in: Character, Habits

• Last updated: March 26, 2024

Podcast #975: Get More Done With the Power of Timeboxing

From work to chores to entertaining distractions, there are many options for what you can be doing at any moment in the modern world. We often endlessly toggle between these options and, as a result, feel frazzled and frustratingly unproductive. We feel ever haunted by the question, “What should I be doing right now?” (Or “What am I even doing right now?”)

My guest will share a simple but effective productivity method that will quash this feeling of overwhelm, answer that question, and help you make much better use of your time. Marc Zao-Sanders is the CEO and co-founder of, a learning tech company, and the author of Timeboxing: The Power of Doing One Thing at a Time. In the first half of our conversation, we unpack what timeboxing — which brings your calendar and to-do list together — is all about and its benefits as a time management system, including how it can help you get more done, live with greater intention and freedom, and even create a log of memories. In the second half of our conversation, we get into the practicalities of timeboxing, from how to capture the to-dos that will go on your calendar to how to deal with things that might pull you away from it. We end our conversation with how you can get started with timeboxing right now and have a more focused, productive, and satisfying day tomorrow.

Resources Related to the Podcast

Connect With Marc Zao-Sanders

Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)

Apple Podcast.



Stitcher.Google Podcast.

Listen to the episode on a separate page.

Download this episode.

Subscribe to the podcast in the media player of your choice.

Listen ad-free on Stitcher Premium; get a free month when you use code “manliness” at checkout.

Podcast Sponsors

Click here to see a full list of our podcast sponsors.

Read the Transcript 

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. From work, to chores, to entertaining distractions, there are many options for what you can be doing at any moment in the modern world. We often endlessly toggle between these options, and as a result, feel frazzled and frustratingly unproductive. We feel ever haunted by the question, what should I be doing right now? Or, what am I even doing right now? My guest will share a simple but effective productivity method that will quash this feeling of overwhelm, answer that question, and help you make much better use of your time.

Marc Zao-Sanders is the CEO and co-founder of, a learning tech company, and the author of Time Boxing, the power of doing one thing at a time. In the first half of our conversation, we unpack what Time Boxing, which brings your calendar and to-do list together, is all about and its benefits as a time management system, including how it can help you get more done, live with greater intention and freedom, and even create a log of memories. In the second half of our conversation, we get into the practicalities of Time Boxing, from how to capture the to-dos that will go on your calendar, to how to deal with things that might pull you away from it. We end our conversation with how you can get started with Time Boxing right now and have a more focused, productive, and satisfying day tomorrow. After the show is over, check out our show notes at Marc Zao-Sanders, welcome to the show.

Marc Zao-Sanders: Nice to be here. Thanks, Brett.

Brett McKay: So you got a new book out about a productivity system that you’ve been using for the past 10 plus years, and it’s called Time Boxing. What is Time Boxing in a nutshell?

Marc Zao-Sanders: In a nutshell, Time Boxing is a simple, easy system for spending more of your time on what matters to you, so that you live a more intentional life, set more intentions, and see more of them through. I can give you a definition if you’d like.

Brett McKay: Yeah, definitely. Let’s see. What’s that definition?

Marc Zao-Sanders: The definition I use, and which I came up with and is in the book, is what, when, one, enough. There are four parts to it. First of all, what are you gonna do that day? Then, when are you gonna do it? With start and end times. Then one is doing that one single thing and nothing else and not multitasking. And enough means doing it to a good enough standard, not trying to do it perfectly.

Brett McKay: Gotcha. The way I described it to myself when I was reading this, it’s basically your to-do list, but on your calendar, scheduled out.

Marc Zao-Sanders: That’s a good way of putting it.

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Marc Zao-Sanders: Exactly that. Look, more concretely, I wake up in the morning, I get dressed, I brush teeth, and I feed the cats. I timebox for 15 minutes right at the start. There’s a 15-minute timebox at the start of my day. It recurs, so I make sure that it’s gonna be in there. In that 15 minutes, I’m planning out the subsequent 15 hours of my day. I know that what I wanna do, when I’m gonna do it, and all the way through the day, I can stick to that. That’s what it is for me. I know that once I’ve planned it, I know that if I see that through, it’s gonna be a good day. I plan in leisure, work breaks, slack. The main benefit is that any given moment, I know what I’m supposed to be doing. That’s really reassuring for me.

Brett McKay: How is timeboxing different from time blocking? Because I’ve done that in the past, right? Look at my calendar and I block off time to do things. How would you say it’s different from that?

Marc Zao-Sanders: In timeboxing, you’ve got the notion of completing something within that time frame, within the box. It’s a little bit more proactive. In my definition, which had the what, when, one, and enough, the what, when, one is absolutely, that’s part of time blocking. Time blocking is also deciding what to do, when to do it, and sticking to that one thing. Time boxing adds a fourth dimension to that, which is I’m gonna do it. I’m gonna get something done, something done that I can ideally share with someone else. There’s something complete. I’m moving the thing on. The baton of productivity moves on at the end of my time book. In a nutshell, timeboxing has a notion of completion to it.

Brett McKay: With time blocking, you might put something like work on essay on your schedule. With timeboxing, it’s gonna be more like finish first page of essay. We’ll keep unpacking what timeboxing involves throughout this conversation, but when did you discover timeboxing?

Marc Zao-Sanders: Well, it’s a long story, but I’m 44 years old. I started my career in 2001. I was a disorganized mess back then, and I was getting into trouble at work. It just wasn’t really working out. There were mental health issues that came from that performance. It just wasn’t good. After a couple of years of frankly suffering and not doing very well, I developed my own system of personal productivity, which I called a Daily Work Plan, DWP. That was good. That did some good. It settled things, but it had some problems. It didn’t enable me to collaborate with others. It didn’t give me that answer to the question of at any given moment, what should I be working on? To answer your question, we get to 2013 when I just came across an article by a guy called Daniel Markovitz in Harvard Business Review called Why To-Do Lists Don’t Work.

