“I’ve tried time blocking in the past and it’s never worked for me.”
This was a recent statement from a client who I was helping with time management. Once we dug in more, we found it wasn’t that time blocking was an ineffective method, but that it wasn’t being applied in the most ideal way for him. This isn’t an uncommon complaint. In fact, even David Allen, productivity guru and author of Getting Things Done, used to argue against time blocking. He preferred a simple calendar with only the necessary appointments and deadlines. But eventually, he realized time blocking can work well for many people and even began practicing it himself.
Let’s dive a little deeper into what time blocking is, who can benefit (*hint* – everyone!), and how it might work best for you. I also share tips, tools, and resources to support your time-blocking habits.
Wikipedia defines Time Blocking as:
“A productivity technique for personal time management where a period of time—typically a day or week—is divided into smaller segments or blocks for specific tasks or to-dos. It integrates the function of a calendar with that of a to-do list. It is a kind of scheduling.”
While I agree with this definition of time blocking, there is much more to it than this.
Who should use a time-blocking technique?
Time blocking is best used for people who:
- Have a busy schedule and need to be very intentional about how they use their time,
- Have a fairly open schedule that can be wasted away if time is not blocked to work on specific tasks and projects (aka Parkinson’s Law),
- Reach the end of a day or week feeling stressed and unaccomplished, wondering where the time went,
- Juggle multiple areas of work and life,
- Struggle to find time for focus and big-picture thinking,
- Deal with constant interruptions, or
- Spend too much time “reacting” to the day’s urgencies.
If we are honest, isn’t this all of us at one point or another? I believe that some form of time blocking can work for almost everyone. The key is finding the method, or combination of methods, that works best for you.
Types of Time Blockers
While there are many different ways to apply time blocking to your calendar, we can simplify it by looking at three key methodologies.
1. The Serious Blocker divides their day into specific blocks of time, each dedicated to accomplishing a specific task, or group of tasks. They start each day, or week, with a concrete schedule that lays out what they will work on and when. A serious blocker will work to bunch related tasks (i.e. “task batching”) such as email processing, social media creation, or phone calls, into one block.
In addition, the serious blocker lumps meetings together. That way, they can spend larger chunks of time on focused projects and tasks versus shorter amounts of time spread between meetings throughout the day. This type of time blocking requires more work upfront, and potential cooperation from others, to reschedule meetings that will better fit your ideal schedule.
2. The Flexible Blocker applies time blocking in a broader way, with more general blocks that are flexible depending on what comes up throughout the day. This works well when your days are less predictable and require a more “reactive” approach (e.g. a customer service specialist). Some argue that these types of schedules aren’t compatible with time blocking, but when your workday is often run by outside forces, it’s easy to lose sight of your own goals. Even a simple version of time blocking can help you gain a greater sense of control over unpredictable schedules. You can still block off time for your “reactive work,” and then be more intentional about time during the day that allows for some planning and control (regardless of how little).
3. The Time Themer chooses themes for work they will do during certain time blocks. This is the most open-ended version of time blocking. “Day theming” is the most popular example where you choose a theme for each day of the week. For example:
Any open time is spent on that day’s area of focus. Day theming minimizes the choices you need to make about what to work on throughout the day. You look to your theme and choose tasks based on that theme.
You can also use time theming to break up your day by assigning themes to blocks of time throughout the day. An example of this would be:The schedule may be the same every day or may differ throughout the week. In the example above, Tuesday and Thursday have the same “themed schedule” while the other days look different. In the resources section below I share a template called My Productive Week that can be of great assistance in defining your daily “theme blocks.”
Most people do not fit perfectly into one time theming option but instead use a combination. For example, having a schedule of daily themes can make it easier to determine what tasks to put into working time blocks when using the “serious” or “flexible” blocking methods.
The Benefits of Time Blocking
While it takes some work, and potentially a change in mindset, the following benefits of time blocking show the value of this time management methodology.
- Your need to make decisions at every point in time throughout the day is minimized because your schedule is pre-defined. This saves time and energy throughout your week.
- If you get easily distracted or off-track, a time-blocked calendar will help to pull you back into focus. In addition, time blocking helps to fight multi-tasking allowing you to focus all of your energy on one thing at a time.
