Timeboxing for Students: Get More Done. Have More Fun.

My first semester of college was tough. I struggled for several reasons, but if I had to point to the single biggest cause of stress, it would have to be poor time and workload management.

I would overestimate how much study time I had available and underestimate how much time I needed to get my tasks done. I started late, pulled all-nighters, and bad grades followed. I quickly became stressed and overwhelmed.

But thankfully I figured it out. I developed a skill that saved my grades before it was too late.

Timeboxing – Tool of The Giants

This is the most important skill I developed when I was in college and Law school and it is still helping me today.

It has a few different names: Timeboxing, Time Blocking, Hyper Planning… but no matter what people call it, they all agree — it produces a massive amount of productivity.

It’s how Bill Gates and Elon Musk organize their day, and productivity expert Cal Newport goes as far as to say:

A 40 hour time-blocked work week, I estimate, produces the same amount of output as a 60+ hour work week pursued without structure.

I tend to agree. I was able to be a marathon runner, get near-perfect grades, have a job in college and Law school, and make a ton of friends.

So if you’re asking:

Is Timeboxing Right for Me?

It is if you want to get a lot done and still have time for fun.

In a recent study, timeboxing was found to be the most useful productivity “hack.” This is what the study had to say:

Time-boxing will improve your life. It works because it touches on so many aspects of productive behavior: single-tasking, prioritizing, frequent feelings of accomplishment, and being honest with yourself about how you spend your day.

Gates and Musk are Not that Different from You

Both Bill Gates and Elon Musk, who time block their days into 5-minute blocks, have a lot going on. They have fixed meeting times, and many tasks with different deadlines. They also schedule time for learning so they are always at the forefront of their field.

They are two of the busiest people on Earth, but I’d argue that they are not that different from you.

As a student, you also have meetings (i.e. classes, activities, jobs) that are fixed on your schedule and hundreds of tasks with firm deadlines scattered across all your classes. You also need time for learning to prepare for your exams. See, not that different!

And just like you, Bill and Elon also only have 24 hours in a day. So why not organize your day like the super productive tech giants?

How Does Timeboxing Work?

Timeboxing is simply assigning each of your tasks to specific dates and times on your calendar… boxes.

It is a combination of your Calendar and your To-Do list.

To-Do Lists Are Broken – “Due” vs “Do”

To-Do lists have two problems:

Firstly, they don’t take duration into account. You need to know how much time you need for each task to be confident that you’ll be able to get it done on time.

Secondly, To-Do lists may contain Deadlines (i.e. “Due” times), but NOT the “Do” times. If you want to have a stress-free study life, it is not enough to know when something is due. You need to know when you’ll get it done.

A Calendar is Not Enough

Calendars are great for scheduling your classes, activities, and meetings, but they do not allow you to easily drag and drop tasks from your to-do lists into the “Do” times (boxes) on your calendar.

That is where timeboxing comes in. It combines your calendar and your To-Do list into a cohesive unit.

Timeboxing – Combining your Calendar and To-Do List

By merging your Calendar and To-Do list, you block off a specific time in your calendar for each task. It is helpful to estimate your tasks in your To-Do list beforehand, so all you have to do is find the right amount of time in your Calendar and drop the task in.

The Benefits of Timeboxing

Thanks to timeboxing, you will never miss another party because you procrastinated for too long and pushed everything to the last minute. Timeboxing is your solution to not having enough time to get things done. It will get you good grades without feeling like you have to study all the time.

Gives You Confidence To Get Everything Done

If you timebox a task into your calendar, it means you dedicate a set time for the task. Yes, sometimes you may underestimate how long your tasks will take, but you’ll learn from experience. The point is that you actually know what you’ll be doing and when. You no longer say that you’ll get all of these tasks done on some random evening. You know exactly what you’ll work on and when you’ll work on it.

Once you dedicate time to each task, you will be able to look at your week in confidence, knowing that you’ll be able to get everything done on time.

Eliminates Distractions. Instills Self-Discipline.

If you want to get good grades as a student,  you need self-discipline and commitment, but it’s not that easy with all the distractions of the modern world. YouTube always serves you the next thing you’ll want to watch, social media is engineered to be incredibly addicting, and tv shows are just too damn good for watching “just one” episode.

Timeboxing will help you commit to getting things done. Once a task takes up time in your calendar, you are way less likely to be doing something else. It is the same as when you schedule a specific time to go to the gym. It is no longer: “I will workout tomorrow,” or “I will get it done tomorrow.” It is: “I will workout from 3 to 4pm” and “I will do my English reading from 6 to 7pm.”

