by Susan McCarthy
Batching similar actions into blocks of time can help you get more done while remaining flexible.
When I was working as a nature teacher, my schedule fell into blocks of time – teach for two hours, do paperwork for three hours, plan classes for a couple of hours. Although everyday was a bit different, my schedule still fell into chunks of time. Even nowadays, my activities fall into blocks.
Maybe you don’t want (or need) to schedule your day in the 15-or-30-minute increments of your planner, but you still want some structure to your day. If you feel as if you’re frequently distracted by email, phone calls, texts, errands, and chores that demand to get done, while you try to fit in time to exercise and spend time with family and friends, time blocking can keep you focused on what you’re doing in the moment.
Of course, this is also a prime productivity technique for getting things done at work, particularly if you have some control over when you do certain activities during the workday.
What Is Time Blocking?
Time blocking is a bit like the schedule set in a preschool – during the first 90-minutes of the day the kids start with check-in, play, clean-up, go to morning circle, eat snack, and have a bathroom break. The next 90-minutes might be focused on stories, crafts, outdoor play, and a lesson on the season. None of the tasks must occur within a specific time frame (color from 10:15-to-10:35), but everything that is supposed to get done within a time block does.
It’s a flowy-er sort of schedule. The part I like is that you can chunk similar, small tasks into blocks so they don’t distract you from focused, productive work.
How Time Blocking Keeps You Focused
You may realize that your morning routine takes 90-minutes; the next 3-hour block occurs at a part-time job; followed by another 2-hours of errands, phone calls, chores, appointments, and other miscellaneous tasks. If you use time-blocking at work, you may have a block for answering emails, another to return phone calls and for face-to-face meetings, and another for focused work.
Within each block, you aim to complete a series of tasks or a chunk of focused work. The benefit of time blocking is that you know that you’ll answer emails from 10-11a and 3-4p and so you don’t waste time distracting yourself all day every time a new email pops up in your inbox.
The Disadvantage of Time Blocking
Of course, if I know that I have from 9-11a to finish a task, guess how long it takes me to finish. Yep, two hours. Also, at the end of a block, I need to make a clear switch to the next activity or 11a becomes 11:30a or even noon.
For example, if I’m planning a presentation from 9-11a, segueing into reading and responding to email at 11:15a (after a break), is a fuzzy line for me – I’m going from working on my computer to … working on my computer. So, if I didn’t finish planning the presentation (and even if I knew it would take me a couple of days), I find myself dragging out this task instead of moving into the next block of activities.
I’ve resolved this issue by planning the activities for the next block to occur in another location (even another room can help).
How to Make Time Blocking Work for You
If you aren’t certain how long different tasks take you, you may need to spend a few days, or even a week (depending on how varied your days are), jotting down how much time you devote to different activities.
Then, set up your blocks. Some can consist of a variety of smaller activities while others can be devoted to lengthier, more focused tasks. In the beginning, be prepared to tweak the length of time in each block – or, how much you plan to do.
If you find yourself dawdling because you have more time than activities, then trim the time for that block and give it to another block. On the other hand, if you consistently can’t finish what you intended to accomplish in a block, consider if you need to add to the length of the time block or if you are allowing in distractions.
You may already use time blocking at different times of day or during the week. For example, on Sunday afternoons you attend a yoga class, run a few errands, stop at the grocery store, and then return home to put everything away.
Some blocks may occur consistently at the same time every day – say, your morning or evening routine, and the chunk of time you spend at work. Other blocks may be more flexible – one day you work in the morning and the next you work in the afternoon.
Fit Time Blocks onto Your Schedule
I started playing with time blocks by grabbing a pad of 1-1/2” x 2” Post-It Notes. They’re small enough that I could list up to five activities on each note – thereby creating an instant block. The time allotted to each block doesn’t have to be the same, but it can be if that works for you.
I think of each Post-It Note as a mini to-do list. However, you still want to feel as if you accomplished something when you reach the end of the day, so make certain that one-to-three of your time blocks feature your current priorities.
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