If your schedule is regular, budgeting that time is pretty straightforward.1 You spend the time you know you’ll have on the commitments you think are most important to fit into it.
If your schedule is irregular, you’ll instead work whatever time you have against a fixed and prioritized list of commitments.
But how do you budget your time if your schedule isn’t completely regular and predictable?
Some of it might be. But some of it might also be irregular and unpredictable.
Budgeting Regular and Irregular Time Together
In this case, you can combine the two approaches for regular and irregular time.2
For the portion of your schedule that’s regular, you can plan in advance how you want to spend your time. For the portion that’s irregular, you can work on your commitments in priority order.
When you’re thinking about this combination, though, be careful not to overestimate how much of your schedule is regular. If you do, you’ll be at greater risk of running out of that regular time and still having unmet commitments.
Minimal Regularity amid Irregularity
Instead, think about how your more irregular days and weeks tend to go. If you keep a pretty detailed calendar, it might help to look back over the past few months.
As you do, what you’re looking for is the minimum amount of regularity you tend to have in your schedule, even in more irregular times.
In a good week, maybe you can keep Thursday pretty well free to tackle whatever you need to. But when things go haywire, maybe you only get until 10 am.
If you base your plan on your best case scenario, you’ll be more likely to have that plan get more disrupted more often.
Instead, you can run your regular time budget on a minimum amount of more regular time that you have. That way, your time budget will be less likely to break in more hectic seasons.3
Once you’ve done that, you can then budget your irregular time by a prioritized list of commitments.
Using the two approaches together, you can then have a proactive plan for your time, even if some of it’s regular and some of it’s irregular.
Whether your schedule is pretty fully regular, pretty fully irregular, or some of both, there’s a corresponding strategy to plan for your time.
If you have a regular schedule, budgeting that time is comparatively straightforward.1
From the amount of time you have available to “spend,” you subtract the time you think you’ll need for a given commitment. You work with a variable list of commitments against that fixed time until you’ve spent that fixed amount of time.
But your schedule might not be fully regular. Instead, it might be fully irregular.2
Does the idea of budgeting your time then go out the window? No, but it does take a different shape.
Instead of working with a known schedule and seeing what commitments you want to address in that time, you just need to reverse the process. You’ll instead work with a variable schedule against a fixed list of commitments.
Irregular Time: An Example
For instance, small humans aren’t known for their self-sufficiency or ability to keep invariably to a set schedule. So, if you have kids and you are your child care plan (maybe because another one has gotten thrown out the window), you now have pretty fully irregular time.
In that time, your kids may need you at more or less random intervals for more or less random periods of time. Your plans for that time will need to take shape accordingly.
You might decide just to postpone everything and enjoy the time with your kids. Or you might decide other commitments need attention as well.3
If you decide other commitments need attention too, you’ll need to somehow combine caring for your kids and addressing those other commitments. And in that environment, your time will probably be highly irregular.
Budgeting Irregular Time
So, if you try to stack up in your calendar a nice, neat tower of time blocks, you’ll pretty soon find it knocked to the floor. And if you try to stack it up again, you’ll be in for a repeat of the same experience.
Instead of going around that frustration-building cycle, take a couple seconds to consider what commitments you need to address. To do so, you might identify which ones are
This identification then becomes your budget for your irregular time.
You don’t know what time you will have to tackle these other commitments or when you’ll have it. But whatever you have whenever you have it, you can then “spend” working down through these categories from 1 to 4.
When time is up, unplug, and go hug your kiddos. (Maybe even think about thanking them for whatever time they ended up giving you whenever they gave it to you.)
Let what you haven’t gotten done roll forward to another day. But if you’ve spent your irregular time on what was most urgent and most important, you already know what that is.
There may be some other important things there waiting for you. But what rolled forward from today will be what matters least and can best keep until later anyway.
Whether it’s caring for kids or something else, lots of things can contribute to your having an irregular schedule.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t budget your time. It just means you need to be intentional about spending the time you have on addressing the commitments that are most important.
Here, the principle of an “emergency fund” from a financial budget can be helpful as well. Rachel Cruze, “A Quick Guide to Your Emergency Fund,” Dave Ramsey, n.d. A monetary emergency fund can provide a buffer against unknown expenses. Similarly, maintaining buffer time in your schedule can help cushion the impact of unexpected events and give you more options for addressing them. ↩
When you hear comments about “budgeting,” what comes to mind?1 For many folks, finances do.
