Time boxing for academics
A not-so-secret weapon for intentional focus, using your calendar.
We've just completed a look at a coherent framework for being more intentional about academic work and life, through the lens of Getting Things Done (GTD). There was an important, specific idea that came up in those posts that deserves fuller attention. It can be a part of GTD practice but you don't have to be a GTD guru to use it or benefit from it. And the benefits can be enormous.
To set this up, imagine if we taught our classes in the following way:
There was no set schedule in terms of days or times. Whenever you felt like is was important enough, you would just show up in a room or on Zoom and start teaching.
And once you started teaching, there was nothing external to tell you when to stop. You'd just keep on lecturing until you got tired, or until something else came along that seemed more urgent.
And you have to get through all the material in all of these classes, including the big amorphous ones where "the material" is not clearly defined. You can’t opt out of anything on the syllabus.
Obviously, this would be chaos, and it's hard to imagine students learning anything under these kinds of conditions. (Some of you might think this is pretty close to how things are right now. In which case, you're fully aware of the chaos.)
And yet, this is how a lot of academics approach their work. There is a to-do list of things that need to be done. But rather than put boundaries around that work, we choose something to work on usually because it is what someone else believes is the most urgent thing; then work on it until we are exhausted, usually by ignoring other items on the list.
It’s no wonder people get so burned out. But there is an alternative, and it involves your calendar. The process is known as time boxing.
What is time boxing?
Time boxing involves looking at the things that need to be done, and instead of putting them on a to-do list, we put them on a calendar instead. We make "boxes of time" in other words on our calendars, with each box dedicated to a single task or project. When the box begins, we focus on just the items that have been designated for that time box. Then when the time is up, you move on to the items designated for the next box. And so on, until the workday is over.
Time boxing is essentially scheduling appointments of fixed length with yourself to give complete attention and focus to the commitments that you've made. We already do this all the time, with teaching and committees. When we teach, there is usually a ton of material to get through. But we don’t just show up and teach, and then stop teaching, when we feel like it or when someone else feels like it. Instead, we box off an hour on Monday, an hour on Wednesday, and an hour on Friday every week to work through an hour-sized chunk of that material. Then when the hour is up, we stop teaching and move on to the next thing.
We might wish that we had more time in a class meeting to go deeper on some topic; but we typically don't have issues with the concept of scheduling itself. The fixed schedule is in many ways what makes teaching and learning work. And time boxing is simply applying the same idea to other kinds of academic work.
How does time boxing work?
Time boxing isn’t complicated. First, pick a calendar to use (paper or electronic, it doesn't matter). Then, determine the tasks that need to be done, taking care to break up big "tasks" that are multi-step into smaller parts. Estimate the time to complete each one. Then block out time on your calendar for each task, or for thematically-related groups of tasks. Finally, work out of your calendar: When a time block begins, shut off all distractions and work only on the things designated for that time block. When the block ends, stop working and move on to the next thing.
Time boxing can be done independently of any sort of productivity framework but it works especially well with GTD. Here's what it looks like for me, as part of my GTD ecosystem.
Each week as I go through my Weekly Review, I keep some scratch notes on what I think my priority items for the week are going to be. Then at the end of the review, after everything has been clarified and organized and reflected upon, I take those priority items and create time boxes for them on my Outlook calendar. Here's what last week looked like:
(There’s more on my calendar than this screenshot shows! My working day goes from 7:30am until around 5:30pm, except Tuesdays and Thursdays when I teach until 6:00pm.)
Blue items are pre-existing appointments that I can’t (or shouldn’t) alter. The light green items are my time box items. These are often keyed to projects rather than specific tasks. For example, I'm giving a talk in a couple of weeks, and this is a project with a number of actions associated with it. The 8:00-9:00am Wednesday block is for me to work only on that project, one action at a time — not until I’m done, but until 9:00am. When the clock strikes 9:00, I move on to writing, which has a bunch of tasks as well; then at 10:30am I move on to working on Presidential Fellowship tasks. And so on through my schedule.
A couple of things to note:
These boxes are strategically located to match my energy level and location. For example, I needed to have a fully-rested brain to write a proposal, so I boxed off Monday 8-9 for it rather than Monday 3-4, when my brain starts to feel like a wet noodle.
