How To Make Time Blocking (Actually) Work For You

If you've struggled with time blocking in the past, let me show you how to do it, the right way.

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This is the second article in a series about how to make time blocking a key tool in your workflow. In case you missed it, you can check out the first article about time-blocking stumbling blocks here.

In this article, we’ll discuss best practices for tactical and practical time-blocking.

Our calendars are a visual representation of how we spend our time, or at least they should be.

When we look at our task lists, everything has the same visual weight. If we have 8 things on our list for today and they all take 5 minutes, well, that’s a lot different than if they all take an hour, or two.

So, how can you figure out if you have time for what’s on your list? And how can you make your list more accurately reflect what you have time for? Use your calendars more intentionally!

Time-blocking is a fantastic way to be more mindful of what’s on your plate, and make better decisions about what you can, and can’t, say yes to.

What is time blocking? Time blocking is simply putting appointments on your calendar, with yourself, to get specific things done.

And if you’re saying saying “time-blocking? I’ve tried it and it didn’t work for me because I couldn’t stick with it”, I hear you. But I’m gonna let you in on a little secret. Time blocking isn’t about sticking to it 100% of the time. We live in the real world. Priorities changes. You aren’t gonna stick with it all the time, but that doesn’t negate it’s value.

If you’re using your calendar to time-block what you need to do, you’ll have a more realistic view of what is possible to get done on any given day. And, there’s the added bonus that if you find yourself doing something other than what your calendar says (and let’s face it, this is bound to happen), you’ll be able to at least ask yourself “is what I’m doing right now more important than what I had planned to do right now?”. If so, then just go ahead and move that calendar block to another day where you have the time available. If not, well, then redirect yourself back to what you are supposed to be doing.

Another reason to block time on your calendar? We are conditioned to showing up for what’s on our calendars. So let’s lean on that tendency and use it to our advantage.

When you start time-blocking, you’ll be better prepared to answer the question “do I have time for this?”, which also helps you feel a lot more confident when you need to say no because you do not, in fact, have time for this.

So, how do you get your calendar to reflect your task list? What should you be blocking time for?

Big projects

The deadline’s not for 3 months, but the project is likely to take 20+ hours. Block out the time so that you’re not scrambling at the last minute.

Email

How long does it take you to process email daily? What about Slack? Block time for this stuff. You’re not going to miraculously find time in the day to process all the incoming items. Be realistic about how much time it will take and block the time. Then you’ll have a better idea of how much time you’ve got left for your proactive work.

Quick Tasks

How about all those little 2-5 minute tasks we have each day? Following up with so and so, sending out the invoice, returning a call. It would be serious overkill to block time, individually, on your calendar for each of these items, but you can block time for “quick tasks” and batch them together. (In fact, I actually block 2 short sessions a day for “email/quick tasks” because most of those quick tasks occur in the form of email anyway.)

Recurring Obligations

Do you do quarterly planning at work? Does it creep up on you every time? Put a recurring quarterly time block for planning in your calendar. You don’t need to know exact times and dates, just block it recurring and move it around when it comes. At least you’ll have blocked the time now so that you aren’t saying yes to more than you have time for later.

Do you do performance reviews? How long does it take? Block the time now, annually and it won’t creep up on you next time.

End of Day Planning

You know how I feel about planning at the end of the day, and if you don’t, you can read about it here. End of day planning is crucial if we want to be able to be present at home AND have an executable plan for the next day. But if you don’t put it on your calendar, odds are you won’t do it.

Travel Time

This hasn’t been necessary for the last 18 months, but in person meetings are coming back. I think we’ve all had one of those situations where we have an off-site meeting to attend that starts at noon, and then someone sees that we are free from 11 to noon and they schedule a meeting with us, leaving us with no time to get to the noon meeting, and leaving us the hassle of rescheduling one or both meetings.

Lunch

You’ve got to eat, right? It takes time, so put it on your calendar.

Exercise

Have you EVER just found time to exercise? Nope. Put it on the calendar.

Ok, that’s great in theory, but, tactically, how do you do this?:

First, you’ll determine how you want to time-block.  There are a few options that work well:

  • If you are using an electronic calendar like Google Calendar or Outlook, you can simply create an additional calendar called “Time blocking” or “Tasks” and overlay it on your main calendar.  This way, your time-blocking calendar remains private to you, and it also ensures that your calendar is not showing as 100% busy to others so that they can still book appointments with you as needed.
  • If you prefer to show your time-blocks as busy to others, (and you might, if you’re someone who has tons of meetings and very little “free” time on your calendar) then just go ahead and use your main calendar for time-blocking as well. Although, if you do this, it can be helpful to ensure that those time-blocking sessions are a different color than your other meetings so that you can more easily visually parse your calendar.
  • And if you are a person who likes to use paper, you can block out your tasks and projects directly into your bullet journal, your day planner, your notebook, or whatever works best for you.

Once you’ve got your method worked out, you can start blocking.  Here are some tips to make it happen.:

  • Remember that are 3 key times to time-block:
    1. As soon as you commit to the work.
    2. During end of week planning.
    3. Making adjustments during end of day planning, or throughout the day as needed.
  • Whenever you time-block, you want to be looking at both your task-list and your calendar.
  • Look at your task system to see what you need to do in a given time frame and then schedule blocks of time to work on those tasks or projects.
  • Do your best to estimate the time it will take to complete tasks (or next actions) or projects.
  • During these time blocks, commit to not checking email, Slack or other systems that will distract you.  
  • Make sure that you build in buffer time to account for unscheduled interruptions, or daily organizing tasks. (I.e. either make your blocks slightly longer than you need to account for buffer OR don’t time-block every minute of your day.)

Given what you know now, do you think you’ll give time-blocking a try? Let me know!

Next week, I’ll be releasing the third article in this series about time-blocking and it’s all about how to audit your calendar if it current looks like Swiss cheese, or is so chock-full of meetings that there’s no time to block

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