How to get more done with time blocking

Time Blocking
What is time blocking (and how does it work)?
How time blocking can increase productivity
Is time blocking right for you?
7 high-level tips to get the most out of time blocking
4 obstacles and how to overcome them
Final thoughts

As the demand for our time increases, one thing is obvious: we need to get better at time management. While effective time management can be difficult, if you get it right, you’ll be able to get more done, quicker.

Time blocking is a powerful time management technique that’s been used by high-performers for centuries. Used correctly, it can help you organize your day, focus on your priorities and be more productive.

In this article, we’ll provide an overview of time blocking, give you the tools to create your own time-blocking system and share some tips on what does and doesn’t work when setting up your schedule.

What is time blocking (and how does it work)?

Time blocking involves breaking down a period of time (like your workday) into smaller, more manageable blocks. Each of these blocks is then designated a single task, helping you focus on it more effectively.

For example, you might split an eight-hour day into blocks of 30 minutes. Then, you would designate tasks like “sales prospecting” or “write social content” to each block.

Instead of having an open-ended to-do list, everything is planned out in advance. It’s effectively a combination of a calendar and a to-do list. With a concrete schedule, you don’t need to dedicate brain space to what task you need to do next, reducing decision fatigue and ensuring nothing slips through the cracks.

There are three types of time blocking:

  1. Time boxing is the process of blocking time to focus on particular tasks. In each time box, a task will have a maximum amount of time that you can focus on it. Some people find that this helps them be more productive since it stops them from spending more time than necessary on a given task.

  2. Task batching is the method used to group similar tasks together to be completed in the same timeframe. This helps to limit how much you switch between different activities during the day, which saves time and helps reduce attention loss.

  3. Day theming is like task batching but for entire days. It involves setting aside whole days for different types of responsibilities. For example, marketing leaders might decide to do strategy and research work on Monday, then content promotion on Tuesday.

Many notable entrepreneurs have stated that time-blocking techniques were vital to their success, including Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Benjamin Franklin.

Franklin laid out his daily schedule in his autobiography, featuring his time-blocking routine:

Benjamin Franklin Time blocking routine

Jack Dorsey, co-founder and former CEO of Twitter, spoke about day theming in an interview:

On Monday at both companies I focus on management and running the company. We have our directional meeting at Square and we have our OpCom meeting at Twitter. I do all my management one-on-ones on that day. Tuesday is focused on product. Wednesday is focused on marketing and communications and growth. Thursday is focused on developers and partnerships and Friday is focused on the company and the culture and recruiting. Saturday, I take off. I hike. And then Sunday is reflections, feedback, strategy and getting ready for the rest of the week.

Time blocking is nothing new, and it’s been used by powerful people to be productive, but how does it work exactly?

How time blocking can increase productivity

Time blocking is effective because it helps avoid the daily hurdles that reduce our focus. When you’re constantly being pulled in different directions, time blocking helps by giving you more control over your day.

Time blocking boosts productivity by:

  • Helping you focus on what’s important. By prioritizing the most important tasks in the chunks of time when you’re most productive, you’re increasing your chances of getting them done. It also lets you power through the necessary but less important tasks more efficiently, leaving time and mental energy for the higher-impact work.

  • Stopping you from multitasking. Multitasking doesn’t work. Time blocking lets you focus on a single task rather than splitting your attention across many. Likewise, when you’ve set aside time to check your emails or answer messages on Slack, you won’t give in to the urge to check them every five minutes.

  • Avoiding unnecessary distractions. By blocking out time to work on specific tasks, you can avoid interruptions and diversions. Since you know what you need to work on, you don’t need to worry whether something else is more important.

  • Improving your time management skills. Effective time management is more than just having a great schedule. There are many skills involved, like estimating the amount of time tasks will take. The more you use time blocking, the better you’ll get at it, compounding the benefits.

Is time blocking right for you?

While time blocking can multiply your productivity, it isn’t right for everyone. For example, it doesn’t always work for highly reactive jobs where people need to be able to jump between different demands on the spot.

Time blocking is useful if:

  • Your productivity is suffering from too much multitasking

  • You get distracted easily

  • You want to increase your efficiency

  • You want to have a clearer idea of where your time is going

  • You want to avoid burnout

However, the constraints of time blocking mean that it won’t benefit every position. Consider the following questions to work out whether time blocking is right for you:

  • Is your schedule very different from day to day? Time blocking is sometimes ineffective if you don’t have a clear set of tasks every workweek. If your schedule is completely different every day, it will be hard to create a comprehensive plan to stick to.

