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The Practice of Time Blocking

What is Time Blocking?

Time blocking is the simple yet difficult practice of setting aside time in your calendar to focus on a specific goal or project. In the same way we book time with each other to discuss specific projects or make appointments to see the dentist for the sole purpose of our oral hygiene, we book time with ourselves with a specific agenda. By putting aside dedicated time you can block out the many distractions that we face everyday. This helps us to be intentional with our time instead of reactive.

While this practice seems straightforward, many people struggle to keep these commitments with themselves and often get distracted with other tasks or with helping others rather than working on their own projects. Let’s discuss a bit about why time blocking is an effective productivity tool.

Why Do We Need Time Blocking?

In order to achieve anything, whether it’s in our jobs or for our personal goals, we have got to be able to work on difficult things. Hard work is a requirement for great outcomes. These types of tasks take a lot of brain power and energy. They require a lot of time and usually a lot of focus. There are two main forces that work against us getting these types of tasks completed.

The first is other people’s priorities. While you are trying to get your work done there are dozens of people around you that are all trying to get their work done too. And their work just so happens to be reliant on you in some way. They need questions answered, they need your piece of the project complete, they need your approval or input. Even in the most healthy and helpful of workplaces, we are all focused on getting our own stuff accomplished. And even if others are cognizant to not take up too much of your time, they are not responsible for ensuring you have enough time to finish your deliverables. You are.

If you do not plan your time, someone else will help you waste it. -Zig Ziglar

You are responsible for filling up your days in a way that moves the needle on your goals and projects. If you do not, no one else will. Maybe your manager at your job will, but that will not be a pleasant exchange. And there is no manager for your life. Just you.

The second force keeping you from doing the hard work is you! Hard work is hard! Oftentimes we don’t wanna do hard work. If we are honest with ourselves, we know that we actively look for distractions to fill our time to keep us from the hard tasks. We’ve got meetings, we’re helping this person or that person. Oh there is a very urgent thing going on, and my thing can wait. I’ll do it tomorrow. Our brains are excellent at getting distracted. Just pick up your phone for a minute and see how many things you immediately want to click on.

The combo of these powerful two forces often cause us to put off these hard tasks all the way until our deadline approaches. Then we try to leverage that deadline to help us fight off both forms of excuses. There are two big problems with this approach.

The first is that most of our goals have no deadlines. There is no one pushing us to learn a new skill, to build a new better process, to start a new business, or to go back to school. These things might be important, really important, but they are not urgent. And when we spend all of our time on the urgent tasks and no time on the important ones our lives become reactive instead of proactive. Always on the defensive and never able to move forward.

The second problem is that it takes us so much longer to accomplish things when we wait for deadlines!

Work expands so as to fill the time available for completion. Parkinson’s law

If you are given one thing to do this week, you will likely find a way to fill your time such that you finish your task Friday afternoon. Interestingly enough however, if you are given two things to do, somehow you will figure out a way to get one done early in the week, and the second done towards the end. There are obviously limitations to this, but the broad lesson is that if given space, we use it. This means that as we wait for all of those deadlines, over and over again, there are potentially hundreds of other important things that we could have accomplished in the same period of time.

If we can impose discipline onto ourselves to focus on important things before everything else (sometimes even before urgent things), we can achieve far more than we ever thought possible.

Some Tips for Getting Started

Start with Why

Think about why this task is important. If you went through some of my goal setting articles then you will have deep rooted reasons for everything you do. I call it alignment. Like an arrow, straight from the bow to bullseye. You smallest tasks lead to your biggest dreams. Your biggest dreams are broken down into the smallest tasks. Once you know why, scheduling time to get it done, and keeping that commitment just makes sense. You’ll wonder if you should spend even more time working on it.

Use Your weekly Review to Book Time.

The weekly review is an awesome time to make these time blocks because your are already reviewing both your important tasks list and also your calendar for the upcoming week. Use this time to figure out what blocks on the calendar can be set aside for your own priorities. Also use it to rank every meeting you have on your calendar, you will often find that many are not as important as your time blocks. You will end up renegotiating those to make room for your tasks instead of the other way around.

