Use timeboxing to regain calmness and control with Marie Ng, founder of Llama Life


Welcome to this edition of our interview series, where we meet with founders on a mission to help us work better and happier. Marie Ng is a long-time Ness Labs reader and the founder of Llama Life, a uniquely designed tool to manage timeboxed working sessions. The quirky branding, the attention to details, the simple features… Everything has been crafted to help you whiz through your to-do list.

In this interview, we talked about the concept of time boxing, how it may be particularly useful to people who suffer from time blindness but can help everyone, the power of whimsical effects to maintain motivation, and how to set reasonable expectations to avoid overloading yourself with work. We also talked about time management and ADHD, and what Marie and her team have in mind for the future of Llama Life. Enjoy the read!

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Hi Marie, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. First, can you tell us more about timeboxing?

For sure, thank you for having me! I was actually doing timeboxing before I knew it was called timeboxing! I’ve also heard it referred to as “time blocking”.

Essentially, it’s about being more mindful and purposeful in how you’re spending your time — so you set aside a fixed amount of time to do a particular task, or to do a particular piece of work. By setting a fixed amount of time, you’re creating a positive constraint, and also a bit of pressure to encourage focus to get things done.

Timeboxing uses a principle called Parkinson’s Law. Parkinson’s Law states that the work you have to get done fills the time allotted to it. If you’ve ever noticed yourself procrastinating because you think “oh it’s not due till next week”, and then scrambling to get it done at the last minute, then that’s Parkinson’s Law.

You knew you had over a week to do the task, so that’s how long it took to get it done. If you had the same task, but a shorter deadline, you would often increase your focus, waste less time, and get it done in that shorter time.

Timeboxing plays on this principle, at a micro-level — it’s like creating many little deadlines throughout your day. I use timeboxing for every aspect of my life: getting ready in the morning, doing household chores, doing work tasks… Everything.

I suffer from something called “time blindness”, which may sound a little strange, but it just means I have a hard time keeping track of time — how long things might take, how long I spend on something, and generally just knowing where the hours in the day go. This, combined with the challenge of having ADHD, makes timeboxing an essential method for me.

Do you think everyone should try it, even if they don’t suffer from time blindness?

I think we can all benefit from being more purposeful and efficient with our time. There’s a lot of distractions these days. A lot of us are working remotely, trying to juggle home life with work, with family, all in the same space.

There’s also social media, which is really designed to catch your attention and hold it. Now this may be ok if that’s something you’re intending to spend time on and enjoying it, but not ok if it becomes a distraction and is pulling you away from other things which you need to do.

And if we’re all more purposeful with our time, it helps to create more time to spend on other things which we may want to do or experience. Above all, I think this helps to reduce stress, because no one likes feeling that they’re behind on what they need to get done, or feeling that they’re missing out on things that they want to do.

So, this is why you decided to build Llama Life.

There are two main reasons why I made Llama Life. The first is, I was teaching myself how to code. When Covid first hit, everyone was learning a new skill, so I decided it was about time I took the plunge and started to learn web development. So Llama Life started as a project to practice what I was learning by actually building something.

The second reason is that I really wanted to create a product to help myself. I had been doing timeboxing for a long time just using timers, but I wanted a way to be able to quickly and easily attach those timers to specific tasks, and I just couldn’t find a product that worked the way I wanted it to.

It makes such a big difference to me in terms of how I manage my day, and importantly how I feel at the end of the day, that I thought it was worth bringing the product to life and sharing it with others.

So now Llama Life’s mission is about helping people achieve calm, focused productivity. The kind of productivity where it feels immersive, enjoyable, fun and effortless.

I have to ask… Why is Llama Life called this way?

Pre-Covid, I went on a soul-searching journey with one of my best friends. We traveled to Peru, did a lot of hiking, and did the trek to Machu Picchu.

As part of the trip, we also ended up visiting a small village to get to know the people and see how they live. There were around twenty people in this village. They had no modern conveniences – no running water, electricity, no internet… But they had a lot of llamas!

The llamas were their livelihood. So they would use the wool from the llama’s backs to make sweaters, scarfs, beanies etc to sell. 

And what struck me about these people was, although they had no modern conveniences, they were very happy, calm and content with their way of life. And that feeling stayed with me. 

So years later when it came to naming Llama Life, I was trying to think of a name that would embody our mission of “calm, focused productivity”. And the name “Llama” just came to mind almost immediately.

The interesting thing is, over time, customers started calling it “Llama Life”. Previously it was just “Llama”. Customers started to say stuff like “I want to live the llama life” and they were posting this on Twitter.

And it occurred to me that this was a much better name for the product, because it helped people aspire to a certain lifestyle — a llama life — which is much more powerful than aspiring to be just an animal!

That’s very true! I love the story behind the name. More specifically, how does Llama Life work?

