“Let’s timebox this”

Last week, I was in a meeting with two colleagues talking about the visual design of something we wanted on an elearning project.

Our graphic designer said: “I’ll spend some time on this.”

My other colleague suggested that she “timebox” the amount of time she spent on playing with the visual design.

I don’t know that I’d heard “timebox” being use this way before. Maybe it’ll soon become an office buzzword in the same league as other hated terms like “let’s circle back” or “let’s think outside the box” or “let’s hold the space” or “let’s take this offline” or “synergy”… you get the point. But, before it gets to the point of annoying buzzword, I wanted to highlight how it’s actually quite an important concept that training designers would be well-served by using.

In the context of the conversation above, my colleague was simply suggesting that our graphic designer not spend all day playing around with the visual design. The suggestion was to keep it to about 2 hours of work, and that should be good enough (because, like most people who are passionate about what they’re doing, this graphic designer could have spent days working on this visual task).

Similarly, if we don’t “timebox” specific parts of our training programs, it would be very easy to spend way too much time on them.

Some of us have content that we love to discuss and get nerdy about. Sometimes our participants have content they find fascinating and would love to keep talking about.

Some of us have activities that are so engaging and lead to such amazing conversations, it seems like we could spend all day in those activities.

Or, some of us like just having a rough outline of our topics without too much detail (we have two hours, so in the session we’ll do some quick introductions, spend some on topic A and topic B, then we’ll wrap things up).

The challenge with any of these scenarios is that our learners come to us expecting to be exposed to certain information or topics. When we don’t add structure (or “timebox”) to our activities or talking points, it’s very easy to get carried away, which means we may need to cut some other things toward the end because we’ve run out of time.

So how can we timebox pieces of our presentations to give us the best chance of getting through all of our content? I’ve posted before about lesson plans, but let’s take a closer look at how some sort of structured outline can help with our planning, and thus help us make sure our learners are getting everything they need from our sessions.

It’s easy to have an outline that looks something like this:

I’ve seen many presenters with an outline like this. I like having an outline like this better than just having a set of slides. Nonetheless, almost every time I’ve seen an outline like this, the presenter runs out of time and needs to either rush through the topics toward the end, or cut things out completely.

Why does this happen?

Look at the opening activity. How long do you think that icebreaker will take? If you have 20 participants, it could take one minute per participant to answer those questions (especially when they decide to joke around, can’t come up with answers, or get extremely chatty and answer with more information than anyone needs to know).

How long should each round of role plays last? How long might the debriefing discussion be? The wrap-up activity could take at least as long as the icebreaking activity.

Assigning specific amounts of time to each activity can help you decide if you’ve put too many activities or too much content into your presentation for the time allotted. It can also help you determine when it’s time to move on, even if the conversation hasn’t reached a natural conclusion. Having a more specific plan, like the one below, can help avoid a lot of time management issues during a session.

Will this solve all your time management issues during a training session? No. There will always be technical difficulties (the projector bulb has blown out, there aren’t enough photocopies, etc), participants will always arrive late, things happen.

Does this mean you must stick to the timing that you place on each activity block? No. There is such a thing as balancing the task at hand (delivering the training program and all your content) with the process of learning (making sure the participants truly understand concepts before moving on). Education and training will always be a balancing act between the task and the process.

That said, timeboxing each component of your training program can surely help keep you on task, give you an idea of when it’s time to “parking lot” a discussion and move on to the next section, and it will help set you up for a paced-out session in which you don’t need to rush to fit everything in (or worse, cut things out).

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