It was exactly as you just put it. It’s coalescing the calendar and the to-do list in such a way that together they bring a lot more value than either of them on their own. When I saw this, the logic of it really resonated, and I started doing it straight away. That was 2013. I’m doing it for the next five years. I’m tweaking the system. I’m bringing some of my own thoughts and applications to it. In 2018, five years later, having done it for five years, I wrote my own Harvard Business Review article about timeboxing. I was calling it timeboxing. The original article actually didn’t call it timeboxing. That was really popular. It was on their most popular pages for some years, actually. It was nowhere near as popular as a TikTok video that someone made in 2022. And 10 million people watched that video. One of those watches, one of those views was from Penguin Random House, and they got in touch about writing a book. That’s how this has come about.

Brett McKay: What problems do you think timeboxing solves in general when it comes to personal management that other systems don’t solve?

Marc Zao-Sanders: Okay, in terms of what problem it solves, first of all, modern life is tricky. There’s so much going on, and we feel like at any one time stressed and frazzled and overwhelmed. You hear those words all the time. This is partly because of a constellation of megatrends. There’s the internet, obviously. There’s smartphones. There’s knowledge work. More recently, there’s more and more work from home. That means that about a billion of us that are knowledge workers have a huge amount of choice at any given moment of the day. That obviously sounds great, but it leads to a feeling of it being a burden. Three-quarters of us report mental health issues. A big part of that is lacking clarity, intention, agency, or autonomy. And that’s the price that we pay for technology. We have everything at our fingertips. It’s always on. What this means is that we often don’t use our time well.

Ultimately, that’s really the problem that timeboxing is focused on. It’s using our time better. We default to smartphones and feeds and streaming. We don’t decide. We let these activities become decided for us. Time boxing is a simple system that addresses this by saying, well, spend 15 minutes or whatever it is in the morning or the night before, deciding what’s most important for you to do and just doing that. On your question of, well, how does it compare to other time management techniques? Well, there’s a few things to say there, but one of them is that it’s just consistent with all of the other time management techniques. I can’t think of a single one where it doesn’t fit with and doesn’t facilitate and doesn’t help with. Let me give you a couple of examples. Take the Pomodoro technique. I don’t know if you know. Do you know that technique, Brett?

Brett McKay: Yeah, of course. I’ve used the Pomodoro lots of times. I used a lot in law school, especially.

Marc Zao-Sanders: Okay, right. That’s 25 minutes of hard work and then five minutes break, as you all know, since you’ve used it. Great. But why be so arbitrary as that? Why have 25 minutes exactly? Is that the right number for every single human being? It can’t be. What timeboxing is, is completely consistent with the Pomodoro technique. Do 25/5 if that works for you, but if it’s 30/10 instead or 45/15, do it that way. It’s consistent with but supportive of more flexible than the Pomodoro technique.

I’ll give you another one. Eat That Frog by Brian Tracy. This is the idea that it’s better, it’s more productive, it makes you feel better to start with the hard stuff first. Now, personally, I agree with this. I actually much prefer to get the difficult stuff off my plate at the start of the day so that my day gets easier. But there are other people that like to build momentum by starting with some easier tasks. Maybe they’re not morning people so much. The point I’m making about timeboxing is that it accommodates either approach. It’s flexible to eating that frog or eating that frog later.

I’ll give you just one more. Eisenhower, the important urgent matrix, that two-by-two. Well, with timeboxing, I mean, it absolutely is consistent with that. That’s a way of ordering your tasks and prioritizing them. But at the end of the day, which are you going to do and when? It literally gives you a timetable of slots, options to put those important urgent tasks and the other ones into your calendar and get them done. That’s the sense in which it’s a very, very nice method because it’s just, you’re already doing it. There are all kinds of benefits and it really is consistent with all of the other time management techniques that are already out there.

Brett McKay: Yeah. Another one it’s consistent with is Getting Things Done. We’ve had David Allen on the podcast before.

Marc Zao-Sanders: I heard the podcast, yeah.

Brett McKay: Yeah. With Getting Things Done, one of the big takeaways I took from that idea is that when you list an action or to-do that you wanna get done, you wanna make sure it’s actionable. You don’t just wanna be vague with it where it’s like, oh, vacation planning. Or I don’t know. Maybe that’s not a good example. But you wanna be very concrete. With timeboxing, same thing. You wanna make whatever you put on your calendar, you’re boxing off time to do something. You wanna say, I’m actually doing this specific thing and not be vague.

Marc Zao-Sanders: Well, exactly. Just to pick your example, I think it is a pretty good one. Vacation planning is vague, yes. You need to break that down and make it smaller, more actionable. More actionable, partly because it is smaller. Break it down into a half hour task. Which vacation? What’s the short list of countries? Who am I gonna go with? Who’s the decision-making group here? Is it family? Is it friends? Make sure that that meeting happens or meet up with them to make that decision. Breaking the task down. This is really, really basic stuff. But the thing that timeboxing brings is that once you’ve broken it down, it gives you a specific time in which you’re going to do it. You’re not just saying, I wanna do such and such, like go on a vacation. You’re saying, at a certain time, I’m gonna do this action, which is going to be a milestone, a step towards getting that thing done that you wanna get done.

