A few weeks ago I talked about the power of time blocking. Today I want to answer the most common questions I receive about time blocking. I am excited to share the tips and tricks I have from doing time blocking on a daily basis for the past 4 years.
What’s my ideal unit of time block?
“How much do you block for 1 session of work?”
After trying different things, I find that 30-60 minutes work best for me. In rare cases, I would do 90 minutes but only for the tasks I’m comfortable with. For example, writing a new blog post takes me about 90 minutes. But because I’ve done it so many times, I can easily stick to the 90-minute interval.
If writing a blog post was a new activity to me, I would break it down into smaller chunks of 30 minutes:
- Research & write the outline with main points in bullet point format
- Write down the first draft
- Edit the draft
How to avoid exhaustion when time blocking
“I have tried to use time blocking, but the problem I face every time is that I get overly ambitious and fill in my day with too much work. It is satisfying when I make the routine but extremely exhausting when I try to follow it.“
People overestimate what they can do in a day, but underestimate what they can do in a week. Give yourself more time to finish each task. That will reduce stress. Instead of giving yourself 15 minutes to finish a task, give yourself 30 minutes. That’s ok to get fewer things done in a day. What matters is that you feel calm doing it and you show up for the time blocking practice every single day. With practice, you will learn how much time you will need to block off for each particular task.
“How do you rest effectively every day knowing you could still work a little bit more?”
First, let’s clean up that thinking. “I could still work a little bit more” Does it mean that you should? I keep saying that very few things are truly urgent and important. Not everything on your to-do list should get done (read more about why here). And most certainly, not everything needs to be done today. You should have clarity on the different levels of priorities for each of the tasks. Not everything matters equally.
I generally time block my work hours only. My evenings have a certain structure but it’s more relaxed. I think having this combination of highly structured workdays and more spontaneous evenings and weekends makes it work.
Here is another trick I use. In my mind, I have this game where I try to beat the clock. If I schedule to spend 60 minutes on a task, I try to get it done in 50. And then I don’t jump into the next activity straight away. I treat these 10 extra minutes as a bonus. And I can do whatever I want with it. I usually go make myself a nice cup of coffee. I go sit outside and enjoy it. And this happens multiple times throughout the day. And somehow it makes me feel that I’ve rewarded myself enough throughout the day. And I don’t need a major break or a reward for sticking with my time blocks.
And I also make sure that I have a 1-hour lunch break in my workday, so it’s not just working all day long. You probably know by this point that I’m not a big fan of hustle culture. But if you haven’t read my rant about the hustle culture, here it is.
“What are your helping thoughts that combat the non-productive ones in the blocked time for work?”
Great question! The mindset is one of the key things when it comes to time blocking.
My favourite thoughts:
- I can do hard things.
- I was made for this.
- This is my choice.
- I am proud that I’m choosing to show up for [insert an activity].
- I got this.
I also find using these questions highly effective:
- What’s the alternative?
- Can I?
- Will it go away if I don’t get it done?
- Will it be easier later?
- What will be the consequence if I delay doing this task?
Tools I use for time blocking
“Do you use paper or digital for time blocking?”
I use todoist for task capture and task prioritization. And I use paper for creating a time-blocked schedule for the day. I like the feeling of crossing things out on paper as I go.
Here is why I use paper. I worked with a lot of clients at this point helping them with their productivity. And I can see a clear pattern. There are some people who try to overcomplicate things with digital tools. They end up wasting so much time on finding the perfect tool, learning it and then over-optimizing the heck out of it, so they don’t have any time left to actually do the tasks they wanted to do.
Recommended reading on a topic:
In contrast to those clients, I have “simple clients” who just use index cards, paper or a notebook. And those are the ones who have much higher completion rates on their sprint goals. Once I saw this trend play out so many times, I became a big advocate for pen and paper when it comes to daily time blocking. Plus, you get this awesome feeling of crossing things out on paper. It is very different than doing it in a digital tool.
Dealing with distractions
“How do you manage to avoid all the distractions that may come up?”
“How do you compensate if you get distracted and mess up the whole session/block?”
“I’ve tried time blocking but often I kind of just ignore the whole thing and don’t really do anything. Any way to get around that?”
First of all, I don’t have any notifications popping up (no slack, no email, social media notifications, etc.) This prevents 90% of distractions and allows me to be in the “deep focus” state for longer.
Plus, I give myself enough time to get each task done but not too much time. I should feel the slight pressure of a deadline approaching so that I don’t waste time on useless distractions (emails, Slack, Reddit, social media). I also have a clear definition of done for each of the tasks. My brain is given a clear picture of what we need to have at the end of the time block (e.g., a blog post published, a podcast episode scheduled).
