Ultimate guide to time blocking: tips and techniques

June 22, 2021 - 19 min read

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What is time blocking?

Why does time blocking work?

Is time blocking right for you?

Time blocking benefits

Time blocking method criticisms

Is time blocking for everyone?

How to time block

Common time blocking mistakes

Start time blocking today

Both Elon Musk and Bill Gates are well known for having high levels of productivity along with the ability to maximize each minute of the day.

What’s their secret?

Time blocking. 

But what is time blocking? And how can you use it to help improve your productivity? 

Let’s take a look at what time blocking is, its key benefits, and eight steps you can take to begin time blocking.

What is time blocking?

Time blocking is a planning method that divides your day into smaller blocks of time. During each block of time, you focus on a single task or a group of similar tasks. The process is simple. 

Unlike a to-do list, time blocking not only tells you what to do but when to do it.

This may sound like a scheduling recipe for disaster. But when you’ve divided your calendar into time blocks, it keeps you task-focused and limits the ability of others to infringe on your time.

What’s more, instead of following an ever-expanding to-do list, time blocking lets you start each day with a schedule of specific tasks to complete.

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Why does time blocking work?

Time blocking works because it requires a weekly review of your schedule to prioritize tasks.
Once you’ve sized up your week, adjust your time blocks accordingly for each day. In addition, reviews at the end of your day will ensure that you account for any unfinished items and new tasks.

Furthermore, time blocking is exponentially more effective because it’s built on the premise of single-tasking, unlike multitasking. Multitasking divides our attention and ability to focus.
The single task nature of time blocking can improve productivity by as much as 80%. You can really focus for an hour or two at a time and do deep work.

With time blocking, your schedule becomes your touchstone and eliminates the need to decide on what you should focus on. 

If you’re ever thrown off and become confused over what to do next, simply look at your calendar, find the appropriate time block, and get back to work. Consequently, you’re not wasting time or energy deciding on what you should be working on next.

But time blocking doesn’t mean you must forgo necessary but time-sapping tasks, like email and administrative functions. The secret is to simply batch those tasks and schedule them as a block on your calendar. 

Over time, you’ll gain greater levels of productivity by not jumping between tasks and allowing the mind to focus on one type of project. 

Is time blocking right for you?

If anything in the list below sounds familiar, time blocking may be a good way to take back control of your schedule:

  • Your work life is so busy that you can’t find time to focus on big-picture items like strategy and long-term direction.
  • You're ruled by meetings and can’t focus on what really matters.
  • You feel like a victim to your inbox and are constantly answering email requests throughout your day.
  • You have trouble breaking down and planning out larger tasks.
  • Your job requires you to juggle a lot of different responsibilities, tasks, and projects.
  • You’re struggling with work-life balance and fitting in time for fun.
  • You want to try a new style of working to boost your productivity.
  • You want to achieve more of your goals.
  • You’re looking to do more deep work (Focusing on one task for an extended period of time instead of shallow work where you’re constantly switching tasks).

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 Time blocking benefits

Once you’ve gone down the road of time blocking, some longer-term benefits will emerge. 

Tasks will be completed faster with more attention to detail since you’re able to focus completely on the job at hand. Instead of dispersing your energy across multiple tasks, you can dive deeply into the important task in front of you.

Other time blocking benefits include:

  • Time blocking gives you a chance to renew your commitment to priorities and to what really matters in your life. This will become extremely evident as you block your calendar each week and need to make decisions over what matters most.
  • Time blocking is the key to eliminating procrastination since you’ll have an allotted time to both begin and complete the task.
  • Time blocking helps you become a master over meeting disruptions. If you’ve blocked out time for meetings, you won’t feel bad for turning down meetings that are not on your block.
  • Time blocking allows you to be more efficient once you’ve grouped similar tasks together in a time block and can bring skills to completing the task. In contrast, you’ll find yourself wasting time switching between dissimilar tasks when you don’t time block.
  • Time blocking helps you gain a greater understanding of just how long completing tasks actually takes. This will help with future scheduling and making commitments.

