Time Blocking: A Comprehensive Guide to Ultimate Productivity

By Seth ArBabian

SkedPal Founder

Theming Your Days

Usually, there are very different tasks that are being planned within one day. Each of these has a "start-up" cost. It takes about 20 minutes just to get into the flow of things. Therefore, context switching is very costly to your productivity. One technique that helps reduce this inefficiency is called day theming. Day theming basically means batching similar kinds of work together. As an example, you might decide to allocate Mondays to meetings with your team, Tuesdays to focused work on a certain project, etc. Theming can also be done for part of the day. For example, you can decide to theme your Friday afternoons to reviewing your projects and planning the week ahead. It really depends on you and your work requirement to design your ideal week. Once you batch similar tasks together, you reduce the start-up time as you're already in the same context.

How to theme your days

Batch similar kinds of tasks together (theming) reduces context switching cost

There are other advantages to day theming such as the opportunity to make the best of your circadian rhythm. Usually, we tend to feel energized and drowsy around the same times every day. This is due to our circadian rhythm - an internal clock that cycles between sleepiness and alertness at regular intervals. This will help you to theme your most alert hours for the most demanding jobs. So, if you need to write with deep focus, choose the optimum time for your time block at part of the day you are most productive. How you design your themes is dependent on you and your work habits.

Creating balance in your work

Another advantage of day theming is creating a balance in your work and allocating the right amount of time to each category in your work. Most people can think of different broad categories of their work that reflect their core responsibilities. For example, an online entrepreneur has the following categories: writing blog posts, hosting webinars, creating video contents, and social Media. Or, as another example, an architect's work can be broken down into: writing proposals, client meetings, site plan drawings, and phone calls/emails. Typically, some of these categories suck up more of your time than you want. Theming your days is a great way to proactively allocate the right amount of time to each of these categories and balance your work. It helps you work on-purpose, and avoid working by accident, reacting to other people's agenda.

Theming and Time blocking

Theming your days helps you proactively balance your work

4 Steps to design your themes for time blocking:

Step One

Pick 2 or 3 broad categories of your work that are core to your success. You want to pick the categories that move the needle for you. These are the categories that require you to be creative and do deep work.

Step Two

For each category, decide how much time you want to allocate per week. In other words, budget sufficient time for each category. When budgeting time, think of your work-life balance first. In fact, you should start by allocating time for your personal areas such as dinner with friends, regular date nights with a partner, time with your kids, or just reading. Decide what time you want to get home each day and work your way up to see the available time you can allocate to your work projects. Think thoroughly about all areas of your life including your health, and fitness.

 They all deserve your time. And, this is the best time to design your life the way you want it.  Want to do that professional development course, or work on a side business? This is the time to budget for it. You have 7 days a week, 24 hours a day. Allocate your time wisely to each area of your life.

Once you set the time budget for your personal areas, start to think about your work categories. Don’t overgeneralize everything into just ‘work’. You’ll need to create balance in your work by dividing your work into different categories and give each category a time budget. Otherwise, you’ll always be reacting to the urgent as opposed to proactively planning for the important.

Four steps to theme your days
Step Three

Think of the best days and hours to allocate to these work categories. For example, if you know your office is typically very busy on Fridays, you might want to avoid theming concentrated work on Fridays. Or, if you feel you're slower in afternoons, use mornings. Try to use the same hours every day.

In other words, if you decide to work on concentrated work for two hours daily, keep the hours the same for each day. This will help you create a habit. When you start doing the same kind of work at the same hour of each day, you’ll develop a good habit. This will reduce the initial friction that normally exists in the early stage.  On average, it takes more than 2 months before a new behavior becomes automatic. If you consistently follow your themes for 2 months, it will be a lot easier to get started on your time blocks.

Step Four

Mark these themes on your calendar. In your weekly review, and planning session (explained later), ensure to time block the tasks inside the right themes.

SkedPal's time map feature facilities the theming process, and enables you to automatically assign your tasks to different themes.

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.

Preparing the Work Environment

Time blocking is all about focused and deep work. You won’t be able to focus if you’re in the middle of a lot of distractions. This is particularly true for those who work in a busy office. The following suggests a number of tactics to prepare the environment for your time blocks.

Keep off digital distractions

Turn off your mobile push notifications. Keep your mobile silent; or even turn it off if possible. Redirect calls to your voicemail. What's a voicemail for? It's for times when you can't answer the phone, and this is one of them. It's your choice to get into the flow and increase your focus and productivity and make the best use of your time. Don't let others take a toll on your productivity.

Keep off digital distractions

Push notifications are designed to interrupt you. Turn them off

Avoid the temptation to check your email. Even a quick glance at your email is enough to put you back by at least 20 minutes. Not because you take 20 minutes to check your email, but because your mind must change context to something different. It has been proved by many researchers that when you switch tasks, it takes about 20 minutes to get back into the flow state. So, the best way is to shut down your email client. There are many tools available that will help you block ALL digital distractions including web sites and social media.

Remember, it's YOU who needs to make a choice here. You are more of a danger to your productivity and focus than anyone else. So, make a choice. Eliminate all these temptations in your environment. Social media is carefully designed to lure you. They use psychological methods to build habits in you to continuously use them. Not checking in with your email, Twitter or Facebook for a couple of hours is harder than you think it is.

Location is crucial

While social media and Internet can be the biggest threat to your focus, your location in a busy office is crucial too. This is particularly true if you work in an open plan office or work remotely from home with kids around. If you can find a way to block the noise by using a headset, do that. Invest in a set of noise-cancelling headphones and listen to music for focus and concentration. Wearing a headphone can dramatically reduce the interruptions. A positive side effect of wearing a headphone is that it discourages others around you to disturb you.

If you have the option to book a meeting room for your time blocks, use the opportunity. Remember, a time block is just as important as any other appointments on your calendar except that you're having this appointment with yourself. If you have a quiet home, that's another option for some of your key time blocks.

Educate Others

If you work in a cubicle, or an open plan office, you need to have a gate keeping method for your time blocks. After all, you're working in a team, and others are supposed to be talking to you. So, it's up to you to plan your days in a way that is both focused and collaborative. One hack is to set some core hours and educate others about it. Share your core hours with your teammates and let them know you shouldn't be distracted during your core hours. Set a “Do Not Disturb” sign on your desk, during the core hours. Be unapologetic when it comes to your most precious asset, your time. It can seem daunting to draw boundaries with your friends, family or co-workers, but your focus is your key success factor. When you say YES to your priorities, you should defend it by a thousand NO’s.

Make sure your calendar leaves some space open for others to invite you to meetings; otherwise, a fully blocked calendar encourages people to ignore your calendar and reach out to you by email or in person. If you're working on a project at home during moonlight hours, you'll need to communicate your need for focus with your family members. Let them know you're unavailable at this certain time to make space for a passion project.

Don’t sweat it too much when there is really a need to attend to something. But, give time grudgingly during your time blocks. Use the right language when communicating with others. Never say you're free! Instead say you can make time or can move things around to remind them this change is costly to you, your time, and your focus.

Prepare the resources in advance

 If you need access to resource information during your time block such as links to resources on the web, or work files on Dropbox, etc., make sure they're easily accessible during your time block. For example, choose your location so you can have access to Internet, or ensure you have access to your Dropbox account where your files are stored. This is particularly important when you can't make any progress on your task because of the dependency on these resources. Otherwise, you might end up wasting the time reserved for the work.

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