Time blocking could just be the answer to your productivity problems.
In our current era of hyper-connectivity, it’s easy to get distracted and feel overwhelmed by the sheer length of your to-do list. The time blocking method exists to hand you back a sense of control, so you find time for everything you want to do in a day.
Extremely easy to start and extremely effective once you're in the swing of it, it’s no wonder why some of the busiest people on Earth – Bill Gates and Elon Musk included – use time blocking to get work done.
What is time blocking?
Time blocking (also known as “monotasking” or “time chunking”) is a time management method that schedules your entire work day into set, controlled units. You allot finite units of time to specific tasks for the day ahead, such as checking emails, working on individual tasks, meetings and breaks, so that you can course through your work day without interruptions or deviations.
Instead of simply making a to-do list and plowing through, time blocking maps out controlled spaces to ensure each task actually takes place. As such, it's also a useful measure for ensuring you don't overcommit on any one piece of work.
The trick is to keep time blocks as small as possible. Gates and Musk both go for five-minute time blocks for meetings and email, but you can also set more generous time frames for more conceptual work: like only giving yourself 20 minutes to research and structure the first draft of a blog article.
The idea of limiting the time you spend on tasks is a direct response to Parkinson’s law, which argues that work expands to fill the time we assign it. According to the time blocking theory, the stricter we are with the time we give to each task, the more focused and results-driven our work output will be.
Time blocking example
Here’s a little taster of what your time-blocked calendar could look like:
What are the benefits of time blocking?
Done well, time blocking can help you:
1. Manage your effort far more effectively.
By dedicating a specific amount of time to one task, it locks your focus and minimizes disruptive context switching.
2. Protect how you distribute your time.
Time blocking creates containers around low-value daily tasks like email, and protects space for important, complex deep thinking. Mapping out your day this way also ensures unqualified new tasks can't push their way into your schedule.
3. Stay on track.
You know that if you delve into Twitter or web browsing you’ll fall behind schedule—and then you’ll either have to work longer, or things just won’t get done.
Humans have a tendency to remember what we haven’t done, as opposed to what we have: this is called the Zeigarnik effect, and it can lead to anxiety, tension, and disrupted sleep. But with our tasks planned out against set dates and time frames, we gain a sense of control and stability over our workload. You know everything will get its due attention, so incomplete tasks won’t even enter your head.
Why time blocking works
Time blocking offers some major benefits when it comes to protecting your time and focused, namely:
1. It helps you get deep work done.
Cal Newport is a big proponent of time blocking. Being deliberate about setting aside blocks of interruption-free time in your calendar where you can focus on a single high-impact task is probably the easiest way to really get into deep-work mode at work. As Newport says:
“A 40 hour time-blocked work week, I estimate, produces the same amount of output as a 60+ hour work week pursued without structure.”
2. And shallow work, too!
As valuable as deep work is, we can’t do it forever. Blocking off set periods of time to work on more routine, lower priority tasks means you’re able to check them off your to-do list in one fell swoop and free up the remainder of your time for deeper pursuits at work.
3. Time blocking is inherently goal-oriented.
Creating a time-blocked schedule is all about being intentional about what you’re spending your time on at work. By breaking a larger goal into projects, projects into tasks, and tasks into smaller pieces of work to complete within a set time period, you can start to make steady, consistent progress towards your goal over the course of days, weeks and months.
But will time blocking work for me?
Planning your entire day into a strict time regimen can seem a bit unnatural and restrictive. But it could provide the productive structure and focus you’ve been looking for; this mechanical approach is precisely why people find it to be so useful. The best way to figure out how time blocking could work for you is to consider the following:
- Understand your priorities. Which of your tasks are the most important, and which don't really advance you towards your goals? Applying the time management matrix can help here. Find out when you’re most productive and schedule your highest-priority tasks of the day for that time; often doing this first thing in the morning helps, as it gets the hardest task out of the way and allows you to focus on it with a fresh, renewed mind.
- Track how long you spend on tasks. This is effectively collecting data on the way you actually work now. It helps you work out how much time you might need to time block against a specific task, and also helps to highlight where you may be spending disproportionate amounts of time on a low-value piece of work. Working out the average time you spend on tasks helps you set competitive but realistic new time allowances for each.
- Factor in your productive patterns. The beauty of time blocking is that you can adapt it to your particular productive habits. Remember to block out your breaks and try to keep a spare half hour for flexibility—just in case something unavoidable comes up that you have to respond to.
Different types of time blocking
There are a few variations of time blocking that, depending on the ways you like to work and the tasks you’re responsible for, might be more suited to you. These include:
We all have those tasks we don’t like to work on or have a tendency to procrastinate on. Timeboxing is a time management strategy that involves finishing predefined tasks within fixed (but realistic) chunks of time. You can timebox all sorts of work-related activities, like executing on tasks, brainstorming, researching, or even running meetings. The Pomodoro technique and 2-minute rule are both examples of timeboxing.
- Roughly estimate how long a particular task should take.
- Review your calendar for a free block of time where you can complete the task.
- Set a timer for each timebox, and focus only on the task you’ve earmarked for completion.
- Finish the task, take a break and repeat.
Once the time is up, you can then assess whether you reached the goal you set out to achieve.
