Grasp the Basics of Time Blocking & Boost Your Productivity

Get more done, be more productive, and feel like you're getting ahead of the game with time blocking.
Shannon Toe

As soon as we get up in the morning, we routinely glance at our schedule and to-do list. We often struggle with how to tick off all the pending tasks for the day. Time management has always been an ongoing problem not only with handling projects but also with personal time. We always think there's not enough time as we delve deeper into work and take on multiple tasks. In reality, there is enough time if we use a time management technique called time blocking. The time blocking technique has been around for decades, but what is it really all about? How will this method be able to help us manage our time?

What is time blocking?

Time blocking is a time management technique that allocates your time in a day into blocks, so that you do a single task in each specific time frame. When the time for a task is done, only then can you move on to the next task. Like setting an appointment with yourself, time blocking acts as a schedule of tasks to be accomplished in a day or in a week divided into chunks of time slots. The length of time you allocate for each tasks depends on how long the tasks are going to take and on how you plan to spend your day or week.

Who invented time blocking?

The time blocking method was invented possibly at the same time as calendars were invented by the Gregorians. Even long before that, farming activities were already being sorted out by month or by season, depending on their land and crops' cultivation requirements. Scheduling planting and harvesting in such a way ensured bountiful harvests.

One of the earliest individuals to use this method was one of the United States' founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin. He religiously scheduled tasks at a very detailed level, counting both leisure time and daily chores. Even his midday break was not just lunch, but time to complete other tasks as well.

who invented time blocking

Today, highly productive people utilize this method to give more value to their time and have proven this technique to be effective. Notable users of the time blocking technique include Elon Musk, former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, successful capitalist Marc Andreessen, American author Cal Newport, and Bill Gates.

What are the benefits of time blocking?

So, how effective is time blocking? As one of the time management strategies that allow you to take control of your time by focusing on one task at a time, here are some benefits of using time blocking:

Time blocking lets you define your priorities

Compared to a to-do list that expands more as you work, time blocking lets you clarify what your focus for the day is. It separates shallow tasks from deep work, keeping you on track and providing transparency on what is important to you. You are able to spend time on a specific task you can see how long tasks are going to take.

With time blocking, you can schedule tasks that are more essential first, at the time you are most productive. No matter if you are one of the morning larks or a budding night owl, time blocks help you not to lose sight of urgent responsibilities that need more focus during the day.

Time blocking minimizes distractions and prevents procrastination

By setting begin and end times, you are more driven to do tasks. This helps minimize distractions and procrastination which are both common obstacles to time management. Other than this, the American Psychological Association (APA) warns of avid context switching, or the tendency to shift from one unrelated task to another, which can negatively affect your productivity.

Time blocking forces you to liven up and tick off more important responsibilities before delving into lighter tasks. Or if you think you can focus more when working with smaller tasks, you can break down large projects into smaller specific tasks and block time appropriate for each of those sub-tasks. Time blocking constantly reminds and motivates you that at the end of the day when you have religiously completed your time blocks, you get all the free time you deserve.

Time blocking provides more reasonable time for work

You may be one of the individuals who write down a specific task on your to-dos thinking that it will only take a couple of hours. However, as you work on it the following day, you find that the specific task has already taken up your entire day. A to-do list only offers the 'what' compared to time blocks that also indicate the 'when' by designating how much time it will take to complete tasks. Time blocking is an effective way to become more practical with how you allocate time for work instead of running through expectations and intelligent guesses throughout the day.

Time blocking identifies how your time is spent

Scheduling time blocks provides you with first-hand knowledge of where you have been spending your time. Time blocking opens the opportunity to boost your productivity and achieve your goals earlier by motivating you for the accomplishments you have done so far.

It also gives you an idea of how much time you spent on important tasks and serves as a record when you reevaluate your time blocking schedule. Do you need to bring down the number of tasks in your time blocked calendar? Are there too many urgent tasks piled up?

Grouping similar tasks when you create time blocks lessens multitasking, which helps you focus more and do more. APA studies show that shifting between tasks causes momentary mental blocks and decreases the productive time of an average person by as much as 40%.

Time blocking gives purpose to your time

Creating a time slot and assigning a task helps you to make time for everything. This holds true for new tasks at work and scheduling leisure activities as well. This protects your physical and mental health which results in higher quality work. You can take into account a time block dedicated to your hobbies, interests, and other forms of relaxation and socialization.

Time blocking your schedule gives you more control over time spent even on personal affairs like having brunch with friends, attending your son's soccer game, or even having an hour to catch up on your reading.

Examples of time blocking

Creating a time block prevents schedule interruptions and diversion with unexpected tasks. Just like your to-do lists, time blocking features a daily list of tasks but with its equivalent time.

