Is your day packed absolutely packed or did you pack your day?
What’s the difference? Your role in creating your schedule.
You can live your life proactively or reactively. Living proactively means that you are designing your days around the tasks that will help you accomplish your longer-term goals.
Living reactively means that you either don’t have control over your schedule, or that you have a plan but you don’t stick to it for whatever reason. The reasons can include your own procrastination, your work environment, or letting others push their goals onto your day. Read more about effective time management here.
The latter happens when you subscribe to the false thinking that someone else’s goals are more important than yours. If you are in the habit of living reactively, it can be a hard habit to break.
However, time blocking can help.
What is time blocking?
In my previous post I explained how to determine “what” you should be doing and the tools I use to manage my day. That’s the first part of productivity.
You’ll also need to start tracking your time more accurately. Without knowing how and when you complete tasks, you won’t be able to properly time block.
Once you have your priorities, tools for managing your day, and time tracking app of choice, you can start on the next step: daily time blocking.
Time blocking is the process of arranging your tasks into the hours of a day to achieve max productivity. It’s how you design your days in a proactive way, vs. being reactive to the demands of others.
Here’s why you should try it.
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The benefits of time blocking for productivity
Maybe you’re tired of feeling “busy,” but not productive. Maybe you’re sick of back-to-back meetings, or limited hours to truly focus.
Whatever the reason, time blocking is worth trying. Even if you’ve tried other time management techniques. Productivity experts and time blocking advocates agree.
An article quoting Kevin Kruse, author of 15 Secrets Successful People Know About Time Management, recommends time blocks instead of to-do lists “because of the discipline and order it applies to your tasks.”
Organizing your schedule instead of making a to-do list takes productivity one step further. Because you’re dedicating specific windows of time to your work, everything finds its place. Tasks aren’t floating around in your mind. There’s a time set aside to get it all done.
As Kruse continued, this can even help you sleep better at night.
Once you start time blocking, you’ll have a grasp on what you can accomplish in a day, giving you a much more realistic set of goals.
Sleeping through the night? That’s one point for time blocking.
#1. It makes your work a priority
When you create a calendar event, it’s likely something important for yourself, or a commitment you made to someone else.
Time blocking does the same thing, but for all of your tasks. It elevates your work — especially the highest priority projects — to an immovable event.
Paul Minors explained time blocking this way, “You’re making a promise to turn up at 10am and work on that presentation. This self-commitment helps you to turn good intention (the tasks on your task list) into a plan of action (a commitment about when you’re going to get the work done).”
#2. It helps you work distraction-free
It’s all too common to feel the pull of other tasks, notifications, coworkers, clients, and so on when we’re trying to focus.
Distractions are a part of modern life.
Time blocking aims to minimize their negative impact, giving you dedicated work time on one specific task.
You may have heard the phrase “deep work” or “flow.” In short, deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. Once you’ve learned this skill, you can think through complex situations and produce better results much faster.
Time blocking + deep work = a productivity dream.
#3. It minimizes the mental burden of switching tasks
We all know it’s hard to resume a task once you’re pulled into something else. If your workplace sounds like the title of Celeste Ng’s 2017 novel, Little Fires Everywhere, you’re going to want to try time blocking.
It’s not always easy to pick up where you left off, especially if you’re still thinking about the most recent fire drill.
There’s scientific evidence of that.
According to a Zenkit article, researcher Gloria Mark discovered just how counterproductive task-switching is.
“The average knowledge worker switches tasks every three minutes, and, once distracted, a worker can take nearly a half-hour to resume the original task,” Mark explained.
Time blocking reduces the time you switch tasks throughout the day, allowing you to avoid that wasted half hour.
The list goes on, but we’ve found these to be the main benefits of using time blocking. Let’s get started.
How to time block
Below, I am going to quickly describe my process for daily time blocking, and how you can develop a similar plan. This is meant to be a very fast and effective way to get started with time-blocking, not the end all solution.
Feel free to modify and adapt this process to fit your goals.
Step 1. Determine your most and least productive times of the day
This is different for each person. I am a morning person naturally, and I think it will always be that way. By 9pm I am ready for bed, and by 6am I am ready to get up and start the day.
My most productive time of the day is from 6-9am. This is the time that I really feel renewed, and am able to think deeply and get my best ideas. The important aspect here is not whether you are a morning person or a night person, but to realize when your most productive time is and maximize it.
What time of day do you feel most productive? (Hint: You can track your productivity along with work output to find out.)
Action item: Decide on a 60-minute block of time that is your most productive.
