Time Blocking: A Guide for Consistently Productive Days
Most people use their calendars reactively, meaning that they put things on their calendars as they come up. Someone wants to grab coffee? On the calendar. The boss calls a meeting? On the calendar. A conference call with the publishing team? On the calendar.
The problem with this approach is that it can lead to the day getting very chopped up, which then makes it difficult to get things done which require in-depth thinking. If you’re constantly interrupted by meetings, phone calls, and emails, it’s tough to make progress on meaningful tasks.
Enter time blocking.
Time blocking is a unique strategy for getting things done that relies much more heavily on the calendar than traditional task management strategies.
Many people swear by time blocking. Cal Newport, the author of Deep Work, 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.”
So what exactly is time blocking? Why does it work so well for some people? And how can you implement it in your own life?
What Is Time Blocking?
Time blocking is a very specific way of managing your day. You divide your day into discrete time blocks and then assign specific tasks to each block. During each block, you work only on the assigned task, and nothing else. This last part is key. You’re not just making a daily schedule for yourself. You’re focusing on a single priority during each block of time and not letting anything interrupt your focus.
Here’s a really simple example of time blocking:
- 6:30 – 7:00: Wake and breakfast
- 7:00 – 7:30: Workout
- 7:30 – 8:00: Commute
- 8:00 – 10:00: Wireframe new website
- 10:00 – 10:30: Email
- 10:30 – 12:00: Website development meeting
- 12:00 – 1:00: Lunch
- 1:00 – 3:00: Design website header image
- 3:00 – 4:30: Write homepage copy
- 4:30 – 5:00: Email
- 5:00 – 5:30: Commute
- 5:30 – 6:30: Dinner
- 6:30 – 9:30: Family time
- 9:30 – 10:00: Read
- 10:00 – Bed
Most people use an open-ended to-do list, working on each item as they’re able. They work on Task A first, taking as much time as necessary to complete it. Then comes Task B, Task C, etc.
Time blocking, on the other hand, gives you a definite, defined schedule to follow each day. Everything is planned out in advance and you know what should be happening at each moment of the day.
How To Time Block Your Weekly Schedule
Time blocking might sound great in theory, but how do you actually make it a reality? How do you effectively time block your entire week? It’s actually not that complicated. (Note: At the end of this post we’ll link to various templates you can use to time block your weeks.)
Set Your Priorities
First, you need to determine your priorities, both in your personal and professional life. You need to decide what things matter most to you and what you want to accomplish. Your schedule should flow out of and reflect your core priorities.
As Nir Eyal says:
The trouble is, we don’t make time to live our values. We unintentionally spend too much time in one area of our life at the expense of others. For example, we get busy at work at the expense of living our values with our family or friends. If we run ourselves ragged caring for our kids, we neglect our bodies, minds, and adult friendships. This keeps us from being the person we desire to be. If we chronically neglect our values, we become someone we’re not proud of.
Eyal recommends setting priorities within three domains: you, relationships, and work. What do you personally want to achieve? What relationships do you want to develop? What professional goals are most important to you? The activities you schedule within a given week should reflect these key priorities.
Schedule Your Morning and Evening Blocks
Before you start scheduling out your work day, create your morning and evening blocks. Your morning routine is critically important and sets the tone for the rest of your day. Your evening activities are just as important and should allow you to disconnect from work and unwind. If you don’t specifically schedule these time periods, they can easily be overtaken by work.
Create Deep Work Blocks
Next, put several deep work blocks onto your calendar. During these periods, you’ll be doing focused, meaningful, undistracted work. Ideally, these periods of deep work should coincide with your peak energy levels. If you’re freshest first thing in the morning and right after lunch, these are also ideal times for deep work.
Be careful about trying to do too much deep work in a given day. Deep work fatigues the brain, limiting the amount that can be done in a given day. Cal Newport suggests that the upper limit of what the brain can handle is probably around four hours per day. If you’re new to deep work, that amount will be significantly less.
Add Shallow Work and Reactive Work Blocks
Inevitably, you will have some amount of shallow and reactive work every day. You have to respond to emails, engage in Slack chats, and return voicemails. People will want to pull you into “quick” meetings and there will be times when your boss needs you to hop on something immediately.
That’s why you need to have specific blocks of time set aside for shallow and reactive work. During this time, you can handle the various smaller, less important tasks that come up every day. You can also make yourself available to others for meetings, calls, etc.
