A Step by Step Guide to Mastering Time Blocking
Time is one of our most valuable assets, and yet very few people know how to manage their time efficiently. If you struggle with endless to-do lists, meetings, and procrastination, it might be time to look into new time management strategies to help you optimize your day.
In this extensive guide, we’ll break down time blocking and its variations, along with its benefits, challenges, and steps to implement it into your own life.
Time blocking is a time management method in which you block out time in your calendar for each task on your to-do list. The purpose of this is to optimize your productivity by only focusing on one task at a time rather than spreading yourself too thin across several tasks at once.
Several proponents of this method, such as Cal Newport, author of “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World,” believe that a time-blocked 40-hour work week can have the same output as a 60-hour unscheduled work week.
The time blocking method requires you to prioritize your tasks and be intentional about what’s deserving of your valuable work hours. Effective time blocking means adding everything from lunch, meetings, personal business, to project tasks into your calendar so you have set tasks and objectives for every hour of the day.
Time blocking is a particularly useful technique for people who are managing several projects at once. Entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Jack Dorsey, and Bill Gates are famously known for using time blocking to divide their attention across their many business ventures appropriately.
You might find time blocking useful if you struggle with the following:
- Allocating too much time toward ‘reactive work,’ such as responding to emails
- Taking on too many tasks that you don’t have time for
- Constantly fighting off interruptions
- Spending too much time in meetings throughout the day
Time blocking can also be a valuable tool in managing your day-to-day deep work and shallow work and ensuring each only consumes a certain amount of your day.
Time blocking allows you to complete your shallow tasks more quickly and complete your deep work with fewer distractions. Here’s some background on each to help you better classify your tasks:
- Shallow work: Administrative or logistical work that can be done with minimal thinking or attention, frequently referred to as ‘busywork.’ Shallow work doesn’t usually create new value, however, we often find ourselves wasting a substantial amount of time on it. Examples of shallow tasks include:
- Attending status update meetings
- Responding to emails, Slack messages, or phone calls
- Completing HR paperwork
- Deep work: Work that is cognitively demanding that requires a distraction-free environment to be completed. Examples include:
- Writing a report
- Preparing a presentation
While time blocking can be immensely beneficial when properly implemented, the nature of your job may affect the benefits and challenges you encounter when implementing this new time management technique.
Here are the top 3 benefits of time blocking:
Believe it or not, multitasking is terrible for your productivity. In fact, working on multiple tasks at once has been found to reduce employee productivity by 40%.
This is because of context switching, which is when you force your brain to switch gears by moving from one unrelated task to another. For example, consider your process of responding to emails compared to another task you regularly complete, such as product research. These activities require two entirely different skills, and multitasking both means you’re unlikely to get much done at all.
In essence, time blocking eliminates the time you would ordinarily waste by multitasking or context switching. By focusing on one thing at a time, your productivity can be dramatically improved.
To do lists are great in that they help you know what needs to get done, but they certainly don’t help curb procrastination.
Instead, time blocking can help you complete tasks you’re dreading by specifying an exact start and end time for the task. Having tasks planned on such a detailed level is far more actionable than a to do list, and dedicating a chunk of time toward something all at once allows you to finish without the disruptions caused by task switching.
Picture this: It’s Friday afternoon, and you’re reflecting on what you got done that week. Despite putting in more than 40 hours of work, it’s difficult for you to remember what you spent your time working on.
With time blocking, recalling how you spent your time becomes significantly easier, as you can simply refer back to your calendar app for the week. At a glance, you’ll see when you worked on each task, which can make it even easier to relay updates to your supervisor or during meetings.
Here are 3 time blocking challenges to be aware of.
Planning out your day and high-priority tasks requires effort and foresight, which may be difficult for some since time blocking doesn’t come with much flexibility for spontaneity or interruptions.
If you work in an office and are prone to get distracted, creating and sticking to a time blocked calendar may require a high level of self-control.
Estimating task lengths is one of time blocking’s main learning curves.
Many people fall victim to the planning fallacy, which describes our tendency to underestimate the amount of time it will take to complete a task. For example, say a task takes you two hours to complete but you only budgeted an hour – you’ve now used up the time you had allocated toward your next task.
This issue is usually resolved with practice, but it’s an obstacle those who are new to time blocking usually encounter.
You can certainly implement some form of time blocking in any office job, however, the difficulty of doing so will depend on how reactive your day-to-day work typically is.
