Time is our most precious resource, especially when trying to achieve our professional goals. But most of us are bad at managing our time—or at the very least, we could be better.
Fortunately, there are potential solutions. Time blocking is a strategy that forces us to think more critically about the time we spend and how we’re spending it, and if harnessed properly, it can greatly improve your productivity—both within and outside of your professional life.
Time Blocking: The Basics
Time blocking is a strategy in which you’ll break your time down into discrete “blocks” or set increments wherein you’ll accomplish specific tasks.
For example, in an 8-hour day, you might work with 16 30-minute time blocks, assigning tasks like “email catch-up,” “daily meeting,” or “project B” to each 30-minute block.
Here’s how to be successful with time blocking:
1. Understand the Philosophy Behind Time Blocking
First, understand why time blocking is so popular (despite so many other time management strategies in use). The task of time blocking is relatively simple, but the thinking behind it is more multifaceted.
Time blocking helps you achieve several goals simultaneously. It helps you treat your time like a resource, budgeting it the same way you would your income. It helps you track your time and identify sources of waste.
It forces you to dedicate your attention to concrete intervals and therefore, helps you prioritize. It also gives you a consistent system you can apply to any task.
2. Commit to Single-Tasking
The science has been clear for decades now: multitasking simply doesn’t work. No matter how good you think you are at multitasking, chances are, you’d be much better off focusing on one task at a time.
In fact, studies have shown that multitasking reduces productivity by 40%. Time blocking forces you to do this if you’re implementing it properly.
For a given time block, set one (and only one) task; for example, during your 30-minute “finish sales proposal” task, don’t allow yourself to get distracted by emails, phone calls, or other unrelated tasks. This change alone can make a massive difference in your productivity.
3. Decide on Your Chosen Increments
So far, we’ve used the example of a 30-minute time block, but this isn’t a requirement. Time blocking can work no matter what kind of increments you’re working with. In fact, billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk is notorious for his ability to block his days down to 5-minute intervals.
Different people function well in different systems, so consider your options carefully; smaller time intervals allow you to be more precise and controlling with your schedule, but they can also be more stressful to manage. If you’re not sure, start with something broader, like 45-minute or 1-hour intervals.
4. Decide Which Parts of Your Day to Time Block
You don’t have to block out your entire day, especially if you’re just starting out, so think about which times of your day you’d like to block off.
For most newcomers, this means blocking out the “core” of your day—something like 10 am to 4 pm—after your morning routine is over, but before your daily wrap-up. For more advanced time blockers, it’s better to block your entire day, from start to finish—even your personal life.
5. Choose the Right Documentation Strategy
Even if you have a photographic memory, you’ll find it hard to keep your time blocking schedule clear in your head. Instead, you’ll need to rely on some kind of documentation system.
The exact system isn’t important, so long as it works well for you. A good calendar app should be able to help you block off your time in regular intervals and set alarms so you know when one time period is up.
But if you’re old fashioned, you may use a written planner or even a series of sticky notes to help you keep track of your day. In any case, some kind of automated timer is a good way to keep yourself aware of time’s passing.
6. Provide Yourself a Buffer
Before and after each block of time, give yourself a small buffer. For example, if you’re working with 30-minute blocks, give yourself 5 additional minutes to serve as empty space between tasks. If you want to keep your schedule tidy, work for 25 minutes, and leave 5 minutes to spare.
This will help you finish tasks that don’t fit neatly into your original time blocking plans since most incoming work isn’t so naturally organized.
7. Block Time for Warmups and Cooldowns
If you’re like most people, you don’t begin the workday at peak productivity. It takes you time to start up your devices, get coffee, read emails, and just “settle in” overall. At the end of the day, you’ll be interested in finishing things up and preparing to leave.
Don’t be too harsh with blocking these time periods; instead, treat them as a unique, open-ended block. For example, you can block most of your day in 15-minute intervals, but leave yourself a 1-hour “warmup” and 30-minute “cooldown.”
8. Block Time for “Deep” Tasks
Deep tasks are tasks that require your total focus or tasks that serve as major projects rather than individual, small responsibilities. They should be blocked in a way that allows you to focus on them exclusively; any block assigned to a deep task should include no other tasks or allowances. Even so, a single block may not be enough; don’t hesitate to assign multiple blocks to the same deep task.
