By Jiji Lee

How to Use a Time Blocking Planner


A time blocking planner helps the most important work get done.

When life gets busy, how do you cope?

For a lot of people, the instinct is to actually over-schedule the day -- to plan down to the very minute, so that we can cram in every last possible thing.

But this method of extreme planning doesn’t leave much room for flexibility. If we schedule our day by the hour, then how do we respond to interruptions or emergencies? One longer-than-expected meeting throws off the entire rest of your day, leaving you scrambling.

That’s why a time blocking planner is such a life saver. 

Time blocking is a planning method popularized by Cal Newport, and it’s at the heart of the Ink+Volt Planner. Instead of scheduling your day by the hour, Newport suggests organizing your day into distinct, longer time blocks and doing highly focused work during these segments. 

By scheduling your tasks by morning, afternoon, and evening, you can focus on your work rather than your tasks -- your hours rather than your minutes -- while also giving your schedule enough breathing room to respond to interruptions or competing priorities. 

The best way to deal with life’s unpredictability is to make space for it, not to pretend it doesn’t exist.

When we build in a buffer and plan for unpredictability, it forces us not to do it all, but instead to do what is most important. You can choose to get things done because they matter, not just because they were all you were able to get done today.

Below are some tips on how to use a time blocking planner to schedule your days and meet your priorities. No over-scheduling required!

How time blocking works

At Ink+Volt, we are big fans of the time blocking method. If you’re new to this method, here’s an overview of how time blocking works:

With hourly planners, you would plot out your tasks and meetings by the hour, like this:

  • 9am: Get coffee with Elise
  • 9:30am: Finalize quarterly project
  • 10am: Brainstorming session with Sarah
  • 11am: Go for a run
  • 11:45am: Make lunch
  • 12:30pm: Research report
  • 1pm: Team meeting

But what if you get a work call that interrupts your 10am brainstorming session? How do you react? This seemingly minor interruption can suddenly leave your carefully planned schedule off kilter and lead to a domino effect of pushing back your brainstorming session, which makes you late to start your run, which makes you late to start lunch, which cuts into your prep time for your meeting… and so on.

Of course, you can always cancel your run or grab a quick lunch out to make up the time, but an ideal schedule is one where you don’t have to cancel the things that bring you energy and joy throughout the day. Wouldn’t it be nice if your day could accommodate all you wanted to do?

Here’s to plan your day in a time blocking planner

With time blocking, you don’t let yourself get locked in hour-by-hour, filling tasks in. Instead, you start with the work that matters most and then you build space around that. 

Here are 3 steps for setting up your time blocking planner:

  • Write a to-do list of all the things you have to do for the day, including personal errands, professional work, and goal-related tasks. Don’t separate your personal tasks from your work ones. They are all part of your day, so planning your day should take all of them into account.
  • Identify which of these items are your big priorities. Unsure what’s a priority? Then ask yourself: if you could only complete 3 tasks today, which would they be? Your mandatory items will serve as anchors for your day.
  • Figure out when your peak energy levels are for the day. Are you a morning person or a night owl? Do you get a second wind after dinner or do you like to settle in for the night? Identifying your energy levels will help you realistically plan your day and ensure that you’re in an optimal state to complete your priority tasks. 

Now that we’ve identified our priorities, mandatory items, and peak energy levels, let’s see how scheduling would work with the time blocking method. 

Let’s say our peak energy times are morning and afternoon. Here’s how you could schedule your day:

Morning

Coffee with Elise

Brainstorming session

Afternoon

Make lunch

1pm team meeting

Research report

Evening

Go for a run

For tomorrow morning

Finalize quarterly report

With the time blocking method, we’ve prioritized the brainstorming session for the time block that corresponds with our peak energy level, and pushed a task to tomorrow to give it more time. Rather than trying to cram both in, you give each one the space it actually needs, and prioritize the one that needs to happen first.

Let’s say your brainstorming session goes long or gets interrupted by an employee question. This is totally fine because your morning isn’t packed with other tasks; you have flexibility and focus because you aren’t rushing to get to the next task. If you have extra time, great -- there is always more to do. 

How to make a time blocking planner work for you

If you don’t have a planner, you can always use a notebook or a digital tool like Google calendar to schedule your day. If you prefer having a built-in system for time blocking, then the Ink+Volt 2021 planner is your best option. The weekly and daily layouts use a time blocking structure and will help you capture your priorities for each day. 

Here’s how to make it work:

  1. Leave room for reactive time in your time blocks. We tend to imagine the best-case scenario when we’re laying out our days, but real life just isn’t predictable. By building in flexibility in your schedule, you can actually prepare for interruptions and not let them ruin your day.
  2. Schedule times for deep focus. This is really the heart of time blocking: focused, meaningful work. Once you’ve scheduled all your time sensitive, mandatory weekly obligations, start looking for those big chunks of time (1-2 hours at least) where you can make serious progress on a goal. You might only get a couple of these per week, depending on how many other commitments you have, but these should be prioritized for your most important, focused tasks.
  3. Think carefully about how to fill empty time slots. For most people, we tend to have at least one or two quieter days each week with no meetings or critical deadlines. With this bonus time, you can schedule activities that you would like to do, but don’t necessarily feel obligated to do. You can refer to your to-do list for ideas (this might be a good opportunity to run a few errands all together) or a list of smaller goals (like cleaning and organizing your desk, or catching up with an old colleague).
  4. Do an energy audit at the end of the week. Did you find yourself more tired in the mornings than anticipated? Then try scheduling your big priorities for an afternoon or evening time block the following week. Does that work better?
  5. Make room for your goals. In an ideal world, we could devote our days to meeting our personal, professional, or creative goals. More often than not, however, our days are tailored to meet the demands of others (whether it be our boss, our family, or friends). But with a time blocking planner, you have a visual layout of your schedule, so you can literally see your windows of free time. Where could you fit in focused progress on the things that truly fulfill you?

        Rather than feeling weighed down by our schedules and tasks, we can streamline our day with a more practical approach. By using a time blocking planner, we can be realistic about our wants and needs while still trying to meet our goals and priorities. 

        If you’d like even more tips on how to use time blocking for hectic days, read our guide here.