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Step 2: Schedule it and stick to it
Schedule out right now when your time is going to be. Start with only 60 minutes, but book it and put it on the calendar. Experiment with doing this just for 7 days. Don’t make a big commitment; you don’t need to.
You just need to book 60 minutes of time when you feel the best during an average day.
Do not let anyone, under any circumstances, disturb you during your productive time. This is YOUR time, and despite the current thoughts you may have, it’s not too much to ask.
Turn off all distractions. Email, phone, Slack, social media, and chat should all be turned off during this time.
Action item: Book the 60 minutes on your calendar for each of the next 7 days
Here’s an example:
Step 3: Put the most important tasks in your 60-minute slot
At this point, you’ve figured out what your optimal time of the day is, and booked it on the calendar.
Now, the last thing you want to do is to waste that time with mindless work (email).
Instead, focus on the tasks that really require your thought and focus. For me, those are items like sales copy, product requirements, or designing marketing plans.
Move the really hard tasks to the 60-minute block. Otherwise, you’ll push them back, and they won’t get the attention that they deserve. This naturally moves the easy stuff like emails, follow-up phone calls, etc. to the times when your mind is not 100%.
This is more mindless work, or tasks that won’t require full brainpower. Don’t get caught spending your most productive time on the least meaningful work.
Action item: Place one important task on each calendar item.
Here’s an example of what a calendar item looks like:
OK, so that’s my very simplistic plan to get started with time blocking. Those 60 minutes a day will end up being some of your best.
Time blocking downsides and challenges
Like any time management technique, time blocking has its shortcomings.
It’s best to know what to look out for as you get started with time blocking, so you can stay committed.
Not planning ahead
To be fair, time blocking requires some planning chops. If you’re the “always winging it” type, time blocking might add a little structure that can feel limiting.
Don’t worry. In a matter of time, time blocking will become second nature.
It just takes more discipline at first.
As LifeHack suggests, prepare your tasks in advance — during a dedicated time block. “This ensures that you map out all the possible roadblocks and other threats to your productive work.”
A time block for planning your time blocks? You bet.
Picking the wrong time of day
Maybe you’re finding that right after lunch isn’t your true power hour, as you thought.
Nothing wrong with that.
After a week or so, assess what’s been working and make changes. Again, time tracking can help — especially when you look at activity rates — to see when you’re humming along and make the most of it.
Give yourself the flexibility to move your hour if you need. However, fair warning, this is also a common excuse for why time blocking doesn’t work.
“I do my best work at different hours of the day,” may be true. But that also means you likely have at least one overlapping window on a regular basis.
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you can’t find an hour a day to truly focus.
You can do it!
Your workplace doesn’t allow for it
It’s true that time blocking takes a fair bit of dedication to succeed. The time you schedule needs to be protected, which requires some communication with your team.
One way around this it to encourage a pilot program at your workplace. See if you can get others to take on this approach, so that more people understand and respect it.
If that’s not doable, you could also consider this “closed door” time. Most workplaces will be open to the idea of heads-down, focused work time. So take it one stop further by blocking your calendar so that meetings can’t get booked over it.
Consider sprints when you start time blocking
Similar in concept to time blocking is creating weekly sprints for your work. This way, you’re focusing only on a set number of tasks for a predetermined duration, which is often one week.
A very simple method to follow for this is to create one main list of tasks that you want to do or need to get done. Then, every week, you prioritize the tasks and either leave them in the backlog or put them in your current or future sprint.
Your current and future sprint are what they sound like: these are the tasks you will work on during the current week, and then the things you will need to get done in the following. If a task is lower priority, it will remain in the backlog until it gets picked up. You don’t work on anything else in your current sprint until you are done with all of the tasks in it. If you don’t complete some items, they will roll-over to the future sprint.
The advantage of this approach is that you are forced to prioritize your tasks and plan things properly. Note that it might even take a few weeks to truly get used to this system, but when you do, the benefits can be great. It can also be combined with time blocking.
The sprint approach can be quite hard to do without software that organizes this for you. Hubstaff Tasks is a great solution for this, as you create tasks in a Kanban board, and then drag-and-drop them from the backlog to your current or future sprint. The best thing about Hubstaff Tasks is that it’s free for teams of up to five people, so be sure to check it out.
Level up to a time blocking planner
Now that you know the benefits, the step-by-step process, and the potential roadblocks, you’re ready to start time blocking.
Time blocking has proven to be very effective for me. What are the most effective methods you use to get the most out of every day?
This post was originally published Feb 26, 2014, and updated December 2018.