How to Time Block (Without the Apps)
Do you get overwhelmed by digital task management tools?
Are you seeking a good mix of structure and flexibility in your day?
Is there an easy, stress-free way to block time for important projects?
This is Episode 47. How to Time Block Without the Apps
Hello and welcome to The Incrementalist. My name is Dyan Williams, and I’m your productivity coach who will help you make big changes in small steps.
We cannot manage time. We do not control time.
We can manage how we use our time and how we invest it. We can control where we place our attention and energy. We get to decide whether to single task or multitask. We get to choose whether to stay focused on a project or give in to distractions.
We have a limited number of 24 hours in a given day. Of that, we usually need at least 6 to 8 hours of sleep. We also have basic self-care, like eating and brushing our teeth. We have meetings and events that we must lead or attend.
Sure, there’s always tomorrow and the day after that to start or finish an important project. But sometimes we have deadlines and milestones to meet. Or we miss out on ideal opportunities the more we procrastinate.
More busyness does not lead to higher quality or better results. To align your intentions with your actions, you need to have structure in your day. You also want to have buffers for emergencies and margin for the unexpected.
Time blocking is an essential tool to protect time for important projects and tasks. You assign a time block – with a start time and an end time -- to focus on a specific activity or a batch of similar activities.
In a Time Block, you channel your focus, energy and resources on a particular task or category of tasks. You’re not in reactive mode fighting off and distractions.
Time blocking helps you prioritize a high-value project that has been put on the backburner for days, weeks or months. To start the project and make progress toward completion, you block time for it. You can chunk the project into smaller parts and set time blocks to work on each part.
Time Blocking and Time Boxing are interrelated and complement each other. But they are not exactly the same. Time Blocking is a type of Time Boxing. Time Boxing has been around longer and existed before Time Blocking became more common in the workplace.
Time blocking is making time for a project. It hones your focus to meet the highest quality standards. It reduces procrastination. It takes advantage of the Pareto Principle, or the 80/20 rule. This basically means 80% of your results come from 20% of your efforts. Some activities have higher value and leverage than others.
Time boxing is limiting the amount of time you spend on a project. It pushes you to complete a project that meets acceptable standards. It reduces perfectionism. It applies Parkinson’s law, which says work expands to fill the time allotted for completion. Some activities are just busy work and a waste of time.
Here are three main tips for Time Blocking:
The first is to schedule in 30 minute or 1-hour increments.
Elon Musk uses Time Boxing to schedule his day in 5-minute increments. It’s reported that this 5-minute rule is his secret for being so productive. But this is a very rigid way to live and a labor-intensive way to plan your day.
If you have a soft time block, you can decide whether to continue on with the task or activity. Maybe it’s better to put off the next thing you planned to do. If you have a hard time block, you need to stop no matter what. You must wrap up and head out to an appointment or get on a conference call.
There’s an Inc.com article, titled “Elon Musk has 24 hours in a day, So do you. Here’s how he gets more done.” As you scroll down, it reads, Few people are as productive as Elon Musk. The SpaceX and Tesla founder reportedly puts in 85-100 hours a week, yet still manages to spend 80% of his time on engineering and design.
While that might seem unbelievable (and more than a little excessive), Musk has a simple time-management hack that lets him get more done each day. Each workday is split up into 5-minute 'chunks'--even lunch--meaning more tasks are scheduled and gotten to in a single day. End quote.
While having a strict calendar has benefits, it can also backfire and is hard to sustain.
Another article on the clockify blog, reads, “The Exceptional entrepreneur Elon Musk always managed to find time for his kids, all while working 120+ hours per week and making plans with NASA to colonize mars – thanks to a time management technique time blocking.”
As you scroll down you get to the section on time blocking apps. It says you need a time tracker app; a to-do app, task-management app, organizer or planner, and a calendar app to do time blocking. Then it lists and describes the 12 best apps for time blocking. Clockify, Google Calendar, Any Do, Todoist, Edo Agenda, Fantastical 2, Remember the milk, digical, things, Time blocks, Jorte, Cozi.
I don’t know about you, but the more I look at these apps, the more overwhelming it seems to time block your day. I’d have to block a chunk of time to learn how to use the app. Plus, anytime you open an app, you can get sucked into digital distractions. And here’s the truth. You really don’t need an app to do time blocking.
The Pomodoro Technique is a popular time blocking method invented by Italian Francesco Cirillo (Cheeleeloh). Using a kitchen timer shaped like a pomodoro (Italian for tomato), you divide the time period for a project into 25-minute segments with 5-minute breaks in between. In each 25-minute block, you focus on one thing. By the way, you can use any timer, including the one on your smart phone.
You don’t have to stick with 25-minute chunks. You can modify it to fit your work flow, ability to focus and natural rhythms. Maybe you’re good with a full 60 minutes of focused work followed by a 15-minute break, or 50 minutes followed by a 10- minute break. Experiment to see what works for you.
Tip #2 is to Time block just the day.
When you hear the term Time Blocking, you might picture color coded calendars filled up with specific activities for the week. There’s an article on Gusto.com titled Google Calendar Hacks from 5 Ridiculously Productive Small Business Owners. When you scroll down, you see a calendar labeled, “The ultimate google calendar to maximize your productivity.”
Some people might thrive from assigning time blocks for the whole week. Personally, I find this to be more trouble than it’s worth.
When you time block, I recommend you do it for just the day. Scheduling a time block goes beyond making a to-do list. It tells you when exactly you will do a task, in what context and under what circumstances, and for how long.
