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Using agile timeboxing for managing tasks

Michelle LaBrosse
June 10, 2014

How often have you heard someone say they were good at multitasking? You may have even seen this listed as a desired skill in a job posting. While multitasking may seem to allow for greater productivity and efficiency, the reality is that this approach to work—quickly shifting between tasks, emails, and phone calls—doesn’t allow you to become fully engaged in any of these tasks.

Multitasking can also be a euphemism for distracted working, for example, when you are finishing a report, texting the babysitter, and checking out recipes on Pinterest at the same time. The result, then, is slowed productivity and diminished quality of your work. Though the path away from multitasking may seem difficult, there is a way out using agile.

Agile practices are built around a technique for time and project management that is useful for project managers and all types of projects called timeboxing. Timeboxing is the practice of focusing on one project task—without distractions—for a short, pre-defined period of time.

Why timeboxing?

Though agile methodology originally emerged as a project management approach to software development, it has since evolved to work for projects in a variety of industries. Timeboxing starts with the principle that deadlines matter, and that delivering value to customers by the dates specified is more important than addressing every detail of the project scope.

Timeboxing also has a significant impact on how project team members work. Short but reasonable deadlines help curb procrastination, as completing a project task typically takes up the amount of time that is allocated for it.

Short deadlines also help keep the project team’s focus on creating value, rather than the nitty-gritty details. By staying focused on the ‘big picture’, project teams can avoid getting held up by a problem related to a non-essential feature or detail.

Adopting a timeboxing approach

A great place to start with implementing timeboxing on your project team is in meetings. By setting a tight deadline for the length of a meeting, the team is under pressure to cover issues that matter most; there is no time for rambling, side-tracked discussions.

Timeboxing a meeting also helps ensure that it will start and end on time, as participants will be aware that there is limited time in which to reach decisions.

Working independently, team members can also use timeboxing to manage their own productivity. Cheetah Learning is an almost entirely virtual company: our team members work from home across time zones. In this type of work environment, the temptation to multitask can be strong; breaking up our daily work into timeboxes of focused productivity allows us to keep our projects moving along quickly.

Lastly, the timeboxing approach can be elaborated and expanded to organise a much larger, more time-consuming project. In addition to breaking down projects into timeboxes to complete project tasks, which may grow to an overwhelming number for large project, a timeboxed project can be broken down into phases called iterations or sprints.

In our current sprint at Cheetah, we meet for 15 minutes daily to brainstorm new marketing ideas and review the success of the previous day’s efforts. Each day of the sprint involves multiple project tasks, and daily sprint meetings are used to both plan and review these activities.

A sprint, however, should not be confused with the entire project—our marketing sprint is just part of our ongoing, larger marketing project.

Timeboxing can be used to set tight deadlines for all scales and phases of a project, whether it is completing a small project task in a short amount of time, planning the project, or giving feedback. Anyone can use this technique to speed up projects in their professional and personal lives, even if this is the only agile practice you use!

Making use of time management tools such as timeboxing equips you to fight off the lure of distractions and see past the false productivity of multitasking.

Co-authored with Megan Alpine

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Michelle LaBrosse
Michelle LaBrosse (PMP) is one of the Project Management Institute's (PMI) 25 Most Influential Women in Project Management in the World and the founder of Cheetah Learning, a former PMI Professional Development Provider of the Year. She boasts a background in engineering and is a graduate of the Harvard Business School’s Owner President Managers (OPM) program, as well as a prolific writer and educator, having authored Cheetah Negotiations, Cheetah Project Management, Cheetah Know How and Cheetah Exam Prep as well as numerous articles in publications worldwide.
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