October 15, 2015

How to Do Time Blocking

A daily method for allocating all the time in your day

Since launching The Spark Notebook, I have been talking a lot about productivity.

The goal of our notebook is to capture all of your great ideas, and to make you more successful at the same time. We believe the cornerstone of success is doing work that matters, which can only be achieved with thoughtful planning.

And that brings us to the topic of this blog post – time blocking. This is probably my favorite productivity hack, since it really helps you pack as much good stuff as you can into one day.

I first read about time blocking on Cal Newport’s blog where he discussed the importance of doing deep work. He describes his daily method for allocating all the time in your day and warns against uncontrolled time.

Another statement he made that really resonated with me was:

Using your inbox to drive your daily schedule might be fine for the entry-level or those content with a career of cubicle-dwelling mediocrity, but the best knowledge workers view their time like the best investors view their capital, as a resource to wield for maximum returns.
Cal Newport

You spend so much time working. If you want to be truly productive, though, you need to make sure that your time is spent in the most optimal way.

How does it work?

Time blocking is really just a method for planning your day. And the reason it works is because it forces you to focus on your top priorities for an amount of time that reflects their importance.

Step 1. Identify your priorities

What are the most important things on your plate? To really get clear on your top priorities, you have to think big picture. I start with my yearly goals and work backwards from there.

What are the 5 most important things I want to do this year?






Then I like to look backward, and then forward. The following questions are a great guide:

  1. How did things go last month; what did I accomplish?
  2. What needs to get done this month?
  3. What long term goals can I make progress on (revisit your yearly goals here)?

I think it helps to think about your monthly work as a pie chart. Are you spending 30-40% answering email? If building a new skill is really important to you, but you are only allocating a couple hours per month, maybe you need to rethink your time allocations.

If you outline what is important and how much time you think you should spend on it, you can get a nice break down of your time.

For example, here are my work priorities and their order of importance for November 2014.

  1. Sales – 30%
  2. Notebook Kickstarter – 25%
  3. Day-to-day Tactics – 15%
  4. Technical Improvements – 5%
  5. Pop Star Content – 5%
  6. Manager Dashboard Product Development – 5%
  7. Professional Growth – 5%

Step 2. What do you need to do this week?

If you have clarity on your monthly goals, then planning your week is all about combining the things you must do with what you have set out to do.

I like to do weekly planning because it helps me balance all of the things that always seem to “come up” with my big picture priorities. Most of us work in an environment where things are always in flux – projects get canceled, operations take a high priority, your creative juices don’t flow, or you end up spending too much time in meetings.

As a result I find it helpful to establish my minimum bar for what must get done, and then set some stretch items that I hope to accomplish. For me this is around 10 things, which is about 2 things per day.

If you have big things on your list, I would strongly suggest breaking them into pieces that will take less than 4 hours each. Chunks bigger than that make it harder to plan realistically.

In the Spark Notebook, we designed our Weekly Goals to make this easier.

Step 3. Plan your day

Once you have your weekly goals set, it is time to start time blocking.

Depending on how much things fluctuate during your week, it can help to do time blocking each day (either at the end of the previous day or first thing in the morning – whatever works better for you), or at the start of the week.

When I worked as a CTO with a big team, I couldn’t have planned things for a whole week – too much was changing every day. However, as a CEO running my own company, I seem to be able to plan my week a bit more reliably.

Essentially each day I layout the things I want to accomplish in the morning, the afternoon and the night.

I use our new Weekly Outlook from our notebook to plan my time, but you can use any notebook or sheet of paper. Some people even like to use an online calendar like Google Calendar by creating appointment placeholders for when they plan to do the work. Using an online calendar also has the side benefit of actually blocking the time off so other people can’t schedule over it.

Keep in mind, though, if you have whole days blocked off, it can be really frustrating for coworkers who want to schedule a meeting.

Step 4. Execute
Now the hard part – sticking with it and getting things done.

Here are some tips that I find useful:

  • When it is time to work on something focus on just that task. No email. No social media.
  • Schedule your tasks when you are best equipped to complete them. I write and do the hardest work in the morning. I save working out until later in the day when I hit a plateau with my mental activity. I send sales emails on Wednesday, because people tend to be less busy then. I also don’t schedule anything else in that time block typically because I hate doing it so much it takes me a lot longer than it should.
  • Pack in more than you think you will get done. It is always easy to move things until the later in the week. However, if I complete everything early I tend to like to take long breaks (I am a natural procrastinator) :). As a result I tend to pack as much as I can in a block so I can be sure to get as much done as possible.
  • Put your personal stuff in there too! If you have to go to the dry cleaner, set aside the time. If you cook dinner, then add that to your agenda. You have one life and combining your work and your personal items into one view makes sense, that way you aren’t forgetting to make time for things like eating and taking care of yourself.

Hope this helps you!

I love this method of planning because whenever I find myself done with something I always know the answer to “what’s next?”. It is amazing to me how motivating that is, because even if I don’t feel like doing something I will often stick with my plan since I know the rest of the week is taken up with other items. For instance, writing this blog post; initially I wasn’t feeling terribly inspired but I managed to get it done because I knew it was important and I had set aside this time.

Do you have other tips and tricks? Maybe you use time blocking a little differently? If so, leave your thoughts in the comments and we can add them to the post.

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