How to keep work on track with timeboxing

Many knowledge work activities have a way of requiring you to feed more time into them. Timeboxing offers a way to keep these time-hungry activities at bay so you can move on with your work.

Image generated with DALL-E and modified by the author.

In 1955, Cyril Northcote Parkinson wrote in The Economist that “[i]t is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.

The observation resonated with many readers across industries and quickly became known as Parkinson’s Law.

Parkinson’s Law: Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.

The “law” holds true in today’s modern knowledge economy as it did seventy years ago. There are two knowledge work activities particularly susceptible to the work-time dilation that Parkinson first observed: Infinite Inboxes and Research Rabbit-Holes.

Infinite Inboxes

The collaborative nature of knowledge work requires several inboxes to interface with coworkers and external partners. Emails, direct messages, and SaaS app notifications are all vectors for collaboration. Items land in those inboxes waiting to be dealt with.

Unfortunately, most inboxes are figuratively infinite because a virtually unlimited number of people can seamlessly push new items into a person’s inbox. There is an asymmetry between how much input can be sent to an inbox and the processing power of an individual. The fact that most of today’s inboxes are digital only accelerates the rate at which new items pile up.

One could easily spend an entire workday tending to the inflow of emails, messages, and notifications. That might seem productive, and to a degree, it is. But more often than not, keeping on top of inboxes is more like “talking about work” than actually “working.”

Research Rabbit-Holes

The more you dive into a topic, the more you realize how much is left that you don’t know. Researching can lead you into rabbit holes that keep going on and on.

The open-ended stream of knowledge at our fingertips makes for an endless supply of things to learn and problems to solve. But if you fall into a Research Rabbit-Hole, you risk losing track of time, and before you know it, you’ll be behind on your timeline.

Infinite Inboxes and Research Rabbit-Holes are manifestations of Parkinson’s Law because they will use as much time as you give them and then ask for more. The solution to keeping these greedy monsters at bay is to feed them a strict time-diet Enter timeboxing.

Timeboxing

Timeboxing is a fancy name for a straightforward practice. Assign a time to a task, and don’t go over it.

Timeboxing vs. Infinite Inboxes

Timeboxing your inbox processing puts a guardrail against the “empty inbox = productive day” fallacy.

Inboxes need to be tended, but that cannot be the entirety of your work. Constraining the time you dedicate to them creates space for working on things that actually move the needle.

Timeboxing inboxes also puts positive pressure on the way you process them. When time is limited, you must make judgment calls on which items to address first and which to let sit in there.

Timeboxing vs. Research Rabbit-Holes

When embarking on a research project, if you don’t define an end-time for the activity, chances are you’ll keep going and going because there’s always more to learn. Timeboxing your research is a safety rope to pull you back from the rabbit holes you might fall into.

Timeboxing Trade-offs

To resist the pull of an Infinite Inbox, you can’t reply to all the messages. To avoid losing yourself in a Research Rabbit-Hole, you can’t read all the interesting material you come across. By capping the available time for some type of work, timeboxing forces you to make trade-offs.

With each choice comes the risk of missing out on something crucial. The cold email that could have become a new partnership, or the perfect anecdote to introduce your story.

What does this increased risk of missing out on something valuable or timely give you? Focus.

Timeboxing helps you stay on track and forces you to prioritize, sometimes ruthlessly.

When timeboxing doesn’t work

Let’s talk nuance for a moment. Timeboxing is not a definitive cure against Infinite Inboxes, Research Rabbit-Holes, and other time-greed knowledge work activities. It’s a technique to deploy intentionally and with an understanding of the trade-offs it introduces.

There are open-ended tasks for which timeboxing can even be counterproductive. Some knowledge work projects require you to pour hours and hours into them without any sign of a breakthrough. (Remember, stuck is the default state). Usually, this happens with highly creative work and exploration of the bleeding edge of a field.

Some projects need time and dedication. Timeboxing that kind of work won’t do you any good. In those cases, it’s much better to use timeboxing’s cousin: time_blocking_. I’ll write about that soon.


Practicing timeboxing has a meta-advantage. It is an exercise in proactiveness, a way to assert control over a portion of your schedule. If you find yourself overwhelmed by Infinite Inboxes, or falling down a Research Rabbit-hole, try timeboxing them to regain control and move on with your work.

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