What Is Time Blocking?
Time blocking is a time management technique that consists in scheduling out everything in your entire day with time blocks, including meals, work projects and personal time in order to better manage time and discover where precious hours are either being wasted or underutilized.
Even though people have been using time blocking throughout history, the main proponent of this technique is Cal Newport. He’s the author of the book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, which explains what time blocking is.
To understand how to use time blocking to manage your work schedule, we need to define its main components.
- Deep work: Cal Newport coined the term deep work, and it refers to uninterrupted work that is the result of a structured schedule. When you “deep work” you focus all your efforts on a single task at a time.
- Shallow work: It’s the busy work that you need to get done on a regular basis. You should group low-priority shallow work tasks together and block time to complete them all at once so that they don’t distract you from more important tasks.
- Time blocks: A time block is a defined period of time that you assign to the completion of a task.
- Context switching: Context switching occurs when an individual divides his attention between several tasks. This reduces his productivity.
In this article, we go over the dos and don’ts of time blocking, how it has worked for some people and how time blocks can make you productive at home and at work.
How to Start Time Blocking your Schedule in 5 Steps
As mentioned, time blocking (sometimes called calendar blocking) works when your entire day is divided in time blocks. While a time blocking schedule can seem too constraining to some people, it actually helps you get more done during your work week, so you have more free time to do the things you enjoy. After all, when you get everything done that you need to on any given day, you feel less anxious and stressed after work in the evenings.
How people block their work week varies depending on their needs, but the beauty of a time blocking schedule is that it can work for anyone, from a work from home contractor to a busy business owner. The only thing that varies is what their time blocks contain.
1. Block off Your Work Day
The first thing that needs to be blocked off in a calendar is the actual work day. This will give you a good bird’s eye view of when you’ll be able to deep work and fit in meetings and projects. Your work day is the time of day that you actually spend at your desk, so exclude your commute and your lunch break. For many people, that’s an eight or nine hour day, Monday through Friday, likely from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm or 9:00 am to 6:00 pm.
Using that metric, we can see that we have about forty hours blocked per week for work. From there, we can further segment this time into designated time blocks. For someone who is a full-time parent or isn’t working a traditional job, these hours can be designated for tasks you do every day or week, like school drop-offs or trips to the post office, for example.
2. Block Meeting and Creative Time
Start filling in your workday with designated time blocks for meetings and creative work. For someone in a creative field, this is especially important, as having meetings at random times throughout the week can lead to context switching and throw off creative focus.
If possible, block time one or two days a week as “meeting days.” Try to always have your standing meetings during these days, and ask others you usually meet with to move regular meetings to these days as well. Because you are only trying to meet on these designated days, make sure you are completely flexible about the time of day these meetings occur.
The other days of the week can be assigned as creative time or actual work time. For many professionals, these are the hours where most work is done, so avoid blocking time for shallow work during these days. Meetings, on the other hand, are usually more of an administrative task unless your profession is something like project management or sales.
If you have standing clients, one possibility is to assign each client a specific day or time block to work solely on their projects. This works well if you have a set amount of work each week that doesn’t require daily check-ins. For example, running a weekly report or writing an article would be projects that could be assigned to specific days, which is known as day theming.
Otherwise, if your work varies each week, simply segment your work days into creative time blocks. Usually, this is broken up by lunch, but be sure to schedule in breaks if you always take one.
3. Blocking Off Personal Time
Besides the work day, it’s also important to block off your personal time. If you don’t do something specific every week, then just block it off as “personal time.” However, you can break it down even further by thinking about what you do every evening after work. Most people walk their dogs, cook and eat dinner, workout, spend time with their spouse and kids, etc.
Be sure to also look at what you’re doing before work: this can be time blocked as well. Showering, blow drying hair, exercising, and other daily activities can all be scheduled before the work day begins.
Once you map out your work and personal activities, you can see your ideal day. This helps you further refine your schedule to deep work and build in more of what you want.
4. Blocking Time for Goals
It’s possible to block time for any additional goals that you have if you designate a time for it on your schedule. After taking a look at your blocked calendar, look at where you can feasibly fit in 30-60 minutes to work on a goal of yours. This might be to exercise more or to make dinner at home five nights a week. If they are scheduled in your calendar with time blocks, you are much more likely to get them done.
On the meeting days, you might realize that you won’t have enough meetings each week that would take up the 13-16 hours a week that you’ve set aside for it. This means that you might be able to use some of this time on shallow work or to work toward a goal.
Setting aside time for tasks you want to work on can give you the permission you’ve been waiting for to really put effort and “deep work” into it. It’s easy to be unable to see how we can fit in additional projects when our work week seems so full. However, by dividing your work days with time blocks, you are better able to see how the puzzle pieces of a schedule fit together to make everything work.
5. Account for “Wasted” Time
In addition to blocking time for your shallow and deep work, like email or meetings, you can also block time for things you do every day that you don’t realize are really taking up time on your calendar. This includes showering, getting ready in the morning, and your daily commute. By accounting for these things, you can see where your workday actually begins and when it should end (depending on what you want to do in the evenings).
When you account for drive time, you might realize that you actually need to start going into work earlier or ending your workday sooner so you can fit all your time blocks in. For example, in the sample time blocking calendar above, when we account for commuting to and from the gym, we see that dinner and the kids’ bedtime is pushed to 7:00-8:00 pm. If we know the kids always go to bed at 7:30, and 8:00 pm would be too late, we need to figure out how to adjust our time blocks by either leaving work earlier, making our workout shorter, or changing when we do our workout to make sure everything fits.
You can also account for how much personal time you’ll have in the evenings by counting backward from the morning to how many hours of sleep you need. For instance, if you always wake up at 6:30 am and you need eight hours of sleep at night, then bedtime should be around 10 or 10:30 pm each night.
Time Blocking Variations
These time management methods will allow you to block time on your schedule. You can use them all to create a time blocking calendar that adjusts to the way you work.
Time boxing is very similar to time blocking, but the main difference is that time blocks assign time to sets of tasks, while time boxes define time for individual tasks. When you’re using time boxing to manage your schedule, you need to estimate the time it’ll take you to complete individual tasks for each time box, such as 20 minutes to read your email.
Task batching consists in grouping small, similar tasks to schedule a time block to get them done at the same time. That way you can have a time block for all of them instead of having time boxes scattered all over your work week schedule.This increases efficiency by reducing context switching and organizing your calendar. Task batching it’s ideal for taking care of shallow work.
Day theming consists in assigning all the available time in a day to a specific area of responsibility. For example, a business owner might take care of inventory on mondays, marketing on tuesdays and so on. Day theming works great for those who have jobs with recurring tasks.
Time blocking may seem overwhelming at first, but it’s actually a time management strategy that gives you a lot of freedom to see where you have pockets of time to work on your goals and where you need to reframe your working or personal hours. Even if you don’t leave your time blocks as a permanent addition to your calendar, this can be an interesting exercise to learn where your time is really going each day.
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