How Time Blocking Allowed Me To Accomplish More Each Day
Over the years, I have tried several different types of methods to help keep me focused and productive given the amount of time I have each day. While I was younger, these methods worked quite well. Now that I’m older and have more responsibilities across my day job and side hustles, it can be hard to manage all of the tasks well without losing track of time and without losing focus.
A good friend of mine showed me this article written by Jakub Kliszczak that goes over a simple framework on breaking your day out into five categories:
- Creative and Learning
- Health and Exercise
To summarize what each of these categories mean:
- Low-result: Tasks that can be offloaded to someone else but ultimately need to be done. Examples would include grocery shopping, doing laundry, or washing the dishes.
- Managerial: Tasks that are focused on planning, replying to others such as email, meetings, organizing tasks. These can all be bucketed into this category. Remember, emails are meant to be checked like normal mail, so once or twice a day!
- Creative and Learning: Tasks that are geared towards expressing yourself or learning something new. Examples would include online classes, books, content creation, coding, or drawing.
- Fun: Activities that are considered fun or relaxing for you. Video games, reading (for entertainment and not learning), TV shows, movies, or spending time with friends/family. Whatever you enjoy can be bucketed into this category.
- Health and Exercise: Activities that are for your personal health. Examples would include eating, walking, running, going to the gym, or naps.
How I Incorporate This
By using the above categories, I spend each morning before I start my day by looking at my to-do list and blocking time out according to what I need to get finished. Schedules can be very consistent, or they can change every day depending on what you need to do for the day. It takes me about 30 minutes to do this, but it is well worth the time as it keeps me laser-focused throughout the day. Plus, I get to sit with my cat and sip my coffee while doing it.
The idea is to try to get as much “Creative and Learning” and “Fun” in to have a healthy balance of learning new skills and enjoying life. “Health and Exercise” is just as crucial as the mentioned categories as well but doesn’t require as much time as the other two, unless you are working out for hours on end. You want to mitigate and lower “Low-result” time as those are items that don’t help personal development or mental health. It’s just busywork. And “Managerial” time is necessary, however, you also want to try to be as effective during that time so you can make room for more important categories.
Here is an example of what a day would look like:
I made a color guide to match each category. Feel free to make your own color guide up! I also set calendar reminders to notify me 5 minutes before the next block. Configure what works best for you.
For items like “Work”, you can break it into smaller items for meetings, focused time, etc. I bucket it into one time block since my work calendar will handle the more granular details throughout the day.
For me, time slots must be a minimum of 30 minutes as I feel like anything less than that, can be too short to hit that “flow” state. I also incorporate a simple Pomodoro timer during these blocks to remind myself to take small breaks in between longer tasks and also breaks between switching blocks. For example, a 30-minute block would result in 25 minutes working / 5-minutes of a break for that block. For longer, more focused tasks, like coding, I do a 50/10 minute split so I am interrupted less but have a longer break. It’s also a nice reminder to get away from the computer to rest your eyes or to stand up and take a small walk if you are sitting down all day.
If you feel like you can’t wake up early enough to do something like this, then try carving some time out before going to bed so that when you wake up in the morning, you are ready to go.
I am also aware that kids can disrupt this greatly. Try to adhere to the schedule by making time for your kids during certain parts of the day.
How This Has Helped Me Accomplish More
By doing this, I can stay focused and not context switch so much during the day. You would be surprised by how much time is wasted by context switching between tasks.
This framework allows me to see what’s coming up next so that I can change gears more elegantly as opposed to scrambling to put my thoughts together on the next task. If used with Pomodoros like I do, the breaks line up perfectly for transitioning to the next block, so you have a clear head before going in. Rarely do I think about the previous work I was doing after that break.
Over the years I realized that having the “always-on” culture is pretty toxic when it comes to productivity. Regardless if it’s in a work environment, or if you are your own boss, having to check messages and reply to people ASAP ruins that flow. Messages and emails can wait. Having a dedicated time for me to reply back to people has worked wonders. I always caught myself checking my email the minute something hit my inbox, or constantly checking Slack / other messaging platforms to see if anyone messaged me, or catching up on missed messages/threads. It’s just better to ignore those things and have dedicated blocks for them. Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Work Week, had this same concept in mind, “[email should only be checked twice a day, similar to real mail.]”
The last point I want to make would be that this has helped me put hard stops on some of my work. I found myself getting too engulfed in a task at times, where I spend an unnecessary amount of time trying to make it perfect and several hours have passed. Then I kick myself for it because I don’t have enough time to work on other items that I planned to work on for that day. For me, the dedicated time slots help me know that when the time is up, it’s up. It’s time to move on. If I don’t finish, that’s fine, it can wait until tomorrow. I know sometimes you really want to finish that task. “It only has 5 more minutes before I’m done!” Or you were so focused, that you want to continue keeping that velocity. I get it, that’s totally fine, but that is the engulfment that I was talking about. Realistically, it can wait until next time. Move on and work on the next item that needs to get done.
Questions I Had When I First Started This
Naturally, this framework is not perfect. There were some questions I had after the first week.
What about urgent tasks? What about fires that come up last minute that need to be taken care of right away?
At first, I would let these types of “ASAP” items dominate my time and to-do list. However, most of these items can wait. There will be items that require your immediate attention. For example, “production is down and we need all hands on deck.” Or a family member needs your attention. All other items that do not have this kind of weight, can wait. Your boss asking for something to be delivered ASAP? That’s fine, it can wait until your next time block. Just prioritize it for your next time period. Don’t ruin your current flow and concentration when it will eventually be taken care of later in the day.
What if I don’t finish in the allocated time?
This will come up quite a bit. Again, it can wait. You can pick the task or tasks in the next period of time allocated for that category or if there are no more for the rest of the day, then you are done with that category for the day. Don’t let it impose on your personal time. There needs to be boundaries set otherwise you are going to get engulfed in the work.
What if I finished too early and there is leftover time?
What I personally do is take an extended break. If I finish everything I need to do within 10 minutes out of the 30 minutes, I will use the remaining 20 minutes to relax a bit before the next time block. Incorporating breaks in the schedule is important. We aren’t robots.
At first, it will be a little rough. I had a lot of trouble the first week as the timings were off a bit and I was trying to get adjusted to set specific times to work on specific tasks. I normally am the person who checks their email every time something hits their inbox, so this was very hard for me. But over time, it got better. This is a process that needs grooming and iterations for it to be effective. As you do it each day, it'll become easier and more refined. You’ll be able to spend your time in more meaningful places and not get so sucked up in unimportant tasks.
If you have any questions or wish to have a discussion, feel free to respond to this article!