During his time as chairman of not one, but two global conglomerates (Tesla and SpaceX), the billionaire technology entrepreneur Elon Musk was often lauded as a “superhuman,” considering he managed to successfully run two companies, exercise twice a week, and find time for his children.
But there was nothing extraordinary “superhuman” about his ability to effectively manage his heavy workload every day - he’d simply rely on a time management strategy called time blocking. His complex schedule may be impressive, but his techniques can be replicated by the average person just as easily.
What is time blocking?
Time blocking, sometimes also called calendar blocking, is a time management technique that helps you schedule and plan your work by blocking specific time slots for specific activities, all for the purpose of increasing your productivity.
It helps you limit distractions. Because you have a set amount of time to finish what you’ve started, so you’re prompted to stay focused on what you’re doing.
It helps you perform more work and faster. Because you have a limited, predetermined amount of time that urges you to keep your pace in order to finish what you’re doing.
It helps you perfect your planning skills. Because the principle of time blocking lies in constant scheduling, organizing, and finding a specific time to tackle various priority tasks and activities.
With time blocking, you define your priorities, mark them in your calendar, allocate specific time periods to them, and work on them only during these preset time slots. Specifically, Elon Musk prefers to work in 5-minute chunks, and Bill Gates tends to do the same. But there’s more finesse to this time management technique than just that.
How to time block
Time blocking involves four important time management stages: the planning stage, the blocking stage, the acting stage, and the revision stage.
1. The planning stage
In the planning stage, you need to single out your priorities for each day. When you first get up in the morning, you’ll probably have a large number of tasks you'll consider working on during the day. Always aim to limit your chores to three to five of your most important and urgent tasks for that day.
This can be anything from writing a research proposal and answering important emails, to handling your social media management and attending various business meetings.
If your priorities can be broken down into smaller subtasks, make sure you do so for the sake of making your schedule more compact. You can parse the task of “answering important emails” into smaller subtasks where each individual email has its own time block.
As you finish each of the smaller subtasks, you’ll feel more productive and encouraged to pursue your schedule further than you’d feel if you were to finish just one giant task during the same time. Obviously parsing a task into smaller subtasks isn’t always an option, so it’s up to you to decide how you’ll categorize your workload.
Once you’ve singled out your priorities, compile them in a simple to-do list; this way, you’ll have a straightforward overview of what activities you need to block time for.
2. The blocking stage
Once you’ve answered what you need to block time for, there are two questions you’ll need to answer in the blocking stage:
When do you need to block time?
How long do the time blocks need to be?
When it comes to when, the science of circadian rhythms claims that all human beings function in 24-hour cycles, where each activity has an ideal time: time to sleep, time to wake up, time to eat, and time to work.
Your ideal time to work depends on your own circadian rhythm. You probably already have an idea when you’re the most alert, concentrated, and likely to focus during the day, so make sure you allocate your most important task to this time.
When it comes to how long, there are two effective solutions: ultradian rhythms and the pomodoro technique.
The science of ultradian rhythms claims that the human brain works in 90-minute cycles and that we all have the capacity to fully focus on any given task for a maximum of 90 minutes. Make sure you don’t allocate more than 90 minutes to a task in one sitting.
The Pomodoro technique proposes you parse your day into 25-minute work sessions separated by five-minute breaks. After four such 25/5-minute cycles, you’re advised to take a 20-minute break before resuming work.
Ultradian rhythms and the Pomodoro technique are science-based suggestions for time blocks. But you can play around with the formulas to find your own ideal time blocks. In any case, always make sure you block most of your day for your most important task.
Once you’ve sorted out the what, when, and how long, it’s time to note the tasks in your calendar. Mark the start time for each activity, the end time, and the expected duration.
3. The acting stage
In the acting stage, all you really need to do is work according to your planned schedule.
Simply start working on your first time block. Depending on your own idea of how productive you are first thing in the morning, this may be a priority task (such as conducting research for a project) or a minor warm-up task (such as helming a morning meeting).
Follow the selected time frame for the task. Start working on said task at the designated start time, and stop working on it at the designated end time. Work your way down the schedule until you’re done. Make sure to always spend the designated amount of time on a task.
Also, make your schedule flexible; block at least an hour for unexpected tasks that might arise as priorities during the day. That way, if something unexpected happens, you’ll be prepared. If it doesn’t, you can always use this time to work more on your most demanding task for that day.
4. The revision stage
The revision stage may seem like an afterthought, but it’s much more than that. Your ability to allocate the right amount of time to the right tasks determines whether you’ll have a productive and effective day. Perhaps you’re allocating too much or too little time to certain tasks, so it's time to revise your schedule.
If you allocate too much time to a specific task, you may slack off to fill out the time you have before your next scheduled time block. This phenomenon is quite common, known as Parkinson’s Law.
If you allocate too little time, you’ll rush to finish the task, meaning it may later require subsequent revisions due to subpar quality, which will only take away from the time you scheduled to spend on a different time block.
To make sure you’ve allocated the right amount of time to a certain type of task, the best you can do is track the time you really spend on tasks.
