Most people have a task management system of some description, even if its just some very high level goals scribbled on a scrap of paper.  However, writing a to-do list is only half the story.  No matter how good the task list, many people will struggle to get ahead and continue to firefight their way through the week, without any real control over their task list.  The reason is because your task list is only telling you what you need to do, but it doesn't tell you when you'll actually get it done!

The solution is to use your calendar as it was meant to be used!  Most of the people I've spoken to seem to use their calendar to store meeting invites they've been sent and perhaps their holidays.  The problem is compounded because those meetings then usually take priority over everything else.  A (busy) colleague of mine once demonstrated the problem perfectly.  Whilst discussing the limited progress he felt he was making towards his to-do list, I asked if he would attend a meeting if I ask him to. He automatically said yes, without asking for any further detail.  I then asked him what he thought he would achieve if I then locked him in a meeting room for an hour and told him to get on with his task list.  This is a good example of someone thinking they don't have the time where in reality, its perhaps more an issue of priorities.

In reality, nobody likes attending meetings when they're busy, particularly if they're not sure that they will either get or add any value. I appreciate that we don't all have the luxury of politely declining such invitations, but we can help minimise the impact by being clear and transparent about what and when we'll be doing each day.

Timeboxing

Timeboxing is the most effective time management technique that I know of.  Put simply, it involves dedicating a fixed period of time to work on a particular task.  Instead of working on an ad-hoc basis, or on a single task until it’s complete, you instead commit to work on a particular task for a specific amount of time instead.  You'll find Timeboxing at the heart of many modern productivity systems and software development methodologies such as Scrum, Agile, SMART Objectives, Pomodoro, etc.

5 Easy Steps

Timeboxing is incredibly simple, but don't let that fool you - there's much more to this technique than meets the eye!

  1.  Pick a task on your list that you want to achieve and decide when you must accomplish the task.

  2.  Estimate how much effort is likely to be required to complete the task (don't worry, you'll get better at this over time!)

  3.  Choose a number of small blocks of time that should complete the task in the time allowed.

  4.  Add those blocks of time to your calendar, set a reminder, and treat that block as you would a meeting with your departmental head.Work on the task when you said you would, for the allotted time.

  5.  Stop when you run out of time;  don't worry, its all part of the plan!

Top 10 Benefits

1.  Make steady progress

Whether you have a big intimidating project or a pile of annoying little tasks, timeboxing can ensure that you make steady progress towards your goals.  Big jobs are broken down into smaller, more manageable chunks that you can make regular progress towards and tiny tasks that are often regarded as unimportant will no longer sit on your to-do list forever.  Like most people, if you have mix of both types, this technique also ensures that you are balancing your time accordingly, making sure no one task (or set of small tasks) dominate your time to the detriment of others.

2.  Overcome procrastination

Got a stubborn task that you just can't seem to make progress on?  Stop fretting about why you can't get started and just put a timebox in your calendar - even just 15 minutes - even if you think its pointless!  It's amazing the effect that a calendar reminder can have; you'll probably just instinctively do what you're told!  You might just overcome your resistance towards the task and chances are that you will emerge with a better idea of how to break the task into more achievable blocks (that you can then timebox, naturally!).

3.  Overcome perfectionism

Perfectionism is the flip side of procrastination.  Instead of avoiding a task, you spend so much time on a task that you experience the effects of diminishing returns.  By planning your time boxes ahead of time and sticking to the plan, you can ensure that your spending the right amount of time across all your responsibilities, not just the ones you enjoy!

4.  Plan your workload better and react to changing priorities

Timeboxing can help you plan your work in a number of ways.  First and foremost, by having everything important in your calendar, you can instantly see what your week/month looks like.  If a new project comes your way, you can easily drag & drop your scheduled timeboxes around to re-prioritise accordingly and see the likely impact if you've had to move other timeboxes to later in the month.  I sometimes find it useful to sit in front of my calendar with resource and/or project managers so that we can collaborate to achieve the best results and accurately set delivery expectations without the need for any difficult conversations.

5.  Increase your performance

We hate to admit it, but we often work best when we have a deadline and we'll often achieve better focus or a faster pace if we know we only have to sustain our concentration for a fixed period of time.  You only get maximum effectiveness if you properly balance periods of work and rest.   Alternating between different types of tasks (such as work/rest, or hard/easy tasks) maximises your use of energy and enables you to accomplish much more.  Timeboxes provide a great framework to allow this balance to happen.  You might find Merlin Mann's (10+2)*5 hack useful, but the key is to find your own rhythm.

Also, by scheduling work in advance, you can dedicate your most productive parts of the day to your work, rather than spending it in meetings!  Likewise, you may need or prefer to be in a specific place to accomplish a given task.  For example, I'll often batch any "big brain" tasks that require peace and quiet for a day that I'm working from my home study, safe from any interruptions.

6.  Reduce distractions

I've found that timeboxing can reduce the potential for distractions in a number of subtle ways.  Time boxing a particular task helps me exclude other tasks and unrelated thoughts from my radar.  By scheduling work in advance and making my calendar available to my work colleagues, I've found that meeting organisers are more understanding of my workload and will tend to request shorter (and usually more productive) meetings.  Likewise, if your calendar is always up to date, then don't be shy about (politely) asking work colleagues to send through a meeting invite - thus avoiding the 10 ... 20 ... 30 ... 60 minutes they might have spent at your desk right there and then.

7.  Estimate your effort more accurately

Most people are pretty terrible at estimating how long something will take them, which is shame, because its a really useful skill to have!  By breaking down big tasks into smaller (timeboxed) blocks and reviewing any over-runs, you'll get better and better at accurately estimating the effort required to complete certain types of task;  the most appropriate block size;  and the likely required elapsed time.

8.  Understand how you spend your time

Where does the time go?  It's a common question!  By scheduling your work in advance, you've already improved your chances of spending your time productively, but you can now easily review your calendar historically to determine how you spent your time and, where necessary, make changes to re-focus on a particular aspect of your job or get a better balance between your different life roles (worker, technologist, blogger, father, husband...).  Also, being more aware of how much you can really fit in your day is liberating, as it can help you delegate tasks or simply say 'no'.

9.  Build credibility by meeting your commitments

Timeboxing will ensure that you are able to break larger projects into a set of achievable blocks;  better estimate the effort required to achieve tasks;  proactively dedicate time to their completion;  prioritise work appropriately;  and retrospectively review performance.  In a nutshell, all of these things combined increase your chances of delivering work to the expected timescales, quickly identify issues, and readily adapt to changing prioritise.  By repeatedly demonstrating these qualities, you will build a reputation for being a professional, well organised, trusted and credible individual.

10.  Reward yourself

First of all, scheduling your work into a number of timeboxes throughout the day should help plug some of the usual time sinks (reading the news, social networking, e-mail, etc).  Stop kicking yourself, none of those things are inherently bad;  all you need to do is put a timebox around them to make sure they don't impact your work.

If you tie your rewards to the completion of tasks, you may find yourself doing only quick and easy tasks, and avoiding the important ones.   Why not get yourself a little reward after you complete a time box instead?