9. Block Time for “Shallow” Tasks
Blocking shallow tasks works a little differently. Shallow tasks are tasks that don’t require much time or attention, and they tend to accumulate throughout the day. You won’t need a full block to work on any single shallow task, so instead, consider blocking shallow tasks in groups.
For example, you could dedicate a block for checking “email, social media, and project management platforms,” or “catching up on communications.”
10. Block Time for “Reactive” tasks
Reactive tasks are informal tasks that are hard to predict and even harder to prioritize. They often come in the form of interaction.
For example, you may need to manage an ongoing dialogue with your employees to coordinate work on a specific project. Again, you’ll want to consolidate these tasks in a block for the entire category.
11. Block Time for Breaks
In a strategy that’s all about productivity, it’s easy to lose sight of the importance of breaks. But you’ll need to block time for breaks the same way you would any other task—or else you’ll run the risk of burnout. This includes not just lunch, but also smaller breaks throughout the day.
Small interval time blocking, like intervals of 10 or 15 minutes, works best here. If you’re working with 30-minute blocks, consider hybridizing individual blocks with both breaks and work.
12. Create a Replicable Formula
After you’ve blocked time for a few shifts, try to create a template you can use for all your future time blocking needs. Assign blocks for all your predictable, routine tasks, then leave room in the rest of your schedule for less predictable priorities or those that are determined on a per-day basis.
13. Be Prepared to Estimate Poorly (at First)
Most people are terrible at naturally tracking their own time and even worse at estimating how long tasks take.
When you write out your first draft for time blocking, be prepared to feel embarrassed at how wrong you were about the true length of even your most common tasks. To compensate for this, try to overestimate the time it takes to do a given task, giving it more block space than you think it needs. This may interfere with your productivity slightly the first few days you try it, but once you get a feel for how long each type of task takes, you can gauge your time blocking much more accurately.
Better yet, use a time tracking app to get an accurate calculation of how long you actually spend on routine tasks so you can improve your estimates and cut down on the learning curve!
14. Notify Others That You’re Time Blocking
Give a heads-up to your bosses, coworkers, and partners that you’re going to be time blocking. When you start blocking time, your habits are going to change.
You might take longer to respond to certain emails, you might be more cutthroat when it comes to meeting timing, and you’ll almost certainly be more regimented in how you work throughout the day. People will be far more understanding if they know the reason why.
15. Schedule a “Catch up” Day
Even with time blocking, things will slip through the cracks. You’ll miss a handful of tasks, or you’ll need another hour or two to finish up that important project.
To avoid stressing yourself out, fitting the remaining tasks into block form, simply give yourself a free catch-up day that’s at least somewhat block-free. It’s beneficial to give yourself the extra flexibility as you finish your priorities.
16. Be Prepared to Revise Your Approach
Studies suggest the “best” time blocking strategy for an average person is working for 52 minutes, then breaking for 17. But this won’t necessarily work for you. Everyone has unique preferences and working styles, which will be more conducive to alternate time structures.
Some people need longer, less frequent breaks, while others need shorter, more frequent ones. Be ready to revise your approach as you learn more about yourself.
17. Expand Time Blocking to Other Areas of Your Life (If It Works for You)
Spend a few weeks blocking time in your professional life and evaluate how it works for you.
Does it seem to be making you more productive? Does it make you feel more stressed?
If time blocking makes you more productive and doesn’t increase your stress, consider applying it to other areas of your life. Block out time for home chores and socializing the same way you do with projects and tasks at works.
However, if blocking time is too regimented or simply isn’t effective for you, don’t be afraid to keep it restricted to work, or abandon it entirely.
Time blocking isn’t the right strategy for every professional or every situation, but if considered and executed properly, it can save you a ton of time—and directly boost your productivity.
Use it to get a better understanding of how you’re spending time throughout the day, improve your focus, and effectively prioritize simultaneously.
More Tips for Better Time Management
- 7 Effective Time Management Tips To Maximize Your Productivity
- 10 Practical Ways to Improve Time Management Skills
- 10 Proven Time Management Skills You Should Learn Today
Featured photo credit: Emma Matthews Digital Content Production via unsplash.com
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