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Are you looking for a more efficient way to organise your work-days? Try Time Blocking.

A few months back, I came across Cal Newport’s illuminating post on Time Blocking — a productivity “hack” that helps you to make the most of your work day by assigning very specific tasks to very specific blocks of time. This is loosely based on Parkinson’s Law, the idea of which is that work will simply expand to fill the time available for its completion.

For some, the idea of scheduling tasks in such a rigid way may be counter intuitive. But, if you’ve a backlog of tasks to get through or a deadline to abide by, time blocking can help keep you on track while keeping distractions, procrastination and unproductive multitasking at bay.

Newport generally spends around 15-20 minutes at the end of each day planning his ‘time blocks’ for the following day, with the overall goal to “make sure progress is being made on the right things at the right pace for the relevant deadlines”. His theory is that “a 40 hour time-blocked work week, I estimate, produces the same amount of output as a 60+ hour work week pursued without structure”.

For a potential promise of a 50% increase in productivity (especially related to deep, tough work), the temptation to give this hack a trial run is hard to resist.

Give Some Time To Planning

If you’re tempted to try this out, the first thing you need to do is to spend a short amount of time setting out what you need to complete before the week is over. Decide what makes for a week well spent.

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Write out 3-5 of the most important tasks you need to complete (these decision making apps Indecisive? Make The Right Choices With These Apps Indecisive? Make The Right Choices With These Apps Have you heard of the paradox of choice? If you're like me and suffer from analysis paralysis, these apps will change your life. Read More may help), and any other necessary (though not always important) tasks that you just have to get done. Then, if you work a typical 8-hour work day, split those 8 hours into different-sized chunks, with each chunk dedicated to a specific task (or set of tasks) — important and necessary — that you have to work on. Google Calendar is a perfect tool for this, but a piece of paper can work just as well.

You can see a basic example (for just one day) I used a few days ago below, though you can of course make this as detailed as possible. Try to divide the tasks throughout the week in a way that helps achieve all of your objectives without pushing yourself too hard.

Screen Shot 2014-11-22 at 20.36.33

Before diving straight in though, there are a few things to take into consideration.

Be Honest With Yourself

Don’t try to squeeze too much into one day. It’s all too easy to underestimate how long a task will take — especially if you’re under the assumption you’ll be 50% more efficient than usual. If you’re someone who’s never tracked their time 4 Excellent Free Time Tracking Tools [Android] 4 Excellent Free Time Tracking Tools [Android] No matter who you are, time is an incredibly important commodity. We’re all allotted the same amount of time - 86,400 seconds every day - and it’s up to us how we spend that time.... Read More before, this will take a small while to learn.

You need to figure out the average amount of productive time you spend in your inbox. You need to know exactly how long you can actually focus on deep, difficult work. If you carve out four hours for deep work, but can only really concentrate deeply for two hours (for example), that’s two hours wasted, which could have been spent on less demanding tasks.

As you learn more about how you work, and how long each task really takes, your time-block estimations will become more and more accurate, thereby helping you become more productive.

You Can Time Block Reactive Work Too

If a lot of your work is reactive, you may think this method won’t work for you. But, fortunately, you can assign blocks of time to reactive work, too, so as to avoid that 8 hour game of Ping-Pong when you’re at work.

For example…

If a large portion of your work is spent in your inbox, schedule 30 minutes every 2 hours in your inbox (A big deal? Add some information to your signature letting people know that you only check email a few times per day to keep up productivity).

If you have to take calls throughout the day, instead of answering the phone every time it rings, turn the answer machine on, and schedule a couple of periods during the day where you respond to your messages. This allows your other blocks of time to be far less interrupted, enabling you to get your best work done.

Remove Distractions

Blocking out time is all well and good in theory, but if you don’t stick to the principles in practice, you’re bound to fail. If you’re settling in for a couple of hours of deep work with a Facebook tab open, your phone ready and willing to accept calls, and your colleagues feeling like they can interrupt you at any moment, you’re setting yourself up for failure.

Make sure people know they shouldn’t disturb you (wearing headphones can reduce interruptions dramatically). Turn the phone off. Sign out of social media. Close all unneeded tabs, and concentrate on the task at hand for the time period assigned to it. You’ll often be surprised at how much you get done.

Don’t Be Too Specific

This is loosely related to our human inability to predict how long things will really take. Or even if we have the motivation to complete a task. If we’re too specific with our time blocking (i.e. “30 minutes to book a venue for the party”), then when we don’t find a venue within 30 minutes, we’ve already failed. Instead, keep your blocks of time relatively vague, but still working toward a very specific goal.

