Task lists have a natural ebb and flow. We all add new tasks to our own list of things to be done as they occur to us (or, in some cases, as they’re assigned to us), and cross them off as they get finished. You can crudely monitor the health of your task list by counting the number of open tasks. If this number is going up, seemingly without limit, then you’ve got a problem.
Of course, a never-ending task list can have many causes: you might truly be overworked, or you might be suffering an extended period of downtime due to sickness or vacation. But some people get stuck with a growing number of commitments simply because they’re unable to truly let anything go. Many tasks can be kept active for ages as you revisit them to improve and polish your work, looking for the perfect way to finish a report or complete a user interface. If you’re having this problem, it’s time to try a technique from agile software development: timeboxing.
Timeboxing recognizes that the scarce resource in life is often time. In the context of a software project, this means dealing with a fixed delivery date. Instead of trying to build a product with every possible wishlist feature, no matter how long it takes, a development team using timeboxing commits to building the best possible product by a particular fixed date. It’s a different way of tackling the trade-off between time and quality. Agile teams will timebox every interim release: the software ships every Friday, for example, with whatever features can be finished in that week.
Timeboxing can be applied on the personal level, too. Consider something relatively important on your task list – say, writing a sales proposal for a potential new client. You already have a deadline for finishing this task, perhaps next Monday. But if you get locked into a perfectionist mindset, you can spend every waking hour from now until next Monday working on the sales proposal, rewriting it, trying alternate wordings, searching for the perfect clip-art, and so on. This is likely to have a variety of ill effects, including robbing you of sleep and causing you to neglect other important tasks. And in the end, the proposal probably won’t be much better than it would have been had you spent a reasonable amount of time on the task.
Timeboxing to the rescue! At the start of the task, pick an appropriate amount of time to spend, based on your past experience and your own knowledge of your skills and work habits. You should know, for example, that you can create a pretty darned good sales proposal in five hours of work. Then commit to yourself that you’re going to write the best sales proposal that you can in five hours of work – not the best possible sales proposal. The goal is to use your time wisely, by actually finishing tasks to an appropriate quality bar and then moving on to the next thing, rather than picking at them and polishing.
Used in this fashion, timeboxing becomes a limit to mindless overwork. There’s another type that I call inverse timeboxing, where time limits are a motivator to cleaning the cruft off the bottom of your task list. You know what I’m talking about: those tasks that pile up because you never really want to do them, from cleaning out your inbox to making collection calls to clients who owe you money. In this case, timeboxing acts not to tell you when you have to stop, but to tell you when you can stop. Pick a task you’ve been avoiding and allocate a fifteen-minute timebox to it. Knowing that you’re not going to be shoveling stuff out of your inbox all day makes it easier to at least get started on the job, and you can give it another timebox tomorrow to keep going. You may even find that you lose the urge to stop once you get started.
The key to successful timeboxing is to think of tasks, not as amorphous blobs, but as chunks of work that have particular durations attached to them. If you’ve been struggling with an out-of-control task list, try timeboxing your biggest, nastiest tasks (or break them up into subtasks and timebox those) and see if this way of working helps you out. It’s certainly worked well for me over the years.