Over the last few years of constant experimentation and refinement to my own productivity system, there is one technique I’ve continued to use and recommend since day 1; “time blocking”.
This technique is simple, effective and I feel is one of the key reasons why I get so much done.
While time blocking may not be for everyone, if you haven’t tried it before, I highly recommend you give it a go for a week or two (it might just change how you work, forever).
In this post, I’ll introduce you to time blocking and guide you, step-by-step, through how to apply this powerful technique.“Time blocking” is one of the best ways of turning good intentions into actionClick To Tweet [toc]
What is “time blocking”
Time blocking is the practice of scheduling appointments on your calendar to illustrate when you’re going to work on a particular task or project.
For example, let’s say I have a task on my to-do list like: “Prepare sales presentation” I would then “block” out (or “schedule”) time on my calendar to work on this task. Maybe I want to work on it from 10am – 12pm on Wednesday. That’s where this “block” would go on the calendar.
Time blocking can be performed at the beginning of the day as you plan what you’re going to work on. Better yet, you could plan your time the day before as you finish up your workday. That way, you can start the new day and get straight into your first task.
Or, better still, time blocking could be performed at the start of your week (or the even the end of the previous week) where you plan your entire week in advance.
At this point, I’m sure lots of readers are thinking “What?! I can’t plan my entire week. Plans change, what about emergencies, this is too rigid for me!”. But don’t worry, I will address all of these concerns below.
The advantages of time blocking
Firstly, let’s look at why time blocking is such a useful productivity technique (or if you want to skip ahead and get straight into the practical steps, click here):
- It forces you to think about the time required for your work – Most people have a to-do list, either on paper or using some kind of app. But this is just half the battle. One of the challenges in managing a to-do is that it’s very easy to over-commit. In other words, it’s easy to over budget too many tasks into your day or week. When you schedule time for these tasks and put them on your calendar, you’re forced to make a guess as to how long those tasks will take to complete. So, when you look at your list of 10 things to do today and fill the available time in your calendar with the first 5, you instantly know you can’t get everything done and have to re-plan. By taking the time to think about how long tasks will take to complete, you’re able to approach your projects and tasks in a much more realistic way.
- It helps you to convert intention into action – Most people use their calendars for important, time-sensitive events like meetings or phone calls. These are usually situations where you’ve made a commitment to someone else to turn up at a specific time and give them your attention. When you time block, you’re applying the same commitment to yourself. You’re making a promise to turn up at 10am and work on that presentation. This self-commitment helps you to turn good intention (the tasks on your task list) into a plan of action (a commitment about when you're going to get the work done).
- It helps to prevent procrastination – Continuing from this last point, when you make this commitment to yourself, it helps to prevent procrastination. In his best-selling book, Influence, author Dale Carnegie discusses the power of consistency. He points out how people feel a need to remain consistent with what they say and follow through with promises. After you’ve blocked out time for an appointment on your calendar, this need to remain consistent with your plan helps you to overcome any distractions that might be causing you to procrastinate so you can execute and do the work.
- It creates a record of how you spent your time – After you’ve done your work, it’s useful to be able to look back over your week and see how you spent your time. The more you understand about how your time is being spent, the more likely you are to make smart decisions and create better plans for the future.
How to block your time
Okay, let’s get into the meaty part of this post and look at how to actually block out your time.
As I mentioned above, you can sit down to plan your time each day or once a week. I find the best approach is a combination of both. Here’s a step-by-step guide;
Step one – I like to do the bulk of my time blocking on a Friday afternoon at the end of my working week. By planning the upcoming week I can more effectively switch off and relax at the weekend knowing I have a clear plan of attack for the new week. It also means I can get straight into actually doing the work on Monday morning. If Friday afternoons aren’t an option, aim for first thing Monday morning.
Step two – You need to start with a clear list of tasks to work on. If you haven’t already got this, spend some time getting your thoughts out of your head and organising everything you need to do into projects.
Step three – With a clear list of things to do, I suggest working through them in chronological order i.e. start with Monday, then Tuesday and so on… and for each task 1) estimate how long the task will take to complete, then 2) block out time for this task on your calendar.
I’ll pause here to clarify a few points:
- I don’t bother to schedule tasks for quick 5-minute things and small reminders. But anything takes 15 minutes or longer should really be scheduled.
- Estimating how long a task will take to complete isn’t always easy. I always aim to schedule too much time for a task rather than too little. It’s much easier to finish early, adjust your calendar (more on this below) and move on to the next thing rather than trying to rush through everything so you can stick to your plan.
- It’s okay to schedule a few appointments back to back over the space of an hour or two. But avoid blocking out your entire day where there’s no space between tasks for short breaks. It’s good to budget in some “transition time” where you may check your email, follow up with colleagues, or take a quick tea/toilet break.
- For certain tasks, you may need to schedule multiple time blocks over a few days. Let’s say you want to publish a blog post on Thursday. In that case, you may need a few blocks of time on Monday and Tuesday to write the post, a block on Wednesday for edits and time on Thursday for publishing.
