Guide to Time Blocking: What it is, Why it Works, and How to Use it

Guide to Time Blocking: What it is, Why it Works, and How to Use it

Guide to Time Blocking

There never seems to be enough time in the day for everything we need to do. Add in the prevalence of social media and our desire to stay connected, plus the virtual offices in which many work since the pandemic began, and there’s a tendency for the workday to creep into the leisure hours. 

One way to get everything done in an eight-hour day—and manage private life, too—is with time blocking. 

What is time blocking?

Time blocking, sometimes called calendar blocking, is a method for managing your time using a physical planner or an online template. It can be as simple as writing in a desk calendar or filling out an Excel form. There are also online templates and apps. 

Time blocking emphasizes single tasking—concentrating on one task at a time—over multitasking, making it easier to maintain focus and avoid distractions.

Time blocking is similar to the idea of a to-do list but more specific. Instead of just listing things to do, time blocking assigns a specific block of time to work on each task during a weekly review. Tasks are scheduled based on priority, how long they should take, and how much time is available. 

There is no limit to how much time is in a block. Shallow work, such as checking your emails, may only merit 15 minutes. Deep work such as planning a campaign, might need several hours. Billionaire executives Bill Gates and Elon Musk are said to break things down into 5-minute blocks.

Benefits of time blocking

One reason time blocking is desirable is that most people underestimate how long it will take to complete a given task, even if they have done it or similar tasks before. It’s a common enough phenomenon to have a name: the Planning Fallacy

Overcoming this fallacy requires taking an outside view based on experience rather than an overly optimistic inside view. Time blocking forces you to be realistic about your time and work.

When a task is time-blocked, it leaves a base record for the next time. Even if you underestimated how long a task would take this time, next time you will have a better idea. 

There are other benefits, too.

Time Blocking Planning

Time blocking teaches you to focus on priorities

A to-do list incentivizes you to accomplish easy tasks first, with the result that difficult tasks may not get done at all. Time blocking encourages you to schedule your most important and difficult tasks when experience shows you have the most focus. Maybe that’s first thing in the morning or late afternoon. 

Tasks of lesser importance or complexity can be assigned to times when your concentration is lowest, such as right after lunch. 

Time blocking reduces procrastination and distractions

When faced with a difficult project, the tendency is to put it off until it can’t be avoided. Time blocking sets a schedule that you must follow or you risk throwing off your entire calendar. It’s more incentive to not give in to distractions.

Time blocking will make you find time for everything

Time blocking doesn’t just work for your job. Finding time for social activities, appointments (medical, accountant), chores, and hobbies also can be difficult. With time blocking, you can make sure you don’t neglect them as well. Schedule when to stop working and set aside time for family, friends, and yourself. 

Time blocking promotes focused “deep work”

There are at least two types of job-related activities: deep work and shallow work. In general, deep work is creative, strategic, and analytical. Shallow work is logistical and paperwork that is necessary but does not require deep thought. 

Time blocking promotes focused “deep work,” a term coined by Cal Newport in his book of the same name, subtitled, “Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.” Deep work, Newport writes, are “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that pushes your cognitive capabilities to their limit … create new value [and] improve your skill.” 

Work that needs to get done but doesn’t help to fulfill your long-term goals is considered shallow work. Answering emails, returning phone calls, and online chatting with colleagues are often examples of shallow work, though there are exceptions. 

Shallow work is important but it can distract from deep work. For example, checking social media may divide your attention for up to 30 minutes. Time blocking helps you limit the amount of time you devote to shallow work.

Examples of Shallow Work vs. Deep work

Deep work: 

  • Research.
  • Analyzing data.
  • Writing in-depth high-quality content
  • Researching. 
  • Developing a long-term strategy. 

Shallow work:

  • Reading (most) emails.
  • Checking social media (Twitter, Facebook).
  • Scheduling meetings.
  • Communicating with colleagues on messaging apps (Slack, Microsoft Teams). 

It makes it easier to say “No”

An important goal of time blocking is focus, and that means learning to say no. Entrepreneurs and politicians agree on the importance of saying no, but many people have a hard time doing it. Reasons include fear of conflict, fear of disappointing someone, and maybe even fear of being fired. 

Time blocking shows how your time is scheduled. When asked to take on a new task, having your time blocked out can give you the backing you need to say no with a clear conscience.

It discourages perfectionism

In 1955, C. Northcote Parkinson codified his famous law, “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” One reason may be fear of running out of things to do, or laziness (Why work harder/faster than I need to?) but another is perfectionism: The more time we work on a project, the better it is likely to be.

That’s not always correct, but even if it were, we have other things to work on. Blocking out a set amount of time encourages you to spend just so much time on a task rather than trying to make it perfect. 

It encourages you to plan ahead

Sometimes when we start a task or set a goal, we not only underestimate the time it will take but the preparation and planning required. Putting it in writing and setting a firm deadline increases the chances you will complete the task on schedule.

Time blocking variations

Time blocking as described above isn’t the only way to manage your time. Here are some other methods, some very similar to time blocking or which can be used with time blocking.

The Pomodoro Technique

This is based on the Basic Rest-Activity Cycle theory, that the human brain can only remain focused for about 90 minutes before it loses focus and needs a 20-minute break or longer.  

With the Pomodoro technique, tasks are scheduled for 25 minutes at a time, followed by a five-minute break. Repeat four times before taking a longer break (15 to 45 minutes). Then start the cycle over.