There’s white space in between the boxes. For example, 8:00-9:00am on Tuesday/Thursday is open because I have to commute to a different campus on those days. There's also white space in between some blocks simply because I like to take breaks when I work, for lunch or to go for a quick walk. And I try very hard not to put any time boxes in advance on Fridays at all, so I can define those boxes on Friday morning. (I didn't succeed at this last week!)
Most importantly, when I work, I obey the calendar. If there's something to be done that is not the focus of the current time box, I ignore it. For example at 8:00am last Monday I had a ton of grading to do, but at that moment I needed to be fully present with writing a proposal because that was an important item for the week that needed a completely full battery from me. I was definitely thinking about how much grading I needed to do during this time. But when this happened, I told myself: It's OK that I am not grading right this second, because the proposal needs my attention now, and I have an entire 90 minute block for grading coming up at 10:30.
Why is time boxing a good idea for academics?
Time boxing is often considered to be the most effective productivity method out there, and for good reasons which apply especially well to academics.
First, time boxing places boundaries around your work. Academics are typically not good at boundary-setting and this is a simple way to impose a few where they are needed. Without setting and observing fixed time constraints, even if they are self-imposed, on things like grading or processing emails, you know what happens: You just keep plugging away in the same direction until your battery runs out, even when there are other things of equal or greater importance that also need to get done. Boundaries are good for injecting forward progress into whatever has been bounded.
Second, time boxing gives you permission not to work on things. For example, if you've boxed off 1-2pm to work on grading, if someone emails you during that time, you can say "I don't have to look at that email right now because I am in the middle of a grading block". Then at 2pm you can look at it. It's a platform for asserting more control over the demands being made on you, which is a crucial step toward being more intentional and escaping burnout.
Third, time boxing forces you to make choices, in advance, about what to work on and when to work on it. This is the epitome of "intentional academia". Rather than let your work push you around (which will always result in doing only the stuff that other people define as "urgent"), you define how your day goes. Of course it has to fit with the requirements of your job (see "But What About" below). But making conscious, thoughtful choices about what goes where in your work week is a powerful move.
But what about
What if my entire day is taken up by hard-landscape items and there’s no room for boxes? I’ll freely admit that I have more flexibility, as a tenured full professor with ongoing reassigned time for president’s office projects, than perhaps most people. If you have your entire morning and afternoon booked, five days a week, with stuff you can’t change or control, time boxing may not work for you. But if that’s you, time boxing isn’t your problem: The amount of scheduled appointments is. In my view, your first step toward greater intentionality isn’t a productivity hack, it’s an honest conversation with your direct supervisor (department chair, etc.) about how you have too much going on in the day.
What if I badly underestimate the time needed for something and it doesn't get done inside the box? It happens, because humans are terrible at estimating time requirements. If you have a time box scheduled for a task and the task doesn't get done in the box, then you can simply accept that it isn't getting done right now, and schedule more time for it later. Give yourself some grace in other words. Or, if the thing has to get done in that time box, or else, you may need to take a moment to reconfigure your boxes.
What if something happens that blows up my schedule? This also happens, because life is what it is. You might need to just throw away the plans on some days and go with whatever is happening. This isn't a failure! Or you might put out whatever fire has taken place, then take a quiet 15 minutes to renegotiate your time boxes for the day. I have had to do this countless times. Time boxing is not a contract, it's a plan, and sometimes plans have to be redone on the fly.
What if I have so much work that I can't find enough time to box it all off? This is similar to the first bullet point. If there is literally not enough time in the day for you to get your necessary work done, then what ought to happen next for you is not attempting a lifehack — it’s a serious conversation about your workload and capacity, with a supervisor who will listen, care, and be helpful.
Regardless of your situation and whether or not you are a GTD user, time boxing is one way to build intentionality, literally, into your day.
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I don’t have a lot of these “hard landscape” items in the mornings. That’s by design; when people ask me if I’m free for a morning meeting, I usually say I’m not avaialble. Which is true, because I want that time to work on high-energy/high-importance items. Not everybody can pull this off; see “But what about”.
Enjoying this series! As a fellow university mathematician it’s really useful to see someone else’s take on GTD etc in an academic context
Another great article! Keep them coming!