Time Blocking: A Comprehensive Guide to Ultimate Productivity

By Seth ArBabian

SkedPal Founder

How to Time Block

The following is a practical guide to help you succeed with time blocking.

Choosing the Right Tasks for Time Blocking

Ramp up your productivity one step at a time. Time blocking is the ultimate productivity tool, but you need to work your way up slowly, and carefully. Attempting to start at peak levels of time blocking often fails and leads to berating yourself. You're here to succeed and feel good about it. You don't want this new tool to make you feel defeated, and more overwhelmed. It's just like playing a new digital game. You always start as a beginner with some easy mission. Once you gain more skills and confidence, you move up the next level in the game. And, soon you'll turn into a skilled ninja.

time blocking turns you into a calendar ninja

Ramp up your skills in time blocking one step at atime

The biggest mistake that beginners in time blocking make is that they fill out their entire day with back to back blocks with detailed tasks in each block. This is the ninja's level, and you'll get there. But, let's simplify the game for now so you'll strengthen your muscles first. There are two dimensions in setting the right level of difficulty in time blocking:

  • The level of abstraction in a time block
  • The number and length of time blocks in a day

Getting the right level of granularity

Let's start with the first dimension: Granularity. Say you want to time block your days so you can make progress on writing a book. You don't have to schedule everything in too much detail. The more detailed you set your time blocks, the more challenging it is to complete it within the allocated time. For example, if you set your time block with title "Write the introduction, middle and end of the scene" and give that 30 minutes, that's probably too detailed for a beginner in time blocking. 

On the other hand, if you make the time block too vague, you'll be prone to the Parkinson's law. Parkinson's Law says, “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” So, if your block title is 'Write book', that's probably too vague, and lacks the sufficient detail to mentally prepare you to focus on the right task. Deciding on the right level of granularity for your tasks is an art and it really depends on you and your specific projects or goals. So, use your best judgment to set the right level.

time blocking granularity

Avoid time blocking tasks that are either too detailed, or too vague

The intensity of time blocks

The next dimension is how many time blocks do I need in a day, and for how long. For some people, it's an easy decision because they spend a good part of their day in meetings. Or, you may be looking into time blocking to make the best use of your free time on Saturdays to work on a side hustle. But, if you can design most of your day (maker's schedule), don't start by time blocking your entire day. Again, that's the ninja's level.

The best way to start as a beginner is to time block maximum of 2 hours each day. After each day, assess yourself: Did I manage to block off my mind from all distractions during the time block? Did I get started on time? Am I happy with the progress I made during the time block? Was the title of the time block too specific or too vague? If you observe a good performance, then you're ready to increase your time blocks during the day. Otherwise, keep pushing yourself to commit and focus on the limited time blocks you have each day. Time blocking can be highly effective even if you only create one block of focused time and attention every day. You'll be amazed how much progress you'll make over time.

If you use SkedPal, you can use the combination of lists and calendar in one app. It allows you to cherry pick your most important tasks to be automatically time blocked. 

Allocating the right time to the right tasks

In today’s fast-paced work environments, you can easily become overwhelmed by unnecessary tasks. American philosopher, Henry David Thoreau, once said "It's not enough to be busy; so are the ants. The question is what are you busy about?" Time blocking is a great opportunity to choose what you want to be busy with during your day. Who we become is a purposeful intent, not an accident. Our intention of who we’re going to be, and how our work and life is going to be drives how we spend our days. Each of our days is something that we can design. It’s true that we can’t always direct every circumstance of our life, but we can certainly set our goals, and do our best to control our responses to the circumstances.