Time blocking method criticisms

Not everyone is a fan of time blocking. There are times when it’s just not practical. 

The main critiques of the time blocking method include:

  • Your job demands don’t fit a structured schedule. The strict scheduling of time blocking doesn’t allow for impromptu meetings. Or immediate requests from superiors. When an issue is urgent, you can’t say “no” just because it doesn’t fit in your schedule.
  • Your schedule is made up of urgent matters. You may make an effort when planning your day only to see things fall apart when you’re met by one urgent task after another.
  • It’s a major investment. Time blocking requires time and energy every day in order to be effective. It’s not a simple to-do list.
  • Your schedule is inconsistent. Time blocking is easier when you’re working with a clear set of daily tasks. Managing your schedule can be problematic when you’re handling a barrage of demands.

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Is time blocking for everyone?

No, time blocking won’t work for everyone. If your role (and your schedule) is reactionary, then time blocking might be more trouble than it's worth.

Some jobs consist almost entirely of  “putting out fires,” supporting others, or constantly prioritizing what is most important at the time. Other roles are task-based in service to customers, internal or external.

Time blocking doesn’t work well in these situations. There isn’t an uninterrupted hour or two in your time blocking schedule to focus on deep work. 

For example, if you’re an air traffic controller or a dispatcher for a freight company, time blocking probably won’t work very well for you. Your work needs to be adaptable to the situation at hand. 

However, time blocking works well for anybody with a more stable schedule. 

If you know roughly what you’re going to do each day or week, you can use time blocking to work more efficiently and get things done.

How to time block

Now that you understand the pros and cons of time blocking, let’s look at some practical steps you can take to make it work for you:

1. Decide what you care about most

If you have clarity on this question, you’ll have established the basis for making all of your time blocking decisions. 

Do you want more time with your kids while keeping a reasonable schedule? Do you want more freedom from emails and distracting meetings? Do you want to generate work that is more meaningful and impactful? 

The answers to these important questions will inform what appears on your time blocking calendar. As well as the relative weight you give scheduled items. 

2. Create a to-do list

Once you know what you care about most, the next step is to write out your daily to-do list. 

Be sure to include both personal and work tasks. Next, group items into the appropriate time block, such as “meetings,” “email,” “family time,” and any other high-value projects. 

Schedule mandatory tasks first. Any high-priority task should be at the top of your to-do list.

You can also “bookend” your work time blocks by first creating personal blocks at the beginning and end of your workday. This ensures you’ll have time for personal obligations because you’re limiting the length of your working day. 

3. Practice task batching 

Task batching is when you do a bunch of similar tasks at once.

For example, you can use task batching for something as simple as stuffing invoices into envelopes.

A standard way might be to individually fold each invoice, followed by putting it in an envelope and sealing it. Then you repeat the same process for the next one.

With task batching, you can break that larger task down and do each smaller task separately.

Here’s a time blocking example using task batching:

You might fold all 100 invoices at once. Then place them all in envelopes at once. And then seal all of the envelopes at once.

Even switching between smaller tasks can waste a significant amount of time. It’s better to get into the rhythm of completing one repetitive action.

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4. Try day theming

Day theming is a more advanced form of time blocking.

Not only do you batch smaller tasks together, but you create a specific theme for your entire day as well. This allows you to focus on larger areas of your business.

For example, If you’re an executive, you might spend all of Monday dealing with work that involves sales and marketing. Then on Tuesday, you may focus on tasks involving accounting and finance.

If you’re working on a larger project, you may choose to devote one day per week where you only work on project-related tasks. And set your everyday work aside for another day.

5. Use timeboxing

Timeboxing is simply blocking out a specific unit of time within your calendar to do a future task.

If you’ve ever accepted a meeting invite and had Outlook automatically add it to your calendar, then you’ve done timeboxing.

