When it comes to improving time management, the first step most people take is to embrace the To-Do list.
And I think that is a reasonable place to start. After to all, you need to lay out and be clear on the nature of your goals before you can implement a strategy to achieve them.
David Allen, the author of Getting Things Done, is a big advocate of getting incomplete tasks out of your head and onto paper and to date, I am finding that this is certainly working well for me too – although I am still on the quest to find the ultimate way of managing my daily tasks.
But the creation of a list of things you need to do in itself is not going to help you become more productive with your time. That comes from the way in which you use your To-Do list.
So, generally, one of the next steps you can take is to look at using time blocking.
What is time blocking?
Time blocking is the practice of allocating blocks of time during the day for certain types of activity and the tasks associated with that activity only.
It’s as simple as that.
In practice, what this means is that you can lump together similar tasks into a “theme” within a specific activity block. So, unlike working through a To-Do list, which is kind of open-ended and may have you jumping from one task to the next, time blocking helps encourage you to focus only on similar tasks during that time period.
This is useful, because research indicates that is much easier to focus on tasks that are the same or similar than it is to constantly split your attention across multiple different tasks or jump from one kind of task to another.
A very simplified example might look something like this:
08.00 – 09.00 – Emails
09.15 – 11.00 – Client calls
11.15 – 12.30 – Client administration
13.30 – 15.00 – Meetings
15.15 – 17.00 – Any other business
You should also account for “wasted time”, e.g. commuting, travel, lunch and breaks.
Some people use time blocking as a replacement for a To-Do list and end up using their calendar as a To-Do list. But I have found that it is more effective to combine the strategies.
I see time blocking as the “theme” for your work and the To-Do list as the actions that require attention within that block.
Twitter Founder and CEO of Square, Jack Dorsey, uses themed days, so he essentially blocks out entire working days for specific activities, so the week will look something like this:
|Monday||Management and running of the companies.|
|Tuesday||Focus on product.|
|Wednesday||Marketing and communication.|
|Thursday||Developers and partnerships.|
|Friday||Company culture and recruitment.|
|Saturday||Rest and hiking.|
|Sunday||Reflection, feedback, strategy & prep for the week.|
[Source: Interview with Jack Dorsey on YouTube]
Elon Musk does what I call “extreme time blocking” and schedules his day in five-minute blocks. I am not sure how this works in practice, but it seems to work for him!
As for my own time-blocked schedule, it will look something like this for a typical week.
Not every week will look exactly the same, because it depends on what I need to get done, but as you can see, all of my time is blocked out for different activities and this is the basic framework I used for each week in this particular month.
When it comes to your own time blocking, first lay out what needs to be done on a To-Do list and then move each task into the appropriate time block or delete/delegate as appropriate.
Actually, before I move the tasks into a time block, I will also prioritize my tasks using the Eisenhower Box.
Check out this post: What Is The Eisenhower Box?
The purpose of blocking out time for selected activities only is to reduce the possibility of being distracted by other tasks and encourage better focus.
To an extent, the use of time blocks is creating self-imposed (but, albeit illusory) time constraints on a set of activities that take advantage of what is known as Parkinson’s Law, which is the notion that work expands to fill the time available for it’s completion.
Check out this post: What Is Parkinson’s Law?
And I believe that this is why time blocking is an effective time management tool. It creates an environment that helps us to do as much as we can within a given timeframe.
Of course, this only works if you commit to it.
Useful Tools for time blocking
There are several apps available to help you with time blocking, which I’ll be reviewing here soon. In the meantime, you can find them pretty easily with a quick Google search, but actually, you don’t need anything fancy and even a pen and a piece of paper will get the job done.
Recently, I’ve been testing Plan, Notion and Evernote, which can be integrated with other apps and seem to be quite powerful tools. I will be reviewing these and other options and will report back here at a future date.
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Why time blocking is so effective
Firstly, it makes it much clearer how you are spending your time as your entire week should be blocked out and visible.
2. Combats procrastination
Psychologically, blocking out your activities seems to make it easier to commit to doing it, much in the same way as people know that 9am to 5pm is blocked out for work. You’re just getting more specific with your day with time blocking.
3. Promotes attention on the high-value stuff
Time blocking can prevent you from dedicating too much time to low-value work and allows you to focus pro-actively on your own agenda, rather than being reactive to meetings, phone calls and emails all the time.
We all have to deal with tasks and situations that require us to be reactive. That is not to say that reactive tasks are not productive – they can be. But we need to make sure that the reactive tasks are not diverting our attention away from the higher-value, pro-active tasks.
4. Minimizes context switching
Context switching is a term used in computing to describe the procedure that a computer follows to change from one task (or process) to another while ensuring that there is no conflict between the tasks. This principle can also be applied to humans within the context of how we use our brains when we switch from one task to another.
