Using Time-Blocking to Get More Done
Updated: May 17, 2020
It’s easy to think there isn’t enough time in a day to get everything done. And on a strictly logical basis, that’s true.
But here’s a reflection question: In an ideal day, what would you truly want to get done?
I used to be notorious for simply letting my day be free-flowing and trusting my intuition for judging which tasks seemed important for that day. It turns out that relying on my intuition for prioritizing my day is a terrible system of time management.
Often what would occur is that each day would pile up with new responsibilities and by the day’s end, I never got done what I had originally set out to do. Tasks that could have been done quickly ended up taking more time due to distractions.
The simple method that has helped me most with this is time blocking.
Not Novel, Just Effective
Time blocking is essentially a scheduling method where tasks have assigned time increments. And it is by no means a new concept.
Elon Musk, one of the more famous adopters of this method, attributes his ability to run multiple companies and keep a family life to time-blocking. Musk blocks his entire day in 5-minute increments with each block assigned to a specific activity such as meetings, eating, work time, or emails.
In my case, I typically assign between 5 minutes and an hour for each task. It creates added pressure for things to be done quickly - which is useful for staying focused.
If done correctly, big projects can be broken down into focused, workable time blocks throughout a week. For longer more intensive tasks, I give myself no more than 90 minutes to get it done - any longer and I know that I'll get distracted and my productivity will suffer.
However, it does demand discipline at the start to build a habit of sticking to the set time.
For the past nine months, I took on the personal challenge of learning Portuguese. While language learning is fun, especially early on, there can be periods at intermediate stages where it feels like you are making no discernible progress in terms of fluency and you can lose the internal motivation for maintaining a regular practice schedule.
I hit that same speed bump about three months in.
Without the system of following my time blocks and setting up 15 minutes each day to set up specific, simple, workable chunks for Portuguese review - it simply would not have gotten done.
What My Typical Process Looks Like
At the beginning of every week, I use the following process to organize my time blocks:
First, I do a brain dump and write down all of the things that need to happen (usually on a small whiteboard).
Then I estimate how much time each task will take and circle 3-5 must-dos for that week.
If a task requires multiple steps, I’ll break it down into workable chunks that typically require no more than 60-90 minutes.
I schedule the must-do tasks earlier in the week and the morning I am the most energetic and block the rest of the time with everything else - including mealtimes and even space for just thinking.
Time blocking can be done on a virtual calendar such as Google Calendar or simply with paper and pen. In fact, relying on simple tools like my calendar and a whiteboard over more advanced SAAS tools have been the biggest productivity hacks.
Image Source: Gusto
One great thing about virtual calendars is that you can color-code certain events very easily (i.e work tasks in green and leisure time in gray). Also, since I am constantly on my phone, it helps to receive notifications from my various calendar events to know what to do next.
Why the System Works
The key to any successful system is easy accessibility, visibility, and one that adapts to your existing habits and personality. Something that is incongruent with your lifestyle will not last very long. This is why it is important to value leisure time as well as work time - otherwise, you will psychologically discard the system.
The brilliancy of time blocking is that each day is lived with intention and without subject to the whims of happenstance or mood on that day. Not having to think about what you need to do frees up time for action.
“A plan is what, a schedule is when. It takes both a plan and a schedule to get things done.” - Peter Turla
In fact, if we did an audit of how much time we spend each day “thinking” or “deciding” what needs to be done, this period of limbo eats away at a significant chunk of our productivity. More often than not, when a task is unclear or too difficult it gets postponed or put aside.
By time blocking, you trust that your past self had the foresight to plan the right actions accordingly and you commit to not delaying certain tasks to the future. There is simply no guarantee that your future self will get it done. So you act in the present.
Ambitions and dreams are achieved by small, consistent decisions we make each day.
For now, this is the system that keeps me on track.