10/21/2018

Using Timeboxing to achieve Workplace Happiness

TLDR

Take a look at the summary.

Workplace Happiness through Autonomy

Being able to choose what, when and how to do things at work - working autonomously - is one of the most important aspects in experiencing happiness at work.

To achieve that kind of independence one must be willing to shoulder additional responsibilities, like choosing worthwile goals, making plans, defining and completing those tasks, measuring progress, managing time spent and re-evaluating those goals.

No matter if you are an employee or self-employed - failure to meet those requirements will results in stress, anxiety and could finally end in you losing that autonomy.

Common Problems

So what could possibly go wrong? The most common problems that might arise and endanger autonomy are: - Procrastination - Anxiety - Distractions - Getting lost in details

Not everyone suffers from all of those problems, but I consider them to be intrinsic dangers that can come and go and so it makes sense to be aware of them and the effects that they have.

Procrastination

Procrastination is one of the most common problems and it means avoiding a task that needs to be accomplished. The reasons for avoidance are plentiful and may differ not only from person to person but from task to task.

For me personally it is often a task that requires a skill that I am not good with (accounting!) or a task that needs a big context switch that I am unwilling to do (accounting again!) or something I find just plain distasteful (okay, you guessed it, I am really not too fond of accounting).

The risk of procrastination is that high value tasks get postponed or not done at all. In my case that would be not reaching out to a potential customer, but instead implementing yet another feature that noone really asked for or scrambling to file my taxes at the last possible time.

Anxiety

Anxiety is often connected to subconsciously knowing or thinking that something is wrong - for example it could be triggered by a task that you know is important, but are still procrastinating on.

It can also be triggered by exhaustion - working long periods of time without taking any breaks or without any measure of progress can also lead to anxiety.

While being a possible effect of procrastination, Anxiety can also be a cause of further procrastination. If a task is dreaded then it is more likely to be put off for a more opportune moment when our batteries are fully charged and we are in the right mood - a moment that might as well never come.

In addition to that being anxious just doesn’t feel good.

Distractions

When people think about distractions most of the time they think about social media and pings that they get from facebook, whatsapp or twitter (or diaspora, signal and mastodon, depending on your crowd). But they don’t really count - those are beginner level distractions! Why? Because they are so easy to ignore or turn off. The reason is that the source of the distraction is external and the distraction does not feel urgent and so we don’t have to take immediate action.

But what about work e-Mails from a customer or your colleage that has a question or two? Those are grade A distractions! You cannot just ignore them - it’s kind of your job to answer them even if they force a complete context switch.

The result is that those distractions keep us from making progress - especially in those parts of our work that requires deep thought and concentration.

Getting Lost in Details

While distractions keep us from focusing on deep work, there is also the opposite danger: getting lost in the details and not seeing the forest for the trees.

This can happen if no planning is done at all, but in my experience it happens more often when a previously defined goal changes or new facts appear and an existing plan is not adjusted accordingly. An example would be trying to find a way to solve a technical problem in a way that’s not applicable to the situation at hand - something that works in theory but just not in this particular case.

The outcome is often that a wrong path is followed for too long without recognizing it’s actually a dead end. What really should have happened would have been a re-evaluation of the existing plan.

What is Timeboxing?

Timeboxing in a nutshell is a time management technique that pre-allocates time periods for specific tasks.

At the beginning of the timebox, work on the task is started and work on the tasks stops not only when the task itself is completed, but also when the duration of the timebox elapses - whichever comes first.

So timeboxing at it’s core is a very simple time management strategy, it but still provides a couple of advantages over not having any time management strategy at all.

So the core rules are something like that: - When a timebox begins, work on a task is started. - Work on a task is stopped when either the task is completed or the duration of the timebox elapses.

Also one can add additional rules to (hopefully) improve it further.

For example I’ve found the following rules useful: - Timeboxes are always the same length, they are the unit of measurement for all work durations. E.g. a Timebox is 25 Minutes. This task took 2 Timeboxes. - After a timebox, there is (usually) a break for a couple of minutes. Sometimes when I am feeling in the zone and know what needs to be done, I skip a break and start the next timebox right after the first. - No distractions are allowed in a Work Timebox. If the distraction can be averted in a couple of seconds and flow is not lost, it’s not counted as a distraction. If you give in to the distraction, the current work timebox is cancelled and must be started from the beginning.

For an example of a timeboxing technique you can take a look at the pomodoro technique, on which most of those rules are loosely based.

No self-directed, autonomous being likes to follow arbitrary rules - especially from a random guy on the internet. That’s why in the following sections I will show how they can help with the aforementioned problems.

Tackling Procrastination

Speaking from personal experience, tackling procrastination is all about starting the dreaded task. It could be something that you haven’t done before and you’ve got no idea how to even start it. Or it’s something you have done in the past and remember it being a real slog.

And that’s where the basic timeboxing rules come in handy because they don’t expect you to solve this unclear, exhausting or impossible seeming task. They only want you to try for a fixed amount of time. That’s quite doable! After that you are free to go, you get a break and you can then try again for another no-strings-attached timebox.