As you go to bed, you layout, say, 5 important tasks you need to work on the following day on your smartphone or sticky notes. The following day may look something like this:

It may seem chaotic but this is what a typical workday would be like if we only follow a to-do list for the day. When a task is not yet done, the tendency is to go over it during another part of the day, still holding no assurance of being able to finish it. Another visible characteristic of a usual schedule is being likely to shift to a different task whenever something related to it comes to mind.

The result is a day filled with confusing multitasking and the inability to take breaks and lunches on time afraid that the flow of work will be disrupted. At the end of the day, as you review your to-dos, you still get very little ticked off from your list.

With the use of time blocks, you still get to do the same number of important tasks without the need to overcommit yourself.

Time blocking prioritizes a cognitively demanding task or deep work rather than shallow tasks that can be finished in minutes and leaves bigger responsibilities untouched. When you block time by organizing the tasks on your list, you focus on work and have more free time. You do not drain yourself by exceeding your and your team's working load.

Capacity planning comes in handy while creating an efficient schedule when you know everyone's availability and what your organization is capable of doing for a specific period of time.

A Google or Outlook calendar allows you to view the entire month and each scheduled task or event alongside existing meetings and external commitments. It is customizable and can be modified at any time. The best time blocking apps are usually integrated with email and other internet-based tools. This gives you a concrete schedule for both your organizational work tasks and personal or individual tasks.

When do you need time blocking?

Not everyone needs to use this time management technique. This time management solution is well-suited for you and your organization if:

  • You want to know where you spend your time throughout the day - if a full work week just passes you by with meetings and phone calls eating up all your time
  • You tend to go over your availability and overwork, especially when your role demands handling a lot of responsibilities
  • You are easily distracted and you find it difficult to focus on one task - a 6-hour article can take you only 3 hours if distractions are avoided
  • You are always finding ways to make the most of your time and energy spent on work to prevent you from getting drained and deflated
  • You juggle multiple tasks constantly even if you are aware that context switching is not healthy for your brain
  • Your team members are not motivated and keep dragging themselves to work resulting in low quality and productivity rates and little deep work being done

Even if the above reasons are not applicable to you and your team and you don't need this on such a detailed level, you may still try to adapt the use of time blocking. It might help you in optimizing costing and expenses, daily operations and sales, staffing and resource-related matters. You can even optimize your personal weekly schedule to maximize the use of your time and boost productivity.

How to do time blocking

Here is a four-step approach to implementing time blocking in your calendar.

1. Organize your upcoming tasks

Creating a time-blocked daily or weekly schedule requires time. You can't just sit down and list all your tasks in the same way that you do your to-do lists. Time blocking requires brainstorming and sometimes group meetings about all things you need to accomplish in a specific period of time.

Once everything has been noted, you can start categorizing each chore by deciding if it makes the priorities or shallow work list. Begin by removing unnecessary ones and leave 3-5 essential tasks daily. This way, you identify which are non-negotiables and unavoidable tasks, and make time to do them each day.

2. Work out how long tasks take

Once you have identified the tasks, the next step is to define specific start and end times for each of the tasks. While doing this, you may want to consider limiting each time block to a maximum of 90-minutes to maintain focused work on a specific task. According to a study made by Psychologist Professor Anders Ericsson, running on full 90-minute activities and taking a break or a "renewal period" maximizes an individual's productivity compared to working longer than the said period of time.

If you think doing a 90-minute task is too long, you can alternate it with assignments that you think require a shorter span of time to complete. Breaking down a large important task into smaller subtasks can help ensure each aspect gets the same amount of time.

With practice, you will be able to perfect the time duration estimates for each task on your list. You can try mixing and matching different strategies and ways to block your time until you find the best one that fits your schedule and rhythm.

3. Execute your time blocks: one task at a time

Now that you have finished plotting your time blocks, it's time to execute them. This might seem easy since you're done for the most part. All you have to do is start with the first task at its beginning time and finish doing the task at the decided end time. Work your way through until the end of the time-blocked schedule for the day and watch how you smoothly tick off the priority tasks on your list.

However, being able to put the block time into action is not always simple. Don't worry if you find your schedule hard to stick to: this will help you decide if the time estimates you made work best for your schedule or not. This is where the next step comes in.

4. Apply, alter, and repeat

By applying your time blocks and noticing the discrepancies between the estimated duration and actual duration of tasks, you can adjust and revise your schedule according to what is appropriate for each timeslot. A 30-minute email check that was supposed to be a 10-minute task can be altered if you think it would work well on a shorter or longer length of time.

Although a regular to-do list app can be sufficient in the long run, during this time blocking stage it can be useful to use time blocking apps that have time and task manager features. The Google Calendar app or time tracker software lets you monitor the duration of a given task without having to watch the clock to record the actual hours spent.