  • Do you get constant interruptions to your workflow? If people are constantly knocking at your door or seeking your input, time blocking can be hard to implement. The whole system can break down if you’re interrupted by urgent tasks regularly.

  • Do you need to be flexible? Not only does time blocking take upfront time and effort to get going, but the rigidity of the system might not work for your role. If your work is often done on the spot with requests coming in at random times, time blocking may make it harder to work with the demands of your workplace.

Keep in mind that time blocking doesn’t need to be used all of the time. For example, you might find it effective to implement time boxing for specific parts of the day to help you focus on key tasks. For the rest of the day, you can act as you normally would.

How to use the time-blocking technique in 5 steps

While time blocking is simple on paper, it can be tricky to set up (and stick to). Here are five easy steps to set up your time-blocking system.

Step 1: Set your goals

The first step is to work out your personal reasons for wanting to use time blocking. Create a list of daily problems you have and how time blocking will help you solve them.

Do you want to cut down on distractions so you can get your work done more efficiently? Do you want to set aside time for the tasks that seem to get left behind every day?

Knowing these goals inside and out will make it easier to organize and prioritize tasks when scheduling.

Step 2: Choose a scheduling tool and create your time-blocking template

Next, you want to choose a medium for your schedule. Any old paper scheduler will do the trick in a pinch, but a time-blocking calendar app will likely work best.

Some tools to consider include:

  • Google Calendar. Google Calendar is a simple, easy-to-use calendar app that’s available online for free. With a basic interface, you can easily add time blocks with notes and reminders.

  • Sunsama. At $16 per month, Sunsama is more expensive than Google Calendar. However, it has features that level up its time-blocking capabilities. For instance, you can switch between task list and calendar, categorize tasks and add context where needed.

  • HourStack. HourStack is a task tracker app designed for teams. Use it to block out periods of time for specific work and let it track your time on task as you go. If you run over time, you can have the task roll over to a future slot automatically. It also links your to-do lists from several other apps like Google Calendar, Asana and Trello.

Ideally, the tool you choose should let you add key details to your tasks, send notifications and attach important documents or collaborators.

First, block out your “bookend” activities. These are the daily routines that take place before or after work that will frame your work schedule. For example, you might want to add your morning routine and commute.

The goal here is to create your daily structure, leaving space for work hours. Add any other unchanging activities (like your lunch break, if it’s the same every day). The remaining space will be where you add your daily tasks in the following steps.

Step 3: Make a list of tasks and estimate the time required to complete them

The next step is to create your master list of to-dos, from the things you do every day to any urgent tasks that often pop up during work hours.

While you create this list, keep in mind which tasks you need to prioritize. Time blocking isn’t just about what tasks you need to work on, it’s about when you need to work on them.

  • Create a list of repetitive tasks. These are the tasks that you perform every day or at least multiple times a week. Try to group similar tasks together. Then, come up with a rough estimation of how long each task will take. You may get this wrong, but don’t worry – you can optimize it later.

  • Categorize tasks as deep or shallow work. Deep work is focused work (like writing or coding) where you need to be able to work without distractions for an hour or more at a time. In contrast, shallow work includes the smaller tasks you can do without thinking, like checking your mail.

  • Consider reactive work. Try to estimate how much time you usually spend on reactive work (the random things that emerge throughout the day). You’ll want to set aside sufficient time for these tasks to prevent them from impacting your schedule.

Estimating how much time you should set aside for different types of work can be difficult, but try to keep it simple. If you’re unsure, allow extra time. This way, if you finish the task early, you have more time to complete your next task.

If you underestimate the time it takes to finish tasks, time blocking falls apart. As soon as one block is wrong, the entire schedule breaks down and you’ll have to use up time adjusting it.

When you’re getting started, we also recommend task batching or grouping related activities together. It might be less effective, but it’s easier to implement when you’re new to time blocking. As you fine-tune your time-blocking process over the coming weeks, you can narrow blocks down to specific tasks.

Step 4: Set aside blocks based on task priority

Now that you have a master list of your daily activities, it’s time to create your draft time-blocking schedule. Get your time-blocking template ready and start adding blocks for each activity.

  • Set aside time at the start of the day to add new tasks. At the beginning or end of each day, set aside dedicated time to plan your day ahead. You’ll have to adjust your schedule each day, especially if you’re new to time blocking. Having time to plan your day front-loads the decision-making so you don’t have to do it when you should be working.

