Last week, I listened to a short podcast from Emily P. Freeman and was inspired. In it, she described her “reading rhythms”—the types of books she reads at various times of the day. For her, mornings are for spiritual books, afternoons are for personal and professional development, and evenings are for fiction and memoir.
First, I love this. I love that it sets you up for reading success, I love that it assumes you are reading multiple (different) things at once, and I love that it feels so true. (It totally resonates that reading a professional development book at night feels weird!)
Second, it clicked with another experiment I’ve been playing with over the past few weeks. Inspired by author and podcaster Laura Tremaine, I’ve been testing a 20-minute reading timer to give myself a way to consume more nonfiction.
You see, I am a big-time reader. Our house is (basically) a library, with floor-to-ceiling built-ins filling three rooms. I have a stack of books I want to read that’s a mile high—but I only have so many hours in the day.
Like Emily, I love reading fiction at night, so that tends to be what I prioritize. For whatever reason, I don’t have trouble making time to plow through romance novels or the latest best-seller.
But I also want to read nonfiction. I know that business and psychology and productivity and creativity books have been hugely helpful for me in the past, but I have trouble prioritizing them within the very real limits of my daily schedule.
I also know that I am better at my job when I make time to grow. I have to invest in inputs if I want to continue producing high-quality outputs. If I want to benefit from the riches of being a lifelong learner, I have to prioritize, well, learning!
Enter: Laura’s 20-minute timer experiment.
Every day, I pick up a nonfiction book and set a 20-minute timer on my phone. I put everything else away (my computer, and even the phone itself!) and read. And then my phone buzzes and I go back to work.
I set out to do this first thing in the morning (and that is still my aspiration), but life sometimes gets in the way. No worries. I can use some of my lunch break, or even an afternoon chunk of my timeboxing.
I’m primarily choosing books that fall into Emily’s “personal and professional development” category—books that will spark thoughts on how to be a better marketer, a better manager, or a better human. And after two weeks, I can safely say that I am learning a lot—and loving this practice.
If you want to test your own 20-minute timer, I asked the S+G team for a few recommendations of nonfiction books that have changed the way they think about life or work. A few ideas:
- Atomic Habits by James Clear, the seminal classic on how to get things done (recommended by Lindsey)
- Range by David Epstein, the book that gave me words around why one of my favorite qualities in people (and employees) is curiosity (recommended by me)
- It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, the book that guided us to develop our unique (and uniquely non-crazy) culture at Swell+Good (recommended by Ian)
- Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert, our go-to guide to creativity (recommended by Lindsey and me!)
Next on my list are The Perfectionist’s Guide to Losing Control by Katherine Morgan Schafler and The Creative Act by Rick Rubin—and I can’t wait to let you know what I learn!
I am a sucker for a good time management system. I love to-do lists. I spent (many, many) years waking up before the sun. And buying my planner is a highlight of my year. (Yes, while I heavily rely on digital tools, I still have a paper planner and multiple paper calendars. PaperSource can go ahead and take all my money.)
I’m here for all the trends and hacks—the magic “solutions” that will make the fact that I have 14 hours of work to do in a 7-hour time period somehow manageable. (Spoiler alert: it’s not. Enter my lifelong work of pushing back against hustle culture and my innate need to do.)
But while I fully recognize that a time management “system” is not going to solve all of my problems, I do think a good system can help. It can help you sort through the dozens (hundreds?) of tasks that vie for your attention, prioritize them, and fit them into your day—without you losing your sanity in the process. And hopefully, a good system can help you waste less time so that you make the most of the limited hours you have in a day.
Which brings me to my most recent experiment: timeboxing.
I am not inventing the wheel here, people. Timeboxing is the current time management darling across countless “experts” and publications—just ask Forbes or Harvard Business Review or Bill Gates or Elon Musk—and for good reason: it works.
But first, the basics.
What is timeboxing?
At its core, timeboxing is moving your to-do list into your calendar. It’s assigning not just what needs to get done, but what will get done when. It’s portioning your day into (sometimes tiny) chunks of time that are each allotted to a task, meeting, or item to handle. And according to a Filtered study on the 100 best productivity hacks, it ranks #1.
How do you do it?
I started my timeboxing experiment at the beginning of the year by simply using my Google calendar. I began each week by looking at my task list, then I translated that list into my calendar with “meetings” set for each and every assignment.
The downside, of course, is that life happens. Surprise meetings, tasks that take way longer than anticipated, a phone call that you have to answer, a sick kid. Sometimes, your beautifully scheduled week gets thrown off track—and you have to move all of those carefully placed blocks.
This week, I started playing with Motion—one of many apps designed for timeboxing. The benefit of the app is that it moves tasks for me if I miss them, or if I need more time. It’s constantly rearranging my schedule so that I don’t have to worry about it.
It’s only been three days, but so far, I’m loving it. (Check back with me in a month and I’ll let you know a real review!)
Does it work?
The short answer is yes—timeboxing has been great for me and I’m going to stick with it (at least for now!). Here are a few reasons why:
- I get a lot done. Having a very planned day keeps me productive and less prone to distraction. Sure, I still pick up my phone sometimes, but if I know I only have 20 minutes to complete a task, my competitive nature makes me race against the clock!
- I don’t have to wonder if I’ll be able to make it through my list anymore. I know I can because I already have time allotted to complete every task. It takes a mental burden off of me that I didn’t even know I was carrying.
- My breaks are real breaks. When I’m not working, I don’t have the nagging thought of “I should be working” because my tasks already have a home.
- My mornings are calmer. I used to wake up and face a big list of to-dos. Now I start with a single task, knowing that all the other single tasks will be waiting for me at their appointed times.
- If I think of something I want/need to do, I know when I can feasibly do it. If a new request comes in, I can give a much more honest timeline. And if I have a personal task to handle, I know when I’m free to give it attention.
Timeboxing, like anything, isn’t magic. But if you’re looking for a way to better organize your days and your to-dos, it might be worth your own experiment. I’d love to hear your thoughts—and if you have your own time management hacks, you know you should send them my way!