Time Blocking: The Complete Guide

We use calendars to help us be more efficient workers, but we’re using them completely wrong.

When it comes to calendars, most of us end up scheduling interruption instead of scheduling work. We make time for the things that stop our work–meetings, appointments–and wonder why our work doesn’t get done.

Time blocking is how you change that backwards approach and turn your calendar into a work productivity tool.

What is time blocking?

Time blocking is where you arrange your day into larger blocks of time. Instead of short chunks of time broken up whenever and wherever a distraction may lead you, which often happens with an unplanned day, the focus is on singular projects before going on to the next project.

What are the benefits of time blocking your day?

Time blocking has benefits that affect your physical and emotional well being, as well as promote efficiency.

Time blocking can promote a good work-life balance.

Time blocking can promote a healthy work-life integration. When you set aside time to work, that means you are also setting aside time for your personal life.

Time blocking also makes you more aware of your availability. It shows you what time you actually have available. This lets you treat your work schedule much like someone booking an appointment. It helps you say no to projects you simply have no time for.

Time blocking can reduce stress. 

Time blocking can reduce stress at work

Stress comes from not being able to start or stop work. It comes from not knowing what to do next. It comes from feeling like a project is open-ended or never-ending, lacking benchmarks or goals.

The Zeigarnik effect, in regards to productivity, has the odd side effect that productive people quickly forget what they’ve accomplished and remember what they haven’t. You have difficulty sleeping at night, or relaxing at the end of the day, because you’re fixated on the list of things you didn’t do and forget all that you accomplished. The overriding sense is that nothing is getting done, and that’s very stressful.

Time blocking provides you with a verifiable schedule of what you’ve done and helps you methodically work through everything on your plate. You know when to start and when to stop. You have a plan to follow and trust.

Time blocking can improve efficiency.

Time blocking is more effective than mere to-do lists. Instead of a list of things to get done in any order, you are arranging your daily calendar around complex projects. Here’s the difference: time blocking allows for the multiple steps it takes to get a project done while a to-do list is something you check off only once the work is done. To-do lists don’t help you get things done; they simply remind you to get it done.

Time blocking also helps you answer the question of “what did I accomplish today?” When you mix projects and tasks in a jumble, it is difficult to know what you’ve specifically accomplished (and where you need to start up again). This is particularly relevant for projects with multiple levels of completion which can be stressful if you don’t allow for the value of the process of working through the project.

There’s another way it can improve your efficiency: it kills perfectionistic tendencies that slow you down.  Perfectionists often revisit projects they think need “tweaking.” This wastes a lot of time because you get little accomplished and often repeat work you’ve already done. With a time block schedule, you do not have the wiggle room to go back and rework. You have to move on to the next time block and call it good.

How to get started with time blocking.

Time blocking is a simple concept, but before you start, you have to know the what, when, and how of your work.

Know how you work.

You know when you work the best. Maybe it’s in the morning, maybe it’s right after lunch. Your peak performance time should be when you do your most difficult work.

You should also know how long various projects and tasks tend to take you. Be wary of underestimating the time, and give yourself some extra leeway or a buffer between blocks.

Know what distractions happen, and when.

If you work in an office or at home, there are outside distractions that happen at similar times each day. Don’t fight those cycles of distraction if possible. Use those times for easier or task-based work.

Know what kind of work you’re dealing with.

Cal Newport, who helped popularize the time-blocking concept, is an author who has researched and written about the different kinds of work we do. In particular, Newport focuses on the concept of deep work.

Deep work is an extreme focus on the job at hand. Few distractions and intense focus are the qualities of deep work. Newport equates the amount of work you can accomplish with the time spent and a high intensity level. It is important to not interrupt deep work, because distraction is what destroys it. Deep work will take longer and require more energy if distraction is present.

If there’s deep work, then there’s also shallow work.

Think of this as the tasks and busy work you have to do, but don’t require intense concentration. This would be checking email, responding to notifications, sending invoices, or paperwork. There are exceptions, but most of these tasks are habitual or rote. They can take up significant amounts of time if you let them, but they don’t require the concentration that deep work does.

Choose which time blocking method you’ll use, and when.

Because you have different kinds of work you need to manage, you will need a different approach. There are a few ways you can group how you will use your time.

  1. Standard time blocking. Plan blocks of time for the projects you will work on that day.
  2. Day blocking. An extreme approach where you set aside entire days to work on a project, varying it through the week.
  3. Task grouping. Group tasks together that are similar in nature to save time and avoid distractions that ruin time blocks. 
  4. Task time limits. Set limits on the time you’ll give to a task each day.

Generally, the first two involve deep work, while the last two involve shallow work.

These different methods are useful because some of the work you do isn’t necessarily project specific, but more task-specific. Checking your email and messages, for example, might spread across several projects or clients. It’s easy to be distracted if you try to limit these kinds of tasks to a project specific time block. 

For example, you check your email for the current blocked project, but also see that there’s an important email for a different project that you just have to deal with. Pretty soon your time block schedule is in shambles.

You can use a mix of these easily enough. You are simply blocking how you will use your day.

Schedule in non-work times.

Though over-scheduling your free time can actually ruin your enjoyment of those leisure activities by making them yet another item on a to-do list, you do want to build a schedule with personal time in mind.

With that in mind, be sure to schedule breaks during the work day, and have a cut-off time when work is done for the day.

The goal is to follow your time-blocking schedule and if you don’t put in a break to get coffee or stretch, you’ll eat into time you set aside for working. You should also schedule time for planning the next day or week’s time blocking layout. And don’t forget to allow for “blank” blocks in case something pops up or needs to be moved.

Turn off distractions.

Once you are set to begin your time-blocked day, turn off notifications on your phone and computer. Mute your phone. Shut the door. Put on headphones. Whatever it takes, turn off distractions.

You can check valid notifications of messages and emails during a task grouping block, or during a break. They will only derail your schedule if you leave them on.

Helpful time blocking apps.

Google Calendar is an app many people are already using, and it is the easiest place to start. Whether you create a calendar for each project and block out the day, or simply use one calendar and create events for your blocks of time, this is a free tool that works.

Plan integrates with Outlook and Google Calendar. You can block out sections of time for projects and tasks easily through a drag-and-drop interface.

HourStack is useful if you want to see how much time you are actually spending on a project. This will help you in future planning for time blocking. It integrates with several project planning apps, as well as Google Calendar.

SkedPal is a great tool if you are struggling to find the time to even schedule time blocks. It integrates with several apps and calendars, and allows you to add in your to-do lists. Then it will automatically create a work schedule for you.

And let’s not forget that you can use a basic notebook to create your time blocking schedule. Some of the apps you’re already using for other processes, such as When I Work, can be used to help you with time blocking. They may not be dedicated to the process, but are the best fit for you because you’re already working with them.

Time-block your day for maximum productivity.

Using less time to get more work done is what time blocking accomplishes. It takes planning and a will to follow that plan, but you will find maximum productivity is the end result, no matter what level of  work you need to get done.

For more tips on efficiency, check out our guide on boosting productivity at work

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