Time Boxing

by on August 19, 2013
in book, design

An Excerpt taken from, The Value of The Finite
‘If everything is important, nothing is’ ― Patrick Lencioni

Time boxing is simply the value of having:

1. A deadline
2. Clear priorities
3. Focus

Ironically we all do this in a numer of ways everyday without even realizing it. For example when you get ready for your workday you have a clear deadline, which is generally the time you need to be at work. From this constraint, you reverse engineer your morning, factoring in all of the things that have to be accomplished before you arrive at work. Let’s say you have to be at work by 9am. That is your deadline.

Then you figure out what you have to accomplish with your morning. The timing is determined by how long each item takes, and the order is determined by what’s most important, and common sense. For example it doesn’t make any sense to get dressed, brush your teeth, and then shower and eat breakfast. There is almost always a logical inherent order to work. Or if you know you have to be out of the house by 7am on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, but on Tuesday and Thursday you don’t need to leave until 8am, then naturally those are the mornings to go to they gym. When you look at things in this way a clear order of priority emerges, and decision making, and execution becomes almost self-evident. Working on large projects isn’t far removed from this commonplace example, we just don’t always look at it this way.

You can look at your work day in the same way. What if you arrived at work everyday at 9am and left at 5pm. What if you made those two times immovable constraints. How would it change what is important about your day? Is getting your inbox to zero really what you need to accomplish? Time boxing is often about what you aren’t doing, rather than what you are doing. It’s about intentionally deciding what isn’t important, and simply not spending precious time and energy on the things that don’t matter.

For example by not checking mail, not socializing online during the day, or taking long coffee breaks with co-workers, not going to superfluous meetings, and not working late, you are able to effectively manage your day, and allocate time to focus on what really matters. Of course if you are in a place in your life where socializing at work is really important to you, then factor that in as something that is important.


The most valuable thing about having a deadline is that it forces a conversation about what is important. Importance is simply what matters right now, and what doesn’t matter right now. This is always in flux, always changing and evolving, so checking in on importance with some regular cadence is helpful. Often it is understood in projects that not everything can be delivered by the deadline, but it is seldom discussed until a deadline is put into place. Then suddenly all sort of discussion starts. At first this can look like angst, but it is incredibly valuable discussion. Deadlines force teams to work through what is important, and to let go of things that don’t matter, right now. This forces prioritization, which allows teams to focus. Dates elucidate what should be focused on first and what can be postponed. This natural order helps teams to cut through ambiguity, and begin to make real traction executing on deliverables towards concrete dates.

In contrast, if you leave all of this open-ended, there is no forcing function to prioritize project deliverables, no focus for email communication, and no way to say no to meetings. Eventually you end up working on everyone else’s problem, working late on your own, and eventually feeling tired overworked and resentful. This is when folks tend to take time with co-workers to vent which will eventually corrode team morale. Now compound and multiply this times the number of folks you have in your organization.

You know thing aren’t in a healthy state, when everything is a fire drill, everything is an emergency, everything is a reaction, a response, and everything is critically important. This approach is extremely short-sighted and deceptive, in that it can successfully garner short-term results, because everyone responds to the immediate sense of urgency, everyone likes to feel like a hero once, or maybe twice. But the heroic amount of energy required to respond, time-and-time again is exhausting. This is what eventually leads people to burn-out. Once they see no end in sight to the fire drills, they stop caring. This is because when everything is of equal importance, really nothing is important. If management isn’t able to effectively plan, prioritize, and load balance projects, then what are they there for? Eventually people figure this out and leave the project, feeling resentful, and taken-advantage of, and rightly so. The sub-conscious message is that people aren’t important.


One common miss-conception is that dates have a rational justification or meaning behind them. The truth is all dates are completely arbitrary. They are an illusion. Folks will come up with really great reasons to justify deadlines, like quarterly earnings, back to school, holiday, etc. but they are still arbitrary. You can miss the date and still be successful. Good teams are transparent about dates, but still buy-in, commit to the date (assuming it’s reasonable) and execute against it with the best possible sustainable effort. The best analogy I have heard for hitting deadlines, is to treat them like a really important goal. If you make it a goal to hit the date, then you are thinking about it in a healthy way. As dates get close, usually you can do a reasonable push to meet the date without overextending teams, but this is only if you have clear buy-in to the date and folks are working towards the date in earnest from the outset.


So what can be done about all of this. Thankfully the process of time boxing is fairly straight forward. Start by taking the big, unapproachable project or projects, and begin breaking them down into smaller components. For example if you’re building an e-commerce website, look at the landing page, the category pages, the search results page, and detail page, etc. Continue until you’re at a granularity that is actionable. Now decide which area is most important.

Here are some helpful questions to ask:
▪ What is the most important thing to focus on right now/today?
▪ What can be postponed until later?
▪ What are the obvious next steps?
▪ How long will they take to complete?
▪ What is a reasonable deadline to deliver?

Put each component into a list (a backlog) and put each item into priority order. Once you have determined an order of execution, figure out what you need to do to deliver it and set a reasonable date for delivery. Now you have a time box. You know you have achieved when you are able to fill in the blanks: We will deliver a ‘‘ for the ‘‘, by ‘.’

Or using the example above, I will deliver a landing page for the new e-commerce platform, by January 20th.

The beauty of this is that it is immediately actionable. You know what is important, you have a handful of actions, and you have a date to drive towards.

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