Have you ever gone through an entire workday while only crossing off one small item off your to-do list? It’s happened to all of us at some point.

If you’ve tried tracking how you spend your time, you know that it can be a rude wake-up call.

For example, you might wake up in the morning and plan to work from 9 AM to noon and then take a half-hour lunch break. In reality, you end up working for small stretches of time in between browsing your Facebook news feed, texting with friends, and online shopping.

That gap between how we expect to spend our time and how we actually spend it can make us unproductive, anxious, and unfulfilled. As our to-do list grows longer, we can feel overwhelmed and start to doubt that we’re going to get our most important work done.

Here’s the truth: To-do lists don’t work.

What does work: To-do lists that become blocks of time on your schedule.

To-do lists are just that: lists. But when a task gets allotted time on your schedule, it becomes real. If you make an appointment to get a haircut or visit the dentist, why not do the same for your work-related tasks?

In this blog post, we’ll be taking an in-depth look at what time blocking is, why it works, and how anyone can use it to increase their productivity.

Table of Contents

What is time blocking?

Benefits of time blocking

Challenges of time blocking

Who should use time blocking?

3 types of time blocking

  1. Timeboxing
  2. Task batching
  3. Day theming

How to time block in 5 steps

Free 5-day workweek time blocking template

3 best apps for time blocking

Next steps

What is time blocking?

Time blocking is a productivity technique that involves dividing your day into blocks of time and assigning a specific task or set of tasks to each block. You estimate how long a task will take and commit to working on it during its block without getting distracted.

Keep in mind that time blocking isn’t an exact science. You’ll get distracted. Sometimes, you’ll be wrong in estimating how long a task will take.

That’s okay. As long as you stay flexible and take a firm but gentle approach to time blocking, you’ll see results. Over time, you’ll get better at estimating how long tasks actually take.

Time blocking gives you better control and understanding of how you budget your attention. You might find that:

  • Intimidating tasks you think will take hours don’t take that long at all
  • You have pockets of time you could be spending on that hobby you previously thought you were too busy to do
  • When you block out time for priorities during your peak hours, you can get them done faster and more efficiently

Benefits of time blocking

Time blocking, when done well and consistently, isn’t just a productivity technique you try because you think it’ll make you more productive. It can actually change the way you think.

Here are a few side-effects of time blocking:

You start to see time as a finite resource

We all get the same 24 hours each day. That’s a lot of time. Sure, you need time for all the essential activities like eating, sleeping, and taking care of household chores.

But when you start blocking out time for those essential activities, the chances are that you’ll find gaps of time you never knew you had. It may be exciting but also slightly embarrassing. What had you been doing with all that time before now?

Pro tip: Try a time tracking software like Hubstaff to get a sense of how you’re spending your time right now before you jump into time blocking. It’ll give you a much better sense of how to estimate the time needed for your tasks.

Looking at the blank spaces on your calendar will force you to come to terms with how you’re choosing to spend that time.

You may not have all the time you want to accomplish your goals, but if you have three hours on a Thursday afternoon, why not use that block to make some progress?

You get your priorities straight

You should be spending the most amount of your time on your priorities, right?

It sounds logical, but let’s be honest: most of us spend way more time on what we call “meaningless” tasks than we do on our priorities.

Time blocking makes us aware of how much time we’re giving to priority tasks.

For example, if you’re a manager, one of your main priorities should be to listen to your team members and analyze their feedback. How many managers set aside time to do that? While they may have the best of intentions, if it’s not on their calendar, it’s likely not going to happen at all.

You’re able to fully enjoy your time off

When you operate off of a to-do list, it’s tempting to always be ‘on.’ That’s because you can always put more tasks on the list, and you don’t have a clear sense of when your work for the day is done.

The worst part is that little voice in the back of your head saying that you should be working right now. It makes you feel guilty about relaxing or doing things you enjoy.

That voice is exhausting.