When you set a time block, you can structure it around the task itself or around a set time. Task structure is working until you complete the task. For example, I will write 5 pages in two hours. Time structure is working for a certain time period. For example, I write for two hours regardless of how many pages I finish.
To make sure you’re protecting the right amount of time for your priorities, you must do a Time Audit. This means you track how you actually used your time.
What were the time leaks? Emails, social media, online news feeds?
Did you take more time or less time than you planned to finish a task?
Were there requests and demands that called for your attention?
Did you face interruptions and distractions that slowed you down?
Or did you get into a flow state that was abruptly ended with a reminder alarm for the next time block?
What’s your biological rhythm? How’s your energy flow throughout the day? Are you more alert in the mornings or in the evenings?
Not all hours are created equal. Maybe your golden hour for writing reports is from 10 to 12 pm, not from 4 to 6 pm.
With a Time Audit, you can adjust your time blocks as you make progress. If you make progress on a task or project but it’s still undone, you set another time block for it. If you finished early, you can move on and time block for something else.
It’s harder to make these adjustments for the whole week than for the day or the next day. At the end of your day, spend at least 5 to 15 minutes reviewing your day and assessing the setbacks and successes. Set or reset time blocks for the next day.
In episode 8 of The Incrementalist, I talked about how to plan your ideal week. But time blocking the week is way more detailed than planning the week. It’s more realistic and less frustrating to do time blocking for the day, than for the whole week.
Tip #3 is to incorporate Theming and Batching in your time blocks
If you’re juggling many different projects and various types of work, theming your day will help. Theming is usually for high-value or high-focus activities. This is when a day is centered around a particular theme, like writing, thinking and reflecting, planning and strategizing, doing deep, creative work, and networking. This reduces uncertainty and decision fatigue around when a certain project will be done. For example, I designate Fridays for recording podcast episodes or YouTube videos.
Batching is usually for low-leverage, low-cognitive tasks. If something takes you 5 minutes or less to do, try batching it with similar tasks. This includes processing telephone calls and emails.
Cal Newport, computer science professor at Georgetown University and author of Deep Work and Digital Minimalism, says time blocking is key to daily productivity. It enables you to do deep work and make progress on the right things at the right pace for the relevant deadlines.
Cal’s system is captured in a daily planner called the Time-Block Planner. Although I do not use the planner, the method is close in line with how I time block. My time blocking technique has evolved. It’s been stripped down and simplified over the years. Just like me, you don’t have to follow a particular system out there.
Digital Apps or even a paper planner are not necessary for Time Blocking. Yes, it helps to record the time block on your calendar, showing you have an appointment with yourself to do the thing you must do.
But when you have autonomy over your schedule, or when there’s no open access to your calendar, you don’t’ have to enter the time block on the calendar itself.
In fact, I typically use a white board and sometimes pen and paper to schedule out my time blocks for the day. I do not use digital apps. I use my planner for setting a priorities list for the day or week, tracking time, monitoring progress and deadlines, and scheduling appointments. But I do not use it for time blocking, which is a separate process.
So, here’s how I do time blocking on a white board. If you’re listening to the podcast, you can hop over to the YouTube channel for the video and visual demo.
First, put the date at the very top.
Then in a vertical column on the left, write the hour, 9 10, 11, 12… all the way up to 5 pm. You can tailor this to when you start your day and end your day.
To structure your day, you can first set the time blocks for big tasks and appointments. I use squares to signify a task and triangles to signify an appointment.
In my example, from 9 to 11 am, Write Memo. 11 to 11:30, process emails. 12 to 1:30 pm, lunch with John. 2 to 2:30 pm - telephone call with Vikram (a client), 3 to 4 pm - write memo (i.e. continue with the work I was doing in the morning). From 4 to 5, I do a batch of administrative tasks – return telephone calls and submit membership form and pay membership dues. Then from 5 pm to maybe 6 pm, I brainstorm content ideas for my podcast and take notes.
While I’m assigning time blocks, I might come up with random thoughts, like call Sarah about the report, and sign up for online course. I write them down as a side note and review them in my daily or weekly planning. Sometimes these things need to be dropped, delegated, or deferred for another month or so.
If you want to color code, you can have dry erase markers in a variety of colors. I use red to underline deep work tasks, like write memo and telephone call with client. I use purple to underline administrative tasks, like processing emails and telephone calls. I use orange to mark socializing and networking tasks. I use brown for creative work, like brainstorming content ideas for my podcast.
If I didn’t do a task as planned, I can set another time block for it. Let’s say I didn’t get to process my emails from 11 to 11:30. I started doing deep work on the memo and got into a flow state. I used the time block for emails to continue with the memo. As I make adjustments in the day, I just move the email processing into my admin block from 4 to 5 pm. And I batch process the emails and telephone calls in the same block.
Principle #4 of the Incrementalist approach is to time block your action steps, after you choose your priority and chunk down your big project into doable tasks.
Principle #5 is to synch with your natural rhythm, which means you’re matching the task with your focus, energy and mood level. Your sleep chronotype and ultradian rhythm will affect whether you’re at your peak for analytic work or creative tasks.
To learn more, check out my book, The Incrementalist, available at leanpub.com/incrementalist. It’s now on sale for $4.99 up to January 31st. After that, it will be back to its regular price of $9.99.
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If you have questions about time blocking drop them in the comments section of our YouTube channel or send me an email at email@example.com. Be sure to subscribe so you don’t miss new episodes. Thank you for joining me and tune in again on The Incrementalist.
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