- Aim to leave some blank space in your calendar each day as you’ll more than likely need this room for urgent tasks that come up later.
Step four – Continue going through your tasks for the entire week until you’ve planned when to work on each item.
Step five – It’s also useful to add any recurring appointments to your calendar so that you don’t schedule tasks on top of these important time slots. e.g. weekly meetings. You may also want to block out time for lunch or going for a walk (rather than leaving blank space) so that you actually make time on your calendar for taking a break throughout the day.
Step six – Aim to do the majority of your planning once a week. Now just because you’ve planned your week, doesn’t mean this plan is set in stone and won’t change. Far from it. In fact, your plan is very likely to change. The purpose of this initial draft is to create a loose plan of action to use as a starting point.
Step seven – With a first draft completed on Friday, you can get to work Monday morning and make changes to your plan as you go. When you start work, there’s really only three things that can happen:
- You finish your block on time – If this happens, great. Your time estimate was perfect and you can move on to the next task as planned.
- You finish your block too quickly (if you’ve planned for more time than you need, this should be the most likely outcome) – If this happens, that’s also a pretty good situation to be in. You’ve now been given the gift of time. In this situation, I recommend you: 1) adjust the duration of the block you just completed to represent how long the task actually took (I generally round to the closest 15 minutes) 2) find and adjust your next block to start now (or take a quick break, then get into it). If you continue like this to the end of the day and complete all your work, great! Go home early (if that’s an option) or work on a few “bonus” tasks.
- You finish your block too late – If you take longer than expected to complete the task, I recommend you: 1) adjust the duration of the block you just completed to represent how long the task actually took (rounding to the nearest 15 minutes) 2) find and adjust your next block to start now (or take a quick break, then get into it). If you continue like this until the end of the day, you may not get through all your work. In which case, you’ll likely have to adjust tomorrow’s plan in order to fit in the remaining tasks from today.
Step eight – As part of your end of day routine, you should review your tasks and time plan for tomorrow. At this stage, you may need to update your plan to make room for new, high priority tasks that have come up, or for things you couldn’t complete today. If you followed the tips from above, you should have some blank space available to use.
You can continue your week making changes to your time blocks throughout the day to reflect the actual time spent on tasks. I suggest marking off the tasks as complete on your to-do list as you go. Remember to take a few minutes at the end of each day to review your plan for tomorrow.
Depending on the type of work you do, some people prefer to schedule time for projects, without specifying the actual task(s). This is absolutely fine. Your day may contain a combination of event types. You could have “email” scheduled for the morning, then a project like “Product launch” before lunch followed by a few specific tasks like: “Write sales report” in the afternoon.
How to prioritise your time
What should you do first each day? There are two main schools of thought:
Option one: Starting with your highest priority task, work down your to-do list from most to least important. The argument here is that you should prioritise the important work before doing anything else (even email).
Option two: Start with a few easy tasks, then ramp up to the harder stuff. The theory here is that the easy stuff helps you to build momentum and motivation ready for the harder stuff.
The truth is there’s no right or wrong answer. The best approach is the one that works for you. I recommend you try each to see what you prefer.
I’ve tried a few methods and quite often mix up what I do first. I generally start with email as I like to get to inbox zero before anything else (plus there may be important things in my inbox that need to be blocked into my day). Often my deep, important work will wait until the afternoon as my mornings are usually busy with client calls.
What about shared calendars?
Now if you work in a team where you share calendars, you may be freaking out thinking that time blocking can’t possibly work because you need to leave time for your boss to schedule time with you.
If this is the case, I recommend creating an additional calendar type (a different category) for your tasks. You can treat this as a more flexible calendar and keep the time blocks separate from meetings that start at set times.
You can then communicate it to your team that you’re using the new calendar for task management and to firstly request time from you between the time blocks or during a block if it’s absolutely necessary. In Google Calendar, you can set this new calendar as being private so that colleagues can’t see the details of the appointments (like the task name).
Blocking off “time for you”
After mastering the basics of time blocking, you can take these techniques to the next level.
I use Calendly for booking calls with clients essentially giving people free reign over when to talk to me. This may seem a little scary, but I use time blocking to control when people can talk to me.
Firstly, I only make myself available during certain hours of the day (i.e. when I’m at work). I also have an all-day appointment in my “Busy” calendar on Wednesday’s called “No calls”. Calendly looks at all appointments in the “Busy” calendar to check for conflicts and because there’s an all-day appointment, it won’t allow any calls on this day.
Similarly, I have “Lunch/Walk” recurring each day so that no matter how many calls get booked in a day, I always have time saved for a break.
Productivity experts like Mike Vardy block (or theme) entire days as specific mode to help clarify the intent of the day. Learn more in this discussion with Mike.
There you have it – time blocking.
As I said at the start, I credit this technique with being one of the most effective ways of getting more done. If you haven’t already, give it a try for a few weeks and just see what it does to your productivity.