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The Time Management Technique That Can Work for Anyone

Overcoming a fear of being unavailable is essential to making timeboxing stick.

Key points

  • Timeboxing is managing your time by assigning an activity a defined amount of time in advance and finishing it within that period.
  • Timeboxing doesn’t have to be all or nothing. You can take a few small steps each day.
  • To begin timeboxing, allocate any amount of time for reflective work and reactive work.
Nir And Far
Source: Nir And Far

Too often, people eschew a method of bettering their life by naming the reasons it won’t work for them.

“I can’t adhere to that diet because…”

“Using an app to find love just isn’t for me because…”

People regularly give me similar excuses about timeboxing, a powerful technique I recommend in my bestselling book, Indistractable.

I, like many others, have transformed my life by using timeboxing every day; in my humble opinion, as a behavioral designer for over a decade, it’s the most powerful time management technique.

But I can always find defeatists sure that timeboxing isn’t for them for one reason or another. Needless to say, that kind of thinking is not helpful.

Finding the exceptions to a well-studied technique shouldn’t be the rule.

Rather than searching for excuses why it won’t work, we should try to find ways to make it work.

To do that, we have to start by asking the right questions. Instead of looking for reasons why “This won’t suit me,” try asking, “How can I adapt this to my life?”

Here are some ways to overcome the resistance to putting timeboxing into practice and get started right away.

Start Small

Adopt this mindset shift: Any progress, even incremental, is progress.

Timeboxing is a straightforward method of managing your time that entails assigning an activity a defined amount of time in advance and finishing it within that time limit.

Many people are overwhelmed by timeboxing because they can’t imagine planning their day with their unpredictable schedule: Perhaps their workload fluctuates day to day, hour to hour, or even minute to minute, or they’re at the whim of their clients or boss.

But timeboxing doesn’t have to be all or nothing. You can take a few small steps each day.

First, separate your work into two buckets:

  • Reactive work: Being on call and reacting to others’ needs via calls, texts, emails, etc.
  • Reflective work: Tasks we can only do without distractions, like planning, strategizing, writing, thinking, etc.

To begin timeboxing, allocate time—any amount of time—for reflective work. Even blocking off 15 minutes a day for reflective work is a great start. The rest can be reactive work based on what your job requires.

Here’s the key: Let others know you are Indistractable during that blocked-off time. That way, your colleagues know they shouldn’t approach you, schedule meetings, or expect email responses from you. You could also plan your reflective work time before or after your hectic day begins.

If you don’t make time for reflective work, you’ll find yourself running fast in the wrong direction. Make the time and keep it sacred.

Once you experience the benefits of having this uninterrupted time for reflective work, I’m willing to bet you’ll want more of it.

Proving to yourself that you can focus without distraction gives you the evidence you need to start allocating more time for living the life you want.

Overcome Your Fear of Timeboxing

For most people, it’s not that timeboxing doesn’t work for them—they’re scared of it.

They let people push them into doing things they didn’t intend. And strangely, many people find comfort in being told what to do.

Letting others dictate what they do doesn’t have to think about how to spend their time. They can just react.

Low performers let their entire day be gobbled up by reactive work and make no time for reflective work.

Planning reflective work takes effort. It involves thinking about your priorities and values and, most importantly, making time for them in your calendar.

Rather than putting in that bit of effort to make time for reflective work, low performers spend all day at the whim of emails and text messages instead of making time to think.

In that case, the fear of not being constantly on call is an internal trigger prompting them to escape an uncomfortable sensation with distraction.

For example, a friend of mine didn’t think timeboxing would work for him because he felt he had to respond ASAP to emails from his boss.

One day, he was working on an important presentation when he checked his email. The next thing he knew, he’d succumbed to the vicious cycle of distraction, losing nearly 45 minutes to do something he thought would take five.

There was an email from his boss, but when I asked him if his boss would have been angry to get a response 15 minutes or half an hour later, he said he realized: of course not.

He felt compelled to check email, his chosen form of distraction, only because he didn’t want to work on the presentation he found difficult and didn’t feel like finishing.

It’s important we realize that often our reasoning that we “need to be available” for our boss, clients, or colleagues is just the excuse our brains tell us to help us avoid the difficult work we don’t want to do.

It’s not that someone actually needs us all the time. It’s that we fear they do. But that fear is just a feeling. It’s not always true.

Even people with largely reactive jobs, like nurses or call center employees, can still benefit from a little planning. Making at least some time in your day for reflective work, and leaving the rest of the day open for reactive work, will give you the peace of mind to keep moving forward.

Timebox Fun

Who said that timeboxing had to be about work alone?

The beauty of timeboxing is that it can be used in any area of your life. Timeboxing fun activities has several benefits.

Timeboxing leisure puts our minds at ease, knowing that time for rest and recharging is coming soon. We don’t need to think about whether we’ll have time to check social media or watch Netflix when we know we already have it scheduled in our calendar.

Timeboxing also eliminates the guilt we often feel while relaxing and gives us the freedom to be wholly in the moment.

You’ll also take additional pleasure knowing that you’re following through on exactly what you said you would do.

One reason I don’t like to-do lists (as opposed to timeboxing) is that even when people have leisure time, they feel they should be doing something on that list. With timeboxing, you know that what you’re scheduled to do is all you should be doing.

When you timebox fun, you’ll see what true leisure feels like, unencumbered by the nagging feeling that you should be doing something else.

Because that time is plotted in your calendar, anything else—even doing the laundry or checking email—becomes a distraction.

As Dorothy Parker said, “The time you plan to waste is not wasted time.”

Start by timeboxing one weekend afternoon. Maybe you decide to spend two hours with your family, go for an hourlong walk, or play video games.

By timeboxing your free time, you’ll build the muscle for using timeboxing in all domains of your life.

You’ll soon find timeboxing isn’t something you feel you have to do but rather a practice you want to do.

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