Time blocking could just be the answer to your productivity problems. In our current era of hyper-connectivity, it’s easy to get distracted and feel overwhelmed by the sheer length of your to-do list. The time blocking method exists to hand you back a sense of control, so you find time for everything you want to do in a day. Extremely easy to start and extremely effective once you're in the swing of it, it’s no wonder why some of the busiest people on Earth—Bill Gates and Elon Musk included—use time blocking to get work done.
Time blocking (also know as "time boxing") is a time management method that schedules your day into set, controlled units. You allot finite portions of time to specific tasks ahead, so that you can course through your work day without interruptions or deviations. Instead of simply making a to-do list and ploughing through, time blocking maps out controlled spaces to ensure each task actually takes place. As such, it's also a useful measure for ensuring you don't overcommit on any one piece of work.
The trick is to keep time blocks as small as possible. Gates and Musk both go for five-minute time blocks for meetings and email, but you can also set more generous time frames for more conceptual work: like only giving yourself 20 minutes to research and structure the first draft of a blog article.
The idea of limiting the time you spend on tasks is a direct response to Parkinson’s law, which argues that work expands to fill the time we assign it. According to the time blocking theory, the stricter we are with the time we give to each task, the more focused and results-driven our work output will be.
Done well, time blocking can help you manage your effort far more effectively. By dedicating a specific amount of time to one task, it locks your focus and minimizes disruptive context switching. It allows you to be extremely protective with how you distribute your time, creating containers around low-value daily tasks like email, and protecting space for important, complex deep thinking. Mapping out your day this way also ensures unqualified new tasks can't push their way into your schedule.
Time blocking also helps you stay on track. You know that if you delve into Twitter or web browsing you’ll fall behind schedule—and then you’ll either have to work longer, or things just won’t get done. No matter how helpful you might think making a to-do list is, research suggests that around 41% of them are never actually completed. Time blocking prevents you from adding to that statistic!
Humans have a tendency to remember what we haven’t done, as opposed to what we have: this is called the Zeigarnik effect, and it can lead to anxiety, tension, and disrupted sleep. But with our tasks planned out against set dates and time frames, we gain a sense of control and stability over our workload. You know everything will get its due attention, so incomplete tasks won’t even enter your head.
Planning your entire day into a strict time regimen can seem a bit unnatural and restrictive. But it could provide the productive structure and focus you’ve been looking for; this mechanical approach is precisely why people find it to be so useful. The best way to figure out how time blocking could work for you is to consider the following:
Understand your priorities
Which of your tasks are the most important, and which don't really advance you towards your goals? Applying the time management matrix can help here. Find out when you’re most productive and schedule your highest-priority tasks of the day for that time; often doing this first thing in morning helps, as it gets the hardest task out of the way and allows you to focus on it with a fresh, renewed mind.
Track how long you spend on tasks
This is effectively collecting data on the way you actually work now. It helps you work out how much time you might need to time block against a specific task, and also helps to highlight where you may be spending disproportionate amounts of time on a low-value piece of work. Working out the average time you spend on tasks helps you set competitive but realistic new time allowances for each.
Factor in your productive patterns
The beauty of time blocking is that you can adapt it to your particular productive habits. Remember to block out your breaks and try to keep a spare half hour for flexibility—just in case something unavoidable comes up that you have to respond to.
You can try just using a basic calendar app to time block your day, but these three tools make the whole task easier and actually show you if it's working:
Timely lets you quickly plan time blocks ahead for weeks at a time and then automatically tracks how long you end up spending on each task. By tracking everything you do, you get a whole host of insights about the way you work, from time drains and broken workflows to interruptions and distractions. You can't ensure allotted time blocks for each task are actually realistic without it.
The beauty of this app lies in its simplicity. Merging a to-do list with a calendar, and with an easy-to-use user interface, it’s a great tool if you’re looking for a quick and easy way to plan your working day. You can drag tasks from your to-do list and place them into your calendar, and gain understanding into how long you’re spending per task.
If you find prioritizing a challenge, this app might be the time blocking tool for you. You can view your schedule by day, week or month, and use the smart planning capabilities of Week Plan to help you create your goals. You can use the inbuilt timer to track how long you spend on tasks, but it will involve a lot of manual effort (and it's ridiculously easy to forget timers).