Today as I sat down to write this, I had about a million things to do. I had to do research for an article I‘m helping someone write, connect with a few real estate agents to help my friend find a house; scan and print 10 different documents for my passport renewal appointment tomorrow, call painters to confirm their availability this weekend, buy groceries online…I could go on and on.
So I did what anyone with all this on their plate would do…tried to get everything done at once. I did 10 minutes of research, made a call, did more research, printed two documents, made some more calls; scrolled on Instagram (for just two minutes, I swear!)—after an hour, I was still pretty much at square one.
In hindsight, if I had thought about time management and worked through one-hour intervals – first for research, then to get my calls done, I would have probably achieved more. Do you do this with your day? And does it help you stay productive, create tasks in advance, and cross things off the todo list quickly? If yes, be proud! You’ve cracked the code to time blocking!
What is time boxing?
The time boxing or time blocking method is a productivity and time management tool in which you divide your scheduled weekly tasks into specific time blocks, each of the one-hour intervals is dedicated to one specific task or set of tasks.
This method is promoted by productivity experts everywhere, especially for people prone to getting distracted during work or those who find it difficult to focus with other things begging for attention at the back of their mind. The idea is to not let distractions in—so if you’re trying to code, but find yourself abandoning your screen to make calls or reply to texts every few minutes …please. stop. doing. that.
Why time boxing?
Time boxing isn’t just for those extra-busy days with a never-ending todolist. It’s a great method to boost everyday productivity too!
Work with intention
You have a to do list, and you want to do a lot of things, but scattered progress on all of them won’t help. Time blocking makes it a bit harder to just abandon what you’re doing or avoid doing something you don’t want to do. It also ensures you're not just focusing on the short term projects but also giving time to bigger goals that may take more time to finish, and therefore seem too easy to put off for later. And it helps you get things done in a way that leads to actual progress!
Multitasking is evil! Multitasking kills your productivity and then dances on its grave with hobnailed boots. Stop multitasking right now!
Do Deep work
“The Deep Work Hypothesis: The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.” - Cal Newport, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World
Exit the maker-manager vortex
If you look at your to do list and see a lot of “Maker” work – any creative, demanding, focused work that needs you to focus for an extended period of time, like writing, coding, or research for example - then you know the cognitive load of context switching. Producing good work takes time – and focus. It’s difficult to squeeze in half an hour of coding or writing between two phone calls. What you need to do good quality “Maker” work is a clear afternoon – with no calls and no meetings. If that sounds like heaven, you’re probably trying to do Maker work on the Manager schedule. The Manager schedule is dynamic, with calls, appointments and meetings strewn across all the tasks day.
If you can control what your entire day really looks like, try to cluster together all your tasks that categorise as Manager-style work into one half of day and the Maker work into the other time blocks of the day. Adjust your scheduling skills till you get the most perfect and accurate time blocking skills!
Famous people time box!
Ben Franklin was a time-boxing master! He had his whole day planned out, with two nice big chunks (8am - 11am and 2pm - 5pm) carved out for Work. For those who like their heroes alive, Bill Gates and Jack Dorsey are known to time box their days as well.
And lastly, if you need any more convincing, here’s how one of our favourite fictional characters, the Timeboxing nun of Gateshead does it!
How to start time boxing
I see we convinced you with the arcane Jane Eyre reference! Now let’s see how to to get started on time blocking:
Let’s face it – our energy is a finite, valuable resource. So use it wisely! When deciding thier daily routine, many people find it best to reserve all the tasks that require concentration (Maker work!) to the mornings, and admin and Manager-type work like meetings and calls to the afternoons. This concept is a boon to everybody who runs their own business or does a delicate balancing act between creative and administrative work. But if you’re not a morning person, feel free to experiment with your daily time blocking schedule! The important thing to do is to make sure you schedule important, impactful work for the day when your energy levels are high. And, don't forget to account for the time of the morning routine and evening plans in your time block schedule!
