A few years ago, I had the habit of working long hours every single day. Even after the strenuous day, tasks remained pending. I would pull my hair and exclaim, “damn, I still have a lot to do tomorrow.”
The worrisome part was that nothing changed the next day. Long days and incomplete tasks had become my routine. I would end up tired every day without any major progress towards my long term goals. One fine day I slammed the table and said “Enough of this”. I had realized the need to change my working style.
While I sat thinking about how to change my style of working, I recalled one of the techniques on time management I had read earlier called time blocking. The method seemed worth a try but I had procrastinated applying it because the idea of scheduling the whole day on the calendar seemed tedious to me.
But now, over the years, I have modified the time blocking method to suit my schedule and style. I know many other people who prefer not to schedule their entire day, so if you’re one of them, you will find my modifications useful.
For those who do not know the meaning of time blocking yet, I will explain how to apply the technique the usual way and my way. This article will serve as a guide to time blocking for both the traditional and tweaked style.
What is time blocking?
Time blocking is the process of going by your day by scheduling tasks and activities hour by hour. You set up a start time and duration for a meeting, don’t you? Likewise, you set timelines for each task in a day in advance. Simple.
Voila. You learned the time blocking technique in a sentence.
While your to-do list tells you what’s pending, the time blocking schedule tells you when to do it. Because you assign blocks out of your time to a task, we call the technique time “blocking”.
If you follow the time blocking method to the dot, here is how your calendar would look like. Let’s call it complete time blocking.
Every hour of the day has a clear purpose. You set a plan of getting things done on a day and then go ahead and execute it. Boom!
Many executives block their calendar as shown above. Elon Musk is said to break his day into 5-minute schedules. Such breakdowns are not only extreme and rare but also require a superhuman to pull off.
Such a method works wonders for your results but has some challenges to implement. These challenges were the reason why I was never a fan of complete time blocking.
Disadvantages of complete time blocking
1. Requires effort to plan
Scheduling your day to the level of tasks by hour requires careful planning, time and effort. Whether your reason is laziness or lack of time, not everyone can plan to run their whole day on a premeditated schedule.
2. Things go against the plan
More often than not, some task takes longer to complete. For example, you might intend to spend 30 minutes on the report you have to send. On a normal day, 30 minutes suffice but one day, you face a technical glitch or the data seems too complex to analyze.
Since you have to send the report, you have no choice but to extend the timeline you set for yourself. As a result, your whole schedule gets thrown out of the window.
3. Wrong estimation
Most people overestimate what they can do in a day, and underestimate what they can do in a month. We overestimate what we can do in a year, and underestimate what we can accomplish in a decade.Matthew Kelly
As human beings, you and I tend to overestimate our abilities. You assume you can complete 10 tasks in a day but manage only 5.
People misinterpret the time available in a day to get work done. As a result, one task takes longer and eats into the time of the next. A cascade of such errors follows throwing your plan for the day into complete mayhem.
4. An unplanned event derails the plan
Unexpected events are bound to occur and when they do, you have to go against your schedule.
- Someone walks up to you and asks for a favor
- You receive an unexpected call
- A normal operation at work runs into an emergency.
Such anomalies annoy you and confuse your schedule leading to unproductive hours.
Complete time blocking yields fantastic results, no doubt. But it is not everyone’s cup of tea to plan the day in advance by blocks. It definitely wasn’t mine.
I liked some elements of the technique and overall the system delivered results. But somehow I felt frustrated with the idea of planning my day first and changing it when the need arose. I found a lot of my time and energy went into the whole planning and rearranging blocks.
The partial time blocking method
Over time I realized I could keep the parts of the technique which I could plan and execute while skipping the rest. So I plan my day today in blocks, but I do not go the extent of breaking my whole day into time chunks. I have certain blocks of time dedicated to certain activities leaving the rest to ad-hoc responsibilities.
Today my calendar looks as shown below:
I still have blocks assigned for certain tasks while allowing time for things that come up during the day. But I have other hours for ad-hoc work which comes up.
How to determine which task needs a slot and which task doesn’t?
I use a simple thought process to determine if a task needs a time block or not.
I ask myself, “Will the task help me achieve my long term goal?”
If the answer is yes, I assign a time slot for it. If not, I will complete the task during the ad-hoc blocks I have.
For example, I have many long term plans for my blog. I believe improving the quality of my writing and learning more about blogging as two important aspects of the goal. So I make sure I set a 30-minute slot each day to improve in those areas. Writing articles is the core of growing a blog, so I have slots for writing content. I have multiple of them at different times in the day.