- You will get more realistic about how long things take. We often underestimate the time tasks and activities take, and this is a concrete way to see that. This will get better over time.
- When you see your priorities laid out in your finite calendar, you can more easily say “no” to those things that don’t fit.
- You are more likely to accomplish your goals if you schedule specific, intentional time to work on them.
- It will be easier to relax during your leisure time as you know you have a plan to get everything done.
“A 40 hour time-blocked work week, I estimate, produces the same amount of output as a 60+ hour work week pursued without structure.”
– Cal Newport, Author of Deep Work –
Tips for Effective Time Blocking
Below are key things to consider when working to design and maintain your own time-blocking routine.
- Build your time-blocking methodology into regular weekly planning. Look at your upcoming schedule, deadlines, and tasks and fit it all together to create a week that takes into account your goals, priorities, and commitments.
- Review your schedule daily and reset your week as necessary.
- Your routines and habits should be incorporated into your time blocks.
- Leave a time block for an overflow of tasks that take longer than expected or for unexpected appointments or to-dos that come up during the week.
- Once your week is planned, make intentional choices when straying from that plan.
- Leave space between, or within, blocks for transition, travel, time, and necessary breaks.
- Bunch your urgent but less important work together and dedicate a pre-determined amount of time to it. This allows for longer, uninterrupted time for focused work.
- Consider your daily rhythms in your schedule. When are you most energetic, productive, or focused?
- Evaluate your time-blocking schedule regularly and make needed changes.
- When scheduling time blocks for focused work, find a quiet location free of interruptions and/or block notifications on your computer and phone.
- Consider whether you want to block time on weekends (or other non-working days). You may want to leave these times open to allow freedom and flexibility with leisure time.
Most importantly, remember your time-blocked schedule is a guide to assist you with creating your most productive week. If you try to stick to it perfectly, especially at first, you will get overwhelmed when things come up that cause needed changes to your schedule. Review, reset with intentional decisions, and move forward. You might look at time blocking as a game or a puzzle. How can I fit it all in the most optimal way? But as with any game, you will make mistakes, learn along the way, and get better with practice.
Time Blocking Resources
The following resources can help you create your own time-blocked schedule.
- My Productive Week Template
I have created this tool as a template to build your “puzzle” for your time-blocked weekly calendar. It is to be used as a guide – along with your weekly schedule, goals, and tasks – for your weekly planning. The template can be completed digitally or printed.
- The ProAction Planner:
If you prefer to do your weekly planning with a paper planner, which allows for better mental processing and decision-making, the ProAction Planner is a tool to support all of the important areas of planning and time management. A paper planner provides an easy visual that stays in front of you throughout your day. If using a paper planner, I recommend using a writing instrument that allows for change throughout the week. My tool of choice is the Frixion Clicker Erasable Gel Pen, in multiple colors.
- Online Calendar (Outlook, Google, Other)
Whether or not you use a paper planner for weekly planning, the majority of us use an online calendar to keep track of our meetings and appointments. If you choose to use an online calendar for time-blocking, consider color-coding the blocks of time you wish to be flexible. I like to color my movable time blocks with yellow and mark them as “free.” Also consider those time blocks that you want to protect, mark them as busy, and consider them a meeting with yourself.
- Pomodoro Technique and Tools
The Pomodoro Technique is a method in which you focus for timed periods with short breaks between blocks. Learn more about this technique on their website and search for apps like this one to support the technique.
If you are interested in some assistance in determining and implementing the right time-blocking solution for you, please reach out. I’d love to help.
Julie reached out because she had reached a point of extreme frustration and overwhelm. She felt she was constantly trying to catch up, never finding time for her “important but nonurgent” tasks and projects, always worried about what she might be missing, and therefore not truly enjoying her work or personal time. Julie was always reacting to the latest emergency, others’ priorities become her priorities, and she would reach the end of the day, the week, and the year feeling drained, overwhelmed, and unaccomplished. Does this sound familiar?
After talking with Julie, we established that one change she needed was to incorporate a better system and tools for planning her time – her years, months, weeks, and days. An effective plan, and strategy to follow and maintain it, allows Julie to better understand her goals and priorities, and to make better decisions and choices throughout her days. Here I share ten proven strategies for incorporating effective planning into your own days and weeks.
