Day 25 – Fix Time, Flex Scope

“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” — Parkinson’s Law

Your Outcome: Learn how to master time management and set effective time limits for things and then bite off what you can chew within that time limit.  Your ability to use timeboxing and time budgets will help you manage your energy, free up your time, get more things done, and achieve work-life balance.
Welcome to day 25 of 30 Days of Getting Results, based on my book Getting Results the Agile Way.  In day 24, we learned how to bounce back with skill and to to draw from our four sources of strength (mind, body, emotions, and spirit.)  Today, we learn the single most effective way to master time management.  It’s the art of timeboxing.  Timeboxing is a simple way to treat time like a budget and choose how much time to spend on things.  This is how you avoid throwing “good time”, after “bad” or working past the point of diminishing returns, or simply put, spending $20 on a $5 problem.
If you’re a procrastinator, or if you have stuff you hate to do, or if you fall pray to ineffective thoughts or get stuck in analysis paralysis, or if you find yourself always running late or missing windows of opportunity, then this post will help you transition to a more effective approach.
Fixing the Time, While Flexing the Scope
One of the best patterns I know for mastering time management is called Fix Time, Flex Scope.   This is a practice we’ve used for several years on our patterns & practices team at Microsoft, to ship things on time and on budget.  I’ve used this pattern personally and for all my projects for a perfect track record of on timeand on budget.  The idea is to fix or allocate a certain amount of time for something in advance, and thenbite off what you can chew within that amount of time.  The opposite pattern is to simply work on something until you’re “done.”  That pattern is Fix Scope, Flex Time.  Basically, you keep throwing time at the problem until you eventually decide it’s done.  That pattern has several problems, including the following:
  1. You no longer have the benefit of time to help you prioritize
  2. You can no longer count on hitting your windows of opportunity
  3. You potentially run out of steam or go into a “death march” with no end in sight before you actually finish
  4. You end up throwing time at problems (time expands to fill it’s container)
  5. You end up with “scope creep” because of your moving timeline that just keeps moving out further and further.
3 Easy Steps for Timeboxing with Skill
Here are 3 key steps to creating effective timeboxes:
  • Step 1. Identify candidate areas for time boxing. Identify candidates for time boxing.  This could be anything from work projects to personal projects.  Personally, I’ve found it the most effective to start with something small, such as starting a new exercise program.  I’ve also found it effective to use it to tackle my worst time bandits (any area where I lose a bunch of time, with either little ROI or at the expense of another area.)
  • Step 2.  Identify your objectives. In this step, ask yourself what you need to accomplish with time boxing.  Examples include: meet a deadline, show incremental results, make incremental progress on a tough problem, build momentum, etc.
  • Step 3.  Identify the appropriate time box. In this step, figure out what a right-sized time box would be.  For example, you might have a project due in three weeks.  Within that three week time box, you might decide that if you allocate 2 hours a day, you’ll produce effective results.
The right-sized time box largely depends on what you determined in Step 1.  You might need to grow or shrink your time box depending on whether you’re trying to build momentum, show results or just make progress on a problem.
10 Ways to Think in Terms of Fixing Time and Flexing Scope
Here are some ways to think in terms of fixing time and flexing scope:
  1. 3×3 system … use three stories for your day, for your week, for your month, and for your year.  This is  a simple and direct way to fix time, while flexing scope (you are varying your stories within the timeboxes of a day, week, month, and year.)
  2. Catch the next train.  Keep your trains leaving the station.  When you miss one, don’t hold your train back.  Instead, catch the next one.  It’s a simple metaphor but it keeps things flowing.  For example, if you missed completing one of your stories today, then you might add it to tomorrow’s metaphorical train, but only if it’s the next best thing for you to do.
  3. Ask yourself, “How much time should it take?
  4. Ask yourself, “How much time do you actually have for it?”
  5. Think in terms of “containers” of time to do your work in.  For example, you might have a 30 minute container, or a 2 hour container or a 1 day container or a week as a container, etc.    Give yourself enough space in this container.
  6. Have a time and a place for things.  Simply organizing your time this way will help you find peace of mind.  For example, I have a small windows on Sunday mornings that I use for creative work.  If I miss it, later in the day just doesn’t feel the same.  As such, I use this time for what it’s really meant for.  Don’t try to rob Peter to pay Paul.
  7. Ding … your time is up.  When your timebox expires and your time is up, treat it like it’s really up and be done with it.
  8. Think in terms of “good enough for now” and treat perfection as a “journey”, not a “destination.”
  9. Version your work.  Your first version might not be as good as your second, third, or fourth, but get in the habit of using versions as a way to share and improve your work over time.  For example, you might create an Alpha, Beta, Version 1, Version 2, etc.
  10. Chunk your work down.  This is key both to flowing value along the way, as well as having cuttable scope.   One unit that I find works well is using a story, where the story is a narrative of a task you’ll perform or a goal you’ll achieve.  Your stories can vary in size whether they are one of your stories for the day, the week, the month, or the year.   For example, a meaningful story for the year might be a much larger story than a story you would tackle within a single day.
A Story … “It’s Done When It’s Done”
Many moons ago, one of my early turning points in my career as a Program Manager at Microsoft was during a meeting with my manager about when my project would ship.  The conversation went roughly like this … My manager asked me when my project would be done, and I said I didn’t know.  I added that there was no way we could accurately estimate or even guestimate when we could finish everything left on the plate.  I was basically scope-driven and the project would be done, when I finished all the scope.
I remember a colleague saying, “What I’m hearing you say is … it’s done when it’s done.”
At the time, that seemed perfectly reasonable to me.  After all, something is done when it’s done, isn’t it?  The problem was that nobody was signed up to bet on something that didn’t have an end date.  Nobody wanted to keep supporting something where they could not see the end in sight and they could not see any results until after I shipped, sometime in the future.
To make a long story short, I ended up having to set a date and brutally cut scope to ship on time.  My biggest wake up call was that I didn’t actually have much cuttable scope (things that I could easily cut without killing the quality) and that trying to whittle something down was far worse than building something up with a timeframe in mind.
That was how I learned to go from scope-driven to time-driven and actually treat time as a first-class citizen.
Today’s Assignment
  1. Pick one of your daily activities that eats too much time and set a time limit for it.  For example, one of the best moves I did long ago was decide that I would not spend more than 30 minutes a day on email (and I get a ton of email at Microsoft that requires my attention and actions.)  This one move forced me to both ruthlessly prioritize and find way better techniques to manage my email.
  2. Pick one thing that you’ve been spreading out over too much time and create a timebox for it.  Maybe it’s a pet project that you would love for it to see the light of day.  Maybe it’s write a book.  Decide how much more time is worth spending on it, at least for a strawman or whatever is “good enough for now.”  Maybe it’s worth spending another day, another week,  or another month, etc.  Whatever the timebox is, put your stake in the ground.  Then decide the most important things to complete for your project within that time.  Cherry pick the most important value, and work on that first, until you run out of time in your timebox.