Therefore, be very selective about what you're going to time block. Pareto's principle states that roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. You want to select the top 20% of your tasks that lead to 80% impact on your success. The projects that move the needle for you. Do not start by time blocking 'Check Email'. You'll do that anyway. You want to allocate your time block to projects and goals that deserve a totally distraction free, and focused mind. As you progress into becoming a time blocking ninja, you'll time block everything including emails. But, for now, you want to mobilize your resources, energy and will power on the most important tasks. You have limited will power, and it depletes as your day progresses. So, it's best to give it to the important tasks.

choose your tasks based on pareto's principle

Pareto's principle: Only 20% of your tasks lead to 80% impact on your success

Assess where your time is being spent

If you're having a hard time finding time to time block for these important tasks during the day, you really need to assess how you're spending your time. A smart approach to time management is to face that insurmountable list of tasks once before getting your act together, starting with a thorough reckoning as to where your time is going. You realize that once you understand where your time is going, the right choices become clear. Attending that recurring-no-value-added-routine meeting or spending a long time on your Facebook newsfeed is a lot less tempting when you’re aware of the cost: 8000 minutes on average per year. Time blocking for important tasks means never having to pass up an opportunity because you’ve blown your precious time on discretionary activities.

One of the biggest time vampires in larger organizations is the meetings that you're asked to attend. Always question the purpose of the meeting, and whether you're really needed in the meeting. A good approach is to proactively block your time for important tasks, so you can confidently decline unimportant meetings.

Goals vs dreams

“All things are created twice”, says Stephen Covey, author of the seven habits of highly effective people. Every bit of human progress, all the inventions, discoveries, business or engineering successes were first visualized before they became realities. All success stories start with a vision. But, not just a vision. A vision that is followed by action.  And, that’s called a goal. A goal is more than a dream. It’s a dream being acted upon. Until a goal is established, nothing happens. 

Do you have an image of the person you want to be five years from now? If you don’t, you should seriously think about it. This is a critical thought. People who fail to set long term goals will most likely get lost in life shuffle. Without goals we cannot grow, and it’s very unlikely to stumble into success.

Goals are hard work

Once you get a clear fix on where you want to go, you should start planning the necessary actions that will take you there. This is where the rubber hits the road. This is where the dreamers are separated from the achievers. Apart from your commitment and willingness, nowadays It is getting increasingly more difficult to find the time even when your goal really matters to you. Goals are hard work. To achieve your goals, you need to commit quality time. Whether it's reading books, learning a new language, or becoming a good hacker, it takes commitment. And, the quantity of your commitment is just as important as the quality. Malcolm Gladwell, pop psych writer, believes you need 10,000 hours of practice to become world-class in any field. Without motivation, commitment and discipline, it's impossible to keep up the streak.

10,000 hours of practice are needed to become world-class in any field. -Malcolm Gladwell

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Time blocking is pivotal in your success with goals. It gives you an opportunity to proactively budget time for your goals, and then commit yourself to the designated time blocks. Without time blocks, your goals are merely dreams. In fact, it's very common for people to WISH they could have these.

Routine, in an intelligent man, is a sign of ambition.

W. H. Auden

The pickle jar theory

Before time blocking these goals, ask yourself how serious you are about your goals. Achieving these goals means not doing some other things. The pickle jar theory of time management states that our time is like a jar. You can't fit everything in it. If there is something you really want to add to a full jar, you need to remove something that's already in the jar. So, are you willing to cut down on other activities to open up room for your goals? Are you dead serious about your goals? If yes, then you're ready to time block for your goals. If you're using SkedPal, use the power of routine task scheduling. It finds the best time for your goals on your calendar based on your preferences.

Remember, it’s the consistency in working on your goal that is important. Goals take a lot of practice and hard work. So, break them down into manageable and consistently repeating time blocks. “Routine, in an intelligent man, is a sign of ambition.”, says W. H. Auden

Do you have an image of the person you want to be five years from now? If you don’t, you should seriously think about it.

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Estimating the Effort for Your Tasks

We generally tend to underestimate how long tasks will take. This chronic error not only causes our plans to fail, but it also leads to frustration, and overwhelm. This is especially true if you're new to time blocking and have never estimated the effort your tasks will take. This phenomenon is called the planning fallacy. (also, sometimes referred to as the optimism bias). So why do we, as human beings, systematically underestimate the effort (or even money) we will need? Part of the reason is that our brain is not made for this activity. In a recent study, scientists have found that there are no sensory receptors specifically dedicated for perceiving time. It is an almost uniquely intangible sensation. The other reason for our underestimation is that we usually forget we're going to hit snags; almost always.