Many other tasks constitute as shallow work. Tasks such as emails and meetings have their prominence, but they do not impact your long term goals. At least not directly. But I cannot stay away from emails or meetings altogether. So, I set aside enough time as a block to perform tasks that do not influence my long term goals but are necessary.
So I make my time blocking decision by simple segregation of:
- Long term goals
- Daily responsibilities
How to set your time slots for partial time blocking
Here is how you can create your time blocking planner manually.
Step 1: Identify long term goals
Make a list of the long term goals you care about. The more specific you are, the better you can focus on them. If you are not sure about your goals yet, try answering these 3 questions to help you narrow down your long term goals.
Step 2: Find out how much time you have in a day
Only by knowing the hours available in the day can you segregate time effectively. Many people claim they work 12-15 hours a day. When you take into account the shallow work, multitasking, texting, and social media browsing, the actual work hours come down to less than 7-8.
Be brutal and honest about the hours you spend on work every day. You can use the activity to determine where you spend your time every day.
Step 3: Start with small-time blocks
To begin, schedule 30 minutes a day on one activity of your long term goal. Do not make the mistake of thinking, “What can you do in 30 minutes?”
While 30 minutes seems too short, the results compound over time in magnitudes that you cannot fathom. I have only spent 30 minutes a day learning the skills of writing. In the early days, I did not see much of a change. Now, I have followed the routine for over 6 months. I am nowhere close to Shakespeare, but I see the quality of my writing far superior to my initial articles.
Allocate a block of 30 minutes to your long term goal and stick to the plan. In 3 months, you will surprise yourself. After a few weeks, you can add more time blocks to work on your long term goals.
Step 4: Make time for ad-hoc responsibilities
No matter how well you plan, certain things will pop up. Leave enough time to work on such tasks. If you do not, these tasks will run havoc with the other plans you have.
Make sure you check emails within such a block. You can block a slot for checking emails separately too. Emails seem harmless but kill your productivity and focus.
Keep this slot big enough to accommodate most of your days. Sometimes you might finish all your ad-hoc responsibilities much within the time window you planned. On such days, leftover time in the slot to work on your long term goals.
Step 5: Leave open time blocks in between
At times, tasks can take longer than expected. So leave some empty slots which you use based on need. If tasks go as per the original plan, you can use the unoccupied slot to work on your long term goal.
I leave slots open and if nothing else comes up, I use the slot to write some more articles for the blog.
Step 6: Measure by time spent or another number
Put a number on any task you’re working on related to your long term goals. When you have a figure, you cannot hide from a lack of progress. Sometimes measuring a task with a number is straight forward and sometimes it needs thinking. The scenario where you cannot put a number at all is quite rare.
Here are 2 easy ways to put a number to a task
a. Measure by time
To keep the equation simple, measure how long did you spend on a task. Tasks that go on for a long duration best suit such measurement. For example here are my tasks which I measure by time:
- Spend 30 minutes a day learning writing
- Spend 30 minutes a day learning blogging
- Spend 30 minutes a day thinking
There are days where I have read only 5 pages in 30 minutes and on some days I have read 60. Do not try to break a sweat over a daily performance difference when you’re measuring by time. In the long run, the time spent will balance as a good average.
b. Measure by value
Think of putting a number to help you track progress. Here are some examples of measuring by value:
- Reach out to 3 bloggers for collaboration
- Write 1500 words today
- Write 5 Quora answers this week
The time taken to complete such tasks varies each day. On some days I can write 1500 words in a single flow while on another day I struggle to gather words. Again, do not stress yourself about your varying productivity. Trust the plan and keep going.
Step 7: Rinse and repeat
Monitor your progress and vary your schedule to suit your needs. No schedule exists which serves the purpose for every single person.
If your slot to work on your long term goal seems too small, increase the duration or have many slots. If you run out of time to check emails often, expand your ad-hoc work slot. If you find yourself with too many open slots regularly with nothing to do, schedule a task to reduce the unoccupied blocks.
Implement, improve and improvise.
What are the pitfalls to avoid while time blocking?
As a concept, time blocks look exciting. Doesn’t it seem like the perfect solution to all your procrastination problems? Well, well, here are some common errors to can avoid:
1. Don’t be over-optimistic
Do not try to overdo the slots and tasks when you begin. If you break your slots for the whole day by 30 minutes but fail to keep up with the plan, you will hate yourself. You might consider yourself a failure or the technique stupid.
Be honest with how much you can achieve. When you begin, set slots such that you can execute your plan. Keep some additional time to complete a task even if you are capable of delivering faster. Sticking to the slots will deliver better results in the long run than trying to fit in too many slots that you cannot keep up with.
Over time, you can add more slots and shorten the time within each slot. Consider the technique as a marathon, not a sprint.
