The world of work can be all-encompassing. Professional culture has transformed to such a degree that most professionals can work from anywhere, at any time. Technology has advanced to the point where many teams have members who’ve never worked in the same physical space. While the flexibility of work time and work space should make us more productive, research tells us that we may actually be getting less work done, even when – theoretically – we have more time to do it. Current research from the field of interruption science states that “the average knowledge worker switches tasks every three minutes, and, once distracted, a worker can take nearly a half-hour to resume the original task.”
How can we minimize task switching to maximize productivity? One helpful method is Time Blocking. Time Blocking is an important tool, because it allows us to set and prioritize our work, minimize distractions, and reduce the mental burden of switching tasks.
What is Time Blocking?
Time blocking assigns a designated time period to a specific task you need to accomplish. In other words, you make (and keep!) appointments with yourself to work on a particular activity. Unlike a simple to-do list, time-blocking requires having a clear sense of your goals, plus a realistic assessment of the time each activity takes to complete. Sounds easy, right? It can be—as long as one appreciates the subtle nuances and preparatory aspects needed to be successful. Here are 8 Keys to Effective Time Blocking:
Set a goal and a deadline. It’s easier to block time when there is a clear deadline and a tangible result. This requires identifying priorities on a daily basis. Laura Vanderkam recommends thinking ahead to what you would like to achieve personally and professionally. Vanderkam suggests that we establish our priorities by considering what we would find valuable enough to include on our annual review at work and in our family’s annual holiday letter. These “highlights” don’t just happen. These goals are met because they are a priority; they have value.
Effective time-blocking requires knowing how much time projects and tasks actually take—in the real world. We must be acutely self-aware of our work speed and effort required for each task or project on our plate. One way to learn this is to practice time tracking. Time-tracking is when you literally track, document, and assess how you spend your time. Resources such as Pomodoro, Toggl and RescueTime can help you get started.
Another critical element of successful time management is to understand and work with your productivity rhythms. Pay attention to your energy level throughout the day. Are you more productive at 9:30 am or 9:30 pm? Finding and working with your peak energy times will make you more productive, if you use your “peak” productivity time for the most complex projects. Not sure what you are? Take this Buzzfeed Quiz!
Group similar projects together that require similar effort. One example is to block out certain portions of the day to do routine activities. Consider creating 30-60 minutes in the morning, afternoon, and evening for “housekeeping” items such as emails, returning phone calls, or desktop cleanup.
Get to work! Once you have a better idea of how long a task takes and the best time of day for you to complete the particular task, use this data to get busy! The Pomodoro method can help you stay honest. Set your timer, go to work, and most importantly–resist distractions.
This might be the most important element of Time Blocking. Most of us are accountable to others in our work and personal lives. By publishing your time blocks on your calendar, you let others (like your boss and colleagues) know what you are working on. You proactively claim your calendar and control your time. It’s ok to block your time, and communicating those blocks is imperative to helping our co-workers and even family members understand our priorities and availability.
Be realistic about time blocking. Avoid the tendency to create time-blocked appointments up against one another or up to the moment of your next meeting. Allow buffer time to pivot between projects and activities. Be realistic about the time you have and how much time you can block for your project on any given day. Also remember that flexibility is key. If your boss needs to claim that time for a higher-priority project, move that block! Just be judicious about moving blocks for other requests, otherwise you run the risk of turning Time Blocking into a “nice” tool to have, rather than as an essential tool for supporting your productivity.
Time blocking is great for any number of activities, including exercise, a passion project, and setting a hard stop for your day, every day. We often think about scheduling our time during our work day, but setting a schedule to end our day is just as important! It might sound strange but getting to bed by 10:00 p.m. actually requires some planning! Block time an hour before bed to set your intentions for the next day, review your schedule, create your to-do list, and block the time you’ll need tomorrow, today.
Time blocking, like so many skills, requires that we understand more about the task and ourselves. Be attentive to the actual time a task requires and how productive and clear-headed you are during the task to create a schedule that works best for you and culminates in work you are proud to sign off on. Time blocking can elevate your productivity on both large and small tasks and communicate a clear and important record of your work for you, for your boss, and for your organization!