Time to think

As a type-A multi-tasker, I've suddenly discovered how timeboxing can up my game.
March 13, 2013

I pride myself on being a type-A multi-tasker. As many of us who work in the transmedia space, it’s not unusual to work on numerous projects at once, hopping from one to the next as inspiration (and deadlines) arise. Not only may I be simultaneously writing web copy, editing a book, creating backstories for virtual characters, ideating for a new interactive property—but I work in multiple areas—media, toys, business, and education, AND from locations that range from China to Chicago to my coffee-stained bedspread in the NYC burbs.  If you believe my myriad Linkedin endorsements (who actually reads them?) I do a pretty good job of spreading myself out. But I’ve just learned about timeboxing from David Sherwin, a principal designer at frog design, and one of the speakers at the upcoming Sandbox Summit@MIT. Suddenly my method of multi-tasking feels as outdated as a CD in an iTunes world.

TImeboxing is a risk and time management technique that lets you use short, structured sprints to reach stated goals. When used in software development, time is the fixed constraint; the scope of the project and costs may be variable.   When used on a personal level, time is always the constant. You need to get this chore done by that time.

“Timeboxing is not multi-tasking,” says Sherwin. “It’s a way of thinking about getting tasks done that lets you adapt based on what you learn from each activity that you conduct. When you’re timeboxing, you gotta produce, and be focused on just doing one thing at a time.”

Sherwin teaches timeboxing in his classes at California College of the Arts, as a thinking tool for getting the DONE done, generating ideas and making potential solutions quickly in order to understand what needs to be planned for as part of a creative task. When I multi-task, on the other hand, I never quite let go of one project while working on the next. Instead of thinking that I’m increasing the amount of time devoted to each assignment, ostensibly making it better, I’m actually decreasing the quality of the time.

Timeboxing essentially breaks time into small chunks (or boxes).

The theory is that increasing one’s focus during that intense chunk of time leads to more productivity as well as creativity.  According to Parkinson’s Law in Project Management: Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.  Ergo: giving yourself less time to get a job done doesn’t mean you’ll get less done, it just means…you have less time to do it and have to make decisions on what really needs to be done. Sherwin claims the secret is to keep increasing the level of challenge, so you’re always gaining some sort of skill that makes doing that activity a little easier each time you do it. The Pomodoro Technique is one of the more famous—and fun—variations of timeboxing aimed at personal time management.

Both Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer have been in the news lately talking about different ways of finding balance—and success— in their lives. While neither one specifically mentions timeboxing, it’s not inconceivable that they practice it. The idea of going 110% for short sprints is undeniably productive when you have myriad tasks (as I’m sure Sandberg and Mayer do). It’s also satisfying when you know you’ve accomplished something. And it’s creatively liberating when you have “permission” to focus on only one project at a time.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I used timeboxing to write this blog. I set my goal. I set my timer. And I set to work. I repeated the process over several days. It got my creative juices flowing, and took away some of my normal deadline stress. But Sherwin cautions that timeboxing isn’t good for putting that all important polish on creative activities. “You need that time to finesse the final part of whatever you’re working on. Timeboxing doesn’t let you slip into flow and luxuriate in that process,” he advises.

And so, when all was said and written and the deadline was in sight, I still needed time to omm. Timeboxing didn’t solve it all. But I like the way it’s helping me become an A+ multi-tasker.

To help integrate timeboxing into your work habits, check out David Sherwin’s book, Creative Workshop, or sign up for his workshop next month at Sandbox Summit@MIT.

Let me know if timeboxing works for you at



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