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Goal Setting Vs. Timeboxing: Why One Sucks

Why am I discussing timeboxing and goal setting? Well… it’s because I realized one is superior to the other. How so? We’ll go into that a little later. Let’s discuss goal setting.

Goal Setting

Goal setting has been the idea of setting something to achieve in the future. For example, I want to get an A+ on my film and arts course, or I want to write a novel by next August. In contemporary management, the framework for goal setting is based on the SMART criteria. It propagates that a goal should be

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Relevant
  • Timely

And there are other frameworks that go beyond this set, such as SMARTER, where evaluation and reevaluation are included. I won’t be getting into.

The problem I see with SMART goals and more generic SMART goals is that there is only a single path. This being the only path to the goal. Let’s use an example of losing 10 pounds by next month. In this example, there is a goal of losing 10 pounds and a time period of finishing the goal in a month. But how about if I don’t achieve the goal? What if I only lose 9 pounds? What if I don’t lose any but instead I actually gained 2 pounds?

Don’t you feel angry at yourself if you were to gain weight instead of losing weight which was your intention? I definitely would! I would feel like sh#t. So, is there another way to achieve something in a certain time period without the negative reaction when we don’t achieve our goal? Yes there is.


What is Timeboxing? Timeboxing is much like a scientific experiment where you come up with a hypothesis and a null hypothesis. In terms of achieving something, think of goal setting but with 2 additional branches after having reached or failed at reaching the goal. Let’s look at the picture below.


We can see that A is where we are now and B is where we want to be. Up to this point, this would be the SMART goal setting technique. So you either could be successful or a failure. Instead, what we use  in timeboxing is Success or Alternative. You see, the alternative for the not losing 10 pounds could be to reevaluate your diet or just stop the regimen, because it may not be working for you. It’s an alternative and it can become its own timeboxing until you have succeeded.

It’s less stressful on the person because if we don’t succeed something then we have another choice, whereas, traditional goal setting only gives you one choice. And only that choice.

Another benefit of using timeboxing is the recovery from failure is much quicker. You won’t be thinking about how shitty you are for days or even weeks for not achieving a goal. You can proceed on to the next experiment to attaining the goal.

Why have all this pressure on yourself? When you could just have another alternative if you don’t succeed? Well I think it’s because of the Western culture we live in, where we work for that one thing because it is all it matters. It assumes whenever we goal set, we will achieve it. But the reality is that… we don’t always! I’m talking about the vast majority of the population, the average person. I’m not talking about the outliers who seem like they just keeping winning because no one wins in everything they do. There will always someone bigger, greater, more powerful than you.

A third benefit is that timeboxing has a time constraint that is explicit compared to traditional goal setting. For example, you have one month to lose 10 pounds, or else you stop. This deliberate choice to choose to stop is something you can control. I only realized this the other day when I was talking with my friend.

Example: Project Manager

Let’s work on using timeboxing for a goal. Say you want to get promoted from a junior project manager to a project manager role in one year. You now have the outcome for success, but what about the outcome for failure ? You could have the alternative be, “To look for jobs outside the company.” This takes us back to the picture I showed you before.


Think about it this way. You want an alternative when you fail, so have an escape route when you fail. How do you set goals?

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  • Sunwhtgui

    I’m not sure how this time boxing is even close to equivalent to Goal Setting when it come to actual accomplishment. Time boxing not inly gives you an “out” so you don’t feel bad when you fail, but actually gives you a scientific way to plan for failure?

    I am not ripping on you, I feel as though maybe I’m missing something. Timeboxing does not seem like a way to progress forward and make achievements. More of a way to mark time and be mediocre.

    • David Lin

      I think it has to do again with a change in mindset. Alternatives can be consequences such as shut-down the project or redistribute resources to somewhere else. It depends on how you want to view it. Or a more constructive stance of iteration instead of negative consequences. Or you can be stealth manager and have the Alternative as such so you’re basically doing a scenario analysis complementing the SMART goal because your team would only know about the SMART goal and not the Alternative.

      Hope this resolves your confusion.

      • SumWhtGui

        Thanks for the reply. I need to think on that. As a PMP and Operations Director , I’m always looking at alternative mind sets. I don’t see the value yet, but I’ll do some more research. Common goals keep people moving in the same direction. Targets being achieved are how we measure. Thanks for the feedback.

  • Eoghan

    Hey David,

    I really like this idea of yours. I find traditional goal setting stifling at times and I think its similar to the idea of having a system versus having a goal. For example, if you write 300 words a day in a year you’ll have a novel, but if you have the goal of writing a novel I would be totally overwhelmed.

    Your graphics are super ghetto mate! I am also hopeless at Photoshop. The best way around this is to write it on a page and upload the picture.


  • Pingback: Setting Goals for Writing? Nope. Not Me. | Thoughts from Christina


    Greetings! Very useful advice within this post!
    It’s the little changes which will make the most significant changes.
    Thanks a lot for sharing!

    • David Lin

      Thanks for comment Debbie. Just wondering, how did you come across my blog post?