Whenever my time blocks get interrupted by unexpected external events, I rewrite the schedule for the rest of the workday on a new piece of paper. I focus on getting the most important tasks done for the day. It takes less than 2 minutes to rewrite your daily schedule. There is no excuse not to do it.
If you create a schedule but don’t show up for it, you need to change what this schedule means for you. What worked for me was fixing the relationship between the past, present and future self. And that changed how I look at my daily schedule. I talked more about it here: How to Create and Follow Your Schedule.
Time blocking with kids
“Any kids to account for? I think this is likely the biggest obstacle.”
I don’t have kids yet. However, I work with clients who have 2-3 kids and they successfully implement time blocking. They just time block their workday (9-5) and have evenings and weekends less structured so that they can spend time with their kids.
Here are answers I got on Reddit from people with kids:
- “3 kids here. I’ve had to adapt time blocking to start at 9:30/10 if I’m doing the school run. Then I always finish my days as close to 5 as possible. We keep a fairly strict evening routine (dinner, books, bath, bed) and then on rare occasions I’ll go back to work for another “block” or 2 hours after bedtime.”
- “I just time block the 9-5. We do have rough blocks of time for the kid’s routines but we mostly keep that hidden, don’t wanna stress kids out by always appearing to be clock watching (although in reality I often am!)”
Fine-tuning time required for each task
“I try to time block study sessions and oftentimes it takes less or more time than I had budgeted. But when I don’t time block I don’t have a sense of urgency to finish my studies. Any thoughts?”
I totally agree with your comment about not having a sense of urgency without time blocking. I also find that not doing time blocking results in endless distractions because there is no time pressure attached to any given task. It can take however long it takes.
To illustrate this point, I usually give an example of students during exams. Have you ever met a single student who suffered from procrastination during a 2-hour exam? No! Because there is a time limit. I wrote about it here: How to stop procrastinating.
I recommend time blocking your tasks. Do it the first time. See how long it actually takes. Write it down. The next time you’ll be better at time blocking these particular tasks.
I find that study tasks are generally very repetitive. After doing it the first 1-2 times, you’ll get a good estimate of how long the tasks take. For example, you will know that reading 1 chapter for the biology course and taking all the notes take you 2 hours. Textbook chapters are usually of the same size and you can budget 2 hours for this work every single week going forward.
Time blocking as a business owner vs. an employee
“As a business owner do you work by yourself being accountable to no one? If so, what different strategies do you use from the strategies for getting better in a full-time job where other people rely/check on you?”
As a business owner, I need to rely on time blocking a lot more. There is more autonomy, but there are also more distractions you can do. You have to be a lot more disciplined in order to build your business and still have time to spend on your health, family, and overall quality of life.
When I was an employee, I used to protect my mornings from any meetings as much as possible. That way I could focus on the deep work tasks that moved my career forward. I also limited the amount of time I spent on checking emails and slack messages every day.
Nothing bad happened when I didn’t respond to emails immediately. I didn’t get fired. In fact, I got promoted because I was spending my mornings on projects that brought extra profit and operational excellence to the company. Something that matters in the long term. I wrote an entire guest post with all my strategies as an employee for rize.io: Let’s bring 9-5 back. Check it out. It has the scripts I used, the email templates, my schedule, etc.
In short, focus your mornings on the tasks and projects that will end up on your resume. Your future employer doesn’t care how quickly you answered your emails in your previous job. What your future employer cares about is how you helped a company to improve efficiency, cut costs or increase revenue.
Example of my time blocks
“Can you show us an example of your time blocks?”
Sure. Here are some pictures of my daily schedules with some sensitive information erased. As I mentioned, I generally time block my work hours only. I might write some tasks I want to do in the evenings but there are no time blocks attached to them.
How to get started with time blocking as a beginner
“Do you have any advice on how to get started with time blocking?”
If you are just starting out with time blocking, I recommend time-blocking your mornings (9 am – 12 pm) Mon-Fri. Your mornings are the most valuable time resource you have. You have the most willpower and concentration in the mornings. Use it wisely. Don’t waste it on responding to emails and slack messages. Spend it on projects that move your career/business forward. You can do all the admin work, emails, meetings in the afternoons.
I have an entire section on this called “Guard your mornings like it’s the biggest national treasure” in a guest post I wrote for rize.io Let’s Bring 9-5 Back
These were the most common questions I get about time blocking. I hope it brought you more clarity on how to use time blocking in your life. This is one of the tools that my clients find the most useful in achieving their sprint goals.
If you need personalized guidance in implementing time blocking, let’s work together.
- Unconventional Productivity Tips from Reddit (June 2021)
- Time blocking reduces stress.
- Dream big. Go small.
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