How to Set and Work with Time Limits


This time of the year is the most stressful for me with year-end closing, income taxes, annual reports, and general meetings. On top of it all, I added a new fun project, plus all the routine tasks.

And for that I suffered. I’m behind in writing and responding to emails, and for that I apologize. This article is my attempt to deal with too much to do by using time limits and a flexible timeline.

Let’s start with the way things are.

The life of a juggler

Imagine that each one of us is a juggler. Think of every task and interruption as a ball coming your way. You either let it drop, or you pick it up in midair while juggling the other balls you’ve previously chosen. Once you get something done, the ball vanishes.

The balls vary in color and size. Red balls are large and represent external demands and serious deadlines. Your passion projects are green. Routine things like emails, phone calls, or personal interruptions, are little white balls. And then there are yellow, blue, and purple balls for all the other things thrown your way.

How it works

What we tend to do is deal with the light small white balls because they’re easy and will disappear quickly. We also hold on to the hot red balls because we have to keep going, or we’ll pay the price.

As things keep coming, we juggle faster and faster. At one point we’ll drop a few to keep up. The balls we usually drop are the ones with no immediate consequences.

Once you become aware that you dropped a few, you do your best to pick them up again and move faster. Eventually, you’ll stop trying to pick up what you dropped, and barely juggle the ones you’ve kept, along with the new incoming stuff.

Without noticing, we’ll end up keeping the balls that are important to others, and dropping the ones that matter only to us.

Juggling and dealing with whatever comes up may work for a day or two. But it’s not a sustainable way of functioning, if we want to avoid stress and burnout, and get meaningful results.

So let’s consider another strategy.

From juggler to time traveler

Instead of juggling, let’s put all the tasks down. Then take some time to look at each task, and set a time limit (the maximum time you want to spend on this task today).

Imagine you’re standing in a hallway. There are rooms with closed doors. Each room has one significant task/ball or a bunch of small tasks. Each door has a sign with the time limit you’ve established.

You choose a door, enter the room, and work on your task. Once the time is up, the door opens, and you need to leave, otherwise you’ll get stuck in the same place, and you may not be able to leave the room any time soon.

Now let’s put it into practice.

How to set time limits and work with them

In a nutshell, we need to look at our day as a timeline (hallway with rooms and doors) and assign tasks a certain time limit.

1- Identify all the things you do/would like to do. Make a list of all the items (balls) that you’re currently dealing with or would like to take on.

2- Determine the type of each task. Consider the following classifications.

  • Importance: Is the task important, or not?
  • Difficulty and intensity: Is it easy or difficult? How long would it take to get it done?
  • Frequency: Is this a one-time action or an ongoing task?
  • Consequences: What would happen if you didn’t do it?
  • Accountability and deadlines: Do you have to report to someone about this task? And if so, when?

You don’t need to write down every detail about each task. You just need to consider such details when you assign a time limit.

3- Allocate a time limit to each item on your list. Based on your understanding of the nature of each task, how long would you like to spend on it?

4- List all tasks and allotted times. Now you have a master list of all the things and how long you would like to spend on each one.

5- Prepare a timeline view. How is your day going to look like with all the tasks and time limits scheduled? Imagine that your day is the hallway. How many doors (tasks) can you handle in one day? Creating a timeline is intended to give you a rough idea of how your tasks fit into your day—not a set in stone schedule.

You can use this spreadsheet (right click to download it to your computer).

6- Modify tasks and time limits to fit a realistic schedule. If you list all your items and you realize you’ll finish by midnight (for example), you need to revise the tasks or their time limits. I don’t recommend scheduling past 6PM (assuming you start around 8-9AM). I do my best to list my tasks to end around 3:30PM (and with interruptions and distractions, I end up finishing around 5PM).

7- Start with the first task. Open the door, get in, give it your best, and leave when the time’s up. Use the list as a guideline.

As long as you’re sticking to the tasks and time limits, you don’t need to follow the same sequence as your schedule.

Keep going till you either complete the tasks, or you reach the end of the workday.

At the end of the day, look at your list and what you’ve accomplished and update your timeline.

Guidelines to ensure you stick to your time limits, without stress

The ideas of time limits/blocks and scheduling have been around since the beginning of productivity systems. What we’re doing here is using both with a lighter touch. Consider the following pointers.

The most important thing: The main objective of this exercise is to do things with intention and move consciously through your tasks and days. This means you’re not reacting and scrambling most of the time.

Reasonable limits: Keep the time limit for each task small enough that it’s manageable (i.e. more fun, less willpower) but large enough that you can get something done. The range I’ve used in the past is 15 to 45 minutes. If you’d like to allocate more time to one particular task, break it into two sessions.

Varying time limits: Not all tasks are created equally. Some tasks are more familiar so you can use 30 or 40 minutes. Tasks that are new or resistance prone can have a lower limit of 15 minutes. Go down to five or ten minutes, if you need to. You can also batch smaller admin tasks into one session.

Limiting hot red tasks, and time wasters: You don’t want to take work home, or lose your weekend fretting over deadlines. Also you don’t need to get lost in the abyss of the Internet or social media. So use time limits with both urgent and distracting activities.

The beginning and end of day are sacred: Use this time to take care of yourself and spend time with your family.

Fluid scheduling: Add breaks and cushions to your time. If you use the worksheet referenced in this article, you can add a small break/interruption with each task. The schedule is meant to be a map of your day (hallway). You may end up working on your tasks in a different sequence, finish one earlier, or not finish one, or face a major interruption. It’s okay. The main point is you worked deliberately and with ease. You can adjust tomorrow.

The cost of going with the flow: One of the best feelings we can ever experience is to be one with what we’re doing; we lose track of time and everything else. However, this can backfire. Losing oneself and spending hours on one project can be fun, but it may take time away from other things you need to get done. In this case, even passion gets a time limit.

The life of the time traveler

Traveling through time limits is a calmer and more effective way of getting things done, and growing.

If you use this approach, you’ll become more aware of your work style and coping mechanism (easing stress, handling interruptions). You’ll also have a better understanding of your priorities, and how you use your time.

Just give it a try. It’s been working for me so far.

To mindful, and relaxed productivity!