Hackernoon logoTime Blocking 101 by@roxanamurariu

Time Blocking 101

Roxana Murariu Hacker Noon profile picture

@roxanamurariuRoxana Murariu

Web Developer

Time blocking is a productivity method where we split each day into time blocks of variable length, from 20 – 30 minutes to 1 hour. In each block of time, we single-task and focus only on that specific task associated with the current time block, with no context-switching.

Instead of managing to-do list items, we control the time when we can implement those specific items. 

Benjamin Franklin, one of the early adopters of time blocking, used this technique to distribute hours for deep work, shallow work, and rest. He remarked that “every part of my business should have its allotted time.” 

Benjamin Franklin’s daily plan, image credit – Wikipedia

Why should I time block? 

We all do a form of financial budgeting where we track our current expenses and plan future expenses. Time blocking is not that different from money budgeting as we track our current tasks and plan future tasks. 

Time blocking can help us beat procrastination as we do not ask ourselves, “what should I do next?” and get lost in decision fatigue.

Decision fatigue is that dreaded feeling of having to manage too many decisions. As time progresses in a decision-making session, our decision capabilities decrease. Using time blocking, I already decided on the plan, so my focus should be on implementation.  

Another critical advantage of time blocking is that we can schedule deep and meaningful work when we feel most alert based on our chronotypes. 

Suppose I am most active and alert between 10 AM and 2 PM. I will schedule the work that requires the most energy during that interval. If I feel sleepy in the morning, I will schedule smaller tasks to get me into the flow. If I know I feel another energy wave in the late afternoon, it is better to schedule another round of essential tasks during that time.  

By time blocking and actively reviewing how much a task required, we can fight the planning fallacy. The planning fallacy is a phenomenon where we tend to underestimate how much a task will need. Using implementation intentions, we decide beforehand when, where, and how we can act on our tasks.

As a consequence of the planning fallacy, we soon realize we can’t put all tasks into one day. The Eisenhower matrix is a helpful tool to categorize tasks based on their significance and priority. 

  • Do first – important and urgent tasks. These tasks must have precise deadlines and consequences for not acting.  
  • Schedule it – important and not urgent tasks. These tasks don’t require a fixed deadline, but they move the needle closer to long-term goals. 
  • Delegate it / push back – not important and urgent tasks. These items need to be done, not necessarily by us. This category is perilous, as it is easy to lose time in completing this type of busy work. In most cases, these tasks are someone’s else Do first tasks, not ours.  
  • Delete it – not important and not urgent tasks. Better to say NO to these tasks. 

Flavors of time blocking 

Time blocking is the process of focusing on a specific task in a delimited block of time. 

Example: I will write my blog article from 3 PM to 4 PM. 

Timeboxing is time blocking with boundaries. Instead of scheduling time blocks upon time blocks for a task, timeboxing imposes a time constraint on how much time to dedicate to a specific task.

This strategy is excellent for working more efficiently, produce more realistic estimations, and diminishing perfectionist tendencies. A good enough blog article is better than an unpublished article. 

Example: I will complete my blog article from 3 PM to 4 PM. 

Task batching is the grouping of similar, smaller tasks such as life admin tasks or work tasks. By employing task batching, we reduce context switching, and we can process these tasks more efficiently.

Instead of continuously sprinkling a few minutes of shallow work in sessions of intense focus, it is more productive to assign a dedicated time block for similar tasks.

Example: I will check my emails and answer blog comments. While researching for an article, I can catch up on some podcasts, interviews or talks. While meal prepping, I can call my family.

Day theming treats each day as a single time block. This category is an efficient technique for people with many different responsibilities. For example, Jack Dorsey employed this technique while acting as a CEO for Twitter and Square:

"On Monday, at both companies, I focus on management and running the company…Tuesday is focused on the product. Wednesday is focused on marketing, communications, and growth. Thursday is focused on developers and partnerships. Friday is focused on the company and the culture and recruiting. Saturday, I take off, I hike. Sunday is reflection, feedback, strategy, and getting ready for the week."

It is crucial that we progress towards the right goals and not get sidetracked by less critical projects. That means we can use other strategies next to these variations of time management.

Annual planning is a roadmap with milestones that highlights where we aim to be by the end of the year.