1. Clarify your goals and priorities.
What is important to you in work and life? What do you hope to achieve in the long-term and short-term? If you aren’t clear on what your goals and priorities are, you can never know if you are working on the right thing at any point in time. This clarity will be the basis for your plan and the choices you make throughout the day.
2. Break down your goals into strategies and milestones.
As an elephant lover, I hate to use the saying “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” But it is a good metaphor for attacking your long-term and short-term goals. Once you know what you want to accomplish, you can break your goals into smaller pieces by defining the strategies you will use and when you will achieve various milestones.
3. Create your habits and routines.
Without good habits and routines, it is easy to let your days and weeks slip away without focusing on what is most important. Spend some time figuring out how you will incorporate the needed activities and time to reach your goals. List the habits you want to follow annually, monthly, weekly, and daily. Define daily routines such as tasks or actions you will take each morning, start of day, end of day, and evening.
4. Establish your boundaries.
It is likely that you will need to establish new boundaries in order to be successful in reaching your goals and sticking with your plan. Some examples might include:
- I will return emails and phone calls within 24 hours.
- I will take 1 day to review any new priorities, tasks, or projects before providing an answer.
- I will say “no” to anything that does not support my annual goals.
- I will not take on new volunteer positions this year.
- I will not respond to email or text after 6pm or on weekends.
- I will be in bed by 11pm and up by 7am each day.
Choose boundaries that work for your needs and personality and that will help you to reach your goals.
5. Get the right people on board.
Who will be impacted by your goals, strategies, habits, and routines? Do you have someone to help hold you accountable? Who can help support your plan? Be sure these people are aware of your plan, your boundaries, and how they can help you be successful.
6. Clear your space and your mind.
Take time regularly to clear your physical, digital, and mental space. If necessary, set aside a day or more to create an environment where you can focus and be intentional.
7. Determine the right tools.
What tools can you use to support your planning, focus, and daily intention and action? My favorite tools for daily and weekly planning are Microsoft Outlook/Tasks and the ProAction Planner. Do your research and find tools that will allow you to plan, reflect, track, and maintain. When working with others, it is also important to implement tools that will help you plan, collaborate, and track projects and tasks with them. Examples include Microsoft Planner and Teams, Asana, Trello, and Google Workspace. These are just a few of the many options available. Be sure to determine your needs and find what will best fit those needs.
8. Plan your weeks and days.
Set aside time regularly to plan your weeks and days based on your annual goals, habits, routines, and other priorities. Block time for the important, but nonurgent, projects and tasks. While it is rare that your week will go exactly as planned, having this basis as you begin your week will provide control and perspective, and allow you to make better-informed decisions when new urgencies arise.
Incorporate a system to track progress on your projects, goals, and habits. Review this regularly in order to evaluate and reset as needed throughout the year. You might also consider a look at how you spend your time and how closely you stick to your plan. Each day, evaluate challenges and areas for improvement. Small changes can yield big results.
10. Reflect and improve.
In addition to tracking your progress, schedule regular time to reflect on your results in order to make appropriate adjustments and allow for continuous improvement. This might include a quick daily and/or weekly reflection, a more thoughtful monthly reflection, and a deeper annual review and reflection. What went well? What challenges did you face? What will you stop, start, or continue doing? This is also a great time to practice gratitude. Be kind to yourself and others.
After clarifying her goals and priorities and putting the systems above in place to fit her needs, work, and lifestyle, Julie is feeling much more in control of her time. She is living intentionally and working proactively which has reduced stress and overwhelm. But the biggest and best change is that Julie is enjoying her work again and is able to focus on those people and things that matter most in life.
Need some tools to assist with the areas above? Check out our new ProAction Process™ Workbook packed full of tips, templates, worksheets, and exercises to support these areas of planning and more.
If you’d like a partner in helping you address your overwhelm and reach your goals, I’d love to talk. Reach out or schedule your free 30-minute consultation.
How has 2022 been for you? What went well? What could be improved? Did you reach your business and life goals? What will you do differently next year to grow further?
Before you do 2023 annual planning, it is a valuable exercise to close out the year and prepare for the new one by reviewing your goals, habits, and routines. Follow the steps below to review and reset for continued success.
