for increasing individual developer productivity

Of course, strict deadlines contribute to poor team building and hectic working environments. That's why I suggest personal timeboxing instead of controlling how the entire team spends their work time.

You work on a common goal, but everyone on the team timeboxes their time individually and independently from the project management technique you use to plan the entire work.

You may wonder whether it works. Won't people waste most of their time? It is pretty unlikely. I have seen many successful projects where programmers used time management techniques for their personal tasks.

The point is that any form of individual time management makes people more organized. Of course, everyone will make planning errors, and those errors will add up. Nevertheless, over time, people become proficient at estimating their work.

Three people sitting in a meeting room with laptops on their laps. The fourth person stands next to a whiteboard and talks.
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Project management with timeboxing

On the one hand, timeboxing forces you to focus on the project's critical paths and prevents from drifting off into details. On the other hand, you get the most benefits when you put time constraints on unimportant tasks.

I doubt whether you can do project management without time boxing. Timeboxing and focusing on critical features seem to be successful projects' bedrock.

TImeboxing the discussions may be the most effective time management technique for software development teams.

Everyone likes long discussions on UI color palette, but most likely, spending time of the entire team discussing that won't be as productive as letting the UX experts do their work and accepting their decisions.

It is easy to have an opinion about UI. If you are not a UX expert, it is probably a wrong opinion, but when did being wrong prevent anyone from voicing their point of view? That's why UI-related discussions easily extend past the allocated time.

An old analog clock on the wall. It resembles a little bit a punch clock.
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Timeboxing effectively while being an employee at someone else's company

As an employee, you may find it challenging to timebox your day effectively. You may feel that you don't control your time or are too busy to timeblock.

You don't have full control over your calendar, but you can still timebox the working time. Even if you can decide how you spend three hours out of your 8-hour workday, planning the limited time will pay off.

That's what I do in my daily work. I have control over my commitments in my side hustles, but I am also an employee. Out of 40 hours of work, I can control between 15-20 hours per week. I have to timebox. There is no other way to finish the job in such a short amount of time.

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Using timeboxing as a problem-solving technique

Timeboxing can be an efficient technique to help you get unstuck when you're can't solve a problem. By setting a time limit for yourself, you can focus better and develop a solution more quickly. What's even more critical timeboxing prevents you from wasting time.

The next time you get stuck on something, plan how much time you want to spend working on the issue. If you don't manage to solve it during that time, start asking for help. Instead of googling the same terms repeatedly, reading different versions of the same question on StackOverflow, ask your colleagues or post your question on the Internet.

If you don't want or can't ask for help, use timeboxing to force yourself to take a break. A real break! Don't switch to another browser tab and spend the break in front of the computer. When you get stuck and can't solve a problem, it's best to go for a walk or spend time doing something else for a while. Cook some food, call a friend (but don't talk about programming with them), do a quick workout.

Summary

Timeboxing is a personal time management technique that programmers can use to stay on task and get more done. By breaking down their day into blocks of time, programmers can better focus on the tasks at hand and avoid distractions. We can also use timeboxing as a problem-solving technique when we get stuck on a problem.

In project management, timeboxing the time spent on non-critical features maximizes the chances of finishing the project before the deadline.