Llama Life is all about helping you work through your todo-list, rather than just making never-ending lists. It does this by letting you set a fixed amount of time to each task (with a countdown timer) and by making it super fun and rewarding to use. For example, when you complete a task, you get a confetti animation!

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It’s also full of whimsical little sound effects, all of which are designed to help boost your motivation, encourage focus, and get stuff done.

A lot of other apps let you set 25-minute timers, but 25-minute timers never worked for me. I find it much easier to start with short timers, and work my way up. Therefore, Llama Life is flexible and allows you to set a timer of any duration, depending on what works best for you.

This means you can set a timeboxed session starting with something very achievable, for instance five minutes. And this helps our users transform big overwhelming tasks into more manageable bite-sized chunks of productivity.

I imagine this can be used for many different use cases, like study sessions for instance.

Yes, there are so many use-cases! We do have students using it for study sessions, and also a lot of indie hackers / startup founders using it to make the most of their time.

It makes a lot of sense for founders because you’re often trying to do several different roles at once, and there’s only so much time you have in the day. 

To help with this, Llama Life shows you the total time it would take to complete all the tasks on your list, as well as an estimated finishing time of the day. This helps with planning — it makes sure you don’t overload yourself (guilty!) and encourages you to set reasonable expectations for what you can achieve in a given time slot.

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We also have executives using it to plan and keep to meeting agendas so they don’t run over time. Actually… ‘Overtime’ is a feature Llama Life has, which was hotly requested. Essentially when your task timer runs out, it starts counting the extra time, so you can get a sense of how long things actually take versus how long you had planned.

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And it’s being used for non-work tasks too! We had a customer the other day who used it to keep herself on track to clean different rooms of her house, before guests showed up for dinner that evening!

I think the most interesting thing is that people are using Llama Life as part of a workflow. So we’re not trying to compete with Todoist, Notion, Asana, Trello, etc. Llama Life is not meant to be a place to store your master list of todos, or manage and collaborate on a project. It’s designed to be the “tip” of the workflow. Most of our customers store their todos and projects somewhere else and then transfer them to Llama Life for their focus session during the day.

Llama Life is very much a tool to help you get through today. As such we’re also focusing on integrations, to make the transfer of tasks as frictionless and easy to do as possible.

There’s indeed something powerful about the idea of simply getting through today. So, what kind of people use Llama Life?

I think the thing which ties all of our customers together is that everyone shares a goal of wanting to increase their focus, and make the best use of their time. Sometimes those are people who are already productive and are looking to ‘level-up’. But very often it’s people who are struggling with focus, for example people with ADHD.

We don’t specifically ask people if they have ADHD, but we know they make up a large part of our customer base, because they take time to email me and explain the challenges they have (which are always very relatable to me, being someone who was diagnosed with ADHD much later in my life).

What about you, how do you use Llama Life?

I use Llama Life’s “Preset Lists” a lot. A Preset List is a template list of tasks that you can create, save and then re-use as many times as you wish. Most of our customers use this for routine tasks, things which you might do every day eg Plan day, write in journal, meditate. It makes it super quick to just have the preset lists loaded in vs having to type it out each time.

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I also use the smart shortcuts all.the.time. Say you’re trying to clear your email inbox. You can type “Clear inbox 30” and Llama Life will automatically create a task called ‘Clear inbox’ and set a 30-minute timer against that task. It’s one of my favorite features.

I also have a “Nag Alarm” set up. This means whenever a timer hits 00:00, an alarm will go off, but importantly, it will “nag” me and go off every minute until I tell it to stop. This is important to me as often I would hear an alarm and then get distracted, forget about it, and then before I know it, too much time has passed.

Probably the only time people are grateful to be nagged! How do you recommend someone get started with Llama Life?

I think it’s important to try and set yourself up for success. So I would start with some very small tasks, with some very small timers attached to them, then work your way up. It’s best to get some small wins and feel good about them before attacking that big overwhelming task. 

And for those bigger tasks, the ones that you’ve been putting off forever, try breaking them down into smaller chunks, and then smaller chunks again, so they feel a little bit more manageable.

And lastly, don’t be too hard on yourself. Sometimes it also helps to share, say a screenshot of your Llama Life list with a friend, or just tell a friend what you’re trying to achieve that day to help keep yourself accountable.

Love those ideas. And finally… What’s next for Llama Life?

We’re keen to do more with audio and sound, to use them in a way which helps to increase focus. I think a large part of focus depends on your emotional state e.g. feeling calm vs anxious. So we’re looking to use sound to help manage those emotions, all with the goal of getting to our mission of “helping people achieve calm, focused productivity”. 

Thank you so much for your time, Marie! Where can people learn more about Llama Life?
Thank you! I build in public on Twitter so to follow the journey you can find me at @threehourcoffee, or for Llama Life updates @llamalifeco. To learn more about Llama Life itself, you can do so on our website.

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