What is time blocking?

Time blocking is the act of scheduling sessions of work on a calendar. By deliberately assigning work time on a calendar, we automatically acknowledge the immutable resource of time.

Several productivity writers tout the strengths of time blocking including Mike Vardy at Lifehack, Cal Newport of Deep Work fame, Gwen Moran at Fast Company, Francis Wade, and others. A number of task management apps work by time blocking, sometimes even automatically scheduling your days such as SkedPal. The productivity method known as the Pomodoro Technique also presents the idea in its own form.

Some practitioners schedule all planned work throughout the day, completely filling the calendar. Every minute is assigned a job. Flexibility and buffered time are also a part of the planning process. Importantly, time to do the planning is itself honored.

With practice, one may find benefit to dedicating times of the week to certain types of work. For example, specific times for intensive creative work may do better earlier the day. A regular time to review our systems once a week, as prescribed by GTD, can also beneficial. We can also schedule batches of small routine tasks among other possibilities.

Task Management vs Time Blocking

Task lists may appear to conflict with time blocking. Newport’s point has validity, though I am not entirely in agreement. Certainly, there are those who place far too much on their task lists, throwing any form of realistic task maintenance to the wind. In reality, I think we argue for the same point, which is to recognize that one of the vital resources of any work is time.

Time blocking may seem to go against a central GTD tenet, which is to use the calendar only for “hard landscape” items such as meetings. However, this is not necessarily the case. A nice response by GTD coach Janet Riley can be found here. As always, GTD is about creating a system you genuinely trust to hold what you do not want to be on your mind currently and present it when you do, however you decide to make that system.

Sessions are the Primary Unit of Work

Most important in the process is the acknowledgment of the session as the unit of work, not the task.

Defining,

A Session is the union of an intention with its resources of time, attention, and space.

A task is only a reminder of the intention. At best, it is an invitation to the session.

Personal Experience

Personally, I don’t always time block.

In fact, I only rarely do in the occasions that I feel scattered, somehow over-committed, that I am facing a particularly empty day, or that I am not truly dedicating myself to a project well enough. In general, I prefer to maintain a small, well-curated list of active projects that I only promise myself to touch upon daily. If something else comes up, like a weekly review or a monthly billing project, I might push one of the projects off to the next day. Or not–depending on my sense of the day.

I decide the time I spend of a session, whether that ends up being 5 minutes or 2 hours, as a compromise between  my internal and external views of the work. Internal refers to how I see the work while I am in the session. External refers to my time of planning the day. I find that relying too much on one or the other to be problematic.

Particularly because I view the internal view of a session as being equally important, I tend to shy away from scheduling too much.  I value the habit of visiting work with regularity to have at least as great an importance as the time involved.

More often, I will:

  • Examine my already well curated day’s list
  • Review the calendar for what hard landscape items exist
  • Choose a task in the current window of time
  • Acknowledge a time at which I would like to consider closing the session
  • Consider setting an alert
  • Begin the session.

However, the above description doesn’t embody the fluid nature of the process.

For a full examination see also Zen and The Art of Work – Modules 5 and 13.

Considerations & Cautions

While I time block a full day only sparingly, that is not because I think the practice is without merit. In fact, I think it can be quite powerful.

However, because of its power, it is probably not something I would recommend pushing too hard until one has found a certain mastery in productivity work. Far too often, I have found others who first try to get on top of their work by time blocking. It is similar to learning to weight lift by going for the heaviest weights first. Individuals doing so often fail and end up berating themselves along the way, creating further struggles of procrastination and feelings of helplessness.

I do believe that time blocking is a deceptively advanced technique. To do it well requires a history of habit development in time and task management. Before those muscles have been formed, scheduling to this degree, one needs to know how to buffer and adjust throughout the day, have a sense of what exceptions work and what do not, have a practice acknowledging interruptions from the self and the world, among other practices.

In learning to do well with work, one is adjusting their identity.  Going from someone who feels hopeless in getting anything done to one who feels like they can decide on what to do and how to take steps forward is not a small feat.  I wonder if time blocking rests, at least to some degree, on that identity of being productive.

In Practice

Should you choose to time block, consider building buffers into your system and recognize that creative work will take an unclear amount of time. As creative work is discovered in the act of its creation, both the steps and the end goal are, at best, blurry until reaching the end. In this way, the time blocks are not useful as something with which to “beat the clock.”

Instead, consider blocks of time as single sessions of work to dedicate to a project. That way, you recognize that you may not be done with the work at the end of the dedicated time, and that you may find it useful to continue another session later, perhaps the next day or later in the week. Of course, this also depends on your habit of scheduling projects well ahead of any deadlines.