Table of Contents
By Seth ArBabian
If you have a small garden, you obviously don’t need a big-ticket farm equipment to maintain your garden. This principle is true for all tools. Time Blocking is a powerful tool that can be an overkill for someone who’s got only a couple of easy tasks on his to-do list each day. But, if you’re on the opposite side of the spectrum with a huge list and limited time to complete the tasks, then you do need a powerful tool. It may be true that you’re not quite ready to use this powerful tool in full capacity yet.
In your search for a solution to your productivity enhancement, your first step is to assess your current position. The following questions help you rate your current state:
Stage 1: Do you run your day from memory? Do you commit your tasks to memory? Or, do you have a to-do list? What percentage of your tasks are using a to-do list to store?
Stage 2: If you do have a place to store most of your to-do list, is it paper-based? Is it always with you? Do you plan your days based on your to-do list? Are you able to filter and search your list?
Stage 3: Do you regularly use a calendar? Do you use it for appointments only? Do you occasionally block time off for solo tasks?
If you’re at stage 1 where you’re basically operating from memory, the first step in your journey to a productive you is to learn how to clear your head. “Your mind is a great place to have ideas, but a terrible place to manage them.”, says David Allen, author of Getting Things Done. If you’re going through your day with a head full of “stuff” that you have your attention on, Time Blocking will be a very difficult practice for you.
One of the principles of time blocking is to focus on the task on hand and block off your mind from everything else that is demanding your attention. And, you can only focus on the task on hand when you have confidence that the rest of your time demands are under control. When you’re keeping your tasks in your head, that’s a very tall order for your brain. If you use nothing else from David Allen's GTD system, use ubiquitous capture. It helps you clear your head where it will either be a distraction or forgotten.
If you’re going through your day with a head full of “stuff” that you have your attention on, time blocking will be a very difficult practice for you.
This guide to Time Blocking is most useful for those who’re in stage 2, or 3. If you already have a combination of task management tools (i.e. methodologies, apps, habits, devices, and platforms), but you feel your tool-set has started to develop shortcomings leading to your to-do lists getting longer and longer, and your stress level is building up, Time Blocking is the next phase that will up your game.
If the nature of your work is primarily reactive like a customer service representative who's mostly answering calls, and emails, time blocking can still help you to make the best of the remainder of your time. You have 24 hours a day, and obviously, you don't spend 24 hours a day in reactive mode. You can always carve out time for what matters to you most, goals that you want to achieve, projects that move the needle for you or making improvements in your personal or family-related areas. In addition, it's best to chunk your time when you're merely reacting to incoming requests. For example, schedule 1 hour every 2 hours in your inbox. You’re taking care of clients. You don’t need to stop and answer the phone every 3 seconds or check your email because you’re pro-actively doing meaningful things.
Time Blocking is deceptively simple. It looks like all you have to do is to pick a date and time on your calendar and dedicate it to a task. In reality, however, there is a lot more to it. And, this guide is here to help you understand all the subtle techniques to make you successful in time blocking. The path to success with time blocking includes practicing from easy steps to more difficult steps.
If you're new to Time Blocking, you must start with limited time blocking with lots of buffer (more on this later.) A big mistake that many beginners make is to start by scheduling all hours of the day. This is similar to a beginner who starts by weight lifting the heaviest weights first. Time Blocking every hour of your day is a master's level practice. Attempting to do so often fails and leads to berating yourself. You're here to eliminate overwhelm, not to make your procrastination worse and feel helpless.
So, if you're new to Time Blocking, start small, and grow your muscles over time. Start with one or two hours of Time Blocking each working day.
As a new time blocker, you'll probably have to reschedule your blocks often. SkedPal is an automatic scheduling system that can be of great help here. With a click of a button, it reschedules your time blocks. It's an intelligent system that is aware of your preferred times for time blocks as well as your existing appointments from Google calendar or Office 365; so it automatically manages your calendar.
Some people hate having a rigid structure in their day and fear that Time Blocking leads to this rigidity. There are also those who believe their day is too unpredictable and can't see how time blocking is going to work. The following points address such concerns.
Firstly, having absolutely no structure or plan for your day is a recipe for failure. If you just show up at work to see what's waiting for you, you'll always be reacting to other people's agenda. Or, if you're a freelancer or entrepreneur who flies by the seat of your pants, showing up at work without a plan will make you float in directions that are not necessarily in your best interest. Distractions will easily conquer you and take control of your day. We live in the most distraction-rich environment that humanity has ever experienced. There is distraction everywhere.
To drive your most important priorities and spend your most valuable asset -time- on what matters most to you, you'll need to proactively shape your day in advance as much as you can. You need to have a strong anchor plan. Without an anchor plan, you'll be living in the distractions. It'll be like 80% distraction, 20% let me go back to my to-do list. You've got to build a structure for your day that you love. A structure that reflects your goals and priorities. A structure that enables you to achieve what you want. This structure is curated by you and is based on your wants and intents. Therefore, building structure into your day is not depriving yourself of choices during the day. Instead, you are pro-actively choosing to do the right things based on a compelling, satisfying, and meaningful structure where your days are primarily for you.
