If you had to estimate how much work you actually get done in a day, I’m guessing the number would be significantly less than the 8 hours that are in a standard work day.
Between meetings, emails, or your kids popping in to your home office to tell you proudly about the mess they just made in the next room, the odds your productivity makes it through an entire day without interruption are basically nonexistent.
Many people combat distraction by creating daily to-do lists to stay on task and create measurable work outcomes. Unfortunately, to-do lists built for an 8-hour workday end up creating more stress than they prevent when you end up with 2-3 hours of true productivity.
That’s why some of the world’s most productive and successful people, like Bill Gates or Elon Musk, have sworn off to-do lists and shifted to a new form of workday management: Time Blocking.
You don’t have to be a billionaire CEO to benefit from time blocking. Here’s how you can make the most of your day with the same system.
What is time blocking?
To put it simply, time blocking is scheduling your to-do list against your calendar. Instead of keeping a running list of everything that needs doing, you segment off specific times of each day and dedicate them to individual tasks until every minute of your day has been scheduled.
For example, let’s say you have a client presentation you need to have ready one week from today. Instead of adding ‘client presentation’ to your to-do list, you block off a couple of hours each day between now and next week. During those times, you don’t worry about anything but your presentation. You don’t check emails or return phone calls (because you’ll have time blocked off for each of those tasks throughout the day as well).
Now, this might sound like you are turning your calendar into an overwhelmingly chaotic mess. But really, it has the opposite effect. By blocking your to-do list, you not only know what you need to do, but when you’re going to do it.
Why time blocking works
Time blocking works for one simple reason: it gives our brain guardrails. Without them, we risk falling into what’s known as Parkinson’s Law, which says that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
Here’s a few more arguments for implementing time blocking:
It prevents procrastination
When you’re using a to-do list, it’s easy to skip over the important tasks in favor of simpler, less consuming ones. As soon as we mark a task a priority, our brain views it as more daunting and we’re less likely to work on it until we really have to. Time blocking minimizes the possibility for procrastination by forcing your brain to think about high priority items now and not allowing yourself to push it off in favor off a lower priority task.
It puts a stop to multitasking
A 2013 study by the University of Utah found that people who try juggling multiple tasks at once are more easily distracted, less productive, make more errors, and score lower on recall tests.
It promotes deep focus
Without time blocking, much of our day is spent bouncing back and forth between things. We spend 10 minutes on a project, then check our email, then go grab a cup of coffee, then 10 more minutes on our project, then Slack, then a meeting, etc. It’s exhausting and it makes it impossible to truly focus. Time blocking changes that by forcing 100% of our focus to be on one thing at a time.
It turns Parkinson’s Law into an advantage
“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” Making a list of ‘things that need to get done today’ makes your brain erroneously think you have all day to get them done. By telling your brain you only have one hour to get one specific task done, and that that hour is from noon to 1PM, you’re more likely to get it done sooner and in less time.
How to time block
1. Create a blueprint
The easiest way to get started time blocking is to create a blueprint of what every day of the week looks like, scheduling out recurring items and leaving space to be filled by whatever you’re working on that day. A sample blueprint might look something like this:
- 6:30AM to 8:00AM - Exercise/Shower/Breakfast
- 8:00AM to 8:30AM - Take kids to school
- 8:30AM to 9:00AM - Commute
- 9:00AM to 10:00AM - Emails/Calls/Social Media
- 10:00AM to 11:30AM - Priority Tasks
- 11:30AM to 12:00PM - Break/Emails/Calls/Reactive Tasks
- 12:00PM to 12:30PM - Low Priority Tasks
- 12:30PM to 1:30PM - Lunch
- 1:30PM to 2:00PM - Emails/Calls/Reactive Tasks
- 2:00PM to 3:30PM - Priority Tasks
- 3:30PM to 4:30PM - Low Priority Tasks
- 4:30PM to 5:00PM - Emails/Calls/Wrap-Up
Of course you can time block all the way up to bedtime, but for example’s sake, this should do. A few things to remember when time blocking: remember to schedule time for both high and low priority tasks, schedule your breaks (you’re not a robot!), and always block off time for reactive tasks like emails, phone calls, or impromptu requests.
2. Make your to-do list
Write down everything you need to get done for the day or the week. List all of your work projects, family commitments, appointments, etc. The goal here is to include everything you’ll be doing so you can get it all blocked off.
Separate your list into ‘High priority’, ‘Low priority’, and ‘If there’s time’ tasks.
4. Plug your tasks into your blueprint
At the end of every day, make sure you have plugged in all the tasks you’ll be working on tomorrow into the appropriate time slots. Try not to leave any time unplanned.
A final word
Time blocking effectively can help you take control of your calendar, prevent procrastination, and put a stop to the dangers of multi-tasking. Sure, it’ll take some practice and plenty of patience, but once you get going, you’ll never go back.