While remote work has its benefits, it has some significant challenges. The delineation between work time and home time has become blurred as most of us used our daily commute as the means of separation.  In the remote world, we are all seemingly working more than we did before.

If our children are home with us, we also face the challenge of balancing expectations with both work and family.  In many cases, it has caused chaos and stress.

If you are at the point where you’re willing to try anything to get something done, you’re not alone. A technique great for teams and individuals is timeboxing.

The concept of using a timebox to define a period of work with a definite start and end time has been around for a long time.  By timeboxing our efforts, we are able to accomplish several things:

  1. We respect the fact that each of us is likely working on or supporting multiple activities, both with our work and personal lives.
  2. We can focus our brains to the task at hand and become more productive with better results in a shorter period of time.
  3. We are more quickly able to see the result of our actions, and subsequently make adjustments using the test and learn approach.

The timebox concept started in the 1980s.

  • 1988: the “timebox” is described as a cornerstone of Scott Schultz’s “Rapid Iterative Production Prototyping” approach in use at a Du Pont spin-off, Information Engineering Associates
  • 1991: the details of the “timebox” are described at length in one chapter of James Martin’s “Rapid Application Development”

Timeboxed iterations are a distinctive feature of the early Agile approaches, notably Scrum and Extreme Programming, and they are a key tenet of today’s modern Agile delivery, including Agile at Scale.

A timebox is a previously agreed period of time during which a person or a team works steadily towards completion of some goal. Rather than allow work to continue until the goal is reached, and evaluating the time taken, the timebox approach consists of stopping work when the time limit is reached and evaluating what was accomplished.

Timeboxes can be used at varying time scales.

I’ve seen time scales ranging from one day to several months in different timeboxing methods.

The critical rule of timeboxed work is that work should stop at the end of the timebox, and review progress: has the goal been met, or partially met if it included multiple tasks?

Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) Time Boxes:

In SAFe, A Program Increment (PI) is a timeboxed planning interval during which an Agile Release Train (team of teams) plans and delivers incremental value in the form of working, tested software and systems. PIs are typically 8 – 12 weeks long. The most common pattern for a PI is four development Iterations, followed by one Innovation and Planning (IP) Iteration.

Each team on the ART plans their work in a 2-week timebox called an iteration.  They use various timebox activities during each iteration, including a 15 minute daily standup or scrum, and weekly backlog refinement sessions, end of iteration demos, end of iteration retrospective and an iteration planning session, each typically 1 hour long.

How Timeboxing helps with work:

  • It keeps the team focused on the task at hand, to allow for faster flow of value.
  • It enforces boundaries for the things that each of us is accountable for, helping with an improved work life balance.  If you are continually in a cycle of meetings that run long, you will start a pattern of missed deliverables, lower quality work, and you will probably be working longer hours to do so.
  • As a team member you have a voice in whether your team is time boxing the meetings and ceremonies that your participate in.  If the team starts showing anti pattern behavior and not adhering to the time box principles, help redirect them to the benefits of timeboxing.

Timeboxing at home:

To alleviate the problem of balance between family and work, try timeboxing both your work and non-work activities.  By being transparent with the timebox, you can help set expectations with your family.  For instance, if you told your child that you would play ball with them, but then your meetings ran long and you were not able to play, your child would likely have hurt feelings.  Now, if you were to set a timeboxed schedule and said, “I have a team retrospective from 2-3, but I can play ball at 3” and then actually delivered on that, your child would be happy, and you would likely also feel less stress.

Tim LaPorta is a Managing Agile Consultant and SPC at LitheSpeed.

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