Brett McKay: Okay. So timeboxing, you’re taking your to-do list, you’re putting it on a calendar, you’re scheduling out the things you’re gonna do on your to-do list. I think a big benefit to that, it gives your day a concreteness. I think a lot of times people in knowledge work, as you said, we have all this stuff coming into our inboxes and just passing our screens, and it just bleeds together. And then you just pick and choose what you’re gonna do. And you leave things half finished and then you have all these open loops going on ’cause you’re just pulling from the stream. With timeboxing, you just basically plan out your day. It’s like in 15 minute increments or 30 minute increments, here’s what I’m gonna get done. And then when that time is up, you’re done. You move on to the next thing. And there’s something about adding that structure to your day that it alleviates a lot of the stress that I think comes from having all those open loops in your head.

Marc Zao-Sanders: Yeah, definitely. I mean, I think with open loops, you put it very well. Structure is part of it. I think it’s also, is just that protection from any other task. For most people, Brett, they could be working on any number of the emails that are in their inbox. They’ll probably have some Slack messages. There’ll be some stuff on WhatsApp. There’ll be several work streams that they’ve just got open. And it’s quite possible, in fact, it’s very likely that several of those are gonna occur to you in any given moment. What timeboxing is saying is whatever occurs to you, whatever distractions arise, there is just one thing that you should be working on. You, in a better, quieter moment that morning or the night before, said that that was the thing that you should do. So come back to your timebox, even if you’re feeling distracted and stressed and chasing a couple of tasks, come back to the timebox, do that one thing.

That is enormously reassuring. I mean, the specific thing that I do is when I have that feeling of being distracted or sort of chasing a rabbit down a rabbit hole, basically doing that second task or maybe thinking of a third task, I feel slightly stressed. I mean, maybe even mild panic. It’s an uncomfortable feeling. And what I’ve trained myself to do is associate that feeling, which is uncomfortable, with the action of literally uttering out loud. I mean, I literally say this to myself one thing at a time. And that mantra, that utterance, the act of uttering that mantra, it calms me down. I know where I am. I know where I need to be. And where I need to be is just to come back to my calendar ’cause I probably lost track of what the task was that I should be doing. And I just feel so much better immediately. That’s actually the main… There’s all kinds of benefits. You’re more productive. You’ve got a log of what you’ve done and more intentional life, all of this stuff. But every single day for me, I get the benefit of feeling calmer when I have those thoughts that occur and I start to go down rabbit holes. So that to me is the number one benefit. And it’s a mental health as well as a productivity benefit.

Brett McKay: Yeah. So timeboxing also brings in another productivity idea, monotasking. You mentioned that. We’ve talked about that on the podcast before. But yeah, I think this idea of structure is really underrated when it comes to your mental health. I think that’s why a lot of people have a lot of issues now and feeling anxiety and just feeling the overwhelm. There’s no structure. If I look back in my life, the periods where I felt the most on it, the most productive, the most just flourishing, there was a structure to my day. And I really enjoy that. And when you’re a young person, you might have the structure imposed on you because of school and you have athletics. When you’re an adult, you have to impose that structure on yourself. And timeboxing is a tool that can help you do that.

Marc Zao-Sanders: If you do that and you’re imposing the structure on yourself, that is freedom ’cause you’re setting those intentions and then you’re living them out. It’s no longer… So some people look at my timebox week and they say, well, that looks really restrictive. You’ve got all of these boxes everywhere. There’s color coding. Maybe we’ll come back to the color coding in a second. Isn’t that restrictive? No, not at all. It is a… Literally, it’s a picture of freedom because every single one of those boxes I decided on and then by and large, I mean, not absolutely every single one, but 90-something percent I’ve then seen through. That to me is close to the very definition of freedom. It’s doing the thing that you set out to do. Over the last 10 years, I’ve probably done 50,000 time boxes. That is a lot of freedom.

Brett McKay: So another benefit that timeboxing can provide to help you get more done is it harnesses the power of implementation intentions. What are implementation intentions and how do they help you get more done?

Marc Zao-Sanders: Well, the formal definition is, it’s a statement that you make of the form. When situation X arises, I will perform response Y. So not just I wanna lose weight or be kinder or go on vacation, but you’re saying that when a certain thing happens, then I will do such and such and such. So timeboxing is exactly that because it’s saying with the situation arising, at a certain time when the situation X arises, so when it’s say 1 o’clock, I will do such and such activity. What the science behind it says, and you can Google this, implementation intentions, you’ll see a bunch of journals that basically say, look, if you say that you’re going to do something at a certain time, you’re very, very likely to do it, about 90% chance of doing it. Whereas if you just have a vague notion of, well, I probably should do it and there’s some light encouragement, it’s more like 30%.

So actually, there was a study in which there were three groups. The first group was a control group. So they were just given the instruction. It was about exercise. So they’re given the instruction to just record when they do exercise. The second group was given some motivation and educational material and also asked to record the exercise. And then the third group were instructed to timebox it. The first two groups are very similar, about 30, 35% of them did the exercise or exercise weekly. But the third group, the time boxes, they did it to… I think it was 91% of them exercised weekly. Now, that’s a study. I think, first of all, it’s just a study, right? The real question is, does this work for you? If a study is convincing, all it really means is, okay, there’s a good chance that this might work for me so maybe I’ll try it out. But it also makes sense, I think, in terms of I mean, take this meeting between me and you, Brett. Like it might have been that we couldn’t go ahead because something on your end or something on my end, actually, that very nearly did happen.