Look back on the past year and answer reflection questions such as:
- What did I accomplish this year?
- What am I proud of?
- What am I thankful for?
- What should I celebrate?
- What will I continue to do that contributed to my success?
- What were my challenges this year?
- What could/would I have done differently?
- What is one thing I could do to improve next year?
Set aside focused time to write your answers to these questions. You may be surprised at what you learn about yourself, your systems and habits, and how to address challenges in the upcoming year.
For example, during my Year in Review, I realized I am not diligent about scheduling time into my calendar at the beginning of each week for the “important but not urgent” tasks and projects. I, therefore, have not made the progress I wanted on many of these projects. I need to create a routine of setting aside time each week, just as I do with my exercise, before I build in other tasks and appointments. This will now be part of my planning process for 2023.
2. Review Your Annual Goals
The second step in your Year in Review is to review the status of your current year annual goals – both professional and personal. What goals are complete? What contributed to that success? Do you have goals that are not complete, or were not even started? If so, what challenges prevented their completion? Or perhaps there was a change in priority or focus during the year. Determine which of these goals should remain for the upcoming year and write any notes to carry into your 2023 annual goal setting.
3. Analyze Your Habits and Routines
How did you do on your goals and progress related to your defined habits this year? Review your habit tracking tables and schedule time to reward yourself for any goals reached. Will these habits continue or grow?
For those habits that were a struggle, analyze the reasons and what needs to change in the upcoming year. Do you understand the deeper “why” for the habit? Do you have the right tools in place? Do you need an accountability partner or coach? Determine the habits you will stop, continue, or update for the upcoming year.
Similarly, review your current routines (or routines you had hoped to establish this year). Look at your morning, start of day, end of day, and evening routines. How are they working for you? Do they need to be adjusted or reset? Establish the routines you would like to implement in 2023.
To help you with your Year In Review, I have created a downloadable template to walk you through the process. Click below to have it emailed to you.
You can also find this template, along with other valuable planning exercises and templates, at ProActionPlanner.com. Get them soon as they will only be free until the of the year.
If you’d like assistance with review and reflection, the goal-setting process, or in setting up systems for success, contact Lori at Life Made Simple or schedule your free 30-minute consultation. I’d love to help!
My daughter was recently feeling some anxiety at school and texted to let me know. One of the responses I texted back was to “focus on what you can control.” It had an impact, and she decided to post it on social media. The next day she told me it was her most shared post ever – it resonated with many of her followers.
Later that week, a coaching client shared a challenge she had encountered when an unexpected issue arose that stopped her in her tracks. It caused her stress and frustration and caused her to lose many hours of time. As we talked through her reaction to the situation, I asked her, “Looking back, what could you control about the situation at that moment?”, “What was the appropriate reaction?”, “What next steps did you take, or could you have taken?”
With so much out of our control on a daily basis, it’s important to control what we can, be intentional about our thoughts and choices, and act based on this. It’s not always easy but worrying about things we have no control over wastes time and energy and increases stress.
Below are a few tools you might consider to help you focus on those things you can control, so you can better cope with the unexpected and uncontrollable.
Do you often feel you are constantly reacting to the current “fire” or “squeaky wheel”? Some believe there is no use in planning if things are out of your control anyway. But, this is exactly the reason for it. Planning allows you to gain control over your time and actions in a proactive way. It gives you a better understanding of what is urgent and what is important. Then when the unexpected occurs you can more easily adjust and make intentional choices about if, and how, it fits into your plan. By planning you are making a habit of “focusing on what you can control.”
Stop and Think, Then Act
When the unexpected occurs, or you are feeling anxiety at a certain moment, step back from the situation and ask yourself the following questions:
- What can I control about this situation or about what I am feeling?
- Is this my worry or my challenge to handle or does it belong to someone else?
- What specific action(s) can I take to move forward?
Taking a moment to answer these questions will allow you to refocus and transition from being reactive to proactive, allowing for intentional choices about your next thoughts and actions.
If you are someone who best processes information by writing, take some time to journal your answers to the questions above. Journaling daily on anything that weighs on your mind is a great habit to develop to gain control over your thoughts and actions.
