Juggling different tasks at the same time or balancing the different parts of your life can leave you feeling overwhelmed. You could even end up feeling guilty for failing to give enough attention to a task or become disappointed for failing to achieve as much as you had hoped you would.
And so you try the quickest fix - packing your to-do list full of tasks and errands but usually end the day feeling under-accomplished because you couldn’t check all the boxes.
So, what’s your way out?
The answer is time blocking. Some of the world’s busiest people like Jack Dorsey use time-blocking methods to do the most they can within their tight schedules.
If you have ever felt like you are constantly busy but achieving very little, or you are having a hard time avoiding distractions, this article will help you become better at managing your time by answering the following questions:
What is time blocking?
What are the types of time blocking?
Is time blocking right for me?
How do I start time blocking?
What are the best time blocking apps/software?
Time blocking is a time-management technique that involves segmenting your day, week, month, or year into different parts - “blocks” - to focus exclusively on the activity or task that each block is dedicated to.
This gives you a detailed schedule of the relevant period and a map to navigate the different activities you want to dedicate your time to without losing track of what is important.
You might be thinking - ”Well, this isn’t much different from creating a to-do list.” But it is.
For one, to-do lists are not very effective. It has been estimated that 41% of items on a to-do list never get completed. Even more jarring is that only 15% of tasks completed during the day were included in the to-do list.
The reason for this is that to-do lists lack a key feature that time blocking has - certainty. With to-do lists, you only have an idea of what you want to do. There’s no certainty on when that will happen. So, you are likely to add more items to your to-do, procrastinate, or become distracted because what you have is a task list, not a schedule.
There are three main types of time blocking - all of which are useful in helping you manage your time and become more productive.
If you are struggling with paying attention to some areas of your life or work, day theming is a great way to go.
Day theming involves dedicating a day to a set of related activities or tasks with a similar theme. The related activities can revolve around a project you are working on, your business, or your life.
Jack Dorsey appears to fully embrace this approach and describes how it applies to the different aspects of his business as follows:
“The way that (time blocking) works for me is I theme my days. On Monday, I focus on management; Tuesday on product; Wednesday on growth; Thursday on developers and partnerships; Friday on recruiting.
There are interruptions, but I deal with them and know ‘it's Tuesday, focus on product.’”
As expected, this will look different depending on the individual and what their lives revolve around. But this is a great way to balance and divide your time between competing responsibilities and goals.
Task batching is like day theming on a micro level. So, instead of days, you divide hours and minutes into “batches” - similar tasks or activities. What defines the similarities is also up to you. For example, you can choose to group tasks in one batch because they are related to a project, require the same level of concentration, or revolve around a similar theme.
Grouping similar tasks or activities in separate categories can:
Keep you from switching between unrelated contexts and ideas throughout the day
Help your concentration and flow because moving from one task to the other in the same batch does not require a significant change in your setup, mood, or theme
Provide the structure your day needs so instead of carving out time for several small tasks throughout the day and having a messy and unstructured schedule, you can introduce structure by grouping related tasks
Timeboxing works in the same way an ultimatum does. You create a “timebox” for yourself to work on a task and stop when the time allotted is up, then move to something else.
The reason that this is effective is that knowing that you have a limited time to work on the task compels you to give it your best.
Timeboxing is also useful in helping you make progress on the several individual tasks or projects you are working on. This is because instead of focusing exclusively on one single task for days or weeks until you are done, you can create timeboxes for each task or project each day and work on them until the time specified is up.
Before adopting it as your time management technique, you need to determine first if it is right for you.
Sure, there are obvious indicators of why you need time-blocking such as:
Working on multiple projects or tasks at the same time
Needing to become more disciplined
Being prone to distraction
Having a hard time managing time
Wanting to become more productive
But determining if it is a good fit requires an understanding of both its benefits and limitations.
The underlying goal of time blocking is helping you to become more productive and it does this in the ways described below:
Providing the structure needed to manage your projects/tasks: Time blocking can help you effectively manage your tasks by structuring your time to reflect what task will be carried out and when.
This makes planning how to execute the different parts of your projects or tasks easier and eliminates the chaos of simply jumping from task to task without a plan.
Eliminating duplicate decision-making: With time blocking, you make your decision on what to do throughout the day or week at once and make changes when necessary.
This helps you avoid repeated decision-making every time you have to move on to another task.
Curbing procrastination: Effective time blocking can help curb procrastination by providing both a system of accountability and reward.
