When stressed and overwhelmed, even the most disciplined person can lose their way. According to Parkinson’s Law, work will expand to fill the time allotted to it. Cyril Northcote Parkinson’s direct quote is, “It is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” He wrote this in reference to bureaucracy, but it is a perfect explanation for what happens to tasks and projects without boundaries. Tiffanie Wen provides an excellent deep dive in her article, “The Law That Explains Why You Can’t Get Anything Done.”
Projects and Tasks
Every project should have a deadline. A deadline, whether imposed by you or someone else, creates a boundary, and boundaries are good. Not only do they provide structure, but they also help you prioritize.
According to David Allen’s GTD system (Getting Things Done), anything that requires two or more tasks to complete is a project. And if a project has a deadline, the tasks that support it should also have their own deadlines. If you have six important tasks to accomplish in a month, but only four have specific deadlines, those tasks with deadlines will be prioritized at the top of the list. The two tasks with vague or non-existent deadlines will flounder at the bottom of the list and may not get done at all.
So how can you structure your day so that your tasks and projects actually are completed? How do you motivate yourself when you are staring at a monitor or junk room and overwhelmed at the enormity of the work ahead? By putting boundaries around your time with Time Blocking, Time Chunking, and/or Time Boxing.
Before I explain how this works, let’s weed out one term. Time Blocking and Time Chunking are used interchangeably, so I will refer only to Time Blocking and Time Boxing in this article.
Time Blocking involves dedicating a block of time to a task or project. With the Pomodoro Method, developed by Frances Cocirillo, you work for 25 minutes, take a five-minute break, and repeat. One round of this is referred to as a Pomodoro (think of a traditional tomato-shaped kitchen timer). After the fourth round, take a longer break. Are you dreading a big, time-consuming project? It’s less overwhelming when you only have to commit to 25 minutes of intentional work at a time. This graphic shows what that might look like.
That’s a strict schedule but with about six hours and forty minutes of focused work time. Think that’s not enough? According to a study of 2,000 office workers, most people who work an eight hour day are only productive for about three hours. So, if you achieve this schedule, you are twice as productive as most. There are health benefits for breaking up your work session. According to the American Optometric Association, to prevent eye strain, follow the 20-20-20 rule. Every 20 minutes, take 20 seconds to stare at something at least 20 feet away. Working within short blocks of time can help achieve that.
Hacking the Tomato (Pomodoro)
For most tasks, the Pomodoro method works for me. But when I get in a writing zone, I don’t want to stop. If stopping after 25 minutes feels like an interruption that stymies your workflow, try different durations until you find one that works for you. In his book, The Time Chunking Method: A 10-Step Action Plan for Increasing Your Workflow and Skyrocketing Your Productivity, Damon Zahariades found he works better with longer blocks/chunks of time. This graphic shows a much more condensed schedule for six and a half hours of focused work.
Time Blocking is an excellent way to stay on track, but you can still stretch a project out without additional boundaries. Enter Time Boxing. With this technique, you set a limit on the amount of time you will spend on a task or project. If you want to get a blog post written in four hours, schedule the time on your calendar and get to work. At the end of the four hours, evaluate if the task is done or “good enough.” If you absolutely must spend more time on it, then schedule the minimum amount of time you might need to finish.
This is an excellent practice if you have perfectionist tendencies. And if you often miscalculate how much time a task or project takes to complete, this technique will help you create more realistic estimates – a key component of good project management.
Time Blocking vs. Time Boxing
So which technique should you choose? Either will help you manage your time better, but they can also be used effectively together. Use Time Boxing to schedule when you will complete a task and Time Blocking to keep your focus and momentum during that time limit.
I’d love to hear what works for you. How do you manage your time?
Barbara Trapp, CPO®, Certified Professional Organizer® and Productivity Coach
Zen Your Den® and Zen Your Biz™
Professional Member, NAPO (National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals)
Life Transitions Specialist, NAPO
Residential Organizing Specialist, NAPO
Workplace Productivity Specialist, NAPO