The Planning Fallacy

We usually forget we're going to hit snags.

Always overestimate!

One solution to this problem is to deliberately overestimate your tasks for the first few months. This is a good advice for beginners. For at least the first month, you should take your initial estimate and multiply that by three! It may sound too much now, but you'll be surprised how far off your initial estimates are in practice. This overestimation needs to adjust over time. As you practice estimating your tasks, you need to reduce the multiplication factor down. It's hard to get perfect at estimation, but you'll have other methods to combat this problem as explained below.

SkedPal helps you quickly adjust your estimate and re-plan all your time blocks instantly. So, if your initial estimate for a task was 2 hours, and then you feel you need another hour, all you have to do is to update the duration and ask SkedPal to reschedule everything else.

Use buffers to plan for the unplanned

Another good practice is to always include some buffer zones in your time blocking. Make sure you have one to three 30-minute blocks of time as buffer in your day. This is more applicable to more advanced time blockers. Beginners shouldn't time block more than a couple of hours a day anyway. The buffer zone is a win-win strategy. If you run over, you can bump another time block into the buffer zone. And, when you're on schedule, the buffer zone is a pleasant gift for you to recharge or catch up with your email.

If you're using SkedPal, buffers are automatically added to your schedule. So, you can decide to have, say 20%,  buffer in your day. That's the only setting you need to do. The rest is automatically managed by SkedPal.

If you're time blocking for a long stretch of time, make sure you also include breaks. Breaks are critical for your productivity. The best way to design your break times is to make them short and often. Sleep researcher, Nathan Kleitman, has discovered that our bodies operate in 90-minute cycles. This concept is called the Ultradian Rhythm. This rhythm occurs during night time as well as the day. So, your performance slows down every 90 minutes, and that's a perfect time for a short 5 to 10-minute break.

The break strategy

To implement this break strategy, do not try to schedule these short breaks; instead, use a timer that reminds you every 90 minutes to take a short break. Pomodoro timer is a special timer that is designed for this process. It breaks down work into intervals, originally 25 minutes in length, separated by 5-minute breaks. You can decide how long you want to work before you take a break, and how long you like your break to be. That's flexible and it depends on you. But, make sure the minimum break time is set to repeat every 90 minutes.

Ultradian Rhythm

When you have a big task or project, always chunk it into pieces. It's always easier and more accurate to estimate the smaller tasks or sub-tasks than it is to estimate the project. So, if you have a big task that you think is going to take 20 hours, you're most likely wrong in your estimate (unless you have extensive experience in doing the same project several times in the past.) Break it down, and you'll be in a much better position to estimate the pieces. It's more work and takes time to think through the steps of a project, but it's well worth it.

Eating the elephant

In general, if you're estimating any task to take longer than 90 minutes, it's best if you try to break it down into smaller steps. This hack is not only helpful in having better time estimates for your tasks, it also helps you avoid procrastination. When you begin to work on a big task, you'll be looking at an elephant and wondering how to eat it. It's much easier to get started with smaller tasks.

Breaking big tasks into smaller ones makes you win

Let's say now that you have done all the above to avoid underestimating your task effort. What if it's the end of your time block and you still need more time to complete your work? There are different strategies here, and you need to choose the one that best suits you. The first strategy is based on time boxing. Remember the Parkinson's Law? "Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion." Time boxing advocates a fixed time for a task even if you feel you need more time.

The goal is here to do your best in the given time, just like an exam in school where time is always fixed. The other school of thought is to continue your work until you feel you're done. The advocates of this method believe in event time not the clock time. The difference is you don't want to let a clock dictate when you're done.  Perhaps, the best strategy is to allow yourself to run over a bit if you feel that you can really make a big progress in a limited time. And, if you're still not done, schedule another time block for some other time to continue. This is done automatically in SkedPal for you.

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