The Eisenhower Matrix

While it’s not a time-blocking method, the Eisenhower matrix, box, or schedule is a means of prioritizing tasks into four categories: Do first, do later, delegate, and eliminate. It can be used in conjunction with time blocking. 

Task Batching 

One of the biggest distractions in the workplace is multitasking because it forces you to shift focus. If you group many similar tasks to work on at the same time, you minimize the need to shift focus. That’s task batching. 

Most batched tasks are shallow work. Complex tasks should not be task batched. For example, rather than checking your email or social media constantly, schedule a couple of short blocks of time each day.

Task Batching Examples

You can sort different tasks for task batching by: 

  • Type of actions needed.
  • Level of effort required.
  • Project. 
  • Invoicing. 
  • Meetings. 
  • Errands.

Day Theming

Day theming is a variant of time batching in which each day is blocked for a certain type of activity. This is most useful for someone with a lot of different tasks, such as an entrepreneur or startup business owner, who doesn’t have a lot of (or any) support staff. One day might be set aside for sales calls, another for writing, and still another for planning the week’s schedule. 

Time Boxing

Time boxing is a version of time blocking where the time for completing a task is blocked, not just the time to work on the task. 

How to time block your schedule

There are four steps to time blocking: 

  1. Planning. List everything you need to do in a day or week. Break them up by type, complexity (deep or shallow work), and how long you think each will take. Maybe some can be task batched. You may be able to break some big tasks into several smaller ones. Then decide on which tasks are most important and when to schedule them. 
  2. Block time. Once you’ve decided on your priorities, decide how long you need to or can afford to devote to each task. Some tasks will take longer than others, but there is a limit to how long you can work on a specific task without a break and still produce quality work. According to the theory of Ultradian rhythms, after 50 to 90 minutes, the brain loses focus and wanders or is easily distracted. You typically need 20 to 30 minutes to recover. 
  3. Follow your schedule. Try to stick to the times and tasks that you’ve scheduled. Use a time tracker app if you have trouble remembering to record precisely when you finish a task. 
  4. Revise your schedule as needed. If the schedule in practice did not work—if a task took less or more time—make changes to the next schedule. 
How to Write up your Time-Blocking Schedule

There are no rules for what a time-blocking plan looks like. It can be on a sheet of paper, on a wall or desk calendar, an Excel document, a free online template, or a proprietary time tracker app for your computer, tablet, or smartphone (see below). 

Color code different tasks to make it easier to keep track of them. 

Common time-blocking mistakes

Time blocking is a tool but it doesn’t always work in every situation. It will work better if you avoid or correct these mistakes.

Not telling people about your time blocking

If you are adopting time blocking on your own, not as part of a company-wide program, make sure your colleagues and co-workers know your new schedule, when you’re not available or would prefer not to be distracted. Some distractions may still be necessary, but people are more likely to respect your time blocks if they know about them. 

Spread the word. If it works for you, others may decide to follow suit.  

Not planning for problems

No matter how you plan and strive to keep to your schedule, the odds are higher that something will go wrong or otherwise take more time than you’ve allotted than that all will go smoothly or take less time than scheduled, especially when you first start time blocking. 

To get ahead of problems, try to schedule a block of time during the week in case something goes wrong—a couple of hours or a whole day—or have other problems. If you don’t need it, great. If you do, you’ll be glad you did.

Not making adjustments

If despite your best efforts, you still don’t have enough time for everything as scheduled, accept that you have to make changes. Don’t be afraid to put something off, delegate someone else to handle it, hire an outside contractor, or drop something altogether. 

Stubbornly holding on to part of your schedule that isn’t working could lead to the whole enterprise collapsing or to a nervous breakdown.

Forgetting to include breaks

You don’t just need time off on the weekend. You need to schedule breaks throughout the day between tasks or—if it takes several hours—in the middle of a task. You also need time for meals and rest at the end of the day. 

You may be able to postpone these breaks for a little while, but eventually, the deficit will catch up with you. Working long-term without breaks can affect not only the quality of your work but your social life and your mental and physical health. So, include breaks in your time-blocking plan. 

Try to schedule a final short break at the end of the to decompress and reflect on or review the day’s progress. Then, if you’re able, put your work aside until the next work day begins.

Time-blocking apps

There are many apps that can help you with time blocking. Here are some of the best rated.

  1. - Task manager and calendar assistant
  2. Asana - Productivity app
  3. ClickUp - Task management app
  4. Clockify - Time tracker app
  5. Clockwise - Calendar app
  6. DigiCal - Daily planner
  7. Fantastical - Mac calendar app
  8. Fellow - Meeting management app
  9. Google Calendar - Calendar app
  10. HourStack - Project management app
  11. Microsoft To Do - To-do list app
  12. Plan - Task management and to-do list app
  13. Planyway - Time tracker app for Trello and Jira users
  14. Remember the Milk - To-do list and task management app
  15. Sunsama - Daily planner app
  16. Things 3 - Task management app
  17. TickTick - Daily planner app
  18. TimeBloc - Mobile daily planner
  19. TimeCamp - Productivity and time tracker app
  20. Todoist - To-do list app

It doesn’t matter which app you use. It doesn’t matter if you just use a desk calendar. Time blocking isn’t about blocking time for the hell of it. Time blocking is a means of increasing efficiency and productivity, of getting more out of limited resources.  

Maybe time blocking isn’t right for you. If it doesn’t help, try something else. This guide should help you decide.

OnTheClock Employee Time Tracking

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OnTheClock Team

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