Boxing Clever

Getting things done throughout the day is what keeps the contracts and cash coming in. But how do we know which tasks we should be working on? And for how long? Freelance Advisor’s life-hacks guru Mark Kirby offers a smart solution to planning freelance work.

In this post I’m going to focus on a simple technique to help you keep track of your time during the day and ensure it is being spent on the most relevant tasks.

The Problem:

You sometimes get stuck or give too much attention to a particular task. Or you lose track of time and get caught up in something else. Perhaps the task simply drags on too long and you then run out of time to do some of the more important things that day.


I suggest ‘time boxing‘ your day.

What is time boxing?

Time boxing was originally created as a way for software engineers and developers to manage tasks and deadlines. But if you’re not a techie don’t worry time… boxing is very straightforward: Time boxing is simply fixing the time we have available to work on a task and then working as hard as we can within that time frame. Unlike other productivity methods, rather than working on something until it is completed in one sitting, we only work on it for a specified period of time, e.g. 30 mins. At the end of this time it is either marked as done or we commit to another block of time at a later time.

Getting started with Time Boxing

1) Make a list of things to do

At the start of the day, think about what you need to get done, and make a list. There are hundred of productivity tools and methods we can use and making a simple list of what needs to be done is a crucial part of all of them.

2) Set deadlines for each item in the list

  • Set deadlines for each task you need to do, think small – half an hour to 1.5 hours is probably optimal. If a task will take longer, break it down and set smaller deadlines.
  • Divide the day up into these chunks and you can see at a glance what you hope to achieve by the end of the day.
  • In your budget, leave an hour unallocated for finishing tasks off – you’ll probably need it.

Completing each task

Once you start a task, keep an eye on the clock and when the time is up, stop working on that task. There are some great tools for keeping track of time and it’s worth hunting out a timer that will alert you when your time is up.If you finish a task early, that’s great, move on to the next task.

Run out of time?

Are you stuck?If you run out of time on a particular task, take stock of the situation. Ask yourself the following questions:

1) Are you stuck?

If you have been going round in circles for much of the period and making little progress, it’s likely you are ‘stuck’. A great way of getting unstuck would be to leave the task and move onto something else.Often the solution to a problem will come into your head when you least expect it – and it’s rarely when you are trying again and again to fix something. Move on to the next task, and come back to this one.Another tip is to post a message on a forum such as Yahoo! Answers about your problem, or ask for help. It might take a while for a reply to come, but by moving on and coming back to the task you can buy some time.

2) Are you almost done?

If the task is nearly done you might be best off finishing it there and then. Take a little time off your spare hour and get it completed.

3) Have you underestimated the time the task will take?

If you feel you are going to need another hour and can justify the extra time, just remove one of the other tasks from the list and continue. This way you are making a concious decision to devote more time to this task, and accepting that you won’t get everything done. It’s fine to do this, as you remain in control of the situation.

4) Is the task completed to a ‘good enough’ standard?

If you’ve finished the core part of the task and are instead simply perfecting your work it would be a good time to leave the task. You can pencil in the extra work as a separate task, but at least you know the the current task is completed to an acceptable standard.

The take-home

It’s very dangerous to lose track of time, and get lost in work without being aware of our situation. Every minute you spend on a task is a minute you aren’t spending on another task. Time boxing is a really effective way to make sure you spend your time on the tasks that matter.

Creative Commons License photo credits: Catheroo & Jason Rogers