Welcome to the blog. If you’re unfamiliar with what we do here, make sure to check out my first post detailing why I decided to open up this new section of the site. This is the first part of a larger series that we’ve planned detailing our journeys through different productivity strategies and workflows. Today I’ll be writing about my personal journey through Time-Blocking. I’ll talk about how I got started, the pros and cons, how you can implement it, and ultimately why I didn’t settle for it. If you just want to jump to a specific part of the article, no worries, there’s a table of contents below.
How I got Started
I first got started with the wonderful world of time blocking in the summer of 2018. For those who have been frequenting the website, you might see that my publishing schedule was much more erratic in the 2017-2018 year (it’s still a bit random but I’ll get to that in a later article). Due to the crazy nature of my schedule and the difficulty I had with trying to get articles published and optimize my workflow so I could reduce bottlenecks, I needed a solution. So I looked around the internet.
I searched up many articles on improving my productivity and stumbled upon a few that were teaching their readers how to start time-blocking. After digging in a bit deeper, I found that it could improve my work situation a lot while at the same time, not restricting me too much. So you might be scratching your head here asking, “what’s time-blocking?” Time-blocking is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a way to chunk out times of your day to dedicate to a certain task. If you thought you needed to prioritize building a sales deck, you might allot 3 hours for it in the morning when your brain is fresh.
For me it was an incredible system for the summer that I used it. Instead of being restricting, it truly allowed me to take on the day without a worry. I didn’t have to think anymore about what to do next. I wasn’t confined to a never ending todo list that threatened to suffocate me. I just had to focus.
Below you can see a real schedule of how I time blocked during the summer. In general, I tried to fit my boring tasks like transcribing and outlining in the morning while I put my brain-heavy duties around lunch after I had built some creative momentum. Having my time blocked out was surprisingly freeing. Working in chunks allowed me to focus only on the task at hand, knowing that I would get to the distraction at a pre-alloted time in the calendar. Moreover, it forced me to prioritize and recognize bottlenecks. Unsurprisingly, transcribing was a major pain point that drained many of my hours. What I did find fascinating was the fact that I was spending so much time on the outlining phase, and it had begun to bleed into my writing time. Not a good sign.
So for the whole summer, I time-blocked every weekday where I was working, and I often worked past those times if I needed to. I experimented to find the right scheduling systems that would take advantage of when my brain’s energy levels were high (mornings and evenings) and when they dipped (early afternoon, especially after lunch). It was also right for me at the time because I didn’t have any other major obligations except working on Businesses With Stories, so I had lots of freedom with how to structure my day.
The Good and the Bad About Time-blocking
Every productivity strategy has its pros and cons; some may work perfectly for you and others may be a dismal failure. In the below list, I’ll talk about some of the unique things that I noticed while I was time-blocking.
Prioritization: Time-blocking by definition forces you to box your time. What does this mean. If you want to prioritize a certain task, you box in more time. For instance, if you want to finish a sales deck for your company – and that’s your number one priority – then you can schedule two to three hours into your schedule to get it done. That way you literally force yourself to spend more time on it. By scheduling more or less time for certain activities, you create a way to prioritize what matters.
Lessen the Stress: When you time-block, you escape the tyranny of the task list. As Barbara Oakley explained in her book A Mind For Numbers, when you tell yourself that you’re working for only an hour, it is much less stressful than when you tell yourself you have to finish a task. The reason why is in one case, you don’t worry about the outcomes but you focus on the process. When you keep yourself attached to a checklist, you make your time spent ambiguous so it makes it harder for you to both finish your tasks or feel like you’re doing enough.
Make Your Calendar King: The most amazing part about time-blocking is that your calendar becomes your best friend. We usually use our calendars for appointments and events, but using time-blocking forces us to be more accountable and actually check our calendars on a day to day basis. Moreover, when you time block, you stop worrying about where you have to spend your time, limiting decision fatigue and putting your energy into the task at hand.
Focus Blocks: When you time your tasks and schedule break, email, and work times, you’re less likely to slack off and get distracted because you know that you have time later to do it. This adds in extra layer between your procrastination brain and your productive self.
Underestimates: When you first start (and this can still be a problem as time goes on), you will probably assume you can do much more tasks in a given time period than you actually can. I would recommend that you overestimate by 1.5x your assumed time to counter this. For instance, if you thought you could finish your blog emailing in an hour, then you should probably schedule one and a half hours for buffer time.
Rigidity: You can always change your time-blocks if your plans fall through, but it is usually pretty high friction and can be frustrating if multiple things change. Once you get lazy and don’t follow your time blocks for one day, it makes it harder to maintain productive momentum and keep time blocking. That was my biggest problem. The system can also be a bit inflexible because you might need to spend more time on a certain task, messing up your schedule and pushing everything else back.
The best part about time blocking is that it is so easy to implement. To successfully get it, you will need:
- A Calendar App
- A modified checklist
- (Alternatively) A Journal
- (Optional) Toggl
First, set up your calendar app and create a color coded system for the different areas in your life. For me, I use light green for school, light blue for BWS, and navy blue for some other extracurriculars. I also use the Google Calendar app because it has much more flexibility.
Second, create a test day to run your time-blocks. Pick a day where you’re not too worries about deadlines. Schedule more time than you think you may need and then work from there. Use this first test day to see what you like and what you don’t like.
Third, use the modified checklist. In this case, you don’t input tasks into your checklist based on completion. Rather, you make a rough list of things you want to do within your block and the amount of time that you want to spend doing it. For instance, I might say that I want to finish outlining an article and edit a contributor’s piece within my 1.5 hour block.
Finally, follow through and create your own rules as you go. The best part about time blocking is that it’s just a framework. There’s no dogmatic approach to getting things right.
Alternatives: Cal Newport writes an incredible article about how to do a paper version of time blocking to improve your time management. If you’re a digital minimalist, you’ll want to check it out.
Optional add on: Toggl is a great addition to this framework if you’re interested. The app uses a handy button to help you keep track of how much time you’re spending on certain tasks and using that data, you can better schedule your time.
Why I Didn’t Settle…
Time blocking was fantastic… for the summer. Once the school year started, it got extremely difficult to adhere to the schedule because my life turned into a series of harder deadlines and more variable days. Sometime, I would have an unexpected meeting after school or a teacher would drop a large assignment and I would have to constantly remake the time block. I needed something more flexible and low-friction, and for me, time-blocking just wasn’t the right fit at the time. As for the summer, it did help me get on track, secure dozens of interviews, and improve my efficiency, but only because I was flexible with my time in the first place. Regardless, try it out because it could be the best thing for you.
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Also, check out our other blog posts like Prioritizing in Your Life!