Meditate or Pray
Depending on your spiritual preference, tools such as meditation and prayer can help keep your mind focused and present, along with other benefits. Practicing regularly will help train your mind to react in a more relaxed and focused way when dealing with unexpected and challenging situations. There are many free apps that can help you learn and practice these techniques including Calm, Headspace, and Insight Timer.
What tools or techniques have you found to help you decrease anxiety and stress and focus on the things you can control? Share them in the comments below!
Recently on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, I decided to join my husband for a bike ride. We filled the tires and water bottles, put on our helmets, and headed out. I felt a little extra resistance while peddling up the hill out of our neighborhood and thought, “Ok, this is hard. I think I just need to warm up.” As we pedaled on, I continued to feel that the ride was much more difficult than I expected. I couldn’t keep up with my husband – it seemed even when he wasn’t peddling he was going faster than me – and I was already out of breath. Thoughts that were going through my head during this time included: “I thought I was in better shape than this.” “I work out more than him…why can’t I keep up?” “Is biking really that different than my regular workout?” “What is wrong with me?”
After over three miles of this, it was time to turn back for home. We stopped so I could catch my breath and get a drink of water and my husband said, “Are you sure there isn’t something wrong with your bike? Maybe your tires?” I responded that it felt like it was riding fine and I didn’t hear any strange noises or rubbing, but let me get off my bike and check just to be sure. Lo and behold, the front brake was snug against the tire. I had basically been riding with the brakes on! After a few minutes, I figured out the problem, fixed it, and we rode home in about half the time it took us to get there – a much more enjoyable ride.
What does this somewhat embarrassing story have to do with productivity?
How many times in your life are you pushing against some sort of friction without realizing it? What could be made easier and more enjoyable if you stepped back and really analyzed, and addressed the issue? Often, we are so engrossed in day-to-day life, information, and tasks that we fail to really consider what we are doing. It is vital that we regularly take time to review and reset. In his book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Greg McKeown asks “Is there a point at which doing less (but thinking more) will actually produce better outcomes?” My response is “yes”! And my sore legs would agree.
Below are three simple steps you can take to minimize or alleviate the friction in your life and career.
1. Take Notice
Pablo Picasso said, “Without great solitude, no serious work is possible.” It is important to take focused time regularly to review your actions. Are they intentional? Do they reflect your priorities? Are you in control or are you letting others define your schedule and tasks? Are there processes, projects, or tasks that could be done more efficiently or effectively? A regular review might include the following questions:
- What is going well for me? How can I continue this?
- What do I not enjoy? What are my challenges? What can I stop doing? What can be made simpler?
- What do I most enjoy? What do I look forward to? How can I do more of this? What might get in the way?
This reflection is much easier to do if you are clear on your vision, priorities, and plan. For more on this, see my June 2021 blog, Mastering Time Management: What To Do Before the To Do List.
2. Identify the Issue
When you take focused time to reflect and review your priorities and related actions, it becomes simpler to identify any issues that are holding you back, getting in your way, or causing unnecessary friction. Maybe it’s a process, tool, or system that isn’t working optimally. Perhaps a colleague, friend, or family member is causing tension or stress. Or maybe it’s the position, company, or career you are in. It may even be a medical issue that has been overlooked resulting in lower productivity, and higher stress and anxiety.
If you are reviewing systems and processes for a company or team, identifying issues can entail a full-blown workflow analysis to find areas for automation, unneeded duplication, or improvements to technology, training, and communication. More often though, it just takes quiet, focused thought or journaling to pinpoint obstacles towards reaching your goals. Identify them and write them down.
3. Create Change
How will you minimize or alleviate the issues you have identified above? Consider any resources needed to support the change as well as your own habits or actions that need to change. What will you do differently going forward to reduce the friction or obstacles keeping you from success and enjoyment? Making a full plan for success is great, but sometimes you’ll need to just start with one small action step. Then, take another and another. Change can be hard, but the increased joy and success will be well worth it. And, you will likely reach your goals much quicker than you would have otherwise.