Unfortunately, our brains are not as efficient as computers when it comes to multi-tasking and so when doing this, we’re more prone to making errors and tasks tend to take longer to complete.
When time blocking, you are focused on one task or several very similar tasks, which reduces the problem of context switching.
5. Combats perfectionism
Trying to make everything perfect is not always appropriate and can result in spending on unnecessary amounts of time on tasks. Time blocking dictates how much time you dedicate to a task and may help you to avoid getting involved in the minutiae of a task.
6. Helps you to plan realistically
Knowing that you have blocked out a certain amount of time for a certain task or activity help you to prioritize what needs to be done.
It may also mean that you’re committing to much less than you would be if you started the day with a blank schedule and a long list of things to do, but you’re much more likely to get more done using blocked out time.
7. Helps you to protect your time
When your schedule is blocked out in advance, it makes it much easier to defend your time from unwanted meetings and distractions from others.
When you have someone pressing you for an appointment, the old “let-me-check-my-schedule” line works well here because you should have genuinely blocked out your time in advance. Therefore, you should book that meeting during a period that is blocked out for that activity, rather than let it interrupt time you have allocated to deal with your emails.
8. Helps you review how you spend your time
At the end of each week, you can look back and see a convenient record of what you did. Did you allocate too much time to certain activities and not enough to others?
You can answer those sort of questions and then make any necessary adjustments to your schedule for the following week.
Difficulties with time blocking
As I mention so often here on Time Hack Hero, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to time management and there will be plenty of people who will not find this method of organizing their tasks effective.
Here are a few common problems I have encountered and some solutions.
Common problems and solutions
It may be difficult to estimate how long task will take to finish, resulting in being unable to complete tasks within the give time block. This is known as the ‘Planning Fallacy‘.
This comes with practice and some trial and error and is a good reason why you should review your activity at the end of each week. After making a few adjustments, over time you will get better at estimating how long stuff takes and allocate your time accordingly.
It can take a lot of time and effort to organize.
It will take some effort initially, but like anything, once you have done it consistently for a period of time, it will become a habit and the time you spend on planning each week will gradually reduce. Just stick with it -it will be worth it!
Not having colleagues on board can result in distractions.
Tell people what you’re doing. Communicate and make it clear how you operate. Most people, even bosses are going to respect that, especially if you’re kicking ass on the productivity front.
Some jobs require more flexibility and capacity to deal with on spec responses.
Is the way in which the job is done set in stone? Sometimes, people work in a certain way simply because that is the way the company does it. But that does not mean it is the only way. Discuss with your boss and colleagues to see if the current working methods can be adjusted.
Schedules vary and plans change.
Schedules do vary in some jobs, but you will find that the tasks that need to be completed usually remain the same. You don’t need to block out the same time each week to do the same tasks.
If you usually deal with your admin on a Wednesday, but you now need to travel to a conference on that day next week, simply re-block your time accordingly. You don’t need to be too rigid with this.
Some additional tips on time blocking
Be as specific as possible about the tasks in your schedule.
Block time for your hardest tasks at a time of day when you are generally most productive (see “Eat That Frog!”) and handle the lower value tasks that don’t require a lot of concentration or thinking at the end of the day or at a time that you know is prone to interruption and distraction.
Don’t dedicate too much time to certain tasks. Remember to prioritize the high value stuff.
If you are dealing with larger blocks of time, try using the Pomodoro Technique, so that you have more disciplined periods of focus within that block.
Have an empty block for flexibility. This will allow you time to pick up tasks you were unable to complete in an earlier block and for unscheduled and reactive tasks.
Always block out time for leisure, downtime and rest.
Have buffers between tasks. This provides and opportunity to wind down after one block and prepare for the next. There is something called “attention residue” which will affect the next task if we do not give ourselves something of a buffer between blocks. Think of it as a sort of “warm down” after a workout.
Time Hack Hero Takeaway
Time blocking is an easy and effective way to structure your weekly schedule.
It is a widely-used technique that can be customised to suit your personal needs. For example, both Elon Musk and Jack Dorsey use different versions of this time blocking to manage their days.
Dorsey themes his days and essentially blocks out each day to focus on one aspect of his business.
Musk, on the other hand, goes extreme and works in blocks of just five minutes at a time! I am not sure how this works in reality, but it seems to work for him. Be mindful of the fact that Musk is something of an outlier though and few of us would be able to replicate this method with as much success.
Days will rarely go exactly to plan, but if you use time blocking, you will always have a solid framework to fall back on, so it is much easier to get back on track when other things throw you off course.
Without this kind of structure, I find it too easy to end up getting sucked into the YouTube universe and I can say goodbye to whatever else I was supposed to be doing.
Have you tried time blocking yet?
Let me know your experiences in the comments section below.
[Featured image credit: Peter Linforth / Pixabay]