Time of Day Matters (to me anyways…)

I love mornings. I have more energy, i have more focus, more will power. I am all around a better human before noon. So to me, i would rather harness that time for my number one priority, everything else can wait. Now in the real world, i have to have meetings in the morning sometimes, and i have to time block at 4p when i would rather be asleep. But my preference and my first choice when planning my week, is to do deep work in the morning and take other meetings in the afternoons.

How Long Should My Time Blocks Be?

Context switching is killer. Much research has shown that we cannot just jump back and forth between tasks and conversations without cost. Just like computers take time to load programs into memory so that they can be utilized, we humans can also take 15, 20, even 30 minutes of time to “load up” all of that project context into our heads. The harder the project, the longer this loading time is. So knowing that, my time blocks are usually between one and two hours. I wouldn’t do anything less than an hour unless you know you can complete the work in that amount of time. But if you know your project will take you many hours to complete, then trying to take down a six hour project in thirty minute chunks is a recipe for frustration and context switching fatigue. By the time you are finally in flow, you need to break it because your time is up. At least an hour, preferably two or more. Even longer is even better.

This of course is also dependent on what kind of project you are working on and how packed your calendar generally is. When I was at my busiest I could barely squeeze in five different one hour blocks into my week in between meetings. For others, their day is wide open and they just need to fill it in with some structured time. Shoot for as long as you can take it. Start small and make it longer as you get used to the discipline.

Take Small Breaks

If you booked yourself a 2 hour chunk of time to work on a project, that doesn’t mean you need to hammer away for 2 hours straight. Take small breaks here and there. I use the Pomodoro method which is a 25 minute on and 5 minute off timer. So work for 25 and then get up and take 5, stretch, snack, restroom, then get back to it. There are tons of apps and things that can do this for you. I like it because it helps me to know that there is only a few more minutes of focus left. So I can put off the snack or the coffee or the text messages for just a few more minutes and then I can break. Four sessions of 25 and 5 and you’ve got 2 solid hours of deep work done. And it feels great.

Some common hurdles

Keep Your Commitments to Yourself

If you have a time block but something truly urgent comes up, it’s ok to move your time block later in the week (as long as you have space for it). But don’t cancel it. Reschedule it just like you would do if it were a meeting with a colleague. Stuff comes up and you can be flexible, but as it gets later in the week, those decisions are going to get harder and harder. Eventually you will have to say NO to something. Make sure that you are as committed to yourself as you are to others.

Here is a practical tip

If you have a time block and something “urgent” comes up. Ask yourself, would I cancel my time block for this urgent matter if I were meeting with someone else? Or would I finish my scheduled meeting and then address the urgent matter afterwards? Treat your time with yourself with respect.

Here is another tip

If on Friday you have 5 meetings on the calendar including your time block, but only have time for 3. Two will have to move to next week. Thats just fact. But which two? Don’t just bump the last one, and don’t just bump your time block. Figure out which meetings are actually the easiest to move and the least important that you do this week.

Be Open and Honest with Your Team

I’ve found a lot of folks nervous or apprehensive about telling their team that they are time blocking. It could be that my work culture is highly collaborative and helpful (which is a fantastic thing). People feel selfish and guilty if they turn off email and messaging for a period of time and don’t respond when people need something. What i tell them is to be honest and tell the team that you need 2 hours to focus, and that you won’t be responding during that time. If you had a meeting scheduled for 2 hours with someone else, then your team would not expect you to be answering during that time. So treat your time blocks with the same respect.

Have a 911

In my team, slack, email, and walking up to someone’s desk, are the normal forms of communication. But we don’t use phones really ever. So i found that by turning off all the normal comm methods (including hiding in a conference room away from my desk), very helpful while time blocking. However i would always let my team know that if something was truly on fire and could not wait 2 hours, they could call my cell to get a hold of me. I have never once gotten a phone call like this. But knowing that they could call me if needed, proved to me that their requests actually weren’t that urgent. It proved that my 2 hours were not that invasive to my team.

Note that your phone is an incredible source of distraction too, so make sure you turn off as many notifications as you can and keep it face down during time blocks so that you will only be bothered by it if someone calls.

Wrapping Up

We live in a distracting world, and no one is coming to save you from it. The truly successful people are the ones that have the discipline to do hard work before anyone asks them to do it. They are the ones who push their dreams forward and they are the ones who accomplish greatness. Block your calendar, invest in your goals, keep your head down for that 25 minutes, and get it done. Best of luck.

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