But how often is it that we actually need to cancel meetings? Once we’ve made that commitment, I would say it’s single digits, percentage wise, so basically… And it just makes intuitive sense. We’re human beings with agency, right? So if you say you’re gonna do something, probably you’re gonna do it. Of course, there’s exceptions. But in general, you’re going to do it. If you put it into your calendar, and there’s no way that you’re gonna forget, you get prompts from that calendar, there’s a little bit of a public commitment as well, because with shared calendars, other people can kind of see what you’re saying that you’re gonna do. It’s no wonder that you get to your 90-something percent. So that’s the sense in which implementation intentions are important to timeboxing, ’cause they’re examples of it. And they provide a lot of the science that backs it up. I mean, that’s the other difference between timeboxing and a lot of other time management techniques is. There’s no science behind the other ones. I’m not gonna say that’s the truth for absolutely every single one, but there’s just quite a lot behind timeboxing and implementation intentions in particular.

Brett McKay: Yeah. We got an article about implementation intentions on our website. We’ll put a link to it in the show notes, but yeah, timeboxing can be a tool, not only help you get through your to-do list in your work day, but this can be a great tool for self-improvement. If you always wanted to start exercising, well, you just put it on the calendar. If it’s 3 o’clock in the afternoon, I’m going to exercise for 30 minutes and you’re more likely to do it if it’s on the calendar.

Marc Zao-Sanders: Yeah, exactly. Exercise is a great example, but obviously there are many others. I’ve got a mnemonic, which might be helpful to listeners, Brett, which is Mr. Elf. So Mr. Elf stands for meditation, reading, exercise, learning, and friends or family. So the idea here is that if you’re at a loose end, so either because you’re planning your day at the start, then… And you don’t know, okay, what am I gonna do 10 to 11? What would be healthy for me? What would be a good use of time that I won’t regret later? Think of that mnemonic, Mr. Elf, and it might help you out.

It’s also very helpful I find when sometimes an expansive time just opens up before you. So I know someone… You’re gonna have dinner with someone, you had to get there and then you’re gonna come back. So all in all, it was gonna be three or four hours, but they cancel on you. All of a sudden, you’ve got three or four hours. Now it’s very easy to then get into, well, just stream from Netflix or go to social media. And I’m not judgmental about that. I do some of that myself. But what I’m encouraging people to do more of is in that moment when you realize, okay, dinner is not gonna happen, let’s think about how I’m gonna spend my time and choose the right thing. So with Mr. Elf and these five activities, it’s just very easy to remember. And it’s a good thing to keep in mind when this expansive time just opens up before you. Like if you’ve… Dinner plans get canceled, rather than just defaulting to very easy, but not all that worthwhile activities, keep that in mind. And you probably use your time better and feel better about it after.

Brett McKay: All right. So not only can timeboxing help you get more done, it can improve your life, help you achieve those self-improvement goals you’ve had for a long time, but you also talk about the record keeping benefit it provides. Walk us through that benefit.

Marc Zao-Sanders: I will in a second. I just wanna say that the other benefit and to do with getting more done, it’s not just getting more done. The main reason that timeboxing helps you in terms of productivity is that it gets you to the right things. It helps you to get the right things done. There’s a quote from Drucker, which you may have heard of before, but he puts it really well, “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.” So it’s making sure that you do the right thing rather than just more of it. But I’m glad that you brought up the point of the record of what you’ve done. This for me is the least important benefit, but it’s also the most underrated. So I’m very pleased to be asked about it. The benefit here is that it enables you to remember what you did on planet Earth in your life. So this could be work or it could be pleasure.

Because it’s in your calendar, you can go back and you can see how prepared you were to present to all of those people last time you presented to them or when the last time you had a one to one with someone was or how you celebrated your son’s 10th birthday. Actually, my son did turn 10 recently. When you last had a date night. Obviously, photos capture some of that too, but they’re not quite so well structured and they’re not quite so comprehensive. They’re also kind of self selecting. There’s only certain kinds of events where people will take pictures. And a timebox calendar is more objective because it’s just kind of everything. That’s just how your life was. And if you use a Google calendar or Microsoft or whoever the provider is, the way that search works, it’s also just so instantly findable.

And if you’ve got some kind of log of what you’ve done, it’s not like that’s the end of the information. You go back to your calendar appointment. So let’s take the example of my son’s 10th birthday. So last December, he turned 10. We went go karting. There’ll be a timebox on that Sunday when we did. And if I just look at that timebox and that date, memories will flood back, memories that just would probably have been inaccessible to me without that timebox. So it’s really an extension of your memory. And that can be useful in a kind of defensive mode. If you need to sort of give an argument as to why you were doing a certain thing at a certain time or just emotive, positive reasons like remembering a date night or a 10th birthday.

Brett McKay: Yeah. And my grandfather, he kept a pocket diary his entire life. And he did some timeboxing in there, some rudimentary timeboxing. He put out a schedule that he did every day.

Marc Zao-Sanders: That’s nice to hear.

Brett McKay: But he’s able to use his diaries throughout his life to write his memoirs. And he’s extremely detailed. He’ll tell you, like, I visited so and so to discuss this topic on this meeting. And it’s really interesting to get that view. So I really appreciate that he timeboxed and was able to write that memoir.

Marc Zao-Sanders: Absolutely. I mean, it’s very useful if you’re gonna write a memoir and a story of your life, obviously. In fact, I was out for… Seeing a friend for a drink last night. And she was asking me, how long did it take to write the pitch for your book? ‘Cause she was interested in writing a book. I didn’t know the answer to that question. I thought, well, I just have to go back through my calendar and see the timeboxes. And the answer was on a 15, 20 hours. And I could see exactly when I did it. So you can answer some questions that help some people, including yourself, and mostly it would be for for yourself if you’ve got it recorded somewhere and you can’t otherwise.

