No matter how well we try to plan our day, be more productive, and simply get more done, time seems to have a way of running away from us.
Whether it’s impromptu meetings cropping up, coworkers breaking our focus, or the endless stream of emails flooding in, staying on track and in control of our schedules can feel impossible.
That’s why time management techniques have become increasingly popular in recent years. In our ‘always-on’ digital culture, most of us live in a state of constant distraction. To be able to work the way we want, we need to implement real, tangible structure. And of all the many time management systems being talked about right now, time blocking might be the one that can most significantly change our lives for the better.
But what exactly is time blocking, and how can we use it to work smarter?
What is time blocking?
Time blocking is a time management system that breaks your day up into finite units. It involves planning your day in advance and allocating specific portions of time to certain tasks, e.g. 20 minutes for email, 30 minutes for meetings, two hours for deep work, etc.
The length of time you allocate is up to you – and Elon Musk and Bill Gates are just two examples of people who prefer working in shorter chunks of time; both are fans of micro-scheduling, which means plotting their day in five minute blocks. Given the rather legendary productivity of both tycoons, five minutes may not be enough for most of us to tackle our email, but you can use this system in a way that suits you, your responsibilities, and your capabilities.
The point of time blocking is that it allows you to work without interruption or hesitation and make sure that everything actually gets done. How often have you been immersed in an important task, but been distracted by your pinging inbox, and then lost all your momentum and focus? It’s also easy to become too absorbed in one task to the point that you begin neglecting other duties.
Ultimately, because you can’t become a digital hermit and shut off the outside world entirely, time blocking allows you to create the time and space you need to stay focused and get stuff done.
Why is time blocking effective?
There are several reasons why time blocking is so effective, but it essentially comes down to the fact that this way of working is specifically designed for focus.
If you’re familiar with the concept of Parkinson’s Law, you’ll know that the work we have to do expands to fit the time we have to do it in. So if you have six hours to write an article, it’ll take you six hours to finish it – when it maybe could’ve taken you only four, or even three. The reason for this is because we fill the extra time with procrastination, context switching, or attempting to multitask, which studies suggest can actually harm our brains and our careers, as well as our productivity.
But let’s take a closer look at why time blocking works so well.
Time blocking promotes deep work
By scheduling your day in such a detailed manner, you’re able to focus solely on the task in hand – and without constant disruptions or context switching, you’re able to get far more done. One of the biggest proponents of time blocking is Cal Newport, author of Deep Work and all-round productivity guru.
While you might think that spending so much time planning your schedule rather than just getting to work is counterproductive, Newport says the opposite is true:
“It generates a massive amount of productivity. A 40 hour time-blocked work week, I estimate, produces the same amount of output as a 60+ hour work week pursued without structure.”
This is because time blocking promotes deep work more than any other time management technique. When you have a set amount of time to work on a single task, you can dedicate all your attention to it, instead of jumping from task to task. And when you reach a flow state, you’ll find that you’re able to get far more done – and it’ll all probably feel way more effortless, too.
You may not realize it, but each time you break focus and turn your attention to something else, you suffer from something called “attention residue” – when your ability to focus becomes slowly diluted as you context switch throughout the day. Studies show that each time you become distracted, it takes around 25 minutes to get back on track.
Not only does time blocking promote deep work, it also protects against context-switching, and ultimately allows us to develop the skills necessary for successful deep work.
Time blocking helps you do low-value work
For most of us, low-value shallow work is a necessary part of the job. But it also has a way of taking over the day – and existing in a constant state of busyness isn’t helpful for your productivity, let alone your mental well-being or physical health.
Tasks like replying to emails, attending catch-up meetings, making phone calls and responding to coworkers on chat tools can be an endless cycle – but while these tasks can be urgent, they’re rarely helpful when it comes to actually achieving your own long-term goals. And if you’ve ever spent a whole day on shallow work, you’ll probably know that it can leave you feeling exhausted and stressed... but also like you achieved nothing of value.
Because it’s so difficult to reach the fabled status of inbox zero, or be 100% up-to-date with all colleague responses and tasks statuses, you shouldn’t waste valuable time attempting to do so. Instead, you should set aside a block of time to plough through your shallow work, and when that time expires, you simply stop – even if you haven’t finished everything.