There’s no reason why you shouldn’t schedule your downtime, too. If you’re the type of person who finds it hard to relax, put it in your schedule. There’s nothing wrong with binging your favorite Netflix show as long as you do it intentionally.

You get better at managing your time

Lots of people say they want to get better at time management. But what does that really mean?

By time blocking, you are literally managing your time. You’re not trying to be more productive. You’re creating specific intentions for how you spend specific amounts of time.

The concept of time management becomes real when you see the tradeoffs you’re making by spending time on one thing over another. It sounds obvious. But it’s actually a powerful concept.

If you’re spending time on what you consider lesser-value tasks, you’re choosing not to spend that time on your priorities.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a time and place to lie on the couch and scroll through Instagram. There’s nothing wrong with not being “productive” all the time. But being aware that how we spend time is often a choice, we can choose to spend it more wisely.


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Challenges of time blocking

Time blocking isn’t a miracle cure. There are some downsides that might keep you from fully embracing it or even steer you away from it altogether.

It’s easy to get derailed

The most common mistake people make when they start time blocking is that they pack their time blocks so tightly that any change messes up their entire calendar.

If a task takes an hour more than they blocked time for, they spend too much time trying to adjust the rest of their day or week.

To stop yourself from getting derailed, leave ample space or buffer time in your calendar. Alternatively, try to always overestimate the time you think you’ll need to complete a task — at least until you’ve done it enough times to be confident about how much time it really takes.

It can feel too restrictive

Spontaneity and time blocking can co-exist peacefully. You don’t have to time block every minute of your day to the point where you kill any chance of being spontaneous.

But some people might find that even time blocking certain parts of their day feels like putting on a straitjacket.

If that’s the case for you, try time blocking activities you enjoy and look forward to instead of your most dreaded tasks. You’ll develop a more positive relationship with time blocking and might be inclined to use it more often.

You have to rely on self-discipline

When you schedule time to work on your passion project at 9 PM after a long day at your day job, it’s a lot more tempting to move or delete that block.

Time blocking also doesn’t account for our mood and energy fluctuations. So unless we’re completely honest and self-aware about how much we can realistically accomplish, it can be discouraging when we fail to complete our time blocks.

Who should use time blocking?

Time blocking truly is for everyone. If you want to get more done, use your time more efficiently, and get control over your schedule, time blocking is for you.

With that said, time blocking can be particularly effective for people who:

  • Are juggling different projects or responsibilities at the same time
  • Tend to get stuck in reactive mode and want to find more time to be proactive or creative
  • Deal with interruptions regularly and want to be more strict in regards to setting boundaries about where they give their attention
  • Have a hard time sticking to one task or plan of action and get sidetracked easily

Due to COVID-19, many people who worked in an office are now working from home. Time blocking can help switch the brain into work mode, even if work happens on the kitchen table.

Time blocking can also help solve challenges like:

  • Feeling like you work all the time and never have a chance to unwind
  • Dreading and putting off mindless or repetitive tasks
  • Wishing you could have uninterrupted chunks of time to go in-depth on a task

3 types of time blocking

Time blocking may remind you too much of the schedules you used to get in school that mapped out every minute of your day. But there’s a lot more nuance to time blocking in its more grown-up form.

If you’re skeptical about time blocking, take a look at these three variations. You may find that one clicks with your personality, work style, or the type of work you do.

1. Timeboxing

Think of timeboxing as time blocking’s stricter cousin.

When you’re time blocking, you might find that a task is taking longer than you expected, so you adjust your schedule accordingly.

With timeboxing, you set a limit on how long a task will take. Once the time is up, you declare that task “done.”

Timeboxing works best for:

  • Unpleasant or tedious tasks you don’t want to do
  • Tasks you have to do but don’t want to spend too much time on
  • Tasks that eat up too much of your time if you’re not careful
  • Perfectionists who dwell on details and struggle to mark tasks as done

For example, if you get sucked into your email inbox every day for way too long, time box 30 minutes to reply to all emails once a day. All other times, don’t look at your inbox.