The accountability comes from knowing that you have limited time to work on each task and spilling over to subsequent tasks will affect the structure you have created. The reward, on the other hand, comes from the feeling of accomplishment and the expectation to rest at specified times.
Increasing focus: Instead of multitasking, which divides your attention between competing tasks and interests, time blocking requires you to focus on one thing at a time. This is known as single-tasking. Single-tasking makes reaching a flow state possible and this, in turn, makes you 500% more productive than when you multitask.
Also, knowing that no task will be neglected because you have also created their time blocks also makes you feel more reassured and able to give your full attention to what you are working on.
Helping with prioritizing tasks properly: Having a view of what you want to achieve and how much time you have can help you properly budget and divide your time among tasks.
This will help make prioritizing tasks and placing them in clocks they fit easier.
Tracking how you spend your time: If you work with the time blocks you create, you can easily track how you spend your time. You can evaluate your time use and productivity, learn what works, and plan better in the future.
Achieving multiple goals simultaneously: Giving different goals their own time brings you a step closer to achieving them each time you work. This is better than focusing on a single goal all the time while ignoring others or juggling multiple goals without focusing on any.
Time blocking has its limitations and criticisms that make it a bad fit for some individuals and teams.
Some of its pitfalls are that:
Things do not always go according to plan
It is not flexible enough
The planning process is time-consuming
The estimated time to complete tasks is not always accurate
It’s up to you to weigh the benefits of time blocking and criticisms and decide if it's best for you. We would, however, argue that you can work around some of the constraints by learning to make time blocking work for you. If you are ready to learn how, keep reading!
There are no hard-and-fast rules on how to start time blocking. The following steps, however, can serve as a good guide on how to start:
Step 1: Figure out the basics
Step 2: Write out your goals
Step 3: Map out your calendar
Step 4: Create your time blocks
Step 5: Review and revise
You need to ask yourself important questions that will help you consistently create a time blocking structure capable of delivering the best outcomes without leaving you overwhelmed and burnt out.
The following are key things you must figure out:
Your most productive and least productive hours
The flow of your concentration and energy throughout a work day
Productivity triggers and stiflers
General task categories for task batching
The amount of concentration each task requires
Order of priority of tasks or different life aspects
How much flexibility you need to do your best work
If you succeed in figuring out the basics, they will serve as a foundation and guide for planning your time and managing your tasks. For example, if you know that you are most productive at 9 a.m. after showering, you can schedule tasks that require a high level of concentration for that time.
You can weave your productivity triggers into your schedule - especially when you need a boost for challenging tasks.
Once you are done answering these questions, you can move on to the next step.
This step is more task or day specific. So, it might look a bit like a to-do but with a clear idea of what you want to achieve.
It also helps to indicate the priority level of your tasks, the amount of concentration they require, and an estimated completion time.
Your goals for your work tasks might look something like this:
Once you have some clarity on what your goals are, you can proceed to section your calendar accordingly.
In mapping out your calendar, you want to highlight portions that are suited to specific task types and recurring tasks.
The idea here is to make sure you are maximizing your productivity by using your peak, mid, and least productivity hours the best way you can.
If you are someone whose energy and performance reduce throughout the day, your calendar map might look like this:
But this representation is not true for most people. Usually, people experience peaks and dips in their performance and energy level throughout the day. Knowing how you typically perform throughout the day will help you create your map.
Once you have clarity on your goals and how to map out your time, you can proceed to create your time blocks.
You can use a time blocking software or a day planner. The former is, however, more advisable. You can sync it to your work apps, share your schedule with colleagues, or add them to tasks you are working together on.
You should expect to make mistakes at the beginning. So you must continue to review and tweak your strategy if necessary.
You can even try one of or a combination of the different time blocking types to know which works best for you.
1- Start small and gradually ease into it
Learning about time blocking might make you feel excited to start and try all you have learned at once. But like most things, it is better to ease into it than immediately fill your week or month up with activities.
So, start small. Schedule a few tasks a day and work your way into more tasks and your week.
This also presents you with an opportunity to determine if the system works for you before you spend hours creating schedules or committing to them.
2- Embrace routine
Routines are some of the most effective ways to form good habits and improve your productivity. They can also help you manage stress and exercise some control over your day before you are flung into another day of work and requests.
So, starting your day out with a simple, healthy routine can put you in the right frame of mind to get through the day.
3- Create ample time for tasks
As earlier explained, we tend to underestimate how much time we need to complete a task and this can derail you from your entire schedule.
To avoid this, you must be generous in allotting time to each task.
4- Include buffer times
In addition to allotting ample time to each task, you should include a buffer time.