For example, product support specialists who respond to user inquiries as they come in may have less flexibility in terms of blocking off large chunks of their calendar for deep work time than a project manager might.
Similarly, people who work as account managers may need to respond to client requests immediately rather than waiting until their end-of-day email check to respond.
This isn’t to say that you can’t utilize this technique, just that positions with high levels of shallow work and external involvement may require more trial and error to build an effective strategy.
Time blocking is a great foundational technique if you’re new to calendar-based time management strategies. Those more experienced with the practice may find that variations of time blocking – such as time boxing, task batching, or day theming – fit better within their day.
The primary difference between time blocking and boxing is that time blocking reserves time to work on a task, whereas time boxing limits the time you’ll dedicate toward it. Here’s an example of the same task framed in each way:
- Time blocking: “I’m going to work on social media planning tomorrow from 2 to 3 pm.”
- Time boxing: “I’m going to prepare five posts on the social media content calendar tomorrow from 2 to 3pm.”
In other words, time boxing involves creating a self-imposed deadline for a certain task to force you to work efficiently to get it done. In the above time blocking example, there’s no deadline for finishing social media planning – you could add another time block later in the week to finish the task. Conversely, time boxing involves setting a deadline to hold yourself to.
Since time boxes feel more actionable and goal-oriented, this technique is helpful for people who struggle with perfectionism or often find themselves agonizing over small details rather than moving on to their next task. Some people use time boxing to gamify their productivity.
Below is an example of what time boxing might look like in your Google calendar. It’s important to treat these times as deadlines to complete the task rather than time to leisurely work on the task:
Task batching involves grouping similar tasks together and completing them all at once rather than blocking out time on your calendar app to complete each one. This technique limits switching between tasks.
You can practice task batching in any number of ways, including grouping things like networking, writing, designing, researching, and planning – whatever makes the most sense for your workflow.
Don’t forget that you can also combine task batching and blocking if that works best for you. There’s no one size fits all solution to managing your workflow, and implementing a little bit of each strategy may be beneficial.
Day theming involves dedicating an entire day to one specific project, initiative, or complex group of tasks. This is an extreme form of task batching that is most useful for those managing several projects simultaneously or who have many responsibilities that they struggle to allocate equal attention to.
Jack Dorsey, the co-founder of Twitter and Square, is known for using day theming to allow him to run both of his companies. Dorsey said he focuses his Mondays on management, Tuesdays on product, Wednesdays on marketing and communication, Thursdays on partnerships, and finally, Fridays on company culture and recruiting.
Day theming helps create a day-to-day rhythm in addition to improving the efficiency of your workday. Some people find that having an overwhelmingly large number of tasks to choose to work on can cause decision fatigue, and day theming reduces this fatigue by ensuring the day’s purpose is clear.
For a project manager, this could mean theming each day according to a different project to ensure your attention and time are being equally distributed.
The below example shows how you can combine day theming and loosely scheduled time blocking to manage your weekly routine from your Google calendar. The theme of each day is in blue:
There are several things to consider before jumping into time blocking. Below you’ll find 13 steps to follow to prepare you for success.
The first step to time blocking is creating a to do list of all tasks on your plate for the week. As you compile this list, note which ones are the highest priority versus those that could sit on the back burner if need be. Your highest priority tasks should be the tasks you block out first in your Google calendar.
Remember to also consider the tasks you’re already allocating time toward daily, such as answering emails or returning phone calls. Many people find it helpful to bookend their work day with 30-minute time blocks to clear out their email inbox.
This list should also include personal tasks like doctor’s appointments or anything family related that you’ll need to dedicate time to.
There are two main things to consider when scheduling your tasks: when you’re going to work on them and for how long.
Those who are new to time blocking will find it difficult to estimate how long tasks will take, and as a general rule, it’s better to overbudget time rather than underestimate and not finish everything you had scheduled for the day.
Some researchers believe we move from a state of high to low alertness every 90 minutes, meaning most people can work for an hour and a half without needing a break. Other people already follow the Pomodoro technique to stay focused, which you could also use to schedule the length of your time blocks.
Working for hours without a break will often leave you feeling fidgety, tired, hungry, and distracted. This is why it’s better for your productivity if you regularly schedule breaks into your time blocked calendar.
Other than giving your brain a rest, these breaks can be used as buffer time should one of your previous time blocks run over.