Be specific when you’re timeboxing. Instead of deciding to work on a report for 45 minutes, aim to write a 500-word introduction that summarizes your main points in 45 minutes.

2. Task batching

When we switch tasks, our brains are going through two complementary stages:

  1. Goal shifting: (“I will do this instead of that”)
  2. Rule activation (“I’m activating the rules for this task instead of that task”)

That takes mental effort, no matter how big or small the task is.

Every time we switch tasks, we’re also switching contexts.

Our lives are filled with context-switching traps. Glancing at your phone or getting up to put laundry in the dryer while you’re supposed to be working counts as context switching.

Every time you have to refocus to get back to the task at hand, you’re switching contexts. Doing these kinds of things can seriously affect your productivity.

While time blocking reduces the opportunity for context switching, task batching takes it a step further.

With task batching, you group similar tasks and get them done in a single time block or series of time blocks. That way, you can reduce the negative effects of context switching even further.

You can use time batching to:

  • Complete multiple administrative tasks that each take a short amount of time (e.g, invoicing or answering emails) all at once
  • Take advantage of your peak hours (e.g., work on your most important tasks in the morning and save administrative tasks for the afternoon when you aren’t as focused)

3. Day theming

With day theming, you dedicate entire days to similar kinds of tasks. You could do themes based on:

  • Type of task (e.g., complete all administrative tasks on one day of the week, and set aside other days solely for creative work)
  • Energy (e.g., work on more analytical tasks during the first three days of the workweek and save the last two days for less demanding tasks)

In a Forbes interview, Jack Dorsey said he used day theming to juggle work at two companies. Mondays were for managing both companies, Tuesdays were for product development, etc. This allowed him to take Saturdays off completely and use Sundays to reflect on the week.

Day theming works for people who:

  • Like Jack, have a lot of responsibilities and work better if they focus in-depth on one area at a time
  • Find time blocking too tedious and want to spend as little time as possible on their schedule
  • Work best using routines, as day theming creates consistency from week to week

When you embrace day theming, you have less decision fatigue about what kind of tasks you should schedule during the week. When you create your weekly plan, you already know what kinds of tasks you should be blocking time for each day.

How to time block in 5 steps

Time blocking looks different for everyone. For some, it means scheduling a block of focused work time every day. For others, it means scheduling and color-coding every 15-minute increment in their day.

Time blocking scales up or down in complexity based on your personal needs and preferences.

If you’ve never time blocked before, or you’ve tried and it hasn’t worked for you, consider these five steps:

1. Ask yourself why you want to time block

Yes, there are the more general, universal benefits to time blocking, like being more productive or getting more done. But it’s worth digging deeper to pinpoint why you want to time block your day.

Is it because you want to dedicate more time to a certain project that you’re falling behind on? Or is it because you’re struggling to keep up a social life while you work from home? The “why” will give you a better sense of your priorities.

2. Set your recurring tasks and routines

Instead of jumping straight into blocking out time for your to-do list items, lay the foundation first. Create time blocks for your morning and evening routines, meal times, and any other routines in your life.

If you’re the type to forget to eat lunch, schedule it in. If you want to improve your sleep schedule, block out time to sleep the right amount of hours.

Time blocking daily or even weekly routines will give you a more realistic idea of how much time you have for your to-do list items. Instead of having to time block a blank schedule each day, you’ll have a more narrow window to work with.

3. Be generous when estimating how long tasks will take

Sometimes, tasks (particularly ones we’re dreading) take a lot less time than we anticipate. But it’s better to err on the side of caution and block out more time than you think you need.

If you finish early, you’re still on track. If you underestimate, you have to re-adjust your schedule, which can have a domino effect on the rest of your tasks. Having to re-do a week’s worth of time blocks can be frustrating and discourage you from continuing to time block.

The more you use time blocking, the better you’ll get at creating accurate time blocks. But if you’re just starting, try giving yourself 1.5x to 2x the amount of time you think you need.

