We’ve all been there — you sit down at your desk and decide to start whittling down tasks from your array of to-do lists. As you begin to chip away at your list and get into a good groove of productivity, you forget that you have a conference call in 2 minutes. You hop on the call, receive and contribute the necessary information, and then try to get back to work. Unfortunately, that wave of productivity you were surfing has since dissipated. Meanwhile, your task list seems to be growing and your calendar is quickly being taken over by other people’s requests. How do you dig out yourself out this mess in order to get real work done? One possible solution is a practice used by entrepreneurs, founding fathers, and regular humans alike: time blocking.
Time Blocking is Simply Time Budgeting
Time blocking, also known as “time boxing” or “calendar blocking”, is a time management tool in which one “blocks” out certain sections of their day on a calendar or agenda, dedicating these blocks of time to singular tasks for maximum focus. Time blocking or time boxing somewhat resembles the Envelope System of budgeting in which one divides funds into different physical envelopes with each envelope dedicated to a need or desire to ensure there are enough funds to meet all necessary needs. Like the Envelope System does with money, time blocking budgets time into segments on a calendar. While the concept seems simple enough, the proper execution of time blocking can tremendously increase one’s time management on a daily basis and greatly increase productivity.
Time Blocking Kills Multitasking…But That’s a Good Thing
“Multi-tasking is great in the kitchen when you are trying to time the chicken to be ready at the same time as the potatoes. But do not assume it is a great way to manage a workday.”
― Joanne Tombrakos
While the most basic advantage of time blocking is putting your plan into action, dedicating a block of time in your schedule to a accomplish a singular goal can begin to drastically increase your productivity by reducing multitasking. Though we may feel like we’re accomplishing a high quantity of work by multitasking, studies show that multitasking results in a 40% decrease in productivity. The primary culprit in this reduction in productivity is not multitasking per se, but the “task switching” required to multitask. The time and energy it takes to switch from one task to another not only takes a certain amount of time, but also mental bandwidth. Much like a web browser that is running a dozen tabs simultaneously, our own mental processor will begin to work less efficiently as we attempt to simultaneously juggle more and more tasks. Time blocking saves time and mental energy by greatly reducing the amount of task switching as well as keeping your mind running as efficiently as possible.
Time Blocking Fosters Deadlines Which Increase Productivity
“Work expands to fill the time allotted for it.”
– Parkinson’s Law
In college (and still, if left to my own devices), I was a terrible procrastinator. It turns out that I’m not alone. According to the American Psychological Association, 20% of U.S. men and women are chronic procrastinators. Oddly enough, some of my best papers were ones written when I was up against the gun of the deadline. Why? The deadline enhanced my focus. Because there was no time to dilly dally, my otherwise unmedicated ADHD mind was rendered into a sharpened focus until the task was completed out of necessity. These days, I use curb my own desire to procrastinate by setting self-imposed deadlines — a concept baked into time blocking. Establishing a block of time that some refer to as a “time box” on your calendar to complete certain tasks means that procrastinating becomes even more inconvenient. Before I practiced time blocking, procrastination simply meant that task remained on my to-do list with little sense of urgency, but consequence later down the time. These days, procrastinating and not completing the goal in the time allocated means I have to arduously rearrange my entire schedule to make time to work on what I should have been working on in the first place. In a strange way, I use my own laziness (not wanting to have to rearrange my schedule) as my incentive to maintain focus on completing tasks within the time allotted for them.
How To Successfully Plan Your Time Blocks
1. Task Dump
You’re probably already using some form of a to-do list — whether it’s ToDoIs, Trello, WunderList, the note-taking app on your phone or a physical notepad by your desk — whatever you’re presently using is fine. There’s no need to change what works for you. Now, just like shaking the sand out of your hair after a day at the beach, dump every single task, to-do, or even life goal into your to-do list. Dig deep and dream big. These can be daily recurring tasks for work you need to do, reminders to feed pets, all the way up to aspirations to learn a new language or to spend more time with your family. Once you have most of your life’s aspirations dumped into a task list, begin to organize them into categories that you find the most appropriate. Some category suggestions may be “private life”, “daily work life”, “ongoing career”, “daily goals”, or even “places to visit.” Get into a habit of doing a task dump every so often. Many find that Sunday evenings are good for task dumps having to do with private life goals. Micro-task dumps at the end of the workday are more appropriate for careers. Find a task dump strategy that works best for you.