Brett McKay: Another benefit of timeboxing, and you mentioned it earlier, is it can help us collaborate more effectively. What does that look like?

Marc Zao-Sanders: Well, this comes from the fact that for most people, the calendar that they use is a shared digital calendar. So that comes with a bunch of advantages. But I’m gonna focus on the shared aspect of it here. So if you share it with some people that you trust, they can see what you’re up to. They can accommodate that with their work demands or their life demands. It can deepen relationships. I mean, if they’ve seen that you’re planning to see the new Dune movie, for example, it might be a natural icebreaker next time you you see them. So there’s superficial stuff like like that, but superficial that can go quite far. And there’s also just the efficiency of interpersonal commitments. So if you ask me to do something Brett, and I say, okay, yes, will do. That is of some benefit because I’ve told you that I’m going to do it. But when is that gonna happen? If instead I say to you, I’ve timeboxed it for such and such a time, it’s a lot more reassuring for you that it’s gonna get done.

You’re gonna know when it’s going to get done. And also, I mean, just to come back to the collaboration in the shared calendar, you might not even ask me in the first place if you look in my shared… Look at my commitments and you see that I’m just having a really busy week. So you might just hold that back until next week. So one of the things it helps with is the efficiency of interpersonal commitments and how we interact with each other just to increase harmony and reduce friction through just efficient knowledge, information exchange about what we’re up to and when. Now, that’s a kind of very positive way of putting it. It’s not always that simple. You do need to have that trust. And if you work at a place where you don’t have… You have trust issues with some of your colleagues, then that’s a tricky thing. I mean, you can do some things like change the permissions and what people can see on your calendar. That’s something you’ve got to keep in mind as well. But in an ideal world where you can trust and you can be transparent, it’s very, very efficient way of describing to people what you’re up to and when.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I interviewed Cal Newport a few weeks ago about his idea of a more sustainable, slow productivity. And one of the things he said is the problem with our current work system is that it’s not transparent. People can’t see how much you have on your plate. And so they don’t think twice about adding to your load. And this is one of his suggestions, is to let people see your project list or your calendar so they can see I was gonna add another project to your plate, but actually, now that I see how much you’ve already got going on, I’m not going to. So timeboxing fits in perfectly with that.

We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. All right, let’s dig into how we can start timeboxing, getting some big high level principles for people. You recommend a digital calendar ’cause the versatility of it is amazing. You can have it on your smartphone, your desktop.

Marc Zao-Sanders: It’s free.

Brett McKay: You can colab… Yeah, it’s free. You can collaborate with it. Is there software that you prefer or is anyone fine?

Marc Zao-Sanders: I mean, any of them are fine. Frankly, the functionality between these different providers is pretty minimal at this point. So I think it’s become a commodity, which is one of the reasons it’s free. So no, I don’t particularly recommend any one in… I mean, obviously there is one that I use, but I don’t think it’s even worth mentioning which one it is, because it’s not like I’m endorsing it specifically. Well, I’ll just be open. I mean, it’s a Google calendar. But I don’t think that’s particularly pertinent to the practice of timeboxing.

Brett McKay: Okay. So it could be anyone that you like. Another part of this timeboxing element is capturing these things you’re gonna put on your timebox, the to-do list. Do you have any recommendations about that on how to capture all the stuff that you need to put on your calendar?

Marc Zao-Sanders: Yeah, so capture is very much a part of the David Allen method, and that’s absolutely consistent with timeboxing. So for me personally, I have one list. It’s a single Google doc with all my meeting notes as well. I update it every three months or so, otherwise it gets too big. And it’s really important to do that for exactly the reason that David Allen says in general. And I think he said actually on your podcast, which is that you wanna make sure you capture it so that you don’t forget it, but also so that it doesn’t linger in your mind and distract you. You can kind of offload and free up your mind. So yeah, I have one Google doc. That’s where my to-do list goes. All my meeting notes are in there as well. And I don’t think that that’s the perfect method for everyone. That’s what I do. But how it links to timeboxing is when you’re in that 15-minute session at the start of the day, planning out your day, that’s when the to-do list comes in. So whatever the version of to-do list is for you, that’s when you bring it in, is the 15 minutes, the planning and then you decide what you’re gonna do and when over the course of your day.

Brett McKay: Yeah, for me, I use to-do list. That’s my capture tool. And I put everything in there. So it’s not only like… I put in ideas that I have that I think I could take action on eventually. Maybe they’re not fully formed, but they could be fully formed. I put in emails. I even put emails in my to-do list, because I found if I don’t, then the emails don’t get answered. I don’t think treating your inbox as a to-do list is very useful. I put text messages in my to-do list. So if I had an open text message I need to respond to, I put that in my to-do list and then I sort that out during my weekly planning or you can you can sort that out during your daily planning or your timeboxing.

Marc Zao-Sanders: Well, is that… The thing that… I mean, the pertinent point though, I think, Brett, is that it’s one place. So you know that everything is going to be there. You have a system, presumably for… Well, you’re probably going into it daily, right?

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Marc Zao-Sanders: So it can’t be missed. And the same is true of the calendar. When you move that along to when you’re actually gonna get something done, because the calendar is just so central to so many of us. We have meetings every day. We have to use the calendar. We have to return to the calendar, whether we like it or not. So things can’t be missed. The point with a to-do list and your timebox calendar is that you need to just make sure that they are a destination that you go to frequently enough that you’re gonna not miss anything.

Brett McKay: All right. So we got our calendar. We got our to-do list. How do we get those things on the calendar, the things that are on our to-do list onto the calendar? Like, how do you know, you’re going through your list and you see a task and you’re like, is this timebox-able? Like, how do you know if the way it’s phrased or set out or established, you can timebox that? Is there any trick to that?

