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What is time blocking?

Cathy Reisenwitz

by Cathy Reisenwitz on June 25, 2020

Elon Musk, Bill Gates, and Cal Newport all use a time management technique called “time blocking” to get more done in less time. Time blocking means choosing in advance when you’ll work on certain tasks and blocking that time off on your calendar. If you regularly find yourself neglecting your highest priority tasks, spending too much time on less-important tasks, and wondering what to work on next, time blocking can help.

“A standard to-do list tells you what you need to do,” writes Jory MacKay, Editor of the RescueTime blog. “Time blocking tells you when you’re going to do it.”

Here’s how to start time blocking today.

How to time block

Time blocking your calendar to maximize focus and productivity requires just three steps.

1. Create a to-do list

The first, and arguably biggest benefit to time blocking is that it makes it more likely you’ll do your most important work. People who write down a specific place, date, and time for a task are more likely to complete it than those who just think about it. So to start time blocking, decide what you need to do in the next week. (If you want to upgrade from paper to-do lists or need a new to-do list app, check out 5 Incredible Free Wunderlist Alternatives Compared.)

You don’t need to think of every possible task. You’ll likely need to adjust your time blocks every day as things come up anyway. Just pull together a list of everything you might want to do in the next week.

Then prioritize that list. You could use the Eisenhower Method, for example. Another way to do it is to look at your annual goals and ask yourself what you can do to make achieving them easier.

2. Estimate how much time you’ll need to complete each item

Once you have your prioritized list of tasks, make an educated guess about how much time each task will require to complete. If the task will take more than one session, try breaking it into micro-tasks. Or, decide how long you’d like to spend on each session and how many sessions it will take.

If you’re like most people, at first you’ll be optimistic about how long tasks will take. psychologists call this the Planning Fallacy. But if you keep time blocking, you’ll get better at estimating over time. In the meantime, try doubling or tripling your initial estimates. It’s much more fun to finish a task early and take a break or get started on the next task than it is to have to push everything out.

3. Add the tasks as events onto your calendar

The last step to time blocking is creating calendar events and naming them after the task you want to accomplish during that time. Creating calendar events with start and stop times for each task helps you battle perfectionism by deciding ahead of time when you need to wrap up a project. Putting your tasks on your calendar forces you to reckon with the finitude of time. Every block is a zero-sum game, which makes it easier to say “no” to lower value commitments. Plus, scheduling your tasks on your calendar means your colleagues won’t schedule over them.

Khoi Vinh, a Principal Designer at Adobe, schedules his Focus Time on his company’s shared calendar. “Sometimes I’ll move around meetings to create longer contiguous blocks, and then I’ll create a meeting called ‘Do Not Book’ or, if I suspect someone will ignore that, I’ll name it something like ‘Collaboration Session’ or ‘Research Review,’” Vinh told Doist. “You have to get crafty.”

Here’s what that can look like:

time blocking

You’ll get more done if you schedule your most panic-inducing task first. Keep in mind the old Mark Twain adage: “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.” Here’s more on how to eat your frog.

For example, when founder and academic Kevin Taylor was writing his book, writing was the most important thing for him to make time for every day. So he set aside the first four hours of his work day for writing his book and nothing else. When he was selling real estate, he blocked that time off for making calls and generating leads for buyers and sellers.

Here’s what a recurring 2-hour block for writing each morning can look like:

time blocked calendar

Another way to schedule your tasks is to divide your work into categories and then create a new calendar in Google Calendar for each category of work. So you could have a calendar for Business Development, Client Work, Content Writing, and Marketing, for example. Then you add your tasks from each category into the corresponding calendar. Assign each calendar a different color to easily differentiate the blocks.

Some time blockers divide their days into 15 or 30-minute increments and assign each increment a task. While for salespeople or managers that might be the right move, most knowledge workers will find longer blocks much more productive. That’s because it takes around 20 minutes to fully concentrate on a task after you start working on it because at first a part of your brain is still thinking about your last task. Researchers call this phenomenon “attention residue.” So if you switch tasks every 15 minutes, you’ll never get into deep focus.

