Maximizing Productivity: How Time Boxing Improves Your Work Routine

Let’s start by defining time-boxing.

Time-boxing is a time management technique that involves allocating a fixed amount of time to complete a task or activity. It structures your time by breaking down your work into small, manageable segments and focusing on completing those segments within a set timeframe. The technique creates a sense of urgency, which helps you stay focused and motivated to complete the task at hand.

Over the past two years, I found this technique to be useful both as a student and then as an employed developer. I managed to apply it successfully, even with troublesome meetings and when working with others.

The Necessity of Effective Break Strategies

I sent out a questionnaire within my company and 44 of them responded. I discovered that my colleagues took breaks for a range of reasons, from physical and mental fatigue to feeling stressed or overwhelmed. While taking breaks is crucial for maintaining productivity, some employees struggle to find the time due to their busy schedules or work demands. Further analysis of the survey revealed that employees in different jobs had varying reasons for taking breaks. For instance, Product Owners and Managers had the highest percentage of break triggers due to feeling overwhelmed or anxious, while Developers were more likely to feel unfocused or restless. On the other hand, Designers tended to take breaks when feeling bored or unproductive. Although it's great that employees are aware of their reasons and triggers for taking breaks, the frequency of these breaks was surprisingly low.

On a scale of 0 to 10 breaks per day (excluding lunch break), the average is 2,13 breaks.

This is where time-boxing comes in as an effective solution. Rather than waiting until fatigue sets in, employees can use time-boxing to anticipate the need for breaks and find consistency in their work routines.

The Benefits of Regular Breaks and Goal Reactivation

One of the most significant benefits of time-boxing is that it removes any hesitation you may have about taking breaks. With the timer set, you don't have to second-guess yourself or wonder if it's the right time to take a break. This eliminates any doubts you may have about when to take breaks and allows you to stay productive without interruption.

Based on the study Brief and rare mental "breaks" keep you focused, it is suggested that taking breaks during a task can prevent it from becoming an automatic habit. By giving your brain a rest and taking periodic breaks, you avoid getting too accustomed to the task, which helps you stay alert and fresh. Consequently, this can enhance the quality of your work.

The same study demonstrate another great reason to take regular breaks: goal reactivation. It showed that by working continuously on a task, you run the risk of losing sight of your objective. Even a 5-minute break allows you a sort of “reset”. When you come back to your task, you must reorient yourself to your goal, which helps you to see the project in a more holistic fashion. When you do that, you are more likely to catch mistakes.

Finding the Optimal Work and Break Durations for Effective Results

The optimal duration of time-boxing sessions have been studied in several research. One such study was conducted by Francesco Cirillo, the creator of the Pomodoro Technique. In his study, published in the Journal of Applied Sciences, he found that using the Pomodoro Technique helped participants improve their focus and productivity, with 25-minute work periods and 5-minute breaks being the most effective duration for the sessions.

Francesco Cirillo - source:

Another study published in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology found that taking short breaks during work can help reduce mental fatigue, improve performance and increase motivation.

While there is some variation in the recommended duration of time-boxing sessions across studies, most agree that the optimal duration for these sessions is between 20 and 30 minutes, with breaks of 3-5 minutes in between. However, it's important to note that the optimal duration of time-boxing sessions may vary depending on individual factors, such as the nature of the task and cognitive abilities of the person.

A 30-Minute Approach to Accomplishing Tasks

For some, the idea of being timed can be stressful and overwhelming. However, breaking down work time into small 30-minute sessions can be a helpful way to process tasks step-by-step. Committing to a task for a set amount of time helps create a sense of coherence and agreement with yourself. This may initially be challenging, but it ultimately enables to perceive time as a challenge and guide rather than an obstacle.

As a former gamer who preferred peaceful, non-timed games, I once found it difficult to deal with time pressure. However, I eventually discovered the joy of challenging games, such as Starcraft II, and learned to see time as a tool for improving productivity. By maximizing your intensity of focus and concentration on a single task, you can produce high-quality work in shorter periods of time.

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Applying the method of partitioning your day gives you a feeling of control. You start the timer, work for precisely 30 minutes, take a 5 minutes break, and repeat the process. This creates a satisfying loop of iterations that inevitably lead to progress and work accomplished. Using a tool with a history allows you to track your progress and even challenge yourself if you "only" completed 8 sessions in a day. It prompts you to question if that's enough or if you could do more, which is great for self-improvement.

This approach provides a structured way of working. By breaking the work into shorter time blocks, it becomes easier to maintain a sense of focus and motivation on the original task. Overall, using a timer and time-boxing technique can help you to stay on track with your work and avoid losing sight of the main objective, leading to increased productivity and job satisfaction.

Strategies from "Deep Work" by Cal Newport

Time-boxing is a technique that can help achieve flow state and deep work. Flow state is a mental state where you are fully immersed and focused on a task, feeling energized, motivated, experiencing a sense of timelessness and deep concentration.

Time-boxing sessions can help you achieve this state by providing rhythm and structure to your work, allowing you to focus on an objective and postpone interruptions. By timing sessions correctly, there are less risks of becoming absorbed in work, missing a meeting, or getting lost.