2. Slipping sometimes is ok
The most common mistake people commit with time blocking is dropping the idea when they cannot work as per the slots. You might assume that you cannot work and deliver in blocks. But usually, the truth is, your planning is at fault than the execution.
If you make an aggressive plan, you are setting yourself up for failure. When you fail to meet the schedule, do not kick yourself. Analyze where you went wrong and increase/decrease the size of the slots to make amends.
3. Not leaving a slot for shallow work
When time blocking helps you get things done and make constant progress, overconfidence creeps in. You might feel tempted to delete the slots you have for ad-hoc responsibilities(day to day work, emails, calls) to stuff more in.
Not leaving time for such shallow work leads to consequences in some shape or form. For example, reducing my time on emails could lead to missing a reply to a partner and damage my relationship with him/her.
Feel free to reduce the slots for ad-hoc work little by little. But if you intend to cut the time of these slots by half, be wary. Analyze if you can make the shift without any negative consequences.
What are the advantages of time blocking?
Whether you use the original method of complete time blocking or block your calendar in parts, you will notice a significant difference in your daily performance. Here are the advantages of time blocking:
1. You will focus better
On a normal day, you have a certain amount of hours to work and a ton of things to do. As human beings, we tend to stick to an incomplete task for a long time even if another task needs attention.
For example, you might have a long term goal of starting your own business but your daily job somehow consumes all your time. If you block 1 hour a day towards starting your business, a year later, you would have come a long way.
The time blocks force you to focus on tasks and goals which help you grow in the long run. It helps you shift your focus from immediate/urgent problems to long term targets.
2. You will do things that matter
Every day you spend unnecessary time working on tasks which serve no good. You might deny it saying that everything you work on is necessary but think again. For example, if you work on a weekly report, ask yourself if enough action comes out of the report you create. Among the meetings you attend, would skipping half of them make any difference?
I can guarantee you that some of your repetitive tasks do no good for your career. You follow them as a part of your routine without considering the benefit of it.
I understand that you cannot stop them all because you would annoy your boss or a client. All I am saying is, using time blocking you can reduce the time you spend on such activities.
3. You will notice progress in 3-6 months
When you start applying time blocking by allotting small slots for your long term goals, you will not notice any difference. A few days go by and then a couple of weeks, but you still see no results.
Things start changing as a month passes by. You find your baby steps yielding small results. 3 months later, progress takes an upward curve. Depending on your goal, your efforts will yield results at different timelines. Playing the guitar for an hour a day for 6 months will make you a decent beginner. Working out an hour a day for 6 months will make you lose a significant amount of weight.
4. You will accept a good deliverable over a perfect one
People feel the need to deliver a perfect product even when it is not necessary. For example, programmers chase a rare bug for hours together. A hairstylist spends an extra 30 minutes to cut the hair down to the right millimeter. A sales executive works 2 more hours to tune up the shades of blue in the presentation.
Striving to be perfect is not always a bad mindset. But often enough, we go after perfection by spending more time than necessary when a decent outcome does the job. You could instead use the time spent working on covering all ends on another important task.
Time blocking forces you to complete a task within the slot. If you stick to the plan, you have to work faster and skip the boundary case scenario which was not worth the extra time anyway.
5. You procrastinate lesser
When you finish a task, you lean back on your seat and relax. You pat yourself on the back for the task completed and wonder what should you work on next. In the meantime, you decide to scroll your Instagram news feed. One thing leads to another and you find yourself watching a Youtube video 45 minutes later.
Taking a small break to avoid the next task is how we procrastinate. The problem is, it does not stop at a small break. The break time expands like a snowball rolling down a mountain. The reason why the snowball started rolling was that you had to decide which task to work on next and you decided to delay the decision.
Time blocking solves the problem by having a predetermined plan for you. When you hit the time slot, you know you have a task to do, so your “small break” remains small.
Learning how to use time blocks is easy. The trouble lies in the discipline required to implement it.
Time blocking seems like a tedious job when you begin. And it is, especially if you decide to go from a state of chaos to scheduling your entire day. The more drastic your change, the more difficulty you will face in executing it.
Is time blocking effective? Yes indeed. But if you have no experience with creating time blocks before, do not schedule your entire day step by step. Do not bite more than you can chew. Schedule slots of 1-2 hours at most and let the change sink in. You can even take a few weeks or a month to get used to the new model of working.
Once you feel comfortable, bump it up a notch and add more slots. In a few months, you will get the hang of it. What was previously a slot for a useless meeting will soon turn into a slot to work towards your long term goals.
What I am not:
What I am:
Continuously improving self-learner
Productivity/Time Management Obsessed