For example, “30 minutes organising the party” works well. Instead of having a venue booked, the 30 minute block may result in a shortlist of venues — so at least you’ve made progress!

These quick wins are what keep you motivated to keep up with these kind of productivity systems.

Time Blocking Doesn’t Mean Lack Of Choice

Some people detest having no choices throughout their day, and fear that time blocking leads to a complete lack of choice. This, however, isn’t the case. Take my personal Google Calendar example above.

“Writing Articles” is purposely vague. I have a selection of articles I can work on at any one time, so during this time period, I can pick the one article that excites me the most at that time. The point is to ensure that I actually spend a certain amount of time writing each day, irrespective of what I’m actually writing.

Keep Detailed Notes

taking-notes

When your day regularly involves switching from one task to another, it can often take too much time to get back into the swing of the next task. When I stop my phone calls at 12:30 and move into my deep work, I need to know that I can easily get into the right frame of mind so as to waste as little time as possible.

To do this, I keep detailed notes either on paper, or on my Google Calendar about where I’m, where I got to last time I was working on this project, problems I was facing, breakthroughs I made, and what the next step is to keep progress moving forwards. Spend the last few minutes of each time block writing these notes so you can enter the next time block with a clear mind.

Perform Regular Reviews

At the end of each week, month or quarter (whichever is best for you), perform a review of the different projects you’ve been working on to see if your time blocking approach is working for you, and to know which projects you need to assign more time blocks to. This is the only real way you’ll know how to effectively assign your time. During a review, ask yourself the following questions for each project:

1. What did I accomplish since the last review?
2. What tasks need completing before the next review?
3. At which stage am I at with each of my projects?

With this overview, you’ll be in a much better position to make decisions for the future. Use technology…like these time tracking apps on Android 4 Excellent Free Time Tracking Tools [Android] 4 Excellent Free Time Tracking Tools [Android] No matter who you are, time is an incredibly important commodity. We’re all allotted the same amount of time - 86,400 seconds every day - and it’s up to us how we spend that time.... Read More .

Understand Your Body Clock

man-sleeping

Take a read of this article on Circadian and Ultradian rhythms, and learn how to tell which hours each day are your most productive, and schedule your time blocks accordingly. Many authors find they are most creative during the early hours. If you know you’re able to focus better during the early afternoon, organise your time blocks to make the most of this time and your top priorities for the week.

Don’t Be Too Professional

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. Ensure you schedule time for play into your days. Put aside time to spend with your loved one. Time to spend on your own. Time to exercise. Time to go Christmas shopping. Time to do nothing. Else, these may all fall by the wayside and you’ll find you’re all up to date when it comes to work, but entirely behind in your personal life.

Use Reminders That Work

Whether that’s a calendar popup, email reminder Add Scheduling, Tracking & Reminders to Gmail With This Fantastic Add-on Add Scheduling, Tracking & Reminders to Gmail With This Fantastic Add-on Let’s face it, Gmail is pretty much perfect. It’s not a coincidence that it’s now one of the most popular email providers, at least for those who prefer a Web interface. There are, however, several... Read More , a timer on your phone, or an old-school stop watch, you need to ensure that you set up reminders that you’re confident you’ll abide by. If you’re willing to work an extra 10 minutes on each task, you’ll soon fall behind on other projects. Is it really worth it? Ensure you know when your time block is coming to an end, so get into the right frame of mind to move to the next block.

In essence, time blocking is a simple exercise in segregating your day into various chunks of time that, if stuck to, helps us achieve everything we need to, thereby reducing stress 4 Ways To Take The Stress Out Of Productivity 4 Ways To Take The Stress Out Of Productivity With a few well-targeted changes, you can boost your productivity by leaps and bounds. Apply these simple methods to your life and the result is what you would expect -- better work with lesser effort. Read More . Sure, there are some problems with motivation, the ability to predict how long things will take, and unforeseen disruptions. But using this method can help us cut procrastination and waste, make for more efficient work days and also give us back personal time.

To see time blocking in action, watch this video:

Have you ever used this productivity ‘hack’? How has it worked for you? Which are the tools you use to give time its due?

  1. Adam U
    July 16, 2016 at 3:15 am

    I've definitely found this approach useful for making sure I can block time for getting things done and not getting caught up in the minutiae. Without it I just tread water.

    I use findmeameeting to block my schedule. It automatically blocks your calendars based on your preferences. The buffers automatically adjust your schedule without needing you to worry about making all the changes. https://www.findmeameeting.com/help#Bufferology

    Disclaimer, I created findmeameeting for myself and coworkers who had similar needs and got sick of dealing with it manually.

