As many are still working from home, productivity is still a huge buzzword. And with that to-do-lists are a hot topic too. But there may be a better way for some of us to increase our productivity, both when working from home and when we eventually return to the office; time blocking.
What Is Time Blocking?
In reality, time blocking is simply the practice of scheduling your to-do list against your calendar. To use it you block off the time you’ll be working on a specific thing ahead of time, and then during that time, you work on the thing.
Let’s imagine it’s Monday and you have a presentation that you need to draft by Thursday. You block off either a couple of hours on your calendar each afternoon between now and then, or — less recommended — an all-day marathon on Wednesday. That’s time blocking.
There are a lot of nuances to actually implementing a time blocking strategy — the pros and cons of blocking off your entire day, what things get blocked and what don’t, how far in advance to block, modifying your blocks on the fly and after the fact, etc — but time is the basic currency, and the action of “to-do list item => block of time on the calendar” is how you trade in it.
For such a simple concept, it’s a massively useful productivity tool, especially for consultants, managers and analysts. Here are some of the reasons why:
It makes you the master of your daily schedule
Many people let their calendar completely dictate their time — if it’s on the calendar, it’s got to be done. But, they also only use it as a tool for other people take time from them.
This leads to late nights or early mornings catching up on “actual work,” because your time and attention was sapped away from you throughout the standard workday in the form of 30-minute meetings, hour long calls, and other interruptions.
By blocking off your most important work time on your calendar before these distractions and requests come in, you can continue to let your calendar rule your time without giving up your most precious hours.
It is a socially-acceptable way to say no to time vampires.
The practice is called “time blocking” because the time is scheduled in large work friendly “blocks,” but it has a double meaning: it also blocks your time in the sense that it stops others from being able to eat into it.
“I’m booked solid until Friday, can we chat for five minutes now or do it over email?” is a much more tactful way to get out of useless, agenda-less meetings than “I’m trying to take fewer meetings right now. How important is this?” Put your calendar to “private” and the vampires don’t need to know that you’re the one that booked you solid; they’ll just see “busy.”
It balances the urgent with the important.
There are non-human time vampires, too: urgent but unimportant tasks also have the ability to fill a day and ruin your productivity if you’re not careful and intentional with your time.
With time blocking, you can still drop what you’re doing and handle a true crisis if it comes up, but planning what you’re going to work on ahead of time forces you to make a conscious choice to do so, rather than letting the urgent distractions automatically win.
It forces you to prove your priorities with action.
Just like a meeting, a time block is a commitment to show up and do a thing for a certain period of time. The only difference is that it’s a commitment to yourself; a commitment that something is important enough to you deserve time on your calendar.
It prevents procrastination.
To extend the previous idea, scheduling time to work on things forces you to create the space to do them. If you’re time blocking and something still isn’t making the schedule, it’s probably not actually a priority.
It creates a record of how you actually spend your time.
If you make a habit of updating your calendar as you finish your time blocks and even making notes about the task, you will naturally end up with an accurate week-over-week record of how your time is spent.
This can be used in practical ways—think easier billable hours — or in more general reflective ways like realizing a third of your life is spent in status meetings, or that you only really get writing done if it’s done first thing in the morning before you talk to anyone else.
It trains you to be better at estimating how long things take.
When you reach the end of a task before the block is up or reach the end of a block and still have stuff to do, you know you guessed wrong. First, make a note to block off or rearrange time later in the week to finish the task.
Then, take a second to ask yourself why you guessed wrong. Was there hidden complexity? An unknown dependency? Did you just let yourself get distracted? Make a mental or physical note for next time and things will only get better.