By demanding effort, not results timeboxing frees you to try and give it your best shot. And once you are in the middle of it, you realize that it’s not that bad as you have imagined, so you often keep at it once you have your momentum going.

Alleviating Anxiety

Alleviating anxiety depends on the source of the anxiety, there is no single thing that works in every case, so the question is: what is causing the anxiety?

One source of anxiety could procrastination, so tackling procrastination can instantly relieve some anxiety that has been built up by tasks that were previously put off.

Taking Breaks

Another cause for anxiety are long working hours without breaks. That’s where timeboxing’s rule to stop working after the timebox elapsed is put to good use. When I worked non-stop (except for lunch break) I was often feeling stressed out and anxious at the end of the day. Being continuously reminded to take breaks - even just for a couple of minutes to take a quick walk, take some deep breaths and get some water greatly reduced my stress levels and got rid of my feelings of anxiety.

Tracking Efforts, not Results

In addition to taking breaks, timeboxing’s focus on efforts rather than results helps with anxiety that is connected with feelings of inadequacy like imposter syndrome. So for example instead of being stressed out because you couldn’t finish this single task that you set out to do for the day, you are reminded that you were able to complete 6 timeboxes all the way staying focused.

This subtly changes the thing you worry about from an external factor that you have no control over (the task at hand) to something that you can actually control (your time commitment and effort).

This is btw one of the oldest tricks of stoicism - logic dictates that if you want to be consistently happy than you need to derive pleasure from things that are in your control and not external factors.

Reducing Distractions

Distractions are a common stressor that result in anxiety. So reducing them will in turn reduce that part of anxiety that is being fed by stressful distractions.

Handling Distractions

After you’ve gotten rid of all notifications by switching your mobile to do-not-disturb and closing all social media apps you are only left with the most difficult kinds of distractions: e-Mails and Co-Workers.

Timeboxing offers two great tools that work together to combat the most negative effects of distractions by suspending and batching them.

Suspending Distractions

The first part is suspending distractions by allocating the timebox and then defending the work that is done inside the timebox against intrusions.

Defending the work in the timebox can be as simple as only checking your e-Mails when the allotted timebox for e-Mail based work starts. Or you could check your e-Mails in every break. If something important comes up, then you can dedicate the next timebox to answer that e-Mail or solve that problem.

As the timeboxes are as long as you see reasonable, for example 25 minutes, the longest an e-Mail has to wait is 24 minutes and 59 seconds. IMHO every e-Mail can wait that long to be answered. If not, then I would argue it shouldn’t have been an e-Mail in the first place. If you insist that in your case it’s totally different, that’s fine too - in that case I would suggest you use the power of modern e-Mail Clients and create a ruleset that only notifies you in very specific cases.

With co-workers and colleagues that can question you at any moments notice, it’s a little more difficult. The best way that I’ve found to handle those situations is to clearly communicate that you are in the middle of something and that you will get back to them in X Minutes. Once again, there may be situations where that is not an option, for example if something is actually on fire and you need to run for the exit. In all of those case feel free to stop what you are doing and give in to the distraction.

Getting back to the distractions

After you’ve suspended most distractions the next important thing is actually getting back to them when you can (and try not to procrastinate about it!).

By waiting for the allocated timebox (or the next break) before tackling the problem you benefit from two things:

The first is that people often solve their “urgent” problem themselves or at least add vital information to the problem at hand that was missing in their first inquiry. If you had dropped everything at once, you would have gotten stressed out and lost your progress thanks to the disruption.

The second advantage is that you are able to solve problems in a batch. What if a colleague asks you for info and you wait for your break to answer him and a second colleague needed something as well 5 minutes later? Now instead of being interrupted twice you are able to respond to them in one go.

Getting Lost and Finding your Way

When it comes to removing your blinders and figuring out an alternative, superior approach to the one your currently following, nothing is as effective as taking a break. Taking a break puts your mind into diffuse mode and allows you to connect the dots that your deep work previously created.

Let me point out that that’s just another very good reason to incorporate breaks in your routine, even if you up to this point felt like “yeah, yeah, sure - for those who need them”.

So it’s often when we take a break that we will recombine the new information we previously gathered in the focused work with the old. That’s when we notice that we need to re-evaluate our approach to solving a problem or that we missed a more elegant way to achieve our goal.

Summary

Happiness at work is greatly influenced by autonomy, which makes attaining and keeping autonomy highly desirable. Autonomy itself requires a minimum amount of self-management to maintain and if unaddressed leads to a couple of common problems:

  • Procrastination
  • Anxiety
  • Distractions
  • Getting lost in details

Timeboxing is a time-management strategy that can solve or soften most of those problems with just a couple of simple rules:

  • Timeboxes have a fixed duration of e.g. 25 minutes
  • Working on a task is only done inside a timebox
  • When a timebox stops, work on the task stops as well
  • No distractions are allowed inside a timebox
  • A break follows a completed timebox

References

Last updated 10/21/2018 21:46:15
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