2. Plan To Plan
It sounds odd, but the first step in a creating a successful time blocking system is planning to plan. The first time boxes on your calendar should be when you’re going to time block your day and your week. While some find the beginning of the day to be the obvious choice, at the end of the workday or the evening tend to be the most efficient times to plan (such as the picture of above — a screenshot from my own calendar). The advantage of time blocking in the evening means that you’re less likely to feel like you have all of your day’s tasks on your shoulders and you can take your time with your planning. This also allows you to hit the ground running the following day, executing your plan without wasting mental bandwidth thinking about everything you need to accomplish that day.
Bonus tip: While planning your workday out the afternoon/evening before works best because of the daily change in work demands, time blocking out your personal life once a week is preferred. Many choose Sunday night as the ideal time to time block out personal goals, morning schedules, and evening events.
3. Start Slow & Realistic
While the prospect of being able to time block off your entire to-do list is exciting, keep in mind that you’re actually going to have to execute whatever you plan. It’s for this reason that it pays to start out slow and realistic. Overestimate how much time it will take to complete these tasks. While adding so much buffer room can seem silly or wasteful now, you’d be surprised how much time it actually takes for you to complete a task when you take all variables into consideration. Don’t worry — there will always be time for more time blocking in the future.
Bonus tip: Not sure exactly how long it takes you to perform a specific task? There are a variety of helpful time-tracking applications you can use to get a better idea of how long it takes you to complete a certain task. Just make sure that you block out time to research these applications…or just use a good old fashioned timer.
4. Time Block Your Breaks
Once you get into the groove of accomplishing the tasks in your time blocks, doing anything that’s not blocked can seem wasteful or something can derail your productivity. However, just how it naturally fits into your daily life, time blocking your breaks and leisure time will curb that wasteful feeling. Just like budgeting financially and dietarily for ice cream, blocking out time to waste a little bit of time is not only allowed but is also suddenly part of the plan.
5. Time Block Your Evening And Morning Routines
What good is an efficiently planned day if you didn’t prepare your mind and body for it? Time block your morning routine in order to help you get your day started. Also, because your morning routine starts the night before, time block your sleep. Just how you wouldn’t miss an appointment with a co-worker or client, don’t miss the appointment you’ve set for yourself to get a good night’s rest.
6. Let Others Know About Your Blocks
While you are your own worst enemy when it comes to staying on task, your second worst enemy is everyone else. It only takes a little distraction to derail a time blocked day. In order to avoid derailing your schedule, leave open time blocks to meet with others. These blocks can be any time, but many find that after lunch is the best time for meetings, emails, and conference calls — reserving the mornings for “deep work” that requires enhanced concentration.
Bonus tip: People are much less likely to fuss about not being to reach you during a time block if you give them the ability to make an appointment with you. This process is made easier by using an appointment-scheduling application. By letting people book a time with you during a time you’ve blocked out for meetings, you’re less likely to irritate your clients and co-workers with your untouchable time blocks. For immediate supervisors and close colleagues, you may even consider sharing your time block calendar with them if you feel it will make life easier.
How To Successfully Execute Your Time Blocks
1. Treat Time Blocks Like Appointments With Yourself
Unless you’re a borderline sociopath, being late for or missing an appointment you have set with someone gives you a little gut-punch sensation. Channel your own gut-check response by treating each of your time blocks as appointments you’ve set with your past self. This definitely includes sleep and your morning routine — the appointments with the biggest payout.
2. Set Reminders For Upcoming Blocks
Starting a new time block means successfully wrapping up your current one. By setting the beginning of each block with a 10-minute reminder, this will give you time to finish an existing block or, at the very least, pull all of the loose threads into a folder for a later time. This will also give you time to stretch your legs, use the restroom, refill your coffee, scan your email, or do anything else that you feel may demand your attention throughout the next time block. Make sure these reminder notifications actually get your attention by allowing them to show up on your desktop, that they buzz your phone, or notify you from a smartwatch.