Assign Specific Tasks To Time Blocks
Once you’ve created a general outline of what your day and week will look like, assign tasks from your to-do list to individual blocks of time.
It’s important, especially when you’re first getting started with time blocking, to be flexible with your schedule. You may discover that you need more deep work time or that you’re not able to keep up with your email in the allotted time frame. Your schedule has to work for you or you won’t stick with it. Adapt and change your schedule as necessary.
Time Blocking Vs. Task Batching Vs. Day Theming
Time blocking is closely related to task batching and day theming.
Task batching is when you schedule a number of smaller, closely related tasks to perform within a time block. For example, you may have a number of different paperwork tasks, like invoicing, reading memos, and signing key documents. Because each of these tasks only takes a few minutes, it doesn’t make sense to create individual time blocks for each one. Task batching lets you create one time block in which to accomplish all the individual tasks.
Day theming takes task batching one step further, with each day of the week having a narrowly defined focus. For example, on Monday you might focus on HR-related activities. Tuesday could be given exclusively to writing, and Wednesday could be dedicated to administrative tasks. Task batching can be particularly useful to people with a wide variety of responsibilities, like small business owners or CEOs of startups. It reduces the mental burden that comes with constantly switching tasks and allows you to know exactly what you’ll be doing on any given day.
A Few Time Blocking Tips
Here are a few tips to make your time blocking efforts successful.
- Give yourself a buffer between time blocks. You simply can’t go from one task to the next without stopping. You need time to use the restroom, get coffee, greet colleagues, etc. Time blocking shouldn’t have you scrambling breathlessly.
- Overestimate the time it will take you to complete tasks. As a general rule, we tend to underestimate how long something will take, which then disrupts our schedule. Give yourself more time than you think is necessary for tasks.
- Make sure you account for things like preparing food, your commute, lunch, etc. If you don’t account for these things, your schedule will quickly get thrown off kilter.
- Be sure that you have time set aside for planning each week. Time blocking only works if you carefully plan out your days. Make sure you have a chunk of time dedicated to mapping out what your week will look like.
- Create an overflow day if you find yourself constantly falling behind in your schedule. During the overflow day, you can work on tasks that you didn’t complete.
Why Time Blocking Works
Time blocking has several key benefits that set it apart from other productivity methods.
Time blocking forces you to take a long, hard look at your to-do list and determine which tasks are most important. You must decide which tasks will get your undivided attention and the amount of time you’re going to dedicate to each task. It requires you to be ruthless with your task list, focused on the things that will move the needle the most.
While to-do lists are infinite, making space for as many tasks as you can over-optimistically dream up, schedules are finite, forcing you to get real about what you can actually accomplish in the 168 hours allotted to you each week.
In order to time block effectively, you absolutely must plan in advance. If you don’t plan in advance, your schedule will be quickly filled by the requests of others. Ideally, you should roughly plot out your time blocks at the beginning of each week. At the end of each workday, look at what you got done and then adjust your schedule accordingly.
Multitasking and time blocking can’t coexist. Within each block, you give your attention to one thing and only one thing. You don’t allow your focus to wander from the task at hand. Additionally, the time restraints of each block force you to pay close attention to what you’re doing. If you only give yourself 30 minutes to clear out your inbox, you can’t afford to be distracted by other things.
Speaking of the benefits of time blocking, entrepreneur Abby Lawson says:
It rarely goes exactly how I have it planned, but what it does for me is it gives me kind of deadlines, and times during the day that I have to meet and be done with this certain task. It keeps me on task, and a lot less likely to go down the Facebook rabbit hole, or get distracted by something else because I know that if I take too much time on this task, it pushes the rest of my schedule back, and I won’t complete everything that I set out to do that day.
Less Decision Fatigue
Having to constantly decide what to work on creates decision fatigue. As decision fatigue increases, your ability to think clearly is impaired. With time blocking, you know exactly what you should be working on at any given moment.
More Deep Work
Cal Newport, author of Deep Work: Rules For Focused Success In A Distracted World, defines deep work as follows:
“Professional activity performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”
Deep work involves giving all your attention to high-value activities that make a real difference. Contrast this with shallow, busywork, which is made up of low-value activities that don’t add significant value.
