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Timeboxing for Creative Professionals

Creative ideation

Being creative is a mind game.

No matter how much time you have for ideation, you can always come up with a good idea. It just takes extra time and energy to identify which of those ideas is the best one to pursue, then iterate on it to achieve some polish. This can be accomplished through the use of timeboxing. This is a technique that is regularly used in agile software development, but is also quite adaptable and useful for any creative professional to improve their speed to an idea.

Timeboxing is also excellent for defeating procrastinators. Most designers—myself included—ruminate subconsciously on a possible solution for days on end. This is a luxury of time that isn't feasible if you're working regularly to tight deadlines. And besides, most designers have trouble meeting their deadlines no matter how far off they twinkle in the distance.

So, what is timeboxing? And how can you use it on your next project?

In its simplest form, timeboxing is the use of short, structured sprints to achieve stated ideation goals. This chunking of time allows you to dismantle a big, thorny challenge into a series of manageable steps that have tangible output.

For example, if you have been provided with a creative brief for 2 logo designs that are due in two business days, you could set up a timebox of 30 minutes to sketch at least 10 design ideas that could then be refined (in another 30 minute timebox) to arrive at three executable ideas.

With those three ideas in hand, you would use the rest of your project time for refinement. While executing those ideas, you would likely encounter another idea or two, conduct any necessary reviews with your boss or colleagues to incorporate feedback. Those latter activities would be structured to keep you from spending the last five minutes frantically finishing the last logo before the client review. (This always inevitably happens, but at least this way you've planned for it.)

Does spending only an hour on creative concepting sound inhumane? The enemy of great work? Or does it guard you from distraction? Create more focus?

For me, it's the latter. Without the sharpness of an oncoming deadline, I can spend hours ping-ponging between my stated work goals and voraciously consuming information the range of subjects I find interesting, talking with my co-workers, staring out the window to watch traffic, and so forth. Because of my tendency for distraction, I use timeboxing to encourage maximum productivity in a timeframe that still leaves enough open space in the margins for activities like, say, writing this blog. (Most posts on this blog are timeboxed to 15 minutes for ideation, 15 minutes for writing an outline, then 30 minutes for writing the guts of the piece.)

I've met design professionals that partake in wildly different kinds of rituals in order to cough up compelling visual ideas—ranging anywhere from always using their lucky pencil to opening up Adobe Illustrator after having exactly 1.5 cups of coffee with sugar and a dash of cream. Upon asking these folks how they arrived at this ideal method for creative inspiration, the consistent response I received was, "It has worked for me more than any other method." Then, when really stuck on a thorny problem, they would sleep on it, go for a walk, or otherwise let their subconscious ruminate on a possible solution for days on end.

Timeboxing is a great way to put boundaries around rumination, which is useful as a tool, but it is part of a much larger set of weapons in the designer's toolbox—and should always function as the last resort of the creative professional. (I liken it to shooting a flower with a bazooka.) Also, this kind of reliance on a single technique for your best work leads to a similar kind of output. Besides, reducing the number of avenues you can use to pursue discovering novel creative solution is a risky venture.

The more that you use timeboxes, the more effective you become as a creative thinker. The activity of timeboxing teaches you to switch your creativity on at will and think more intuitively. You will also fear deadlines less.

However, there are some caveats as to how using timeboxes should be put into practice...

If you're working in larger than 30 minute increments, you aren't timeboxing. Timeboxes, when used for individual and group brainstorming, have to be brief to be effective. Otherwise, you aren't feeling the pressure to fill the time with your effort.

Timeboxing won't let you luxuriate in flow, in the traditional sense. This is a stated goal for most designers—to lose themselves in the process of artistic creation. Timeboxing lets you dip into the experience of flow, albiet briefly, in a manner that keeps you focused on producing raw, intuitive material that leads to flow in refinement. It'll take some time for this activity to not feel overwhelming. Working to mini-deadlines requires detachment, which you'll need to cultivate through practice.

Timeboxing in collaborative teams can exponentially increase the volume of a team's output. Working for 15 minutes in a small team can yield as many ideas as an individual over a few hours. But be realistic about the quality and quantity of output you can generate the first half-dozen times you try this.... team members with varying dispositions will adopt the activity at their own pace.

Brief timeboxes are great for ideation, but terrible for making. This is especially true when fulfilling tasks on the computer, where iterating and refining a visual design can become a massive timesuck. It just isn't physically possible to execute an idea within an ultra-tight timeframe. The tools you're using don't support the activity. Execution is where, in our profession, we will always spend the most time. My spending 30 minutes writing a full blog post doesn't mean that it's a good post—it may need further time spent in revision to really shine.

Just because you use timeboxes doesn't mean your work will always be great. Getting from good to great results when using timeboxes will force you to identify when you'll need to break out of the process to seek further ideas or more refinement. Just because you spent 30 minutes in ideation doesn't mean you came up with 3 killer ideas. Timeboxing will force you to build in moments to cast a critical eye towards the output of your work at hand, and decide if more time will need to be applied against your goals to succeed.


This is just a quick overview of timeboxing for use in a creative practice. In future posts, I'll go into further detail regarding this subject—both in individual brainstorming and in its use for collaboration.


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