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When you end each week feeling defeated and piled on, it can be overwhelming. You begin the week with a plan, neatly listed in your calendar app. This week you’ll be focused – you’ll add reminders.
But by Wednesday, you’ve made a fraction of the progress you’ve planned.
Does that describe your typical week? Are you grabbing that glass of Chardonnay on Friday night like it’s the tape at the end of a marathon?
If it is, I’ve stumbled on a way to actually start checking off those to-dos. It’s actually used all around us in business and in education – it’s time blocking.
The idea of time blocking, or using a block schedule, is that it’s not enough to just write down your plan. We all have things we want to get done. But unless we get super intentional with our time, those things just keep getting moved to next week.
“It is not enough to be busy… The question is: what are we busy about?” ~ Henry David Thoreau
Time Blocking is Everywhere
Remember those awful bells in high school telling us when we were able to move? It seemed prison-like, and immature at the time, but is it really?
Suppose your school system made the announcement: “We’re going to continue to teach your kids Math, Reading, Science and History. But we’re not going to have structured time periods. We’ll just work it all in where we can”.
You’d probably wonder how they’ll get anything accomplished. They’re teaching hundreds of students simultaneously. So if your daughter needs to know Algebra by June, wouldn’t it feel more secure knowing that she’ll be doing just that every single morning from 9:15 to 10:00?
And when there’s a test or quiz scheduled for a certain day, isn’t it always first up? The most important thing is done first, and the less crucial things – the sand – fill in the rest of the period.
Controlling the Chaos
Have you ever visited an emergency room on a weekend night? Or, who hasn’t seen episodes of Grey’s Anatomy or ER on TV, when fifteen injured patients arrive within minutes.
It seems chaotic initially, but everyone working there already knows that the guy with the heart attack will be looked at before the kid with the broken arm.
They’ll get to everyone, but before they lift a finger, they’ve already prioritized tasks.
Our day may not be as dramatic, but if we don’t triage what’s coming at us, we’ll reach the end of the week wondering how so many things fell through the cracks.
It’s not enough to jot down a to-do list.
To really accomplish tasks, we need to decide two things about each task:
1. How important is it?
2. How long will it take?
Of course, the same task may be a “would like to do” in the beginning of the month, and switch to a “must do” in the last week. But assigning a priority each week to every task is key.
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What About You? Do You Time Block Your Day?
To be honest, I haven’t used a time blocked schedule very long. I’ve always thought writing things down was the key to getting them done. But I’d always find myself transferring half of today’s list over to tomorrow. Sound familiar?
In early in 2017, I took my list making a step further. This whole blogging thing was new to me, so I needed a more detailed way to make progress in several unfamiliar areas.
I began with 5 goals for the year, then I estimated where I should be by the end of each quarter. So far so good. At least it looked that way on a spreadsheet.
I figured out what areas I should be concentrating on, and I came up with a daily schedule of 7 things to focus on each day. As long as I kept banging on those 7 things, I estimated that I should be moving toward my goals.
Now, if I had stuck with the schedule religiously, I would have ended the year much closer to my goals. But here’s what I didn’t take into account:
- I get side-tracked easily. I’ll check YouTube to see how to do something, and then flip through 10 more videos.
- I tend to lock in on tasks. I’ll spend hours working on one thing at the expense of 4 others.
- I’ll check email a dozen times a day, losing focus each time.
- I’m a procrastinator. If there’s an uncomfortable call I need to make, it’ll be the last possible thing I do today. Or I’ll push it to tomorrow.
Time blocking would have helped me with each of these issues. I would have prioritized things on my schedule, and assigned each task a specific time of day and a duration.
Here’s what I noticed the first week I started using a time block schedule:
- I had more of a sense of urgency. Knowing I had 30 or 60 minutes for something, inspired me to shut out distractions. I became more disciplined right away.
- I started seeing progress on multiple things. Instead of locking in on one thing at the expense of others, using time blocks forced me to keep multiple tasks moving.