Buffer time acts as a transition period between tasks and allows you to wrap up the task you are concluding and prepare for the next one.
It also serves as an opportunity to catch your breath and rest for a bit before you move on to the next task.
You can set your buffer time between 5 to 15 minutes or longer if that works for you.
5- Avoid over-scheduling
There’s always the temptation to schedule every single minute of the day. But this can quickly become very restraining.
Feeling like you constantly have to be doing something and having no time to sit in silence or just relax will leave you feeling overwhelmed, burnt out, and unhappy. This will also negatively affect your productivity.
6- Use the Pomodoro Technique
The Pomodoro technique is a time management technique that involves working at intervals with scheduled breaks.
With this technique, you work without any distraction for a specified time - usually 25 minutes - after which the timer goes off and you take a quick 5 or 10-minute break.
This method is very effective because you are working with a very manageable work-frame. So, if you easily get bored or distracted, this technique can add another layer of accountability and motivation for you when working within longer time blocks.
7- Preempt and schedule reactive tasks
One of the major problems with time blocking, as noted earlier, is that things do not always go according to plan despite your best efforts. You might be assigned tasks you had not included in your schedule or receive urgent requests from clients or superiors.
To avoid being thrown off your entire schedule, preempt and include reactive tasks in your schedule every day.
8- Schedule rest and break time
A crucial part of a healthy work culture is rest. Working endlessly without taking breaks or resting is harmful to both your physical and mental health.
Also, taking short breaks from work has been proven to be a great way to manage stress, improve creativity, and boost productivity.
9- Be specific about your tasks
Having clearly-defined tasks instead of vague ones increases your chances of starting and completing the task.
For example, instead of using descriptions like “Task 1” or “Brief” on your schedule, use words like, “Create influencer’s brief”.
Try to be as descriptive as possible.
10- Create reward systems
Motivation never lasts for very long. No matter how excited you are at the beginning of a work day or a task, you might become tired or bored.
This is why you need a reward system.
Reward systems are a great way to motivate yourself. They give you something to look forward to - especially when your goals are not doing enough to keep you on track.
11- Avoid being too rigid
Even though time blocking requires you to stick to the schedule created, you need to know when to prioritize unscheduled tasks and make changes to your schedule when necessary.
There are several time blocking apps that can help make scheduling your tasks and achieving your goals easier and more manageable. Among them, we have selected four apps that stand out because of their simple interface, visuals, accessibility, and integrations.
They all also have reliable and high-performing mobile apps.
Our top picks are:
Google Calendar is Google’s time-management app.
You can easily access your Google Calendar from your Gmail account and create time blocks directly.
You can also schedule events related to the time blocks or invite your co-workers to join you on a task.
Google Calendar integrates seamlessly with several other time blocking, work, and project management apps. This makes automating your workflow and keeping track of all the work you have to do easier.
Google Calendar is free.
Sunsama is a time management app and daily timer that helps individuals and teams create schedules easily.
Sunsama allows you track your daily progress by seeing how you spend your time each day and how much you have done on each task.
It also integrates well with major productivity apps and syncs with Google Calendar and Outlook. This makes viewing and managing all your tasks on a single dashboard possible.
It costs $192 per user annually.
Clockify is a time tracker and timesheet app used to monitor time spent on projects.
The app then generates reports that offer visual time breakdowns of team activities, time spent on tasks, budgets, and project progress.
You can create tasks and log your activities on Clockify. You can also use the inbuilt timer to keep track of how much time you have spent on a task and how much time you have left.
Clockify is free.
Like Clockify, Timecamp is a time-tracker and timesheet for teams to track their productivity and generate project reports.
Timecamp helps solve a major time blocking problem - estimating the time required to complete tasks. It also allows you to record time effort in time blocks.
It has free to custom pricing plans.
Creating a balance between structure and flexibility is what will make your time blocking schedule effective. Complete flexibility without structure will keep you stuck in the cycle of multitasking, procrastinating, and underperforming while a rigid schedule might leave you feeling burnt out and unproductive.
You can’t settle for one or the other.The surest way to create a balance is to make sure your schedule suits you. If you like taking naps in the middle of the day and find that it makes you more productive, you do not need to force yourself to work through a task at that time.
The bottom line here is that most of what we have discussed in this article are meant to serve as guides. The most important rules on how best to run your day to maximize productivity are yours to make.
Tobi is a writer and communications consultant with five years of experience in creating content for corporate and non-profit organizations. She enjoys writing on best practices for business processes, technology, ESG, and climate change.