Science of Success

Richard Branson, Michelle Obama and other top leaders use this scheduling trick that could double your productivity

Sir Richard Branson speaking at the Innovation Summit in Brooklyn, New York on July 14, 2017.
Adam Jeffery | CNBC

Want to get more done? Pull out your calendar and start "timeboxing."

"This may be the single most important skill or practice you can possibly develop as a modern professional," wrote Filtered CEO Marc Zao-Sanders in Harvard Business Review, a leader who said the approach doubled his productivity.

The technique is simple: assign a fixed period of time to a task, schedule it on your calendar—and stick to it. Work until the time period has ended, evaluate the progress that you've made and move on to your next task.

While not everyone might call it timeboxing, versions of this classic technique are used by a range of top leaders including former first lady Michelle Obama, Virgin Group founder Richard Branson and LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner who use the approach to carve out time for work priorities as well as family commitments and quiet time to think.

The trick offers a number of advantages over the standard to-do list, since it turns your calendar into a visual commitment to your priorities, wrote Zao-Sanders this week. If you aren't using this technique yet, here are four ways he said timeboxing could transform your productivity.

You'll hit your deadlines

To-do lists don't often take into account the time tasks need to be completed. Timeboxing, on the other hand, gives you some important perspective, explained Zao-Sanders.

By slotting out the appropriate time you need to complete a project, you can prepare accordingly. For example, wrote Zao-Sanders, "If you know that a promotional video has to go live on a Tuesday and that the production team needs 72 hours to work on your copy edits, then you know when to place the timebox."

Wrote Zao-Sanders, "Working hard and trying your best is sometimes not actually what's required; the alternative—getting the right thing done at the right time—is a better outcome for all."

You'll better track your progress

Unlike to-do lists, which are often thrown away or forgotten once completed, timeboxing on your calendar "gives you a comprehensive record of what you've done," wrote Zao-Sanders.

It's especially helpful for planning ahead since you'll know how long tasks take and where your priorities shifted, ensuring you more easily meet any future obligations.

The technique can also help you track your progress. "Maybe you get to the end of a blistering week and you're not even sure what happened? It's in your calendar. Or a performance review looms — what were the highs and lows of the last six months? It's in your calendar. Or you're keen to use an hour to plan the following week and need to know what's on the horizon. It's in your calendar," wrote Zao-Sanders.

You'll waste less time

If you find yourself spending two hours on a task that could have been completed in one, you've likely experienced "Parkinson's law," the tendency for work to expand to fit the time available to complete it.

Setting aside a single, focused, time-boxed hour, argued Zao-Sanders can help counter this bad habit. "Disciplined timeboxing breaks us free of Parkinson's law by imposing a sensible, finite time for a task and sticking to that," wrote Zao-Sanders, who said this technique helped double his productivity

You'll feel more engaged

By having a clear intention for how you'll spend your day, you'll feel more in control and be better able to protect your time against the inevitable distractions that compete for your attention every day.

As a result, you won't just see a boost in productivity, but a boost in your mood. After all, wrote Zao-Sanders, having autonomy over your time "may be the biggest driver of happiness at work."

"Constant interruptions make us less happy and less productive," wrote Zao-Sanders. "Timeboxing is the proper antidote."

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