Plus, by scheduling all your shallow work together, you can get into the right headspace for this type of work and get through it more efficiently. Then you can sit back and relax, knowing you’ve protected a good chunk of your day to work on the stuff that really matters.
Time blocking helps you use time more intentionally
Another powerful perk of time blocking is that it gives you insight into where your time’s really going. Most of us aren’t great at managing time. We also tend to grossly underestimate how much time we waste checking social media, reading emails, or simply getting distracted by day-to-day life.
We also have a habit of underestimating how long tasks will take – no matter how many times we’ve struggled to meet the same deadlines in the past! This phenomenon is called the planning fallacy, and it can cause serious problems.
But when you use time blocking, you’re forced to become more aware of where your time’s really going, which allows you to become more intentional about the ways you want to use it. Don’t want to spend two hours in a cycle of back-and-forth emails? Schedule just 10 minutes for it. Want to find the space to work on the things that actually mean something to you? Carve out the space in your calendar, and then make sure you protect that space aggressively.
Time blocking helps you achieve your goals
Time blocking doesn’t only work in the short-term, by helping you work the way you want to each day; it also allows you to achieve your longer-term goals. No matter how enthusiastic you are about writing to-do lists and crossing tasks off, research shows that 41% of to-do items are never completed.
In spite of our best intentions, studies show that having real structure and solid plans has a powerful effect on how likely you are to actually act on these intentions. When it comes to getting things done and achieving your goals, just wanting to do so isn't enough; you need concrete plans to propel you forward and ensure you do everything you need to.
And that’s precisely what time blocking does.
How to start time blocking your schedule
So, once you know that you want to give time blocking a try, what’s the best way to do so? Here are the three most important steps to get you started.
1. Outline daily priorities and deliverables
First, try to identify your most important priorities. Have a think about why exactly you want to use time blocking. Is it to protect your focus and stop procrastinating? Is it to achieve your long-term goals? Or is it to simply get more work done faster, so you can enjoy more downtime?
Knowing the precise reason why you’re using time blocking will help you figure out how to best block out your day. For example, if you want to finally achieve an important task you’ve been working on for a while, you can build your blocks around creating space to do that; if you find yourself getting weighed down by shallow work, you can batch these tasks together and schedule a finite period to work though as much as you can.
2. Determine urgent and less urgent tasks
Once you know what your priorities are, you then need to think about which tasks you’re going to prioritise. While one of the main reasons people use time blocking is to create and protect space for deep work, it’s also important to ensure you have enough space in your day to tackle shallow work.
But the great thing about time blocking is that you can create a schedule that’s suited to the ways you like to work. So if it takes you an hour or so to fully wake up in the morning, or reach a point where you feel like your creative juices are flowing, you can plan to work on easy, shallow tasks for the first hour – and then schedule your challenging work for when you’re feeling more productive.
You might also find it helpful to begin and end your day with gentler tasks that allow you to gear up, and then wind down for the day. Checking and replying to emails first thing in the morning and then again before you clock off can be a good way to feel in the loop and in control as long as you don’t deviate from your plan and check your inbox throughout the day, too.
3. Include downtime, lunch breaks, and time off
To get the most out of time blocking, it’s important to schedule time for breaks and leisure time too. We’re humans, not machines, and we need to take breaks to function at our best – but if we don’t schedule them it’s easy to get caught up in work. Create space to take time out by blocking out chunks of your day, and then protect that space – even if you feel you’re too busy to stop.
You might also want to add in a spare 30 minutes each day just to deal with any ad hoc tasks that unexpectedly crop up; that way you can make sure you don’t fall behind.
Time blocking subtypes
The beauty of time blocking is that you can easily adapt it to the ways you like to work, the type of tasks you have to do, and the kind of schedule you want. But aside from the ‘classic’ version of time blocking, there are also other variations that might be more suited to you. These subtypes are task batching, day theming, and time boxing.
If you tend to have lots of shallow work to get through, you might find it beneficial to group them all together. This method is called task batching, and it’s designed to reduce context switching and help you stay on track.
For example, if you have lots of email to get through, rather than jumping in and out of your inbox all day, you can plan to reply to all your emails for 20 mins at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. This helps you get into the right mindset for this type of work, and by grouping all these tasks together you can plough through far more efficiently.