The calendar above shows a one-hour time block for administrative work, but your time tracking results show you really need one hour and 30 minutes to finish this task. Thus, you should always block one hour and 30 minutes in your calendar for administrative work.
Time blocking template
To streamline your daily scheduling even further, you can also create your own easy-to-fill time blocking templates.
Do you find it usually takes you 15 minutes to prepare breakfast and about 20 to eat it? Enter at least a 35-minute block for breakfast every morning in your time blocking template. Does it usually take 15 minutes to commute to work via bike, traffic included? Always block at least 15 minutes for your one-way commute. You can pre-block time for all activities that repeat every day, like breakfast, exercise, and showering.
You’re also advised to enter broad time blocks for work (e.g, from 9:00 am to 12:00 pm and 1:00 pm to 5:00 pm). Later on, you’ll just parse these broad time blocks in the template into smaller time blocks and fill them out with specific tasks.
Why does time blocking work?
Time blocking takes into account that you need a specific amount of time to perform a task. When you have six small tasks you have to finish in an hour, if you allocate 10 minutes to each task and work on each task for 10 minutes, you’ll finish on time.
It’s simple math.
Still, human beings aren’t robots, and you have to take into account that you may not always be fit to finish six 10-minute tasks in a span of an hour, even if you managed to do so on an earlier occasion. But if you schedule a 10-minute break after three 10-minute tasks and expand the total time to one hour + 10 minutes, you’ll make handling the tasks easier and you’ll still be time blocking.
That’s the biggest strength of this time management technique. Its purpose isn’t only to help you make time for work, but also to help you make time for free time and breaks.
Do you want to spend more time with your family? Schedule a one-hour block every day when you’ll do nothing but have family time. Just make sure you don’t let anything take away from this time.
Do you want to improve your painting/cross-stitching/wood-carving skills? If you schedule a one-hour time block every other day to work on your favorite creative hobby, you won’t just improve your skills, you’ll perfect them as time goes on.
Time blocking helps you make time your friend. With time blocking, you can mix and balance your professional and private life by scheduling specific time blocks for all of your priorities in such a way that you always have time for everything.
5 time blocking tips you need to start using
Now you know the gist to the time management technique of time blocking and why it works so well. But there are ways you can make the concept even more efficient - and here are 5 extra tips on how to do that.
1. Implement a time blocking app into your strategy
By using tracking time software and techniques on all your most common tasks, not only will you highlight the tasks you are allocating too much/too little time to, but you’ll also get the answer to the exact number of minutes you need to allocate to these tasks in the future. In essence, you’ll have the means to create and revise precise minute-by-minute schedules customized just for you.
2. Define theme days
Doing various tasks during the day is one way to approach time blocking. But, you may get even better results if you divide specific tasks by day. This practice was made popular by Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter and Square, who works on different types of tasks each day.
On Tuesdays, he solely performs product work, and, on Thursdays, he focuses on partnerships and developers. You can follow suit by blocking different days for different tasks. You can block Mondays for administrative tasks, Tuesdays for meetings and clients, and Wednesday for project research, or whatever works well with your calendar. This way, you’ll ensure maximum focus for each type of task you block time for.
3. Define buffers between tasks
When working with several tasks, even if they are of the same type, it usually takes some time before you can refocus your attention from one task to the next. So, it’s best that you include this buffer time in your time blocking schedule. You can make it mandatory to block 10-15 minutes of extra time after each task you finish. You can then spend this time unwinding after work on the previous task and/or making preparations for the next task.
4. Define an “overflow block”
When you have a lot to do per day, it gets easy to fall behind. Especially with smaller, less important tasks that are easy to overlook. Because of this, Julie Morgenstern, a time management expert and author, suggests you define specific times during the day or week as your “overflow blocks”.
You can then use these times for all the tasks you did not have enough time to work on earlier. For example, you can define an overflow block each morning on Thursdays, say from 9:00 am to 12:00 pm. Or, you can define an overflow block each afternoon of your workday, say from 4:00 pm to 5:00 pm. Either way, these special time blocks will ensure you find enough time to catch up with your work.
5. Make sure people know what you’re doing
There may be no point in defining time blocks for your work if people keep interrupting you. So make sure you make your schedule clear to your family, friends, and colleagues. If you’re working from an office, you can share the online calendar where you’ve defined your time blocks with your colleagues.
If you’re working from home, you can write your scheduled time blocks on a piece of paper and stick it at the door of your home office. In both cases, you’ll be notifying people when you are working on what, and when you might be available for consultations, meetings, questions, or even quick chats.
By following this practice, you’ll make sure no one interrupts you when you’re working, and you’ll be able to focus on your time blocks with no worries.
Putting time blocking into action
Time blocking may seem like an overwhelming time management technique at first, but it gives you a lot of freedom: you schedule your own work, determine when you’ll tackle certain tasks, and decide how much time you’ll allocate to them in your daily planner.
Most importantly, it gives you full control of your time. To your own discretion, you’ll be leaving time for both your personal and business matters, and gain an effective insight to where your time is actually going.