How Elon Musk’s Timeboxing Technique Can Improve Your Productivity

Stop making to-do lists — they’re setting you up for failure.

Leon Okwatch
Oct 26 · 7 min read
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Photo by Aron Visuals on Unsplash

Elon Musk is undoubtedly one of the busiest people in the world.

Between running Space X, Tesla, Neuralink, Hyperloop, and The Boring Company, he still has to find time for his four children, hobbies, and fitness.

Musk’s schedule translates to over 90 hours per week. That’s more than double the number of hours an average person works.

Considering how easy it is to experience burnout after a long working period, it’s difficult to imagine how Elon Musk achieves this overwhelming feat.

So, what’s his secret?

In several interviews, he has credited his almost superhuman efficiency to a little known technique called timeboxing.

Timeboxing, the most useful productivity hack.

Timeboxing is the practice of setting a fixed amount of time for every activity and integrating the resulting time blocks into your schedule.

The idea behind timeboxing is to allocate a certain amount of time to a task, complete the task within that time frame then move on to the next task.

Timeboxing works in two ways:

  • It removes choice from the equation. You approach the day knowing what to do and when to do it.
  • Working with time limitations intensifies your level of focus.

When I first heard of timeboxing, I pictured it to be incredibly restricting. I felt like it would make me a robot. Besides, I love having the freedom to do things when I want to.

Nevertheless, I proceeded to pursue the idea to see what effect it might have on my productivity.

I achieved some commendable results a few weeks into it. Not only did I manage to do more within a short time, but I was also able to rid myself of the need for perfection and meet my goals more consistently.

Timeboxing immensely counters the biases and weaknesses of the human brain.

We tend to waste a lot of time trying to make things perfect. We also overestimate the amount of time we have making it hard to start working immediately.

Timeboxing is heavily pegged on one of the most important productivity laws called Parkinson’s law.

Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.

Parkinson’s law implies that we make plans based on how much time we have.

For instance, if your boss gives you one month to complete a project, it will take you one month regardless of how fast you can do the work.

You will probably spend the first two weeks not working on the project at all, start on the third week, then use the last week hyper-focused on completing it.

Essentially, the more time you have to complete something, the longer it will take you to finish it.

Chances are many of your tasks will take a shorter time if you dedicate uninterrupted time boxes to work on them.

Working with time boxes means you hold yourself accountable after a specified period.

You know how much you’ve achieved within a given time frame, and how best to tackle the remaining tasks.

Timeboxing also creates a false sense of urgency enabling you to remain focused on a task, no matter what deadline it has.

Getting Started with Timeboxing

Follow these simple steps to employ timeboxing in your daily schedule:

First, you have to note down all the tasks you have at hand. Make sure you separate the tasks based on importance or urgency.

The more demanding tasks should be undertaken earlier during the day when your mind is still fresh.

The estimation of task duration can be challenging.

As human beings, we are susceptible to what is known as the planning fallacy— that is, the tendency to make over-optimistic predictions for how long things are going to take.

We tend to dwell on the best-case scenario rather than the average case scenario.

For example, you may live 15 minutes from the office, but with slow traffic, you end up taking 45 minutes to get to work.

If your schedule allocated 15 minutes for the journey, this delay has already disrupted it.

One way to get better at estimating how long a task will take is to track your time.

The app that I use to do this is called HourStack.

HourStack enables me to monitor how much time I spend on a task and compares it to my initial estimates.

In the long run, I’m able to make more realistic estimates.

Set the time you’ll spend working on each task.

You can use soft or hard timeboxing models.

In soft time boxing, you give a short allowance to finish the ongoing task such that when the alarm goes off you it reminds you to wind up.

A hard time box is more strict. At the end of it, you stop and move to the next task. It is favorable for meetings where different agendas need to be discussed.

I usually alternate between soft and hard time boxes depending on what I’m doing.

The success of timeboxing depends on how well you stick to your plan whichever model you choose to adopt.

Breaks are good for your productivity.

They enable you to rejuvenate your energy. Working back-to-back can predispose you to both mental and physical burnout.

It’s easy to forego breaks if you have an open-ended schedule.

Timeboxing is the perfect technique to help you schedule and implement resting periods in between your tasks.

Dealing with Interruptions During Timeboxing

Timeboxing does not take into account the interruptions you might encounter throughout the day.

When your timeboxing schedule gets interrupted, revise that plan.

Carl Newport, the author of Deep Work, shows us how we can do this in one of his blog posts.

He splits his notebook into two columns. The first column is for the original plan. If something changes, he revises the plan in the next column to accommodate it.

He also designates what is known as reactionary time which is time exclusively set up for dealing with interruptions.

Why You Should Start Timeboxing

In a study of over one hundred productivity hacks, timeboxing was ranked as the most useful.

Timeboxing can boost your productivity in the following ways:

  • It improves focus due to the false sense of urgency it creates.
  • It provides a solid tool to measure progress ensuring that you remain on track.
  • Having a predictable schedule makes it easier to transition between tasks and avoid wasting time in between.
  • Timeboxing enables you to establish control. It feels liberating rather than limiting when you are always in charge of how you spend your time.
  • Timeboxing ensures you get rest periods after certain intervals. It’s easy to overlook regular breaks if you have a more open-ended schedule.

Timeboxing vs. To-Do Lists

Stop making to-do lists, they are simply setting you up for failure.

This is the opening line of Daniel Markovitz’s article published in the Harvard Business Review website.

Over the years I’ve been among the people who religiously adhere to the practice of making to-do lists.

To-do lists are great. They constantly remind me of what needs to be done. But they have one major downside.

Well, they are just lists.

I can’t recall the number of times I’ve ended the day with a list full of untouched tasks.

It’s easy to see why to-do lists have been proven to be counterproductive in most cases.

Here are a few reasons:

  • To-do lists overwhelm us with too many choices, a perfect recipe for multitasking and decision fatigue. If you have too many choices, you might not start at all.
  • We are naturally inclined to complete the simpler tasks or the ones that take less time.
  • We are likely to ignore tasks that are important but not urgent
  • To-do lists do not provide a clear picture of how much time we have available. We end up wasting so much time in the process.
  • To-do lists lack a commitment device to keep us honest. We know we are supposed to do something, but since we aren't able to measure our progress, we might end up slacking big time.

Final Thoughts

It’s one year since I started using timeboxing. The results are amazing. I’ve managed to juggle between the hefty demands of medical school, digital entrepreneurship, and my fitness.

Previously I had to sacrifice one thing for the other.

It’s easy to understand why the likes of Elon Musk and Bill Gates chose to adopt this technique.

If you are just getting started, there’s one thing you need to understand.

No tactic is 100% efficient. You will have bad days, new challenges, and a lack of motivation at times. Do not be discouraged.

Always strive to be as adaptable as possible.

Again, avoid the temptation to over-schedule. Know your limits.

With this in mind, you can proceed to take advantage of the benefits of working with time limitations— improved focus and the ability to achieve more within a short time.

The Ascent

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness and fulfillment.

Leon Okwatch

Written by

Medical Student. Original thinker. Lifetime learner. Here to nerd out with other knowledge enthusiasts.

The Ascent

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness & fulfillment. Join 138,000+ others making the climb on one of the fastest-growing pubs on Medium.

Leon Okwatch

Written by

Medical Student. Original thinker. Lifetime learner. Here to nerd out with other knowledge enthusiasts.

The Ascent

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness & fulfillment. Join 138,000+ others making the climb on one of the fastest-growing pubs on Medium.

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