But behind this specific context is the principle of deliberate planning. So you can budget other resources as well, including time. And extending the budget metaphor can open up different ways of thinking about the time you have available to you.2
There are only 24 hours in a day or 168 hours in the week, however you use them. So in larger contexts like these, everyone’s schedule is entirely regular.
But within smaller units of time, you might have significant regularity as well. For example, week-to-week, you might have almost an identical number of hours when you’re working. And when you have those work hours might be pretty dependable too.
Budgeting Regular Time
When this is the case, you can decide how to “spend” those hours in your time budget. You want to be sure you do what’s important (not just what’s urgent).3 But it’s not so important when you do what.
Your total time you plan to spend shouldn’t exceed what you have available in that part of your time budget. If you do, for instance, you might end up over budgeting time at work so that it eats badly into time with your family.
But within that “work” portion of your time budget, you can have significant freedom to structure the contents of that time how you like to meet the commitments you have.
In this scenario, time blocking might help you visualize how you are budgeting your time. It can also help you notice things about your current plans that don’t work well but that you might not realize otherwise.
Stephen Altrogge has a helpful post introducing time blocking. Stephen begins,
Most people use their calendars reactively, meaning that they put things on their calendars as they come up. Someone wants to grab coffee? On the calendar. The boss calls a meeting? On the calendar. A conference call with the publishing team? On the calendar.
The problem with this approach is that it can lead to the day getting very chopped up, which then makes it difficult to get things done which require in-depth thinking. If you’re constantly interrupted by meetings, phone calls, and emails, it’s tough to make progress on meaningful tasks.
Enter time blocking.
Some of the key steps Stephen outlines for time blocking are to:
Stephen also recommends that, when time blocking, you “overestimate the time it will take you to complete tasks”—since we have a tendency to do just the opposite—and “create an overflow day if you find yourself constantly falling behind in your schedule.”
Evernote discusses habit formation, largely by way of abstracting Charles Duhigg’s Power of Habit. Biblical scholarship sometimes isn’t thought of as being the most habit-dependent field, but the formation of good knowledge work habits do play a key role (e.g., of regular writing).
For starters, I should mention that time blocking doesn’t require a digital calendar or any other digital tools. If you prefer to keep a calendar in a paper notebook or planner, check out Cal Newport’s reflections on analog time blocking for some helpful guidance.
There are upsides and downsides to whatever approach. For me, the digital approach centered around Google Calendar is simplest and easiest to maintain.
And time blocking isn’t something to do for its own sake but for the sake of what it enables. So, for me, simplicity and ease of use have gone a long way toward guiding my choice of tools. But, even if your selection differs, you should still find some of the ideas here helpful and easily adaptable to your preferred toolset.
1. Identify Your Main Types of Tasks
For most people, time blocking probably shouldn’t replace a task list. Routinely spending time to block out 15 minutes here, 7 minutes there, and so on for smaller tasks would likely use up far more time than it would be worth.
So, to start time blocking, you’ll want to identify the main kinds of activities you’re responsible for. What are the main “buckets” in which the bulk of your tasks sit?
For example, during the workweek, I boil most of these down into “teaching,” “research,” and “administration.” If you’re a student who’s also involved in full-time church work, your main buckets might be “study” and “church.”
You can use whatever labels and however many you find convenient for encapsulating the majority of your activities. And you might want to change these over time. For instance, in the past, I’ve tried to have “reading” and “grading” blocks for class. But, it’s been simpler just to include these activities under the one heading of “teaching.”
2. Identify How Much Time to Spend Where
Once you’ve identified what your main kinds of activities are, you’ll want to identify how much total time to devote to each kind of activity.
As you do so, keep in mind that we humans are finite beings. And as a very practical consequence of this fact, whatever work you do in excess of 50 hours per week will tend to be increasingly less productive.
How you go about apportioning this time may take various shapes depending on your context. If you’re solely a full-time student or faculty, you could maybe start by roughly dividing your time among the courses you’re working on, perhaps giving a bit larger proportion to one that might seem more time consuming. Or, you could start by dividing your time according to emphases laid out for you in your performance review forms.
If you’re having to negotiate academics with work outside the academy, it might make sense to talk with your work stakeholders (e.g., church leadership) and come to some agreement about how you should apportion your time. Or, you may simply need to budget 40 hours in the week for your regular job and then determine how much school can fit around that.