Marc Zao-Sanders: I mean, it’s really just anything you want and need to do. So let me give you some examples. Some of these I did actually today. So the timebox today, timebox, which is 15 minutes at the start of the day. I’ve mentioned that a couple of times. That was one of them. I did some exercise that was 60 minutes. So that’s a timebox that goes in. I mean, for me personally, I don’t love doing exercise. So having this extra commitment that is in my calendar, it makes the thing happen. And then I feel I get the benefits later. I have another one, which is meetings prep. I do actually wanna just explain this because I think this is really underestimated as a thing to do at work.

So this is a 30-minute timebox that I have not every day, but most days in which I will go through all the meetings that I’ve got later and just do a little bit of preparation for them that might just be two minutes of preparation, checking last time I saw that person, what was the last email, who’s gonna be on the call, maybe check the meeting notes from last time or read a report. But that means that every time I come to a meeting over the course of that day, I’m a little bit prepared. I’m feeling a little bit more confident. We’re hitting the ground running in the meeting. It’s just a better experience. So meetings prep is a timebox-able timebox. Meetings themselves are obviously time boxes. They are in your calendar already.

And this is the sense in which we’re all already timeboxing because we’ve got meetings. So really, timeboxing is easy because it’s an extension of a habit that almost everyone listening to this is already engaged in. I’ve also got time boxes, one-to-one time with the kids, with my wife. There’s one later… For later on, which is writing an email to a potential client. That’s a 15-minute timebox. So really, anything that you feel like you want to do, it is important to do that day. I mean, with that example I just gave of the potential client, I met this person a few nights ago. There was an urgency because I didn’t want to leave it too long before I got back in touch. So it did make sense for it to go on to today’s schedule. So I think mostly, Brett, people have a good idea of what makes sense for a timebox. It’s just a task, and timeboxing, it just means that you’ve got a start time and an end time and you bring a little bit of pressure to getting it done within that time.

Brett McKay: Do you have a recommended increment of time you like to use for your timeboxing? Is it 15 minutes, 30 minutes, 45 minutes, an hour? What’s your ideal timebox?

Marc Zao-Sanders: You almost got it perfectly right. So I have 15, 30 and 60. Obviously, you can have any combination of numbers, but what I recommend is not having too many. So you’re not sitting down to do a task and then part of your brain is lost in, well, should this be a 14-minute task or a 17-minute task or lots of different options. I just got three options, small, medium, large, anything less than 15 minutes for me just doesn’t make sense. There’s too much admin involved. So I just said a minimum of 15 minutes. Sometimes that 15 minutes will consist of three very small tasks or even five very small tasks. But yeah, 15, 30 and 60 are the three sizes I have. And I don’t have anything more than 60 because I mean, obviously sometimes a task will take more than 60 minutes. I had to write a long blog, a longish form blog this week, and that definitely took me more than 60 minutes. But breaking it down into more manageable chunks was a big part of my method for getting it done in the, I don’t know, two hours it took in total. So I wouldn’t have a two-hour timebox for that. And I did break it down into several smaller time boxes in those denominations, 15, 30, 60.

Brett McKay: I like to break up my day in 15-minute increments. I wonder if that’s from my… I was an intern at a law office. The billable hours, like based on 15 minute increments. And so I like to…

Marc Zao-Sanders: Just relate the money.

Brett McKay: Yeah. How do you figure out… So you’re looking at your task list and you’re trying to decide how long this task will take to complete. How do you figure out how long it’s gonna take? How do you estimate that? ‘Cause like there’s this idea of the planning fallacy. Sometimes we overestimate or underestimate how long something will take. So how do we overcome that planning fallacy?

Marc Zao-Sanders: Okay. So there’s a lot of tasks where it’s just really easy. Like you’re saying, well, I’m gonna meditate for 30 minutes. So there’s no way you can get that wrong, right? You just set a timer and the 30 minutes elapses and then that’s the end of it. So there’s just no estimation that can really go wrong with that. Or the meeting just is an hour, or you go for a 5k run and you know that it takes you 25 minutes or 30 minutes or whatever. So I do wanna say that, although yeah, I’ll come onto the planning fallacy in a second, but there are a lot of tasks that just are very easy to size almost by definition. And then on the planning fallacy, which is basically that we are a little bit optimistic very often. There’s some wishful thinking going into how we think about a task. We don’t anticipate what might go wrong. We just see it as if it all goes smoothly.

The way to get around this, and this is reasonably well understood I think now, is make sure you’re not setting a timebox unless you have some experience of it. So if you’ve done this before, let’s say the task is to write a 500 word blog. Well, you could say, well, it’s 500 words and it doesn’t take me very long to write say 100 words, multiply that by five. That’s very likely to suffer from the planning fallacy because it wouldn’t take into account the edits, your dissatisfaction, yeah, just some of the gnarly details of the real world. But if instead you have written a 500 word blog before and you know that it took you 45 minutes or 90 minutes or whatever it was, that’s a much better indicator and so the timebox should reflect that. You can obviously work on that and try and improve on your personal best in the future, but really, the main solution to the planning fallacy is to base it on experience where you possibly can, and if you’ve got a brand new task, it’s harder to do. And so you’re gonna have to be a little bit more experimental and keep some leeway in your schedule.

Brett McKay: Oh yeah. So speaking of that, let’s say you’re planning this new task you’ve never done before, you’re not sure how long it’s gonna take and you timebox that activity for 60 minutes and you’re coming up on 60 minutes and you’re like, Ooh, I’m not gonna get this thing done. Do you extend your period you work on it or do you like, okay, I got to stop this for now and move on to the next item and then schedule this for later. How do you handle that situation?

