Time Blocking, Part 2: 5 Approaches

Last week, we discussed why you should consider time blocking. Especially in knowledge work contexts like biblical studies, what is and isn’t actually on your plate can easily bleed together.

Time blocking can help you clarify your priorities and make space for the activities that matter most. There isn’t one right way to block your time, but here are five different approaches for you to consider as you start thinking about what might work best for you.

AltImage by Christian Fregnan

In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport discusses four “deep work philosophies” (100–17). To these, I’d like to add a fifth that combines elements from three of the other four.

1. Monastic

In the monastic philosophy, the main idea is to eliminate everything except focused work. You avoid anything that doesn’t fall in a very specific, narrow range of activities (e.g., writing).

This approach is possible for some but not particularly feasible for those of us who want to do focused work but have other responsibilities as well (e.g., administration).

Under this approach too, time blocking is probably less useful a technique than it is under the other philosophies discussed here. If a calendar only has one recurring activity from day to day (e.g., “Write X Paper”) and you don’t allow any interruptions to this schedule, consulting the calendar may be more trouble than it is worth.

2. Bimodal

The bimodal philosophy is like the monastic philosophy in periods devoted to focused work. But, these periods are deliberately interspersed with other periods allocated specifically to unfocused or “shallow” work.

The idea in this philosophy is to batch deep work together into larger chunks, to do the same with work that requires less focus, and to keep the two quite separate.

On the scale of a week if you’re a student who’s also in full-time church work, this might look like having Monday blocked out for “Write X Paper,” Tuesday assigned to “Read Y Book,” Wednesday allocated to hospital visits, Thursday reserved for meetings, and Friday set aside for sermon preparation. On the days you’re doing a specific kind of work, you try to push aside other responsibilities.

3. Rhythmic

The rhythmic philosophy is similar to the bimodal philosophy but might best be illustrated on the scale of a day. So, for instance, you might do the same activity at the same time each day or at the same time on specific days of the week.

With this structure, the rhythmic philosophy allows times for focused and unfocused to come up more regularly. So, it may be helpful if you don’t think it best to batch different kinds of work as strictly as a bimodal approach might require.

4. Journalistic

Newport describes the journalistic philosophy as operating on a principle of “fit[ting] deep work wherever you can into your schedule” (115).

Thus, in this case, you might leave mostly white space on your calendar leading up to a given week. But, once you come to planning that week, you allocate your remaining time to accomplish the focused work you have to do.

5. Combination

Of course, there isn’t a “purist police” for deep work philosophies that allow you only to subscribe to one or another of them. What’s important is to be intentional about sorting through these options—or others you may think of—about how best to make use of the limited time you have for accomplishing what matters most.

For instance, the basic approach I’ve been using for about a while now (with some tweaks along the way) involves elements of each of the bimodal, rhythmic, and journalistic philosophies:

  • Like the rhythmic philosophy, each day begins with primary literature reading—mostly Hebrew Bible and Greek New Testament—and ends with email and administrative activities.
  • Like the bimodal philosophy, I try to batch what occupies the bulk of any given day into as large a chunk as I can (e.g., devoting those hours to teaching, class preparation, or writing on any given day).
  • Like the journalistic philosophy, I don’t rigidly hold to a schedule but adjust things as necessary to accommodate meetings that come up. It’s ideal to batch meetings together as well, but that isn’t always possible when coordinating multiple people’s calendars. Even so, having a plan for the week ahead of time (rather than leaving white space in it) helps foster focus in a number of ways.

Conclusion

In the end, whether you adopt any of these particular time blocking philosophies to support your deep work or whether you develop your own, the important thing is to be deliberate about how you spend your time. Even (and especially) if you have too much on your plate, you can’t afford to have your highest priorities pulled along at the mercy of what’s latest and loudest.

Tune in next week for a final post in this series that delves into the “how to” elements of making time blocking work with a digital calendar.

Meanwhile, which of these philosophies sounds most feasible to you? How do you structure your deep work?

Time Blocking, Part 1: Rationale

Okay, so you’ve set some clear goals, but when are you going to get them done? Where does the time go?

If you’re asking these questions or you’ve found yourself doing so in the past, you’re not alone. But, rather than continuing to wonder where the time goes, be proactive and make a plan for your calendar with time blocking.

AltPhoto by Djim Loic

If you’re at all accustomed to a knowledge work environment that involves meetings, you’re probably familiar with meeting requests that come through to your calendar and take time out of your day.

As I used to do, we often start with a day as a blank slate (this might be pretty far into the future for some of us). To this blank slate, meetings and appointments get added. In the white space that remains when the day arrives we try to get our work done and make progress on our most important projects. While doing so, we find ourselves wishing that we had more time for these activities.

There isn’t an easy fix to such a situation, but one thing that can help is “time blocking.” Essentially, time blocking is a way of approaching your calendar based on appointments you make with yourself for particular kinds of activities. And it stands on its head the approach to a workday described in the last paragraph.

Rather than waiting to see what fills the calendar and making use of the time that remains, time blocking asks you to proactively schedule time to make progress on your major goals and let other things filter in around that. Once the time is gone, it’s gone, and less essential items have to roll forward until there is time or get handled some other way. But, in the meantime, you’ve been careful to devote your attention to what matters most.

If you do get meeting requests, it can be helpful if your time blocked calendar shows you as “busy” during the times you set aside for deep work on key objectives. (If you feel the least bit bad about this, remember that being “busy” means being “occupied,” and there are a whole host of other—often more productive—ways to be “occupied” than by being in a meeting.)

But, even if you’re the only one who sees your calendar, it’s still helpful and important for you to see that you’re busy. Time blocking helps remove “white space” from your calendar and reflect back to you the actual demands on your time that your current commitments call for.

This kind of reflection is particularly helpful when you’re presented with new opportunities. If your calendar is clear, you might be inclined to agree quite easily. But, if you’re seeing a calendar that reflects the reality of an already full plate of commitments, you might be more cautious about signing up for whatever new request is presented to you.

Like creating a financial budget by spending money on paper before a month begins, time blocking on your calendar encourages you to spend your time for a given period (often at least a week out) in your calendar before you actually get there. In this way, you set aside and guard time to work on what’s most essential rather than being directed by whatever is latest and loudest and wondering where the time went.

Next week, we’ll discuss a few specific strategies for time blocking. But, even there, the key is not to find the one “right” approach that will resolve all challenges.

Instead, start somewhere, even if it’s small. Learn what works and what doesn’t for you, and go from there in becoming a better steward of how the time in your calendar gets spent toward what’s most important.

Have you tried time blocking before? What has been your experience with it?