Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Effectively Focused: 5 - Timebox

Previous Post - Summary of Principles 1-4

Principle #5: Time-box

What is a Time-Box? A length of time determined by you (or your team) of 1, 2, 3, or 4 weeks for getting a group of sticky notes done.

You may need to circle back to steps 1-4 to break your ideas down small enough to fit into a single week. The idea is breaking your work down into smaller, manageable, complete-able chunks of work. The only valuable idea is a finished one, and each step or chunk of work brings you closer to completion.

Bringing Work into the Time Box

Go through your list of priorities and pull into your Time Box the number of stickies you think you can get done. If necessary, you might need to break your stickies down into smaller chunks to fit in the Time Box. It's highly likely you will overestimate the amount of work you can get done. That's okay. As you start, you are learning how much you can do. Keep notes on your stickies as you work and move them to the Complete queue with notes. I find my teams never really get to super accurate estimating. I find I'm also not completely accurate in my personal estimating either. But that's part of a future Principle to Review and see what's working, what isn't and continuously tweak the process until it's a fine tuned machine. The goal is to get to consistent, somewhat predictable productivity over the long term based on past history.

The Progress Queue (Wall System)

You can customize the queue to what works best for you, but I usually have these four categories: Queue (list of work to be done in this Time Box), Pending (items that I started but are waiting on outside factors), In Progress, and Complete.

Progress Queue (Book System)

In the the portable book, I use the progress queue a little differently. I use the pink page as the queue of new work and pending items, the front page is the In Progress queue that I need to focus on immediately. At the back of the book is a Complete page where I collect the completed stickies with the notes on how long everything takes.

Optimal Time Box

I recommend one week as the optimal time box for checking progress and continuous adjustments of your overall process.

Ranges of time boxes: You can go up to two, three or four weeks if that cadence and rhythm just makes sense in your creative world. If you have an intense project and you need to see daily progress, you can even break your time boxes down into daily and measure your progress based on daily completion of tasks. Test out what cadence works best for you.

Regular Work Week 

If you're job is a regular 9-5 workweek, the reflexive action is to base your week on a Monday-Friday cadence. Go ahead and work within this framework if it makes sense. But consider some alternatives.

The Weekend Creative

If you doing your creative work as a side gig to your day job, it might make more sense to start your Time Box on a Friday or Monday. Personally, I've been starting mine on Mondays, allowing me a little work during the week and a big push on the weekend with a wrap-up of what I accomplished for the week on Sunday and prep for the next week on Sunday evening. However, I've been experimenting with starting my creative week on Fridays. Experiment each week with whatever day it makes sense for you to start your Time Box.

Mid-Week Start

Another alternative for when you start your creative week might be in the middle of the week. This is something we did on my corporate teams when we normally had one-two people out on Fridays and Mondays due to flex schedules, holidays, Personal Time Off, etc. If you have a more stable schedule where people aren't out of the office regularly on Friday or Monday, a Monday-Friday Time Box is fine. But, this might also fit your creative schedule.


If you notice, there isn't a strict schedule and plan. It's actually a fairly loose weekly plan. In a creative sense, I find this framework is incredibly valuable. I arrange my work around the appointments and find the loose framework is so much more fun and valuable for the way I work in a creative sense.

If you must have a schedule, be careful not to over schedule yourself. Chaos has a tendency to feed creativity than than strict schedules. The beauty of this system is that it allows a lot of flexibility and freedom while still propelling you to completion on tasks. 

With that in mind, only schedule what you must schedule. For example:
  • Deadlines for contest submissions. You might have to "plan backward" and figure out pieces of work you must have done by each week. 
  • Appointments
  • Classes
  • Shows
  • Editorial schedule for social media - this item might even be a hybrid between scheduling blocks of regular time every week to make sure you get all of this done, while not being overly rigid.


  1. Determine your optimal time box for you (I recommend one week)
  2. From the priorities you have set, select a group of stickies you think can fit into your Time Box
  3. Break your work down to fit into the time box
  4. Start your time box on a day where you can maximize your work

Next Post - 6: Focus - hyper focus on one thing at a time, limit your work in progress and blockers

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