Time blocking allows you to consistently dedicate significant blocks of time to deep work. Instead of being reactive, accepting whatever tasks are thrown your way, you can take control of your schedule and carve out time for the work that matters.
Coleman Collins puts it this way:
Solving hard problems takes a lot of time and attention. If you let distractions, multi-tasking, and other people take small drips of time from you all day, it’s hard to find more than a half-hour or hour at a stretch to do good, creative work — which is often barely long enough to get started. Forcing one task for one block of time allows depth…
Feel Less Overwhelmed
Working from an open-ended to-do list often leaves you feeling overwhelmed and intimidated by all that you have to get done. With time blocking, you’re forced to break your hulking to-do list down into manageable chunks. You also know exactly which tasks will get done and when they’ll be accomplished. The result is that you feel far less overwhelmed by your to-do list.
Time Blocking In The Workplace
If you’re like most people, you probably don’t completely control your schedule. You have mandatory meetings, regular interruptions, and a host of other demands from those around you. So how do you utilize time blocking in the workplace? Here are a few recommendations.
First, talk to your boss about what you’re trying to do. Explain that you want to be more productive and you think this will significantly help you. Even if your boss doesn’t let you fully schedule your day, he may allow you to schedule portions of it.
Second, be flexible and adaptable with your schedule. It’s inevitable that you’ll be interrupted from time to time during deep work periods. If possible, tell the person that you’re in the middle of something important and ask if you can circle back around to them during one of your shallow/reactive work periods. This will work most of the time. If the need really is immediate, simply adjust your schedule on the fly.
Time Blocking Tools
Thankfully, there are numerous tools available that can help you with time blocking. Of course, you can create a time blocked schedule using nothing more than a pen and a sheet of paper. But if you want something a bit more sophisticated, these tools might help.
Time Blocking Apps
In order to time block effectively, you need to be able to put specific tasks into blocks on a calendar. Using Google Calendar and Todoist together make it easy to schedule specific tasks. Todoist is a task manager that allows you to easily organize and sort tasks. Once you have your tasks organized in Todoist, you can transfer them over to time blocks you’ve created in Google Calendar.
If you want apps that are specifically designed for time blocking, you may want to consider Plan or Planyway. Plan integrates directly with Google Calendar, allowing you to schedule tasks and then easily drag them onto your calendar. Planyway is a calendar that integrates with Trello, and you can easily move Trello cards to the calendar.
Time Blocking Templates
There are numerous time blocking templates available to help you easily schedule out your days.
- Clockify has created daily, weekly, and monthly templates that are broken down into 15-minute, 30-minute, and 1-hour increments. The templates are available both in PDF and Excel format.
- Smartsheet has also created a huge variety of time tracking templates that can be used for time blocking. They’re available in Excel, Word, and PDF format.
Time Blocking Planners
If you’re the type who prefers organizing their tasks on paper rather than digitally, you may appreciate using a productivity planner that enables time blocking. Two that stand out in particular are the Full Focus Planner by Michael Hyatt and the Self Planner from Best Self Co.
Both allow you to create in-depth task lists and then transfer those tasks to your daily calendar. They also help you define your big picture goals, evaluate key areas of your life, and determine your key objectives for each week, month, quarter, and year.
Distraction Blocking Apps
It’s no secret that distraction is one of the biggest hindrances to productivity. Even during scheduled deep work periods, you can be tempted to check your email, skim social media, or read the latest headlines. Sometimes you need some help blocking out all the distractions.
That’s where Freedom comes in. You can create automatically recurring morning and evening sessions in which your access to distractions is completely cut off. Instead of mindlessly surfing Facebook, you can do deep work, play with your kids, meditate, write, or whatever else sits high on your priority list.
You can also schedule sessions specifically during your deep work periods to ensure that you’re not tempted to check email or read up on the latest Kardashian doings.
Using Freedom can ensure that you stay on track with your time blocked schedule.
Schedule Your Way To Freedom
The ironic thing about time blocking is that it actually results in you having more freedom. Instead of trying to juggle multiple tasks at one time, you’re free to work on only one thing at a time. Instead of having your day chopped up by meetings and calls and endless emails, you simply flow from one time block to another. Instead of giving all your attention to shallow, meaningless tasks, you can focus on the things that will move the needle the most.
Your calendar is a powerful weapon if you know how to use it. Is it time for you to start time blocking your way to freedom?