Switching between different types of tasks can deplete your focus and flow at work. To counteract any temptations to multitask or context switch at work, you can combine task batching – where you group similar tasks together in clusters and work on them in a single session – with time blocking. For example, you could set out a specific time in the afternoon to check off lower concentration tasks from your to-do list in one go, like emails and expenses.
If you're juggling multiple projects and different responsibilities at work and are looking to level up from task batching, day theming might be the one for you. These are days in your calendar where you can get truly immersed in one single area of responsibility. For example, a developer’s themed days over the course of a week might look a little something like this:
- Monday: Coding
- Tuesday: Bug fixes
- Wednesday: Coding
- Thursday: Brainstorming/researching new product features
- Friday: Coding
Getting started with time blocking your calendar
We’ve laid out four steps to help you get started with your very own time-blocked calendar:
Step 1: Identify your high-level priorities
Kick things off by compiling an exhaustive list of everything you need to get done at work on either a daily, weekly or even monthly basis. Make sure to break bigger pieces of work into smaller, more actionable tasks, rather than something that takes many days to complete.
Step 2: Figure out what’s urgent
Once your list is made, go through it and prioritize your tasks in the order that makes the most sense for you, whether it’s by workflow, priority, or due date. (A couple of time management strategies that are helpful when it comes to prioritizing your to-do list include Eat the Frog and the 80 20 rule.) You should plan to allow time every day for both deep and shallow work.
This way, you’ll have a clearer picture of what tasks you’ll need to accomplish on a given day – and the ones that can be pushed out a little later. Once your daily to-do list is drafted, you can then group like items together.
Step 3: Estimate how long each task will take.
Once you’ve established all the tasks you need to accomplish for the week ahead, you then need to estimate the amount of time each will take to complete.
Step 4: Block out time in your calendar
The next step is to start allocating blocks of time for each task you want to accomplish. We recommend using a calendar app for this. Each task gets a specific time slot when you’ll only work on that one item on your list. This way, you’ll be able to visualize precisely what to give your full attention to at any point throughout the day.
And remember, it’s important to set aside time to recharge.. Instead of forcing yourself to keep working, add in time in your calendar for a (preferably screen-free) break so when you return you feel energized and ready to do focused work once more.
Tips for blocking your time effectively
There’s a certain amount of trial and error with the time-blocking technique, but here are some tips to help you implement it more effectively right from the get-go:
Tip 1: Leave buffer time between tasks.
It’s completely unrealistic to think you can seamlessly switch from one task to another – give your brain time to recharge before diving into the next thing that needs to be done. By trying to squeeze too much into your day, any slight derailment from your schedule will leave you feeling behind, stressed out and overwhelmed.
Tip 2: Block off more time than you think you’ll need.
Let’s be honest, most of us are guilty of underestimating exactly how long a task takes to complete – a phenomenon known as the planning fallacy. You might think it’ll only take 30 minutes to review that marketing campaign plan, when really it actually takes an hour.
When starting out with time blocking for the first time, we recommend padding out your time blocks a little – with time and practice, you’ll get better at understanding just how long a particular type of project really takes.
Tip 3: Don’t be too rigid with your time-blocked schedule.
While we’re all about protecting your time as much as possible, there will always be critical things that crop up at the last minute and demand your attention. Use the time you’ve blocked in your calendar as a guide, but don’t be afraid to reassess your plan based on shifting priorities.
Tip 4: Make “Do not disturb” mode your new best friend.
Avoiding distractions during the time you’ve blocked off is easier said than done. But there are ways to keep things as distraction-free as possible – turn off your computer and phone alerts, use noise-canceling headphones in the office, and share your calendar publicly so the rest of your coworkers can see and know when to leave you to do your thing.
Tip 5: Get to know your most productive times.
You’ll need to do some detective work here. Are there certain times in the day where your energy levels are consistently higher or lower than others? Use that time for work that requires focus and creativity. What about feeling mentally and/or physically tired and unfocused? Save the afternoon slump for tasks that don’t require as much laser focus but still need to get done, like emails and data entry.
Tip 6: Cluster your meetings together.
It’s hard to get stuck into an important task when you know you’ve got another meeting in 10 minutes. The solution here is to group all of your meetings into one larger block of time, so you can free up longer periods of time for work that requires more focus and creative thinking.
Apps to help you get started with time blocking
You can try just using a basic calendar app to time block your day, but these three tools make the whole task easier and actually show you if it's working:
Timely lets you quickly plan time blocks ahead for weeks at a time and then automatically tracks how long you end up spending on each task. By tracking everything you do, you get a whole host of insights about the way you work, from time drains and broken workflows to interruptions and distractions. You can't ensure allotted time blocks for each task are actually realistic without it.
The beauty of Plan lies in its simplicity. Merging a to-do list with a calendar, and with an easy-to-use user interface, it’s a great tool if you’re looking for a quick and easy way to plan your working day. You can drag tasks from your to-do list and place them into your calendar, and gain understanding into how long you’re spending per task.
3. Week Plan
If you find prioritizing a challenge, this app might be the time blocking tool for you. You can view your schedule by day, week or month, and use the smart planning capabilities of Week Plan to help you create your goals. You can use the inbuilt timer to track how long you spend on tasks, but it will involve a lot of manual effort (and it's ridiculously easy to forget timers).