Marc Zao-Sanders: Okay, so obviously that does happen sometimes, but I’d say a couple of things before we even get to that moment. So first of all, in the planning in the first place, be really, really careful about how you’re estimating… As much as you can how you estimate those time boxes. Then secondly, don’t just wait until you get to the 60th minute and then say, oh, I’m almost out of time. Set a midway point so if you’ve got a task, let’s use the blog again. So 500 words you’ve gotta write in 60 minutes. Set a midway point of 30 minutes in. How are you doing? What’s the word count, what’s the quality like? But still, even if you set a midway checkpoint, you might get to that scenario that you just described, Brett, of, well, I’m kind of running outta time now what do I do?

And in that situation, you’ve gotta use your judgment. I mean, it depends kind of on how important is that blog? What are you doing in the next timebox? Is that something that’s flexible or is it a very hard stop, and then you make a judgment call? In my experience though, if you timebox carefully and you do the midway checkpoints, it’s not very often that you need to to change them, something like the 10% I was talking about earlier. So sure, you need to be flexible, but that’s built into the system of timeboxing. It’s not saying at the start of the day that when you in those 15 minutes, everything’s gotta map out exactly that way, and if it doesn’t, there’s a big problem.

Brett McKay: So another element of this timeboxing isn’t just as you said earlier, it isn’t just making sure you have every 15 minute increment of your day scheduled out and timeboxed There is that, but you also wanna think about the order you do that in. You’re not just going through the list and just kind of haphazardly, oh okay, it’s 9 o’clock to 9:30, I’m gonna do this, 9:30-10:00, I’m gonna do this. You actually wanna think about this like, okay, when… During the day, when will I be most effective at getting this thing done? Or when does this thing need to get done? Does it need to get done early in the day or later in the day? So you also wanna be thoughtful about the order you create your timebox.

Marc Zao-Sanders: You do. I mean, the order definitely matters. The most obvious sense in which they… It matters is that there are certain dependencies that you might hav. So let’s say you’ve got a meeting on Thursday afternoon, you definitely need to do some preparation for it, then your prep meeting for that will need to go at some point earlier in the week, right? So that’s pretty obvious and people need to take that into account. So that’s part of what I mean by order. But then you’ve also got mood and energy, like you say. So for me personally, I’m pretty low energy midmorning and midafternoon. So I tend to do a bit of exercise in the mid-morning ’cause that just perks me up in the first half of the day and I’ll tend to do easier tasks in the mid-afternoon. So that’s what works for me.

But different people are gonna work differently. So this is not me saying, well, you should do everything in the morning or you should do exercise in the morning. You just gotta work out what is the way of curating your day and planning your day that’s gonna bring you the most fun, work with the schedule that you have and how you’re collaborating with others and get the get stuff done on time. Let’s take an example, right? So let’s say you’ve got two tasks to do. One is to write a report and the other is just to do some exercise. What’s the order in which you should do them? Is it exercise, then report or report, then exercise? And that will just be different for different people. For some people, if you do some exercise first, the blood’s then flowing. You’ve got endorphins running around, you’ve got great energy.

That might be great for the creativity you might need to write that report. But for others, it might be that, well, I wanna write the report first, get some of those ideas in my head and then do some exercise, like going for a run, I’ll be able to think about it, think of improvements, I’ll be able to come back and then update the report. There’s no right or wrong, it’s just what will be most productive and enjoyable for you. Again, to come back to the word I keep using with timeboxing, intention. The point is think ahead about your day, how things are gonna go, what’s the order that’s most likely to yield what you wanna get from the day and do things in that order.

Brett McKay: Let’s say you’ve done your timeboxing, you got your day all nice and scheduled. You can color code these things if you want. You don’t have to. People have different systems of color code for work time, personal time, etcetera. That can be useful if you like to do that. But let’s say you’ve scheduled out your day, your timebox perfectly, and you’re like, this is amazing. And then you start going throughout your day, first couple of time boxes you pull off without a hitch, just things are running smoothly, but then some unexpected urgent but important matter pops up during the day and it caused you to have to deviate from your plan. So what do you do if that happens?

Marc Zao-Sanders: Well, I mean, I guess first of all, I’d just question, do you really need to deviate? Is it really that urgent, the thing that’s come up? I mean, people often use this as an objection. And of course, there are situations, like let’s say your kid’s sick or you have some sort of an accident or there’s a really pressing work thing that has come about. So this does happen, but how often does that happen as a proportion of the… Your… It’s not very often. It’s not most of the time. So when it does, you just move your time boxes around in the five, 10% of the times that it happens. I don’t think I’ve ever set out at the start of the day, this isn’t probably quite true, but it’s very rare that I would plan… In those 15 minutes, plan out the rest of the day and not a single thing changes from there.