4. Schedule breaks and leave buffers

Unless you’re a time blocking expert, back-to-back time blocking of high-level tasks isn’t going to work for more than a day or two.

We need breaks. And we need time to go from one task to another.

Scheduling intentional breaks will give you the mental space necessary to give your full focus on more demanding tasks.

Leaving some room in your schedule will also help you extend your time blocks if needed. It’ll help to prevent you from feeling like you’re rushing to complete one task after another.

5. Schedule time for time blocking and reflection

If we’re sticking to the “schedule it so it happens” philosophy, then it makes sense that time blocking will only work if you make time for it.

For example, you could set aside 30 minutes every Sunday to go over your tasks for the week and create time blocks for them. Then, schedule 15 minutes every evening to go over your schedule and make any adjustments.

If you want to take time blocking up a notch, schedule time to reflect on what’s working and what isn’t. Ask yourself:

  • Am I blocking out enough time for my priorities?
  • Which tasks are taking more or less time than I expected?
  • Is my schedule creating balance or making me more stressed out?

By taking time to reflect, you can improve your time blocking skills to get more done in less time, if that’s your goal. You’ll gain greater self-awareness about your habits and priorities and be better able to bridge the gap between expectation and reality.


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Free 5-day workweek time blocking template

If you’re ready to try time blocking, you can get started with this simple Google Sheets template to plan out your work week.



You can always add columns for the weekend if you feel up for it, but this template is a good starting point if you want to dip your toes into time blocking.

3 best apps for time blocking

There are plenty of apps out there that can help you time block your day. Here are three of our favorites:

Google Calendar

Use Google Calendar for time blocking

You might already be using Google Calendar to keep track of your most important appointments. But it’s also the perfect tool to start time blocking because you can:

  • Create calendars for different areas of your life
  • Color-code tasks to make different types of tasks more visually distinct
  • Create recurring tasks for daily routines
  • Schedule meetings and have them appear in your calendar
  • Set reminders

Google Calendar might be a good fit if you already use other Google apps like Gmail and Tasks. It’s also great if you anticipate having to adjust your time blocks a lot, as Google Calendar lets you move time blocks around easily.

Any.do

Any.do for time blocking

Any.do is a to-do list app that allows you to organize all your tasks, lists, and reminders in a single place.

It has both a classic to-do list view and a calendar view. The calendar view is designed to help you visualize your tasks and enable you to time block your day.

In Any.do, you can color-code tasks and add due dates, notes, and attachments to them. There’s also the option of setting up one-time, recurring, and location-based reminders to make sure you don’t forget about a task.

You can create multiple to-do lists in the app and share them with your family or team members, as well as assign tasks and monitor progress.

Any.do is available on Windows, Mac, Android, and iOS. It can sync across all your devices seamlessly.

TickTick

TickTick for time blocking

If the idea of staying focused for hours at a time makes you tired just thinking about it, then TickTick’s integrated Pomodoro timer can help.

The Pomodoro technique involves working in short, focused bursts (usually for 25 minutes) and then taking a break. However, scheduling all of those breaks manually can be tedious.

TickTick lets you create a to-do list, block out time for your tasks, and then use a Pomodoro timer to stay on task while still taking breaks.

TickTick might suit you if your time blocks are multiple hours long, but you still need some structure within those blocks.

Next steps

Ready to try time blocking? Here’s what you should do:

  • Start tracking time spent on tasks – Download the Hubstaff app and start tracking the time you spend on tasks. This will help you get a better understanding of how much time it takes you to complete certain tasks.
  • Schedule one work block a day for the next week  – When implementing time blocking, it’s crucial to take it easy at first. Start by scheduling one two-hour work block a day for the next week and try to stick to your schedule.
  • Review your week  – After the one week is up, look back at how many tasks you were able to complete and determine if you’d like to continue to practice time blocking.

This post was originally published in December 2018. It was updated in June 2021.

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