You can add more structure to your day by further timeboxing necessary tasks.

Let’s say you work in accounts payable. You may need to time box your mornings on Wednesdays and Fridays to focus on completing your payment run for vendors. 

You may also box out time at the end of each month to complete bank reconciliations.

6. Find your "best" time 

One of the key benefits of time blocking is that it allows you to focus your energies at times when you’re most productive. 

Our biorhythms often determine our ability to function well while doing a specific task. Some of us do our best work in the early morning, while others function better in the afternoon. 

With time blocking, you can shape your calendar to allow for more focus on critical projects during your most productive periods. When you’re less sharp, you can block time to do more mundane recurring tasks, like email.

7. Anticipate unforeseen demands

Even the best schedule can fall apart when faced with the urgent demands and distractions of the moment. 

How does time blocking account for these important tasks? It’s simple, really. 

Just create a daily block for urgent tasks and use it to address unforeseen emails or critical last-minute items.

When you time block in this way, you increase efficiency by protecting the time and attention required for more important tasks.

8. Use a time blocking calendar

If you’re struggling with creating your own time blocking plan, you could try using a calendar or planner specifically for time blocking.

Computer science professor and author Cal Newport created a planner specifically for time blocking. 

The Cal Newport time management planner provides a “daily method for deep work in a distracted world.” It allows you to utilize the time blocking method by providing a grid to block out every minute of your day.

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Common time blocking mistakes

If you’re new to time blocking, there are some common mistakes to avoid:

1. Underestimating time

 Most of us are guilty of underestimating the time it takes to complete a task. 

Consequently, when creating a new block, it makes sense to “pad” the time, so you don’t grow frustrated with the process. With practice, you’ll gain a better understanding of the time completing a project really takes so that you can plan accordingly.

2. Forgetting about breaks

It is not only important to create a block for lunch and regular breaks. You should also create breaks between tasks for maximum effectiveness. 

3. Always sticking to your schedule

There may be days when you need to walk away from your schedule. 

It’s difficult to imagine every day solely dedicated to total productivity. It’s good to have a daily routine, but you can’t expect to stick to it perfectly every day.

Time blocking is not meant to be a rigid system but one that supports your productivity and growth. Critical unscheduled rest is always necessary to operate at your best.

4. Believing you need to follow your time blocks rigidly

You don’t always have to follow your time blocks exactly for them to work.

While you need to respect your time blocks, there are always unexpected things that come up. Don’t stress too much if you need to move some parts of your schedule around.

5. Being too general with time blocks

If you aren’t specific, you won’t know what to work on. Try to break down all of the steps for larger tasks. Then estimate how long each bite-sized step will take you.

6. Trying to time-block on a paper calendar

Physical calendars become cluttered fast. And it’s difficult to account for where all of your time is going. 

You also can’t maintain a weekly or monthly calendar as easily. Using a digital calendar app is easier and more convenient.

7. Not scheduling everything 

Don’t just block out time for a larger important task. You also want to time block for administrative tasks like replying to emails. And even things like scrolling through social media.

Scheduling out time for things that are typically distractions allows you to put a limit on them.

You can allow yourself to have a bit of time to scroll through Instagram or Facebook without feeling guilty. But once the time block is over, it’s back to the important work.

Then you can focus on the task at hand. This helps avoid a nagging voice in your head telling you to check your emails. 

Start time blocking today

Let’s face it, our busy lives and over-full calendars are joined at the hip. 

The better you can manage your calendar, the better you can manage your life. 

Fortunately, time blocking provides a time management solution that can give us far greater control, creativity, and peace of mind.

If you're having trouble managing what matters at work, BetterUp can help. 

Our assessments can help you identify your strengths and areas for development. Then we can provide coaching to meet your current needs and challenges. 

Start your free trial today.

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Published June 22, 2021

Robert Carroll

BetterUp Fellow Coach

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