By Stephanie Olsen
If you’re constantly distracted and interrupted at work, or find yourself struggling to stay productive or meet deadlines, you might need to use a time management strategy called time blocking.
Time blocking is a time-management strategy that uses small blocks of time to tackle individual tasks and allows you to focus completely on the work at hand. The theory is that you’ll accomplish more in a limited amount of uninterrupted time than you would in a longer period full of distractions and interruptions.
Why (and how) does time blocking work?
You might argue that a to-do list is just as organized as time blocking. After all, both are lists of tasks that need to be done—only the formatting is different: To-do lists don’t have set amounts of time assigned to each entry.
Well, according to Parkinson's Law in project management, that’s exactly the problem because “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” In other words, if you assign a reasonable amount of time to complete a task, you’ll get it done. If you give the same task a much longer deadline (or none at all), you’ll spend more time on it, scrambling to finish moments before it’s due and maybe even miss the deadline completely.
Still not convinced? Think of school assignments given to you on the first day of a semester. Did you work on the project methodically over time? What about exams? Did you study incrementally throughout the semester for finals? Or did you pull a couple of all-nighters right at the end?
Time blocking works by setting reasonable but non-negotiable deadlines for tasks, whether they’re client or staff meetings, writing reports or making sales calls.
Why time blocking is an effective time management strategy
Carving out one block of time on your calendar for a specific task makes that task a priority. Just as you’re not likely to miss a scheduled meeting, a time blocked out for work becomes a must-attend event.
When you set time aside to work deeply on a task to the exclusion of everything else, your ability to focus improves and your productivity level increases. In his book Deep Work, Georgetown University computer science professor Cal Newport defines deep work as “the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time.”
But what about multitasking? In today’s real-time data-driven workplace, multitasking is a necessity. And it makes sense that doing several things at once is a more effective use of your time than focusing on just one, doesn’t it?
Cognitive neuroscientist Earl Miller says humans are actually quite limited as to how much simultaneous information we can hold at any one moment. That means each time you return to your main task after an interruption, “your brain has to expend valuable mental energy refocusing on the task, backtracking, and fixing errors.”
Miller’s in favor of time blocking, but says there’s a learning curve to getting it right. Eliminate distractions: close your office door, turn off your phone; log out of your email and chat. “Don’t try to mono-task by willpower alone; it’s too hard to fight the thirst for new information. Instead, prevent the urge by removing temptation,” he writes.
And if you’re afraid a self-imposed deadline won’t work, psychology says otherwise. “Almost 20 years ago, psychologist Peter Gollwitzer showed us that when we’re serious about doing something, we’re more likely to follow through if we set an ‘action trigger’ by deciding when and where we’ll execute the task,” writes academic advisor Jonathan Vieker.
How do you use time blocking in your workday?
In order to time block successfully, you need to know two things:
How much time a task should realistically take
Your most productive time of day
The first is relatively easy, and if you’re unsure, then tracking your time over a couple of weeks should give you some insights. The second is unique to you—early morning is super productive for some, middle of the night for others. In fact, project management and collaboration software provider Podio created a fascinating chart, based on the book “Daily Rituals” by Mason Currey. It shows the daily routines of famous creative people, and how very different they all were in terms of the time of day in which they did their best work.
If you know your most productive time is early morning, block off that period for your most demanding or creative work. Follow it up with a break, and then schedule easier tasks, like emails and returning phone calls. Don’t be afraid to change blocks of time to accommodate how you feel. If you know you tend to be burned out Friday mornings, use that block of time for less complex tasks.
To see if time blocking works for you, give yourself a block of time to complete a task. You can use any simple timer, like Tomato, to see how you do. When you want to create blocks of time, any online calendar can be used as a planner or you can download a dedicated app like Skedpal. Business growth strategist Charlie Gilkey suggests four basic blocks of time, as follows:
Focus blocks: These are 90–120 minute blocks for high-level work requiring focus.
Admin blocks: These are 30–60 minute blocks for lower-level work you can do effectively.
Social blocks: These are 90–120 minute blocks to meet with other people.
Recovery blocks: These blocks vary in time and can be used for self-care such as exercise and meditation periods.
When used consistently, time blocking is an effective time management system and productivity booster. It can actually make you happier too, because you won’t be subject to the Zeigarnik effect—that irritating psychological phenomenon of being unable to stop thinking about tasks you still have to finish.