When you're done reevaluating and fine-tuning your time blocks, test them out and modify them again to tailor-fit and perfect your time blocking skills.

What are the different time blocking variations?

The time blocking technique is flexible and can be done in various ways.

Timeboxing

The timeboxing concept was conceived by James Martin in 1997 in an agile software development book Rapid Application Development. Here, he defines the timeboxing technique as a fixed timeslot for a task that needs to be accomplished at the end of the given time. This variation of time blocking can be applied to activities that you think will eat up your time when you give infinite attention to them. Personal errands like grocery shopping or work duties like team progress calls can be more productive if there is an assigned time limit. "Timeboxes" can be applied to large and small tasks, as long as it has a deadline and a goal you want to achieve.

Task batching

Another variation of the time blocking technique is task batching. With task batching, you are grouping similar tasks together to form a time block. It involves pulling together all related tasks into one "batch" and doing the batch before moving on to another batch of interrelated tasks.

Task batching may sound tedious, especially if you are blocking a big chunk to finish it. For example, you might be able to face doing one staff review rather than the reviews for your entire team in one go! However, completing this batch means not having to focus on it again for a quarter or a year. It could also lead to ticking off smaller tasks like accounting for insurance requirements and monitoring their training and performance.

Simply put, task batching focuses on a group of tasks instead of a single task to prevent switching from one task to another. It helps reduce the time you lose to context switching, and helps keep your productivity high.

Day theming

Ideally, a time-blocked day is filled with 3-5 tasks that are prioritized according to importance and urgency. With day-theming, as the name suggests, a day is filled with only a single task that will serve as your workday's theme. It aims to accomplish a particular task per day of the week and is useful for large projects or for dedicating an ongoing chore such as basketball training or blocking a day for family time.

Keep in mind that day-theming is not for everyone. Uninterrupted focused work or deep work involves ignoring unrelated tasks to your current theme for the day. If your job entails a variety of responsibilities you need to do for the day, this time blocking variation may not be suitable for you.

Common time blocking mistakes to avoid

As with any productivity hack, there are pitfalls that can make you fall at the first hurdle. Keep these in mind as you start to set up your time blocks.

Not taking your natural rhythms into account

Your body clock, or your circadian rhythm, is unique and has its own "to-do list" that has nothing to do with your work! According to this particular science, your body's "to-do list" triggers changes in your hormones, metabolism, hunger, body temperature, sleep, and other physiological activities at certain times of the day.

These uncontrollable switches can affect your schedule but you can take advantage of these events once you get to understand what your body is telling you. Once you figure out your personal rhythm within your physical space, you can set your most difficult tasks or your priority tasks during the time you are most productive, most alert, and most focused.

Blocking too much at once

Not everything can be divided into chunks and certainly not all at once. Sometimes you get a little eager and enthusiastic to set time blocks that will only leave you disappointed and frustrated if you hold on to your schedule too tightly. Worse, your chances of burnout will shoot up and you'll be ready to quit time blocking after a few days.

When your estimates and tasks for the day don't add up, and you feel like there are not enough hours in a day to complete anything, learn how to adjust and mix things up. And, when your sanity is at stake, teach yourself when to let go.

Trying to use time blocking with too many activities

When there are so many things going on in your list, we tend to include all of them in our time block schedule. This could lead to a decrease in your productivity instead of boosting it. Time blocking helps you focus on a limited number of tasks that you can concentrate on without the need to switch between tasks numerous times.

On the other hand, having too many activities scheduled as time blocks can also lead to monotonous routines and may hinder productivity as well.

Forgetting to take breaks

Popular users of this time management technique recommend taking short breaks throughout the day. For instance, Elon Musk manages some large companies but still finds time to exercise and spend time with his children. The Pomodoro Principle encourages creating a break every 25-minutes of at least a 5-minute interval for each time block.

Long grinding hours and delayed self-care (which includes eating meals on time) only lead to self-destruction and unhealthy time blocking implementation. On the other hand, spending too much time for leisure gets you out of your working mood and results in procrastination.

Blocking time to work on projects

Now that you've learned the basics of time blocking, you may want to see if it fits your organization and will help you work efficiently. If you're trying to find the best tool that could help you manage your and your team's time, the People Planner from Runn is the perfect solution for your time management needs.

The People Planner gives you access to your personnel's availability according to a set period. It allows you to schedule, match the right person to an assignment in line with their availability, and forecast future demands with its Weekly Summary. The People Planner can also be customized according to the data and information you want to analyze such as your team's and individual work capacity, their utilization rate, and your overall group utilization.

Want to learn more about time management strategies and how you can optimize your organization's capacity? Book a demo with Runn today!

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