  2. Penny Zenker
    December 25, 2015 at 3:57 am

    Time Blocks work and are very powerful. My clients often tell me it makes all the difference. It takes practice, patience and persistence to change your behavior and get consistent results but well worth it!

    • Rob Nightingale
      January 2, 2016 at 12:07 pm

      Very true!

  3. Heymo
    March 18, 2015 at 2:20 pm

    Nice post Rob, much more eloquent than I could ever be :-)

    I like to play around with productivity hacks, but most approaches are too complicated to be effective (at least for me). I like the above mentioned Pomodoro Timer, but blocking out time on my calendar is the most effective for me. This especially rings true when you have a work calendar where other people can add meetings to your calendar - if I don't block times off then my calendar is quickly filled with time wasting meetings.

    Since you asked for tools (If you consider mentioning this unethical, pls. feel free to delete my comment!), what I was missing was a way to create re-usable templates for the times I want to block off - so I wrote a little Android app for this:
    https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.flyingkraut.timeblocks

    • Rob Nightingale
      January 2, 2016 at 11:34 am

      Heymo, thanks for the comment! Using calendars works well for some, but I like my schedule to be pretty open, so that approach has never worked for me. I prefer simply to have a prioritized list to work through.

  4. Tor Refsland
    December 18, 2014 at 1:51 pm

    Great post, Rob.
    I have been using time blocking for the two last years with great success.

    When it comes to your work time (block), I use a master to do list and I categorize the tasks according to the ABCDE approach.

    A master to do list

    I use a excel spread sheet (which is my master to do list) - saved in Dropbox (so I can access it from anywhere).

    I Prioritize the tasks using the ABCDE method:
    A :Tasks I must do - serious consequences if it doesn`t get done
    B: Tasks I should do - mild consequences if it doesn`t get done
    C: Tasks I could do - no consequences if it doesn`t get done
    D: Tasks I delegate
    E: Tasks I never do

    You never do a B task before you have done all the A tasks, and you never do a C task before you have done all the B tasks, etc.

    Apply the 80/20 rule: you need to identify each day, which 20% of the tasks on your to do list will give you 80 % of the results.

    Tor Refsland

    • Rob Nightingale
      January 2, 2016 at 11:32 am

      Tor, is this the method you're still using? I'd be interested to hear how it's going for you after all this time?

      • Tor Refsland
        January 7, 2016 at 6:43 pm

        Hey Rob, thanks for reaching out.

        Good question.

        I am using the same type of system, but I have no converted into using Google Calendar as my master to do list.

        I wrote an article for Productivityist about it: http://productivityist.com/google-calendar-breakfast/

        I am doing awesome, thanks for asking.

        I have used my own productivity system to skyrocket my blog.

        In my first year of blogging I got featured on 85 blogs and I connected with some of the top dogs in the blogosphere: http://www.timemanagementchef.com/blogger-outreach-strategy/

        How are things going with you?

        Tor

  5. Rob
    December 17, 2014 at 2:13 pm

    I've never actually used it, but it looks pretty cool- I'll definitely give it a try!

  6. Slam
    December 15, 2014 at 5:40 pm

    What do you think of this task timer app for Android? have you used something like it? https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.slamtastic.donow.app

  7. Rulo Kobashikawa
    December 7, 2014 at 7:33 am

    Pomodoro Technique is also good help to educate oneself in work with focus

    • Rob
      December 9, 2014 at 2:20 pm

      Indeed it is, Rulo! I've a few pretty decent Pomodoro apps on my iPhone to keep me on the straight and narrow :)

  8. Rhonda Lea Kirk Fries
    December 6, 2014 at 1:35 am

    I was taught this technique by a neuropsychologist when I was in treatment for a brain injury.

    You can do it on the computer, but the process is actually improved by use of paper and pencil; I'm not entirely sure why.

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  10. Justin Pot
    December 4, 2014 at 5:01 pm

    Love the concept, and enjoyed the article. Though I'd add one thing: the most important thing with any such strategy is that you actually stick to it. Otherwise you're just spending some time organizing your day, only to ignore you plans later, which is worse than useless.

    • Dann Albright
      December 5, 2014 at 8:43 am

      Interesting idea! I'll give it a shot on Monday and see if it makes me ultra-super-productive. :-)

    • Rob
      December 6, 2014 at 5:10 am

      True words, Justin. Too often planning and writing lists is mistaken as being productive! It should only take a very small part of the day, so you can get to work on what's important!

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