As you start working on this schedule, you’ll doubtless find things that need to be adjusted. That’s okay. Just make those adjustments, and press ahead.
Regularly adjusting your plan as needed to get it to work for you will leave you in a far better place than not having a plan at all for fear that you might not get it exactly “right” the first time around.
3. Build a Template Week
Sometimes called an “ideal week”, a template week is basically just how you would want a typical week to go if you could fully control everything in it.
For this step, you’ll want to refer back to the various time blocking approaches we discussed as you think about different options for how to structure your time.
For example, let’s say you’ve decided to allocate 10 hours per week to a class on the Pauline Epistles. In a standard workweek, you could get to this number by:
Working 2 hours per day from 8:00–10:00 am (a rhythmic arrangement),
Working 8:00–9:45 Monday morning (1.75 hours) before staff meeting, 3:00–5:00 Monday afternoon (2 hours), and 8:30–2:45 on Tuesday after your breakfast meeting (a journalistic arrangement),
Working 8:00 am–5:00 pm Monday (9 hours) and 8:00–9:00 am Tuesday (1 hour, a bimodal or combination arrangement), or
Whatever else works with your schedule.
As you decide how you want to try things in your calendar, go ahead and create appointments for yourself. If your calendar is shared with others, it may also help if you mark yourself as “busy” during these times to show that you’ll be occupied with working on these projects.
You’ll probably need to move and resize some blocks more than once to get everything to fit. That’s perfectly fine. One of the advantages of time blocking in a digital calendar is that you can edit things easily without having to erase and redraw your blocks.
Work through your calendar layering in different kinds of activities until you’ve included everything you identified under step 1 above. Go ahead and set these up as items that repeat every week. That way, your template week will roll forward with you from one week to the next.
4. Roll with the Punches
The purpose of having a template week isn’t so you can rigidly enforce it to exclude anything that doesn’t fit. It’s to give you a starting point, or home base, from which you can tackle whatever other requests you might get for a given week.
So, unless you’ve adopted a “monastic” approach to structuring your deep work, you’ll likely need to make some one-off changes and customize your template schedule as you adapt it to any particular actual week.
5. Use Multiple Calendars as One
If you have multiple calendars (e.g., personal, school) that you need to manage, there are a couple tricks you can use to cut down on the time you spend managing them.
If you want to keep your calendars in sync:
Consider inviting yourself to your time blocks. So, for instance, if your main calendar is under your personal Google account, but you also want your school calendar to show a time block, just invite your school email address as an attendee to the time block you create with your main (personal) Google Calendar. Doing this has the advantage of updating the invited calendar whenever you make changes to a time block on your main calendar.
Use Zapier or IFTTT to copy meeting requests from one calendar to another. Inevitably, you’ll get a meeting request in one account (e.g., school) that your other account isn’t invited to. Rather than copying such events over manually, you can set up a “zap” or “recipe” to copy these requests automatically to your other calendar. The events won’t be linked. So, if a meeting time changes, you’ll need to update your other calendar separately. But, having something like this set up can cut down on at least one step in the process of keeping these calendars in sync.
6. Protect Your Focus
When budgeting your finances, it does little good to create a written plan and then not to live by it. The same is true with your time.
Of course, you do need to roll with the punches as in step 4 above. But, this means being intentionally flexible as needed to accommodate how life doesn’t always conform to a predefined plan.
What you want to avoid like the plague is allowing yourself to get unintentionally distracted from the kind of work you’ve set for yourself in a given time block.
If you think of something you need to handle that’s unrelated, write it down, and keep moving. Then, you can come back to the things that you’ve jotted down and put them into order so you can remind yourself of them easily later.
Or, if you find yourself distracted by software, try using an app like Freedom to schedule digital discipline for you that coincides with your time blocks for the day.
For instance, I currently have a Freedom session that runs every weekday morning, 5:30–8:00. Somewhere during this time, I typically look over my calendar for the day and set up in advance any additional Freedom sessions I want to run that day based on the kind of work I’ve allotted to different times of the day.
In the final analysis, you want to get the most out of your time that you can. That starts with making a plan for your days, having the discipline to stick to that plan, and exercising discernment about when and how to change the plan.
Whether you prefer to work digitally or on paper, time blocking can help you ensure that every minute counts and that you spend your days in ways you can look back on with satisfaction—rather than wondering where they went.
What are your main kinds of activities? How are you blocking them into your calendar to ensure you make progress on them?