Batch up small tasks:
Instead of getting pulled out of your flow by small and/or recurring administrative tasks one at a time, batch them all up together. Throw everything that will take less than 5 minutes – paying assorted bills, replying to emails and texts, admin work – into a pile designated “Batched up tasks.” And schedule one hour, at the end of a day or every couple of days, to power through them all together. This means these little recurring tasks don’t creep into your focus time. And there’s a bonus – it feels great to get through all of them, like a productivity superhero!
Use the Pomodoro Technique
The classic pomodoro timing is 25 minutes of work followed by 5 minutes of rest. If 25 minutes is too little time for you to find your flow, try more time intervals or block time for even one hour intervals, divided as 50 mins / 10 mins. But don’t forget to take that break – breaks allow you to stretch, freshen up and recenter your mind without losing that productivity high!
Create feedback loops
Most people forget about this, but it’s actually one of the most important parts of time blocking. As you finish each time block, don’t forget to write down a line or two about how it went. (And check out the free time blocking sheet templates below for a format!) Spending a minute or two thinking about it and planning the next time block ensures quick feedback loops – and an opportunity to improve at the end of each accurate time blocking schedule. (Yes, this is the secret trick we alluded to, to lure you in to read this post!)
More often than not, your feedback loops will have notes on specific tasks taking longer than expected or being a bit more complicated than you realised. So give yourself buffer time block schedule and spillover for extended periods sometimes–especially long term projects or if you’re working on something exploratory. You can also give yourself the option of manual editing to adjust your block schedule, but don't make it a habit!
Realistically gauging how much time you need for each task won’t be quick or easy. So keep iterating, tweaking, task batching, time tracking and adjusting your time limits till you get it right!
Create a Shut Down Ritual
If you're going to become a Timeboxing pro, you're going to need a shut down ritual!
“Another key commitment for succeeding with this strategy is to support your commitment to shutting down with a strict shutdown ritual that you use at the end of the workday to maximize the probability that you succeed. In more detail, this ritual should ensure that every incomplete task, goal, or project has been reviewed and that for each you have confirmed that either (1) you have a plan you trust for its completion, or (2) it’s captured in a place where it will be revisited when the time is right. The process should be an algorithm: a series of steps you always conduct, one after another. When you’re done, have a set phrase you say that indicates completion (to end my own ritual, I say, “Shutdown complete”). This final step sounds cheesy, but it provides a simple cue to your mind that it’s safe to release work-related thoughts for the rest of the day.” - Cal Newport, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World
Time box daily essentials
If you find yourself scheduling more time to complete tasks while skipping other important tasks on your to do list, things like working out, self care and maintaining basic health, the best way to get them done on time effectively is to stop expecting that they'll somehow happen on their own. An accurate time block schedule template that you use for future reference makes sure you prioritize important tasks as well as trivial tasks. What's on the time block schedule gets done!
Time box templates for you to steal
The best way to learn is to do, right? So I went ahead and created some samples (yes, you can steal these)!
Daily Time Blocking Template - with feedback loops!
For your everyday use, a daily time blocking planner. If you like working with pen and paper, get a printout and fill it in each day!
Or if you like to keep it digital, just make a new tab on this Google sheet for each day.
Weekly Time Blocking Template - plus feedback loops!
If you prefer working with a week at a time, here you go! Time box templates for the entire week, for those who like to plan ahead.
Monthly Time Blocking Template - and don't forget feedback loops!
Wow, you're way more organized (or just ambitious) than I am! Here's a monthly time blocking template for you!
Using Google Calendar
Google Calendar is a great tool for time management and can be used as a time blocking calendar too, because it already divides your day into hours and events. It lets you colour code, label and sets timers to alert you. You can even schedule “focus times” on the digital calendar for particular events, so you automatically decline any meetings/invites for those particular hours. Want to get on your Google calendar and learn how? Check it out here.
Time blocking is just one of those techniques that's too effective not to at least give it a try. Conduct a week's experiment. Try time blocking every day, and don't forget to include all our tips and tricks on scheduling, task batching and above all, feedback loops! See how it makes your day better!