3. Stay Flexible & Revise
There’s not much chance of your time blocks perfectly matching reality. You will almost always either (a) wrap up a task in less time than you had allotted or (b) you will need more time to complete the task than the time block allows. There’s no need to panic if you keep things flexible.
a. Wrapped up a time block early? Congratulations, you productivity machine! Don’t start celebrating yet because the work isn’t over. In order to avoid getting so distracted that you’re late for your next block, immediately make notes about your completed task in that calendar block and on a to-do list of your choice.
b. Does your next time block starts in 10 minutes, but there’s no chance that you can finish the task in this time block in time? You have two options and they really depend on the type of task as well as the type of person you are.
- Firstly, if you feel you’re on a roll, this is a high priority task and this type of deep focus doesn’t come often for you, simply keep surfing the productivity wave as long as you feel is appropriate. Once you’ve come to a good stopping point, simply move your time blocks around to represent reality.
- Secondly, if this task is not as time-sensitive and you feel like you could pick up where you left off fairly easily, stop what you’re doing and use those 10 minutes before next block begins to document your progress on the calendar and on your to-do list. Make a new time block(s) to complete it in your next planning session.
4. Regroup Regularly
Tying step #2 back into planning your time blocks, block out some time at the end of the workday as well as the week to access how each went. Determine if you need to start lengthening certain blocks, shortening others, if some new blocks need to be added and if some are necessary at all. Always be tweaking your own calendar blocks to make it work the best for you.
Additional Time Blocking Tips
Utilize Recurring Time Blocks
While it can be nice to make one workday different from the next with daily time blocking, don’t be afraid to create some recurring tasks in order to build positive habits. By creating a time block that shows up at the same time every day (or select weekdays) on your calendar and faithfully executing that task, you’re not only helping cement a positive habit in your life, but you’re also reducing (a) the mental bandwidth needed to shift into that task and (b)reducing the time it takes to block out that activity later. Keep in mind that this recurring time block only has as much power as you give it.
Break Up Your Tasks
Just like trying to eat a steak in one bite, if your tasks aren’t carved up into the smallest time blocks before you attempt to consume them, you’re likely to choke. Before turning tasks into time blocks, break them down into appropriately smaller sub-tasks. One massive time block on your calendar can provide one of two false impressions; (a) that you have ample time to work on the task at hand or (b) that the task is so colossal that you may not know where to begin. There is rarely a project can’t be broken down into many more manageable tasks.
Use Time Blocking To Analyze Your Life
There are fewer clearer indicators of how you’re spending your daily life than by looking at each activity, hour by hour, on a daily calendar. One productive exercise is to build out one calendar based on how you spent a day in the past, filling out each block as honestly as possible. Like a doctor would hold up an x-ray to the light, carefully analyze this past calendar. Compare how much you slept at night against how much sleep you’d like to sleep. Analyze your TV consumption. Look how much time you spend at the office and what tasks consume most of your workday. Feel free to print out this calendar, scribble notes all over it, and use it in your next time blocking session.
Enhance Work/Life Balance By Time Blocking Your Private Life First
One of the greatest perks of time blocking is that it allows you to prioritize your life. As you begin blocking out time for work, you may notice just how much your day is on the job or related to it (commuting, etc.). Instead of first time blocking out your work day and hoping you have some personal time after it’s all said and done, time block out your private life first and foremost. As it’s already been said in this article, Sunday nights are a good time to sit down with your preferred calendar system and leisurely time block out what you’d like to accomplish in your private life.
You’re Never Too Busy To Time Block
As we conclude of this article, if you’re thinking, “Time blocking sounds too time-consuming,” you’re precisely who needs to be time blocking. While a billionaire may never need to sit down and budget their money if they’re living like an average Joe, there’s not a single one of us who has more 24 hours in a day. In fact, some of the busiest people in the world, including Elon Musk and Bill Gates, are known to block our their schedules for tasks. It’s known that famous historical personalities such as Dwight D. Eisenhower and Benjamin Franklin also practiced a form of time blocking. If you feel you don’t have the time to budget your time, you’re likely to discover that you can’t afford not to.
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