- Just the act of assigning ‘must do’ to an item is a great way to fight procrastination.
How You Can Get Started With Time Blocking
Using a time block schedule is really just a matter of doing three things.
- Brain dumping your to-do list onto paper.
- Assign each item as either a Must Do, or a Would Like to Do.
- Inserting each item into a 30 minute (or more) slot on your schedule.
Where to Write Your Time Blocks
This doesn’t need to be complicated. You can lay out a simple Excel spreadsheet, or use the Numbers app on a Mac. In fact, here’s one that I’ve used.
You can download this one here. Feel free to edit it however you want.
Google Calendar, below, is another simple option:
- You can access it from anywhere.
- It’ll send you reminders during the day when it’s time to move on to the next task.
One shortcoming of Google Calendar is, that it doesn’t seem to have a built-in feature to mark items as ‘complete’.
But there’s a way around that.
- Your regular calendar is probably already named as your own name.
- On the left side of the screen, where your calendar is listed, you’ll see the box that says, “Add Calendar”. Select that, then click “New Calendar”.
- Name this new calendar Completed or Done. Select a color other than your regular calendar.
- You should see your new ‘Completed’ calendar appear now under your own calendar.
- Now, when you’ve completed an event on your calendar, just click to Edit the event.
- In the Event Details section, just click the drop-down arrow next to your name, and select Completed.
- Click Save. Now the task should change color in your calendar, indicating it’s done.
You can also use time blocking with an app like Asana. It’s free, and takes just minutes to learn how to use. Asana has some cool features where you can assign due dates for projects, get reminders, and assign tasks to other people.
In my opinion, start simple. Use whatever you know you’ll make use of.
Tips to Make a Time Block Schedule Work for You
If it feels challenging to get started time blocking, try it for one day. Even if it’s a weekend day. Say you have 5 things you want to accomplish and usually you’re lucky if you get to number 3. So try to block schedule your morning for instance.
Even if you don’t finish some things within their block, stick to your times – for now anyway.
- It’ll give you a sense of what it’s like to be disciplined with your time.
- You’ll develop a sense of urgency, and you’ll take steps to shut out distractions.
- You’ll stop that cycle of never getting to certain things on your list.
Try inserting a “catch up” block towards the end of the day. For those tasks where you just needed ten more minutes to look up something, make a call or check some detail. Having a catch-up block to tie up loose ends makes it easier to move from task to task without guilt.
Adjust! it’s great to have a system that’ll help you to be more disciplined with your time. But we’re all working with unique constraints too. Maybe you have a young child at home. Or maybe you find that your focus starts to fade by 3PM. Arrange your tough tasks for when you’re best equipped for them.
Using a time block schedule has some similarities to budgeting. When you start living within a budget, you discover things about yourself that you may not have realized otherwise. You start seeing patterns in your spending, and you spot your own weaknesses that you can now plan for and avoid. You build in safeguards.
That’s what’ll happen when you’re intentional with your time. Your calendar will begin to reveal things.
- You’ll see that certain things take longer than you thought.
- You’ll recognize that certain things need to be delegated. (lots of time spent & low ROI).
- You’ll recognize what you need to start saying No to.
- If you’re in business for yourself, you’ll see where you need to charge more.
Here’s another similarity that time blocking has with budgeting:
People resist using a budget because they see a budget as restrictive. If you confine your spending, then you’re confining your life, right?
Well, no. Using a budget is just being intentional with the money you have. And in the long run that expands, not confines your options.
Since we also have a finite amount of time, being intentional with it will expand our options too. Who hasn’t had a day where you go off on a tangent, then find yourself working overtime to make up for it?
Getting control of our schedule enables us to squeeze everything we can out of our day. And it leaves us with guilt free time for ourselves.
Remember. Our most valuable commodity isn’t money, or people or apps. It’s time.
So instead of saying, “I wish I was able to get that done this year”, try time blocking and see if you don’t make more progress.