Timeboxing: Mitigate Risk, Increase Time Awareness

Blurry Clock FaceWhen most of us think about completing a task, we think in terms of fixed scope. Fixed-scope tasks allow the time period of a task to flex, which is why fixed-budget projects can be so risky. For example, instead of working on refactoring 30 tests to completion, work for an hour and see how far through them you get.

Timeboxing is a powerful productivity technique that turns traditional tasks on their head. Take a task and fix the time, while thinking about return on investment, then flex the scope to fit in that time box. Coming up from the task scale to the larger project scale, timeboxing starts to look like how Atomic works with our clients, fixed budget, scope controlled.

Benefits of Timeboxing

Being that timeboxed tasks are constrained in the time domain, deliverables and deadlines become a priority. Timeboxing forces a task to be divided into deliverable pieces and prioritized. These smaller pieces will tighten your feedback loop and help you to more quickly influence your tasks in the future.

Timeboxing also raises your awareness of time, it forces you to practice estimating, and over time it improves your estimation skills. Finally, since time and cost are so tightly coupled, timeboxing allows you to implicitly think about the value you are adding, ultimately managing your risks and scope creep.

Timeboxing’s Relationship to Agile Software

If you practice some flavor of Agile project management, you are already timeboxing. The core unit of Agile project management techniques are iterations, defined units of time for a defined, yet flexible, amount of work. Your agile sprints, are just fancy timeboxes for a group of tasks.

I often utilize timeboxes when thinking about spikes. As software developers, we don’t always know everything about what we are going to build. Sometimes we need to tinker in order to get a clearer pictures. Spikes are perfect for getting to know more about unfamiliar technology or 3rd-party integrations. For spike tasks, it is important to have a set of answerable questions and a time box. Timeboxed spikes force you to think about time and cost vs the value being added.

Personal Productivity

One of my favorite timeboxing methods for personal productivity is the pomodoro technique. It is easy to learn and has immense benefits: curbing procrastination, limiting perfectionism, keeping you focused and motivated.

The pomodoro technique website lists 6 simple steps for getting started:

  1. Choose your tasks.
  2. Set a timer for 25 minutes.
  3. Work on the task till your timer rings.
  4. Log your successful, uninterrupted pomodoro time box.
  5. Reward your self with a short break.
  6. Repeat 3 more times, and then reward yourself with a longer break.

With the pomodoro technique, you can conquer your small tasks and make a dent in your large ones. For more information about the pomodoro time management technique, I encourage you to check out their website.

What are some interesting and helpful ways that you are using the pomodoro technique or timeboxes?