Not all time is created equal.
Every once in a while, I come across a meme that says something to the effect of “You have the same number of minutes in the day as Beyonce” as a way to conjure up motivation. And while, yes, that is technically true, most of us don’t have the same number of assistants and professionals working for us that Beyonce does.
Nevertheless, there is a way to achieve more all by ourselves, and it doesn’t involve copious amounts of caffeine or limiting our sleep. It’s actually really simple: time blocking.
Time blocking — described as scheduling a day in blocks of time — can be adapted to nearly anybody’s work style or schedule. That’s the beauty of it.
How does it work?
Instead of tackling the day as it comes, time blocking divides up your day into different sections. For example, you might schedule in website upkeep every Tuesday afternoon or start the day off with email instead of getting bogged down in between (or during...) tasks throughout the day.
Variations of time blocking include:
- Task batching: Grouping together small tasks that are alike or require the same space or tools. For example, take care of all your mailing and copying in the same space at the same time, so you're not constantly getting up and crossing the office throughout the day. Or do all your email and phone catchup at once, rather than as messages come in.
- Day theming: Dedicating certain projects or tasks to a certain day. If your work requires you to wear many hats, this may be for you! A common way to incorporate this into time blocking is by only scheduling meetings on certain days of the week.
- Time boxing: This simply means you’re putting a time limit on your task, like editing work between 9 and 11 am. This is a great strategy if you're someone who tends to let yourself drag on and on, perfecting and fine-tuning way after you just need to be done.
Why it works
Think about your most productive days. What makes them that way? For starters, you’re probably less distracted. Being able to focus on one task, without any distraction, helps you to get things done. That’s at the core of time blocking.
Cal Newport, author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, endorses the method for just that reason!
“Sometimes people ask why I bother with such a detailed level of planning. My answer is simple: it generates a massive amount of productivity,” he’s said. “A 40 hour time-blocked work week, I estimate, produces the same amount of output as a 60+ hour work week pursued without structure.”
That’s basically creating 20 hours in a week. Time between tasks, bouncing back and forth, losing focus and trying to stay on track, really adds up.
Another benefit of time blocking is that it keeps you on track and puts an emphasis on planning. Newport likes to spend about 20 minutes each day planning for the next day.
The more you use the method, the more you’re able to establish patterns in your workflow, like when is best to take on tasks that require a lot of energy (Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos refuses to schedule meetings after 4 pm. He says it’s too late in the day to think critically.) After even just a week or so of time blocking, you will start to think more intuitively about when is best to schedule certain tasks; organization seems to follow when you keep yourself on schedule.
Deep focus versus shallow work
Beyond productivity, time blocking helps you do better work.
When you’re focused and you dedicate a chunk of time to delve into a task, you do a better job. There is no threat of a distraction or what The ToDoist describes as “shallow work.”
If we’re checking emails as they pop up while we’re supposed to be drafting an important pitch, it's just impossible to produce a solid finished product. Instead, we jump from one task to another, with the promise of focusing once we’re caught up - but how many times have you actually ever caught up?
There’s a time and place for shallow work; it’s just not in the middle of deep focus. Mixing the two defeats the purpose of deep focus.
Getting more done each day or week depends on whether we’re being realistic, and time blocking helps us commit to those goals and keep reality in check. Realistically, shallow work takes up a lot of our day-to-day, so time blocking allows you to find an appropriately-sized space for everything.
You may find that when you batch your shallow work into one time slot instead of throughout the day, you’ll be able to plow through it a lot quicker than you would shifting from task to task.
Time blocking works outside of work, too
It’s easy to let our schedules run us instead of the other way around. If you regularly find yourself checking emails in bed or staring at your computer late into the night, time blocking may help you regain some personal time.
Putting a block of “self care” into your daily schedule can be really helpful. It gives you something to look forward to, and having it already mapped into your schedule does make it more likely to happen.
Things like working out, taking an afternoon walk, going on a date, or talking to a friend can be really good for our work lives. They act as a sort of reset and help us put things in perspective. Often we treat these activities more passively -- we do them if time allows -- but deadlines and new tasks, which make more active demands on your time -- get in the way.
Keeping those tasks in a designated place allows us to enjoy our personal time, which feeds right back into our productivity.
How to start
Start by looking at your big priorities. What things must you get done each day or week? Schedule those non-negotiables first. Then you can start to see where you have time for long chunks of deep, focused work. If you go to a lot of meetings or have a lot of required tasks, you might not get deep, focused work time every day. That is okay, as long as you consistently get it somewhere.
Once you have scheduled a few blocks for your most important focused work, you can fill in the remaining time slots with task batching activities. Use your first hour of the morning to reply to emails, or the 30 minutes after lunch to do research on a new vendor.
Remember, time blocking can always be subject to change. You don’t need to keep the same blocks every day or every week. Your priorities might change after attending an important meeting, so be open to editing your areas of focus if need be. The planning process of creating your time blocks will help you feel clear on what matters most vs. where you can be flexible.
If you’re like most people, you will probably notice immediate results from this scheduling practice. You'll get more done, much faster than ever before. You might even find yourself finishing some things early, leaving you with free time to either rest or get something else done.