Y Combinator founder Paul Graham calls long stretches of uninterrupted time for focused work such as writing, designing, or coding “Maker Time.” We call it “Focus Time.” As you decide when to tackle your to-do list, make sure you’re scheduling long stretches of time for tasks that require deep thinking and concentration.

Here’s an example of a time blocked schedule with Focus Time for writing from RescueTime:

time blocking example

Time blocking pro tips

Here are some tips for getting the most value out of your time blocking efforts.

1. Schedule with, not against, your daily energy flows

Schedule your tasks according to when you tend to be at the right energy level and mood for them. Most people’s productivity, energy, and creativity fluctuate throughout the day. So schedule your most arduous work when you’re most energetic, creative work when you’re most creative, and so on. If you’re not sure what your rhythms are, this game can help.

And remember, time blocking doesn’t just have to be for work. Brad Frost, author of Atomic Design, blocks off three hours of time with his family every evening.

Check out his calendar:

time blocking your calendar

“Before having a baby, my wife and I would both work well into the evening hours, largely because we could and there was nothing stopping us!,” Brad told RescueTime. “Of course, that isn’t healthy on a number of different levels. So it’s been great to ask ourselves, ‘how can I maximize my workday so that I can play with my kid?’”

2. Single-task as much as possible

One of the biggest benefits to time blocking is that it keeps you on task. Entrepreneur and blogger Abby Lawson says time blocking makes her “a lot less likely to go down the Facebook rabbit hole, or get distracted by something else because I know that if I take too much time on this task, it pushes the rest of my schedule back, and I won't complete everything that I set out to do that day.”

Multitasking kind of defeats the purpose, while single-tasking can boost your productivity up to 80%. So make sure you’re only working on what you’ve set aside to work on during your blocks. When new things come up, put them on your to-do list and create new blocks for them at the end of the day or week.

3. Combine time blocking with “theming”

Blocking off long chunks of Focus Time is the best way to avoid losing productivity and focus due to switching tasks and its attendant attention residue. But another way to cut down on attention residue is task batching or task theming. This is when you schedule similar tasks back-to-back. So instead of having to switch gears between Marketing and Accounting when you move from one block to the next you can stay within Marketing but move from emails to users to content writing.

You also may want to create blocks for responding to incoming messages instead of letting yourself be interrupted by them whenever they come in. (Read more: Yes, I am ignoring you. Here’s why.) Doist recommends this free Skillshare course on setting up a day theming system. As long as people know when they can expect a response from you, there’s no reason to accept interruptions during your Focus Time.

Time blocking apps

If all this sounds like a lot of work, I feel you. Luckily, there are apps to make it easier. Time tracking apps like Clockify, Toggl, and RescueTime help you quickly see categories of tasks you’re spending the most time on and adjust your day accordingly. Here’s another good list of

free time blocking apps.

For Google Calendar users, here’s a list of power features and best practices for setting goals around time management and productivity.

And, of course, Clockwise Autopilot moves your meetings around to open up blocks of Focus Time that you can block out for tasks that require deep concentration. We also offer a color coding feature that automatically assigns a color to calendar events based on their category, so you can theme your events without having to create and maintain separate calendars.

Going forward

Time blocking can help you get more done in less time, stay focused, fight perfectionism, get interrupted less often, lower your decision fatigue, and improve your estimates for how long tasks will take.

“Sometimes people ask why I bother with such a detailed level of planning,” Deep Work author Cal Newport writes. “My answer is simple: it generates a massive amount of productivity. A 40-hour time-blocked work week, I estimate, produces the same amount of output as a 60+ hour work week pursued without structure.”

Time blocking can be a great way to help make sure you’re always working on the right task at the right time. It can be time-intensive to set up, especially at first. But over time you’ll get better at choosing the right priorities, scheduling them at the right time, and estimating how long they’ll take you to complete. And with the right technology, it’s never been easier to get started.

Cathy Reisenwitz

Cathy Reisenwitz

Cathy Reisenwitz is Head of Content at Clockwise where she oversees the Clockwise Blog and The Minutes Newsletter. She has covered business software for six years and has been published in Newsweek, Forbes, the Daily Beast, VICE Motherboard, Reason magazine, Talking Points Memo and other publications.

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