Time constraints can increase efficiency

The benefits of timeboxes

Sunday, March 29, 2015

In design, constraints can actually be beneficial in the creative process. For instance, designing for a specific size or form factor, such as a small mobile phone, can make you think in ways that bring about new design concepts that would never have emerged without the constraint.

So too are constraints sometimes beneficial in other parts of life. Putting a time constraint (also known as a timebox) on a task can make you focus on that task more effectively. Conversely, having a lax timebox can result in Parkinson’s law, that is, “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”.

I’ve been hustling at college for the past few months, and they have easily been one of the busiest months of my life. Every day, my calendar was filled from wake to sleep, and I worked to optimize the amount of time I spent eating and filling in gaps between classes.

At the same time, I still found time to sit down and do a few minutes of journaling on the day, as well as a nightly end-of-day review and a Sunday end-of-week review. I also found time to read the blogs that I wanted to follow, usually during the 15 minutes per day that I allocated to relaxing, and doubled up lunch and dinner time with reading the New York Times.

Since I had the constraint of not having much time, I was able to allocate a timeboxed amount of time to carry out these pretty important activities. I assumed that once the term ended, I would be able to relax and write more intricate journal entries, think about how to improve my review procedure, keep up with the three or four blogs I follow regularly, and read the news a lot more.

Not so. I haven’t written a journal entry in two weeks nor an end-of-day review, despite the fact that they take 5 minutes a day to do. I haven’t kept up with those blogs, and I haven’t read the news in a while.

It turns out that used my time more effectively when I had more constraints than when I had fewer. Put another way, having constraints actually let me use my time more effectively.

When talking to Dan Shipper about balancing college and work, he says that despite school taking up a bulk of his time, he finds that he sometimes gets more done with the 2 hours of focused time between classes than when he has a full day free.

It’s easier to sit down and say “okay, I need to get this, this, and this done” when you only have 2 hours. When you have 12, things are a bit more fuzzy, and forces such as overestimation of the amount of time you have, and micro-practices such as letting yourself get distracted can add up to actually make you less effective.

In other words, without constraints, work expands to fill the time, and having more time does not necessarily mean a better output—it might actually decrease output.

Toward a theory of constraints

One theory is that having constant constraints and demands helps define the value of the activities that you have little time for, since by contrast they become more important to you since the time to do them is scarce. Another theory might relate to Taleb’s “antifragile” concept, where systems actually benefit from uncertainty and stress.

More abstractly, it may be that as a resource increases in amount (such as more time), other forces come into play that sometimes introduce inefficiencies and secondary effects that are not present when that resource is less abundant; when the resource is constrained, doing so might actually eradicate inefficiencies to reduce the impact of a constraint, break even, or even go as far as increase efficiency with a decreased resource. More work should be done to figure out what these inefficiencies are.

In any case, it seems that constraints are not always detrimental, and, at least in the case of time management, can actually be beneficial for efficiency.

By Mark Bao

I write about behavioral science, personal growth, mental models, and strategy.