Quarterly planning is breaking down the annual planning into four quarters. Once every three months, we’ll review completed tasks, keep track of the progress for the annual goals and set specific goals by breaking down remaining work from the yearly plan.

Weekly planning is looking ahead of what is coming next weeks and planning rough sketches for the next week’s time blocks. 

When should I time block? 

As Barbara Oakley showed in her Learning How To Learn course, planning the night before makes it easier to build mental associations. As she says:

“Write your plan tasks out the night before, so your brain has time to dwell on your goals and help ensure success.” 

Others might find that building their schedule is better suited as the first thing in the morning.

Also, research shows that writing a to-do list the evening before can make us fall asleep faster.   

How can I time block? 

As with any method, time block can be as complicated or straightforward as we want. I use the technique that Cal Newport shows in this article.

  • Start with consulting to-do lists, calendars, weekly or quarterly plans or notes. 
  • Then, using a paper notebook or digital applications such as calendars, assign each task a time slot.
  • Schedule the most important things first and later the more trivial tasks.
  • Complex tasks should be dealt with in longer, continuous time blocks, whereas minor tasks can be batched together.
  • Assign a task to everything, including commute, lunch, meal prepping, picking up kids from school, etc.
  • Estimate time for each task.
  • Add buffer or overflow time around tasks to allow for the unexpected. 
  • Some blocks will be too short or too long for their assigned tasks. Adjust and review the plan.
  • A plan is just a plan, not a contract. Flexibility is vital as few of us have the same schedule every day, and we must adapt to new requests and update our plan. New tasks will certainly arrive. Apply the Eisenhower matrix and see where new work can fit (today, following days, it can be delegated, etc.).

Right now, I use Cal Newport’s Time-Block Planner. You can take a look over its content here. In the past, I also used Moleskine and Leuchtturm notebooks or simple A4 pages folded in half. 

A time-block planner is not the place to hold meetings or appointments. I manage my to-do list with Todoist and my appointments and meetings with Google Calendar. Then, I copy these events into my paper planner.

I block for 30-40 minutes, and then I have a buffer of 5 minutes to stretch my legs, go to the restroom, drink water, etc. 

I keep my planner next to my keyboard, so it’s always on my sight, always on my mind.

While in a time block, I note ideas or thoughts on paper, not on digital applications, so I don’t context switch too much. Then, after the time block finishes, in a buffer block, I move these ideas to Google Calendar or Todoist.

I have a small paper for recurring tasks where I’ve written all the recurring tasks in a day. I use this paper as a bookmark for the current day. The next day, I move this paper as a bookmark for that day.  

Before shutting down my laptop, I check emails, move any remaining ideas from paper to digital tasks, review upcoming days and check that I do not forget anything.

At the end of each day, I tend to review my paper planner and track my progress: Did I estimate my effort correctly? Did I get everything on my list? Why not? What were my biggest frustrations? What can I change?

By reviewing my days, I can notice a pattern when I am most productive or fall prey to distractions and adjust my strategy for the following days.

Then, I plan the next according to this review. If I have any unfinished tasks, this is the time to review them and move them to the following days.

In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport calls this process the “work shutdown ritual”. This technique is highly efficient against mind dwelling, worrying or stressing about unfinished work (see the Zeigarnik effect).

Over the weekends, I do not do much time blocking as this is family time.

Is time blocking worth it?

Planning and scheduling every working day does seem like a hassle. It requires planning and thoroughly updating the plan as new tasks arrive.

However, as Cal Newport says in his article: “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.”

I cannot confirm these numbers (40 hours vs 60 hours), but I have seen time multiplying if I practice deliberate focus, purposeful tasks, and clear goals.

And we all know, if we do not control our schedule (predictive mode), our schedule will control us (reactive mode, where everything feels urgent).

Then, there is the famous saying: if you fail to prepare, you are preparing to fail. Thus, we must learn time management skills, employing the right strategies and systems to help us succeed.

Efficient work is not about working hard or being busy, but about being smart with our time. We all have only a sliver of time in this world and time is our ultimate non-regenerable resource. Let’s spend it wisely.  

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. 

Annie Dillard, The Writing Life 

Previously published on https://www.roxanamurariu.com/time-blocking/.

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