And occasionally, a lot changes because there’s some big urgent thing that comes along. But the point is that it’s not that frequent. I’d just say one other thing. I mean, if you’ve got some unpredictable phase coming up, and for example, you’ve got a bunch of deliveries that are coming that afternoon, then it just doesn’t make sense to set some time boxes where you’ve got some deep work planned because you know you’re gonna be interrupted and distracted by those things. So in that case, well, probably don’t set any time boxes for that time. Maybe go for a walk or do something that you can be interrupted from and it’s just not gonna cost you very much. So I think that this actually is, Brett, this is the most common objection that I hear to timeboxing is, but what about if plans change? And so I just say, look, set realistic goals at the start. Allow some slack in your schedule. Know that it’s not gonna happen that often. Really, probably less than 10%, and in those 10% of cases when it does, just move them about, it’s not a problem.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I think that idea when something urgent and what might look important pops up, ask yourself, does this really need to be taken care of right now? And I would bet nine times out of 10, the answer’s no. I’ve noticed this with people who are in positions where they’re in helper positions, could be a pastor, caretaker, and they’ll get this frantic text or call at seven o’clock at night and like, oh, I need to talk to you right now. I’ve got this big problem. And they’re like, okay, well, you know, I’m busy right now because I’m with my family. I can’t… Can we schedule it for tomorrow at six o’clock? And they’re like, okay. And they get to that time, they’re like, well, what’s the problem? Like, oh, it’s not a problem anymore, it resolved itself, everything’s fine. It’s like…

Marc Zao-Sanders: Exactly. Okay. In the moment it feels urgent because it’s happened just then. I think actually for modern knowledge workers, for most of us, the best example of this is just the inbox. So some email comes in and it’s from someone reasonably important, like a client or a boss or a colleague or whatever. And it feels like this is something we… It’s just been said to you, so surely you need to react. And there is this natural inclination to wanna react straight away. But in reality, like you just said with that example, it’s probably not that urgent. And actually, the way to fix this and not be bothered by it is to just not see your inbox. Don’t see your inbox apart from in those timeboxed occasions when you are supposed to be in email. Now that might be three times a day, it might be once a day, it might be a couple of times a week. For me, it’s actually only about three times a week. So that for the rest of the time, I don’t get bothered by the apparent urgency of some email that’s come in from someone. So I think you can protect yourself from apparently urgent requests on your time by not seeing certain things.

Brett McKay: Let’s say you got your timebox scheduled and you’re working on something that requires you to be online doing research and then you find yourself down this rabbit hole and you’ve bled over into the next box. How do you avoid getting distracted from your timebox schedule?

Marc Zao-Sanders: I think to some extent, it’s not a bad thing when that happens. I mean, in the example that you just gave, like you’re down a rabbit hole, but it’s kind of, it’s interesting and it feels important and you’re getting some stuff done. And to some extent, I would say that’s not necessarily awful, but I think the thing to do is, look, you get these distractions and sometimes it is just something that’s very, very interesting. The trick, which I mentioned earlier in this conversation, is to try and notice, and this is… I would say honestly, this is the only thing that’s at all difficult about timeboxing, but really, this is about managing distractions because distractions are gonna occur whether you are timeboxing or not. The trick is to notice that feeling that you’re going down and you’re doing this second thing, this thing that you’re not really supposed to be doing, that you… Not this thing that you said that you’re gonna do, you’re moving off, you’re going off track, you’re going down a rabbit hole.

Notice that feeling and associate it with a controlled and better response, which is to, I mean, in my case and what I’m advocating, coming back to your timebox and coming back to that one thing, and you can get better at that. You can make the association stronger. Now, it’s not like I don’t get distracted. I get distracted several times or many times over the course of the day. The difference I think between me and a lot of people that have an issue with distraction is that I don’t get distracted for very long because I’m associating that feeling with coming back to my calendar. So yeah, it definitely happens, but try and associate it with a better behavior and coming back to what you’re doing and you’ll feel more in control and less likely to be down those rabbit holes.

Brett McKay: So let’s say someone’s listening to this and they think, I want to give timeboxing a try. How can people get going with this?

Marc Zao-Sanders: Well, I would recommend this, set a calendar appointment right now. I mean, you’re listening to this, unless you’re driving, do that on your phone or on your computer in your digital calendar. Set an appointment for tomorrow for 15 minutes at the start of the day, soon after you wake up, whenever it makes sense for you. When that time comes tomorrow morning, take a look at your to-do list. You’ll also have a bunch of stuff in your head about what you might do and put two or three items in your calendar for later on. I have this way of remembering, which is 15/15. So I think of it’s 15 minutes at the start of the day to govern the remaining 15 hours of your waking life. Obviously, you don’t need to timebox 15 hours. So I’m suggesting to get started, just put in two or three items from your to-do list, and then when they come up, obviously do them.

You probably will. Like I was saying before when we were discussing implementation intentions, there’s a 90% chance you are gonna get them done and that will feel good. That will be good. It will feel good. And so you’ll wanna do some more. So I’d strongly recommend set that 15 minute appointment right now. You can forget about me, you can forget my name. You can even forget the term timeboxing. But then that calendar appointment will come up tomorrow and remind you to do something. So yeah, so do it now. Put it in your digital calendar and start timeboxing tomorrow morning.

Brett McKay: I love it. Well Marc, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?

Marc Zao-Sanders: I used to have this URL, this was actually part of the pitch, which was, but Penguin, the publisher said, no, don’t do that. You need to use your name, so it’s my name, it’s That’s a tricky name. Marc with a C and zaosanders, no hyphens, Z-A-O-S-A-N-D-E-R-S dot com. And there’s a newsletter and you can sign up and follow my thoughts on time and time management and timeboxing and intention, agency, and what have you there.

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Marc Zao-Sanders, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Marc Zao-Sanders: Thank you, Brett. For me as well.

Brett McKay: My guest today is Marc Zao-Sanders. He’s the author of the book, Time Boxing. It’s available at and bookstores everywhere. You can find more information about his work at his website, Also, check out our show notes at, where you can find links to resources and we delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast. Make sure to check out our website at, where you can find our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles that we’ve written over the years about pretty much anything you can think of. And if you haven’t done this already, I’d appreciate if you’d take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcast or Spotify. It helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member you think will get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continuous support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, [0:50:43.3] ____ reminding you to listen to the podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action


Related Posts

Tags: , ,