As my husband and I drove our bikes back into the garage, we found our daughter waiting for us to leave for her soccer game. Since the bike ride took much longer than expected, we were almost late. I realized then how much the friction I was working against for the first half of the ride impacted more than just me. It also caused stress for my daughter and potentially her team and coach if we were late. While I wish I would have stopped to evaluate the situation sooner, the fact that I did eventually stop to (1) take notice, (2) identify the issue with the brakes, and (3) create change by working to fix it, allowed for a much more enjoyable ride home, and we arrived at pre-game warm-up just in time.
If you are like most creative, driven entrepreneurs and professionals, you have a lot of big goals, fun projects, and life-changing ideas on your plate – not to mention the other day-to-day tasks and activities that take up your time. Without a good process for analyzing, prioritizing, and planning, you can become overwhelmed and frustrated that yet another day – or week – goes by without measurable progress. Here I share 3 ways to address this overwhelm so you can reach your big goals quickly and with more focus and less stress, allowing you to share your passions with the world and have fun at the same time.
Success = Skill + Passion + Hard Work
Paul Torrance, Distinguished Professor, researcher, and developer of the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking, conducted a 40-year longitudinal study of creative individuals. Based on the results of his study, Torrance developed the Manifesto for Children to guide them as they grow and struggle to maintain their creativity and use their strengths to create careers. While Torrance intended his manifesto for children, I think the guidance applies to adults as well.
Many of us learn these important ideas later in life, or maybe not at all. Torrance hoped to help improve a creative individuals’ chance of success and life fulfillment with his study and manifesto.
Similarly, you will be most successful and be able to help others more when you focus your time and energy on those things you are good at and passionate about. Big goals take hard work and if you don’t have the knowledge and excitement, you will be much less likely to put in the time and effort required. To narrow down the activities you should be spending your time on, draw the following grid on a piece of paper, and divide your ideas, goals, and activities into these categories:
You will want to spend the most time on activities and goals from the top-left “Enjoy/Skilled” quadrant and develop educational or learning goals from the top-right “Enjoy/Unskilled” quadrant. Or, if these activities don’t serve your greater goals, consider removing them. Look at delegating tasks in the bottom half of the grid – those you don’t enjoy – or if possible, remove them. Deleting tasks that don’t serve your greater purpose and goals will open the door for new opportunities.
Determine What To Start, Stop, or Continue Doing
A second exercise that can help you focus on your passions and priorities is the “Start/Stop/Continue” exercise. Write these three words on the top of a piece of paper and list all of those things you would like to start doing, stop doing, and continue doing. If you are a visual person, you might use mind-mapping as a way to brainstorm activities or tasks for each category.
Be realistic when considering your time and energy over the time period considered. This is a great exercise for habit-related activities and goals. For example, in order to have the energy and focus for my big goals, I would like to start drinking more water daily, stop staying up so late, and continue exercising at least 3 days per week.
Find Support and Accountability to Reach Your Goals
Being an entrepreneur, business owner, or leader can be lonely. You want to do great things but may not have someone that understands and shares your passion and drive. Without someone there to communicate your struggles and help get through roadblocks, there may be a loss of momentum or halted progress on your goals. It’s also important to be able to share your excitement when reaching milestones. E. Paul Torrance felt strongly enough about this to include two related items in his Manifesto for Children: “Find a great teacher or mentor who will help you.” and “Learn the skills of interdependence.”
Following are a few different ways you can find this support and assistance:
- An accountability partner. This may be a family member, friend, or colleague, as long as they share your drive and passion and provide the support and encouragement you need through the good and challenging times.
- A mastermind group. The advantage of a formal mastermind group is you have a team of people with different backgrounds, experiences, and skillsets as you work to set and reach your goals. For the best chance of success, I would recommend a paid group with an experienced leader/host.
- A business, life, or productivity coach. Sometimes it makes the most sense to hire a coach to help you get clear on your passions, strengths, and goals and then to help you develop the plan to reach those goals. This person should provide motivation and accountability, be a sounding board as you work through challenges and offer solutions to keep you moving, and be your greatest cheerleader when things go well.
The world needs your big ideas – your book, your product, your new business, your knowledge, your energy, your talent. What will you do to ensure you prioritize, focus, and take action so you can reach your biggest goals?
More blogs related to Priorities, Goal-Setting, and Planning:
Get Unstuck with a Simple Project Plan
Create Your Top 10, and Bottom 10, List
The Superman: Goal Achieved