Though task batching is usually applied to smaller tasks, you can use it however you like. If you find it beneficial to group more challenging or creative tasks together and work through them when you’re feeling most productive, that works too.
Day theming is when you dedicate certain days to different responsibilities. This method of time management can work really well when you have lots of different responsibilities; it’s famously used by Elon Musk, who works at SpaceX on Mondays and Tuesdays, at Tesla on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and then again at SpaceX on Friday.
If you have a lot of tasks and responsibilities jostling for your attention, you might find that you need to dedicate more time to each topic – so instead of than allocating two hours each day for a task, you allocate a whole day, e.g. Mondays are for marketing, Tuesdays are for content creation, Wednesdays are for product development, and so on.
Again, this can help avoid context switching and ensure you stay focused and in tune with the type of work you’re doing.
Time blocking and time boxing might sound similar – and they are – but there’s one key difference. While time blocking necessitates you set a limit to how long you’ll spend on a task on that day (e.g. you’ll work on a task from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.), time boxing involves setting a limit to how long you’ll spend completing a task.
So when time boxing, rather than giving yourself two hours to work on a content plan, you’ll aim to finish your plan within those two hours. Time boxing can sometimes work better than time blocking, because having a limited time to finish a task can make you work faster and help you challenge yourself.
Tools to help with time blocking
You might want to have a go at the different types of time blocking and see which one works best for you. Whichever type of time blocking you think you want to try, the good news is that there are loads of tools that make the whole process easier. Plus, these tools can also help show you whether your time blocking technique is actually working or not.
Almost all calendar apps work well for time blocking – and if you share calendars with your coworkers, they can make it easy to stay in the loop with what everyone else is working on. When you’re using a calendar app, you can block out chunks of time directly onto your app – which means you’ll be safe in the knowledge that your calendar and tasks are in the same place.
Plus, calendar tools and apps usually come with deadline and reminder features, which can help make sure you leave yourself enough time to work on everything.
Project planning tools
There are dozens of project planning tools that can be used for time blocking, but generally they work by breaking your projects down into individual tasks that you then allocate time to. These types of tools often integrate with other project planning tools, so once you’ve created a task it can automatically connect to your calendar. This can help you rest easy knowing nothing will slip through the net.
Task management tools
With task management tools, you can assign tasks, set due dates and get a clear insight into how much time is spent on each project and task. Task prioritization tools can help you better understand what you need to work on each day, and make it easier to monitor upcoming tasks, as well as prioritize the right ones. For example, task management for forex traders helps with the management of essential processes such as accounting, conducting market research, and rebalancing. Each of these tasks requires significant time and attention in order for a trader to succeed. Therefore, time blocking through a task management tool can keep a trader on top of his game.
Timers and clocks can be good ways to help protect your focus and stay on task. Seeing time ticking away can often motivate people to work more quickly and efficiently, so if you’re someone who actually enjoys racing against the clock, these tools can make all the difference.
Time tracking tools
Tracking everything you do – particularly when you’re using an automatic tracker that requires no effort – helps you see when and where you tend to become distracted, so you can then try to tackle the problem. It also helps you identify any time drains and figure out when you’re most productive, which allows you to schedule your most challenging work for these periods.
In general, time tracking tools help you allocate your time more intelligently. Once you have the insights needed to know exactly how long you need to spend on email each day, you can make sure you don’t allocate too much time to these tasks, and focus on more important work.
These days it can feel like there are too many time management techniques and systems that promise to change our lives – not to mention productivity tools and apps. But time blocking is so popular for a reason: because it works, and because it’s an easy way to add structure and focus to your day.
Not only can time blocking help you do more productive deep work, but it can also help you plough through shallow work far more efficiently. Plus, it helps you use your time more intentionally, and ultimately makes it easier for you to achieve your long-term goals.
What’s also great about time blocking is that it’s a system that can work for everyone – and depending on your responsibilities and the ways you like to work, there are different ways to apply it. When it comes to time blocking techniques, one size doesn’t fit all, and while the classic time blocking system may be ideal for some people, you may find that one of the subtypes, like task batching, day theming or time boxing works best for you.
As with any new technique, try things out, allow yourself to stumble, and make changes and adjustments as you go. Rather than being a slave to your calendar or feeling like you’re continually working against the clock, time blocking might be what you need to stay on track and feel truly in control of your schedule.