Task Lights: Better Timeboxing with Lights

Chris Parnin
May 19, 2016 · 3 min read

You have 30 minutes to do a task. Really, just 30 minutes. Because in 31 minutes you have a presentation that you have no slides for.
20 minutes into the task, you realize you have been fiddling with a diagram on slide 2. You rush to finish the last bit of slides, showing up 10 minutes late.

What is the general problem?

Sometimes we need to be able to effectively timebox on a task. But this does not always mean extreme timeboxing. Sometimes we have plenty of time, but do not use it effectively.

  • If we don’t limit time we spent on task, we might overdo it. E.g., Parkinson’s law, work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.
  • We get distracted. Timeboxing helps us stay on task.
  • We underestimate how much time something really takes. Timeboxing causes us to reflect on and re-evaluate our approach and goals.

Better Timeboxing

As a new professor, I found I often only had 30 minutes to do most tasks. To help focus, I started listening to a 30 music playlist that was just long enough to help me focus on short timeboxed tasks. Just like exercise/running playlists, I could use the 6 songs in my playlist to set my rhythm and pace of task.

However, a year of listening to the same exact set of songs became maddening.

Music is great because it is an ambient signal you can monitoring without adjusting your attention. Do we have an alternative ambient signal?

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Task Light helps keep you focused on your task.

Task Lights

Like music, light (color) is an excellent source of information that the brain can process in the background. A more structured signal, like a clock or count down timer (24:13 minutes) requires our eyes to first shift focus to the location of the information, and then perform a further mental calculation to reason about the time you’ve spent on a task. All that extra thinking can be disruptive of our work.

We use a stoplight: green-yellow-red light metaphor to help set the rhythm of a task.

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We built a Task Lights tool, which uses a light indicator, such as the Blink1, to help stay focused on a task and while keeping aware of how much time you have left. For example, you have 30 minutes, the light will start out as green for the first 10 minutes, then yellow for another 10 minutes, and red for the last 10 minutes. A brief blue/red flash will then occur for 5 seconds to let you know the time has ended.

Simply having the light on is a strong and constant environmental cue that you have a task that you need to complete. The color helps you be aware of your state: (getting started, need to really work, ok — wrap it up time is almost done). Fun trick, try reading this text and while tracking the color of the light in the picture above. Now, try reading the time on your computer screen.

Using Task Lights

Here are some examples of using the tool.

This will start a 25 minute pomodoro timer and play a tick-toc sound.

node blink.js -p -t

Use a pulsing light style indicator for a task that will be timeboxed for 15 minutes.

node blink.js — linear — length 15

Use a solid light style indicator for a task that will be timeboxed for 45 minutes.

node blink.js — solid — length 45


I have been using task lights for over a year. It is also one of the few research tools I actually use myself.

It has simply changed the way I work.

We have a lot of ideas on how to improve this tool and how to research the effects of timeboxing. Please tell us any ideas you have or if you want to try out task lights yourself!

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