  • Add your deep work blocks. Deep work should go (if possible) in the time periods when you’re most alert and productive. For example, if you usually work best between 8:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m., block that out for your highest-impact work.

  • Add the shallow work. Block out your daily, easy-to-complete tasks next. These can go in the lull periods where you feel less awake, like just after your lunch break. This helps minimize wasted time.

  • Create flexible blocks. Depending on your role, you may want to set aside flexible blocks reserved for reactive work. Some people like to have buffers between specific time blocks for this exact purpose. This allows you to respond to urgent tasks (like phone calls) promptly without affecting your overall schedule.

  • Include personal time. Time blocking isn’t just about work. It can also help you reserve free time for personal activities, hobbies and relaxation. High-quality rest is one of the most important factors for increasing productivity, so don’t leave it out of your schedule.

Step 5: Periodically review your approach

The whole purpose of time blocking is to be more productive without sacrificing the flexibility you need to do your work properly. Like all time management strategies, you will probably need to adjust your approach a few times until it feels right.

Consider your baseline productivity. After your first day of time blocking, think about what helped and discard anything that reduced your productivity. Do the same after your first week.

Keep in mind that time blocking doesn’t work for everyone. If, after some time, you feel like your productivity hasn’t improved (or worse, it’s suffered), then maybe time blocking is the wrong strategy for you.

7 high-level tips to get the most out of time blocking

Changing the way you work isn’t easy, and this is especially true when it involves combating bad habits like constant context-switching and procrastination. To get the most out of time blocking, here are seven useful tips:

  1. Figure out when you’re most productive. With this in mind, you can designate more thought-intensive tasks to the periods of time when you’re more energized. Then, when you’re feeling drowsy, you can do the tasks that require less thought.

  2. Start small and work up. Many people find it easier to start by blocking part of their days, rather than an entire day or week. As you get more used to it, you can increase the amount of your day that’s blocked out for particular tasks.

  3. Schedule breaks and add buffers. Set aside time slots for your lunch and coffee breaks. To avoid the attention drop you get from context switching, also consider adding short buffers between blocks. This could be a quick stretch and a glass of water – something to keep you focused while you change to the next task.

  4. Overestimate the time it takes to finish tasks. In the beginning, you might struggle to optimize your schedule. It can help to overestimate the time things will take so that if they run a little overtime, your schedule isn’t impacted. If you finish something quicker than expected, you can simply move the schedule forward.

  5. Tell your colleagues. If your teammates are used to immediate communication, give them access to your new schedule so they know when you’ll be available.

  6. Only reprioritize if you have to. New tasks are going to appear – that’s a fact of life. This unexpected work often feels urgent, but it isn’t necessarily more important than what you were already working on. Take a moment to consider where it fits in your schedule before immediately taking on the new task.

  7. Time block at the end of the day. Cal Newport, the author of The Time-Block Planner, spends 20 minutes each evening time blocking his next day. This lets him get straight to work without having to reconsider where he ended the day before.

4 obstacles and how to overcome them

Here are some of the major obstacles that prevent people from achieving success with time blocking, and what you can do about them.

  1. You can’t always get everything done. There are always going to be days when you don’t get to all of your work. Time blocking will help reduce their occurrence, but not completely. To overcome this, you need to have a clear idea of your high-priority tasks so that you get those done first.

  2. Things outside your control interrupt your schedule. Some days, tasks will arise that need to be dealt with outside of your ideal time block. That’s okay. Time blocking isn’t about creating a rigid, unchangeable schedule – it’s about being more intentional with your time. The trick is to leave buffer room for rescheduling when such events occur.

  3. Your team frequently needs your input. If you work with a team that needs to schedule last-minute meetings with you fairly often, specify blocks that can be scheduled over and blocks that can’t. That way, team members can still get access when they need it, and you still reserve important periods for necessary work.

  4. Your blocks are too general. If you aren’t specific with work blocks, you’ll easily slip into lower-priority work and lose track of time. For more complicated tasks, try to break down each block into smaller steps. Each step should be the next that you need to take to finish the project.

Final thoughts

Time management isn’t easy. Every year there seem to be more things to do and less time to do them. What’s more, it’s easier for distractions and random tasks to take over when you aren’t in control of your schedule.

Time blocking lets you get your task management decision-making done early so that when it’s time to get things done, you can work without distraction.

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