The Complete Guide to Time Blocking
Are deadlines slipping past you? Do you often find yourself scrambling in the eleventh hour to get work done?
In most cases, we don’t miss deadlines because we’re not working hard enough; in 2022, knowledge workers are putting in more hours than ever. Even still, a third of our deadlines are missed each week.
Missing deadlines and scrambling to get work done, happens for a number of reasons, namely that we:
- Overcommit and take on too much
- Underestimate how much time will be required to get a job done
- Try to squeeze in work between busy work, meetings, and responding to messages
It’s no wonder that it’s hard to make time for big deliverables and important work.
Time blocking is an effective way to address these underlying issues and give us more of the thing we need most: dedicated, focused work time.
What is time blocking?
According to Cal Newport, author of Deep Work, “a 40 hour time-blocked work week produces the same amount of output as a 60+ hour work week pursued without structure.” I think that’s something we can all get behind.
Time blocking is an approach to planning and scheduling your day in blocks of time. Each block is dedicated to a specific task or group of like tasks – and only those tasks.
Instead of keeping an open-ended to-do list and trying to tackle those when you can (between meetings, late at night, while also responding to messages on Slack), you schedule time for the important to-dos right in your calendar. This approach brings work planning to the forefront by considering priorities and deadlines, and scheduling adequate time to do the work.
When done well, a time blocked schedule removes daily decision making about how you’ll spend your time. Simply open your calendar to see the plan for the day and jump in.
And while time blocking isn’t hard to implement, it does require a commitment to:
- Clear priorities. Not everything can be of equal importance. You need to decide what work is most critical, what quality level will be required, and how soon it needs to get done.
- Realistic planning. Most of us are very bad at estimating how long a task will take. Time blocking forces us to consider how much time to allocate to a task (and then confront our unrealistic expectations)!
- Flexibility. Your plan may be perfect, but there are probably pieces that are out of your control. Expect it to change.
- Frequently revisiting your plan. Most days should end with a quick assessment of what work still needs more time, what parameters have changed, and how you need to adjust the next day.
Why is time blocking so effective?
Scheduling time for work probably doesn’t sound revolutionary, but I promise, it can have a profound impact on your ability to get work done. Here’s why I love time blocking:
1. Promotes focused “deep work”. Let’s face it, most of our work environments are filled with distractions. When you schedule a block of time to work on a single project, problem or task, you’re able to direct all your attention and focus on the job at hand. You’ll find your output better and more efficient.
To do so requires turning everything else off – not jumping to Slack when you hear it ping, picking up your phone to check messages, or tackling just one more email. The more time you spend in focused mode, the more you’ll build your mental muscles for deep work. It will become easier to turn off the noise and stop jumping between tasks.
2. Minimizes shallow work. We all have those urgent but not important tasks that we have to do. Administrative tasks, status meetings, never ending emails – these are low value tasks that unfortunately still have to happen.
With time blocking, you batch those shallow tasks and time box them, ultimately setting limits for how long you’ll spend on this work. Task batching shallow work lets you power through these to-dos efficiently, reduces context switching, and protects the rest of your workday for high impact work.
3. Limits perfectionism. When tasks are left unconstrained by time, we often fall into the trap of “just 10 more minutes”... over and over. It’s amazing how much time all those little tweaks can take.
Instead, when we evaluate how much a given task is worth in terms of our time, it forces us to accept good enough. Most tasks don’t demand perfection. It’s our job to understand what good enough looks like and how long that will take.
4. Increases awareness of time spent. Do you ever come to the end of a day and wonder where your time went and how so little was actually accomplished? Most of us are terrible at estimating how long tasks will take. It’s why we so often end a sprint or an epic with tickets left open.
Time blocking forces us to be intentional with our time and assess day-in and day-out, how realistic our time estimates are. Over time, you’ll find that you get better at estimating how long a task will take.
5. Helps us say “no”. When every task we take on has to fit in our calendars, it becomes a lot easier to stop saying yes to everything that comes our way. It’s a great way to visualize the opportunity cost of each new project or initiative. And in the cases where you can’t say “no”, it’s a great way to then look at the trade-offs and negotiate what then needs to come off the calendar.
6. You’ll get more done. To-do lists are great tools. But without scheduling when that work gets done, they tend to be loaded with good (and unrealistic) intentions. Concrete plans help us move from just having aspirations, to following through.
So how do you make time blocking work with the reality of your work?
Moving from theory to practice can be tricky. Odds are you don’t have an 8 hour blank canvas to work with every day.
Your job might be highly reactive, with lots of unpredictability. You may be battling a culture of frequent meetings scattered throughout the day, last minute deadlines, and shifting availabilities. And you might not always be in a position to say “no”.
But even so, time blocking can help.
If you have a reactive job, with a lot of unpredictability: Much of your day can’t be time blocked, and you likely can’t say “I’ll get back to that after this focused block of time.”
But you may still benefit from batching predictable shallow work to prevent it from scattering throughout the day and fragmenting your time. And if possible, you may want to find small blocks of time that tend to be available (for instance at the start and end of the day) when you know you can block time for more focused work.
If you have big deliverables, consider your cognitive load when planning: Just like a workout, our brains need breaks between hard efforts. Jumping from one hard work block into the next without a break will lead to decreased productivity. Add buffer time or breaks between sessions, schedule shallow work for when your brain may be more tired from a hard effort, and when possible, plan your biggest efforts early in the day when you have the most cognitive energy.
If meetings are scattered throughout the day: Frequent meetings can be the enemy of focused work. They bring you out of your focused state and force context switching. Encourage your team to batch meetings (ex. Load early afternoon with meetings to keep mornings free for work time) or to implement meeting-free days to get work done.
If new work keeps popping up: It’s often hard for people to understand others’ capacity. We tend to assume we are the busiest people and other people surely can take on more. If you find more work keeps coming your way, it may be time to show people your calendar and let them see how you’ve scheduled the work already on your plate. It provides great context for prioritizing what gets added and what comes off.
Time blocking with Morgen
We’re big fans of time blocking, which is one of the reasons we pair your calendar with your task list.
Here’s how to use Morgen for time blocking
- Consolidate your calendars. When you have a complete view of your time with all your calendars in one view, it’s easier to see where you have available time and what can be moved around to create open blocks for focused work.
- Prioritize your tasks. Sort your task lists by importance and by deadlines in Morgen to easily see what work needs to get done and when. This will help you decide what to block time for and when.
- Schedule tasks from your to-do lists in your calendar. Drag and drop to-dos from your task list right into your calendar. You can then extend the block of time to the appropriate amount, copy a task into multiple blocks if it’s big and can’t be accomplished in one session.
- Protect your time. Unless you mark a scheduled task as “free”, Morgen will treat those time blocks as busy, so no one can book time with you using your Morgen scheduling tools.
- Set recurring task blocks. Schedule recurring tasks for shallow work to repeat at the cadence you need. This might be getting your inbox to 0 on Friday afternoons, prepping sprint planning, or preparing monthly reporting. Whatever those predictable tasks are, schedule them in the calendar so you know what to build around.
If you’re new to time blocking, I recommend sticking with it for 2-4 weeks to get a feel for this approach and see if it works for you. As you get better at estimating your time and finding what can be batched, it will get easier and you will hopefully start to see serious productivity gains.
(And if you’re wondering, yes, I did time block for this blog. Is it the perfect article? No. But it’s what I could do with the time I had. Hopefully it’s enough to have been helpful!)