Most jobs involve reactive tasks, which are routine shallow activities like checking your email, that are necessary for your workflow but don’t contribute much to your productivity or goals.
Many people often turn to reactive activities as a procrastination technique since activities like clearing out your email inbox don’t typically require too much cognitive depth. The best way to reduce the time you waste on reactive tasks is by blocking out time in your calendar to complete them, that way you don’t feel the need to spend time on them during your deep work time.
It’s tough to get into the flow of your work when you have meetings scheduled randomly throughout the day. If possible, try to optimize your time by scheduling meetings one after another to reduce task switching.
Maybe this means getting all of your meetings out of the way in the morning or scheduling them during your afternoon slump when you have trouble focusing on deep work. Whatever you prefer, test it out and see if scheduling meeting blocks has a positive impact on your day.
Time blocking your schedule is one thing, but following through with each time block is another.
Make it a habit to complete your tasks according to when you time blocked them into your schedule. This technique will ultimately be a waste of your time if you put in the effort to organize your calendar and fail to utilize it.
Unplanned interruptions and distractions interfere with your ability to follow through with each time block, so it’s important to identify the things that typically distract you while working and eliminate them when possible.
This might include closing your email, turning off notifications, putting your phone on do not disturb, or turning off nearby TVs if you work from home. Even small things like closing your office door may reduce the potential for distraction.
Keeping track of how long tasks take you to complete will help you iterate upon your time blocking so your blocks are the appropriate length in the future.
Many software options have time tracking capabilities, including Rodeo, which is a project management tool that allows you to connect your time activities with your budget so that you can keep track of your expenditures as you work.
Best of all, you can try Rodeo for free. Test it out to get a better handle on your budgets and how long it takes you to complete each task on your to do list.
Everyone has different preferences regarding when they’re most productive – some of us are morning people and others are night owls. These preferences are not random, as our energy levels throughout the day are correlated with the curve of our circadian rhythm, which affects our productivity and alertness. People who consider themselves ‘morning people’ usually have a curve that is shifted earlier than average, with the opposite being true for so-called ‘night owls.’
One key benefit of time blocking is that it encourages you to think about when you’d like to complete certain tasks, which allows you to schedule tasks according to what time of day you do your best work. Pay attention to the times of day you feel most and least motivated.
It’s generally best to schedule deep work during your peak productivity times. If you find yourself falling into a 3 pm slump every day, don’t schedule your most pressing tasks for this time. Instead, schedule shallow activities like checking your email.
It’s no surprise that planning out every hour of your workday requires preparation, and it will almost certainly involve some trial and error when you’re first getting started.
You will inevitably need to slightly change your blocks for upcoming days depending on if tasks end up taking longer than you budgeted for. Leaving a few minutes open at the end of your work day to fix your schedule for the rest of the week is a great habit to get into.
Time blocking can help you strengthen your personal commitments by ensuring you set aside time for them. If you have goals like spending more time with your kids or calling your relatives more frequently, then add time to your calendar to do so.
Making a habit out of scheduling personal time on your Google calendar is also useful to avoid conflicts. For example, if you have to pick your kids up from school every day, adding that time block to your calendar will prevent you from double booking yourself.
Adding after-work dinners or other activities to your schedule can also give you something to look forward to during what might be a tedious and long work day. Sometimes having that extra bit of motivation makes all the difference.
Introducing some variation of time boxing to your daily routine has the potential to drastically alter your workflow. This can change your team’s ability to reach you during the workday and limit your availability for meetings.
As such, it’s important to communicate these changes so your team members can adjust to your new schedule.
Sometimes it feels like there are just not enough hours in the day to finish everything on your to do list. This is why it can be beneficial to schedule overflow days for yourself to complete the tasks you didn’t get a chance to finish during your blocked time.
If an entire day of overflow time is too much, you can try dedicating your Friday afternoon to wrapping up the loose ends before the weekend begins.
Time blocking can be an excellent way to manage your workday by combining the functionalities of a calendar with that of a to do list.
By correlating each hour of your day with a task, time blocking ensures you maximize your productivity and save the time you’d ordinarily spend switching between tasks.
Time blocking also has several variations, including task batching, time boxing, and day theming, which can all be combined with time blocking to varying degrees to best suit your needs.
Whichever strategy you find most useful, we hope these 13 tips help maximize your workday.
Originally published on October 19, 2021, updated on September 6, 2022.