Needless to say, it's next to impossible to have a 100% distraction free day. So, we want to flip this 80-20 order. It should be 80% plan, 20% distraction. Some distractions are the urgent tasks that come up. Time blocking balances the urgent with the important. If a true crisis happens, you can still drop what you're doing to handle the crisis. But, having an anchor plan forces you to make a conscious choice to do so. Otherwise, distractions automatically win your time.
Secondly, if you're a perfectionist, you need to be wary of how your perfectionism creeps into your day as procrastination. Perfectionists always look for the 'ideal time' to begin work. Especially if your work is primarily creative work, you tend to begin your work when you feel like doing the work. This is generally a misconception that you'll be more creative later. When you time-block a task, regardless of whether you feel like doing the work, get started on what you can do now. The key is to get started. This means that you need to accept that the first stage of working on a piece is messy. People who get things done in this world don’t wait for the spirit to move them; they move the spirit, says David J. Schwartz in his best-selling book, the Magic of Thinking Big.
The notion that I do my work here, now, like this, even when I do not feel like it, and especially when I do not feel like it, is very important. Because lots and lots of people are creative when they feel like it, but you are only going to become a professional if you do it when you don’t feel like it. And that emotional waiver is why this is your work and not your hobby.
Cal Newport, author of Deep Work also believes that time blocking does not stifle creative work. Here is an excerpt from his book:
Sometimes people ask if controlling time will stifle creativity. I understand this concern, but it’s fundamentally misguided. If you control your schedule: (1) you can ensure that you consistently dedicate time to the deep efforts that matter for creative pursuits; and (2) the stress relief that comes from this sense of organization allows you to go deeper in your creative blocks and produce more value.
If you’re still worried, read Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals: very few of the world-famous creatives he profiled adopted a “I’ll work when I feel inspired” attitude — they instead controlled their day, so they could control their art.
Author of Deep Work
While doing your best to stick to the scheduled times for tasks is an important success factor in time blocking, there are always unavoidable distractions. Sometimes the distractions are internal. That means you're emotionally not ready to get started today for whatever reason. External distractions are also not totally unavoidable. “People’s biggest misconception with time-blocking their day is that the goal is to stick with the schedule no matter what,” says Cal Newport. "A better way is to rework your time blocks throughout the day as circumstances change. The goal is to make sure you always have an intentional plan for the time that remains in the workday", he adds.
SkedPal is a great tool to give you that agility in the day. If your day unfolds in unexpected ways, SkedPal quickly re-adjusts your schedule for the remainder of the day to give you the optimum plan.
The best toolset for productivity is a to-do list AND a calendar. To-do lists alone do not cut it. To-do lists without time blocking give you the paradox of choice, and cause overwhelm. Scientific research has shown that our brains can only handle about seven options before we’re overwhelmed. Looking at the 100+ items on your to-do list will paralyze you or send you into procrastination. Organizing your lists into projects and adding tags and filters is helpful, but if that’s what you must do each time you need to decide on your next action, that’s overwhelming.
In addition, to-do lists lack 'commitment devices'. A commitment device locks you into a course of action that you might not otherwise choose. When you have an open list of tasks with varying priorities to choose from, you tend to take care of the urgent, and smaller tasks, and let the important ones that require more focus and energy lie fallow until they become urgent too. With time blocking, you're adding that commitment device. You have curated your day in advance based on your most important priorities. And, now you don't want to think again what to do next.
The Chinese general Han Xin positioned his soldiers with their backs to a river, so they couldn't run away from the enemy. That's the kind of a commitment device you'll need to get important work done. When you time-block your tasks, it puts you in a commitment mode just like a meeting you have to show up. It's an appointment with yourself. It's an internal commitment that you don't want to break, the same way you don't break your commitment to doctor's appointments, flights, work meetings, and events. We’re already indentured to our calendar in many ways. And, that doesn't mean we can't be in charge of our own time.
The Chinese general Han Xin positioned his soldiers with their backs to a river, so they couldn't run away from the enemy. That's the kind of a commitment device you'll need to get important work done.
The other problem with to-do lists without time blocking is that listing all your to-do's for today lets your brain assume that you have all day to get all of them done. This is an erroneous assumption by our brain. The fact is if you operate from a list without time blocking, tasks would take longer than they should. Parkinson's Law says, “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” When you time block for a task, you know that you have, say, 2 hours from 10 AM to noon to get that task done. And, since your afternoon is blocked out for other tasks, you're more likely to finish the task in the allotted time.
So, with time blocking, do we need a to-do list too? Time blocking without complementary lists is also a mistake. The rate of incoming time demands far exceeds our agility to time block them right off the bat. In fact, time blocking everything as it comes to us is a mistake. We should capture all ideas, and incoming requests, but store and organize them for later review and processing. David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology offers a great workflow to collect, process, and organize time demands that end up in your inbox. Your lists are the main source of information when you need to plan, and time block your days and decide on the important tasks and projects.
The best app that offers both a to-do list and a calendar in one system is SkedPal. It allows you to maintain your lists the GTD way while benefiting from selective time blocking.
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