In addition, time-boxing can help you achieve deep work, which is a concept explored in Cal Newport's book "Deep Work". Newport argues that deep, distraction-free work is becoming increasingly rare, and provides strategies for cultivating this skill. These strategies include creating a distraction-free environment, minimizing digital distractions, and scheduling focused work sessions.

Newport also discusses the negative effects of multitasking and task-switching, and recommends taking breaks to let the brain rest before resuming work with renewed focus.

Newport defines several philosophies of work, including the "Journalistic philosophy" which involves working and stopping on demand. This philosophy allows you to switch from deep work to other tasks quickly and efficiently, but it can be challenging to apply.

Insights from Zen to Done & the Pomodoro Technique

Prior to discovering time-boxing, I used to feel overwhelmed and anxious about my tasks, overthinking every step of the process due to the sheer volume of work awaiting me. Using time-boxing into my workflow has helped me overcome these negative emotions. Now, I simply list my tasks, plan them out, and start a timer, enabling me to jump into my work without any hesitation or anxiety.

The book Zen to Done by Leo Babauta, assisted me in gradually incorporating the Pomodoro Technique into my routine while also aiding in the establishment of additional productivity habits, including prioritizing tasks, streamlining work processes, and reducing interruptions.

I use Marinara: Assistant Pomodoro, a Chrome extension, to time my work and track my productivity. For instance, since June 20th, 2022 (excluding weekends), I have been averaging 8 Pomodoro sessions per day, each accompanied by a 5 minute break. While this may seem like low output, these sessions translate into four hours of focused on high-valued tasks. Additionally, the 8 breaks I take per day, totaling 40 minutes, are not viewed as wasted time, but rather as essential components of my productivity. These short breaks allow me to recharge and engage in activities such as walking, spending time outdoors, soaking up the sun, or socializing with colleagues.

By utilizing the history provided by the Chrome extension, I have been able to generate a graph displaying the distribution of my 30-minute work sessions over the past 9 months, which is shown below. Despite the graph being impacted by interruptions such as meetings and coworkers, it is still possible to identify patterns in my work performance. Analyzing the distribution of my work sessions throughout the day has been particularly insightful, as it has helped me identify when I am most productive and when I should safeguard my time. Additionally, examining the distribution of my work sessions throughout the week has revealed some interesting observations, such as why I tend to have more work sessions on Tuesdays than any other day of the week. This has raised a few questions in my mind, especially when comparing it to the distribution on Thursdays.

I used another computer during October and November -_-

Upon seeing this data, I am now wondering how I can increase my number of work sessions on Thursdays and also why my productivity tends to be lower in the mornings. It may be beneficial to schedule my meetings for the morning and reserve the afternoons for focused work sessions, as this seems to be when I am most productive.

Achieving Flow State with the Right Music

I discovered that listening to a particular genre of music helped me achieve “flow state”. I prefer to listen to movie or video game soundtracks during my pomodoro sessions due to their repetitive patterns and absence of lyrics. This type of music minimizes my stress levels and creates a cocoon-like environment that lasts until the timer rings. Furthermore, when I put on my earbuds for the next session, I effortlessly re-enter a focused state, thanks to the audio ambiance. Depending on the task at hand, I vary my music selection, opting for epic melodies when time is running out, or calming tunes like the Shire in Lord of the Rings to feel at home when working in an uncomfortable environment.

OSC - Sustained (1-Hour Loops) "Harvesting Rain"

Music is an excellent tool for cultivating a conducive and peaceful atmosphere for deep work. Once you get used to this type of music, you'll be able to concentrate right away whenever you begin listening.

The 20-20-20 Rule: Using Time-boxing to Combat Computer Vision Syndrome

One more reason I couldn't ignore is that a condition like Computer Vision Syndrome can actually be a convenient excuse to apply time-boxing to your work routine !

By taking breaks every 20 minutes to look at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds, you not only reduce the risk of eye strain and fatigue, but you also give yourself a chance to re-energise and stay focused throughout the day. So next time you find yourself getting lost in the world of screens, remember that time-boxing can be a helpful tool for your health and productivity. Embrace the 20-20-20 rule and watch as your work becomes more efficient, and your eyes thank you for the much-needed break.

Time to box

I trust that the insights I shared have been useful to you, as promised. Personally, I have found that implementing the Pomodoro Technique in my workflow over the past two years has greatly enhanced my ability to engage in deep work, which I previously mentioned. This technique allows me to progress incrementally without placing a significant burden on my effort levels, making the process feel more organic. Moreover, it is satisfying to be able to take more breaks while simultaneously being more productive. During the COVID-19 lockdown, I found myself taking up to 10 breaks a day, which allowed me to maintain a clean and organized living space. I believe that taking breaks throughout the day is essential for self-care and encourage you to prioritize it as well.

What’s next ?

Recently, a colleague of mine wrote an article on the benefits of Todoist, a task management app. The app is designed to help users stay organized and focused on their tasks. With time-boxing combined: the app allows users to quickly list any interruptions that may arise during a session, making it easier to stay on track and complete the intended work. Todoist is an incredibly useful tool for anyone looking to manage their tasks more effectively, whether working individually or as part of a team. It helps to streamline workflow and minimize distractions, ultimately resulting in more productive work sessions and greater satisfaction with the work being accomplished.

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