Setting a specific time in your calendar for each task will make it easier to be self-disciplined.

Helps You Say “No”

Your friends always want to make their schedules yours. Some of them study in the morning so they invite you to hang out at night, and some of them are night owls so they invite you to chill during the day. On top of that, everything they invite you to is always more fun than studying, so naturally, it is hard to say no when your calendar is empty.

Timeboxing will help you say “no.” It will help you protect your study time. When you schedule a task into a specific time in your calendar, you don’t have to think about it. That is what you will be doing. You can tell your friends when you’ll be free so they can reorganize their schedule to fit yours.

Prepares You for Your Professional Life

A big part of timeboxing is estimating how long it will take you to get things done. Every business needs time estimates to plan their projects, so estimating time will be required of you in any professional position.

Bill Gates and Elon Musk are successful professionals who timebox, so starting this technique as a student will put you way ahead of the curve.

How to Timebox with Shovel

Timeboxing requires two things. A detailed study timetable (calendar), and a to-do list with task duration estimates.

Timeboxing or time-blocking tasks with a study planner

You can try timeboxing on paper or with a regular calendar, but we built Shovel specifically to help students timebox their tasks with ease.

Shovel is more flexible than a paper planner and way more powerful than a calendar. It has your schedule for every day of the semester, and all your tasks from all your classes in one place. Below, I’ll show you how to timebox with the Shovel Study Planner.

But no matter what tool you choose to use, there are a few things you need to do to timebox effectively.

1. Create an Accurate Schedule

Before you can start timeboxing your tasks into your calendar, you need to know when you can get your tasks done. For that, you need an accurate study timetable.

Take everything into account:

  1. Classes
  2. Activities
  3. Meals
  4. Me Time
  5. Commute Time

In Shovel, you can use our drag and drop feature to create your schedule in seconds.

Study Timetable in Shovel ready for timeboxing

This will reveal when you can actually work on your tasks and that alone is hugely beneficial.

2. Know What Tasks You Have To Get Done

If you are going to assign tasks to specific times, it’s good to know exactly what those tasks are.

Your syllabus should show you all the tasks you need to complete, but if you don’t have one, enter tasks into Shovel as soon as you know what they are. The key is to have all your tasks in one central place.

Task List in Shovel Study Planner

In Shovel, you will have all your tasks from all your classes neatly organized any way you want. You can view them by courses, task categories, weeks, due dates, difficulty etc.

3. Estimate How Long Each Task Will Take

Timeboxing is about matching an available time block in your calendar (box) with a task of the same duration. That means you need to know how long each task is going to take.

Every assignment is different and you don’t always know what you’re in for. However, you can make reasonably accurate estimates for each task. Start with your best guesstimate and learn as you go. Don’t worry, you will get better at estimating very quickly.

4. Start Timeboxing

Now the best part. Look at all of the free time blocks that you have available. Look at the tasks that you have to get done and start dragging and dropping them into time slots.

Timeboxing task in Shovel Study Planner

There are many ways to assign individual tasks to specific study blocks in Shovel. The example above shows the simplest way, which is picking a task from the task list and dropping it into the calendar.

As you can see, based on the task’s estimate, Shovel shows you how much time of a task is still “not planned.” For example, if you have a 6-hour task and you timebox it into 4 hours, Shovel will show you that you have 2 hours left to plan (red number in the bottom right corner).

5. Learn From Experience

As humans, we tend to underestimate how long things will take. We are too optimistic. This is a well-known phenomenon called the planning fallacy.

So yes, it will happen that you timebox your day only to find out you were not able to stick to your plan. But don’t worry, that will happen mainly at the beginning. As you record long it took you to do something, you will adjust your estimates going forward and your timeboxing accuracy will improve.

When to Timebox?

This depends on your preference. Some students like to plan a month in advance, some like to plan every Sunday night, and some like to plan only the night before.

Do what works for you, but I’d recommend not planning more than a week in advance.

Set Start Dates for Tasks

Shovel has a great feature where it will show you tasks based on when you plan to start working on them. For example, it will show you the small tasks you have due this week, but also the big paper you want to get started on 3 weeks before it’s due. This way, all you have to do is scan what tasks are within their start dates and make sure that they are fully planned.

Shovel Was Built for Timeboxing

If you want to be more productive and you think you want to give timeboxing a try, check out Shovel. It was built to get you organized and keep you stress-free.

If you want to learn how to study from start to finish, I’d recommend reading this article.

Thanks for reading.

Jim Sivers.

Become a more productive student.

Shovel Study Planner App

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