Why You Need to Block Your Time

Time goes quickly.1 So, if you’re going to make the most of it for what really matters, you need to have a clear plan for it.

Where your schedule is pretty regular, one of the best methods for planning it is time blocking.

A Blank Calendar Is a Problem

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

When Blank Is Your Calendar’s Normal State …

In these environments, its easy to start with a day as a blank slate. In especially hectic periods, this blank slate might be pretty far into the future. But the normal state of your calendar is “empty” or “available.”

To this blank slate, you can then add meetings and other appointments. And in the white space that remains on a given day, you can try to make progress on your most important projects and goals or invest in key relationships.

If you take this approach, however, meetings, appointments, and urgent requests are likely to expand to fill the time allotted to them.2 And since your calendar is blank by default, you’re allotting all the time you have.

You’re Asking Other People to Plan Your Time

You’re liable to find yourself wishing you had more time for exactly these priority projects and relationships that you’re squeezing into the remaining white space. And your calendar largely becomes a record of other people’s priorities, which might fail to support or even conflict with your own.

As Greg McKeown observes,

When we don’t purposefully and deliberately choose where to focus our energies and time, other people … will choose for us, and before long we’ll have lost sight of everything that is meaningful and important. We can either make our choices deliberately or allow other people’s agendas to control our lives.3

The problem with a blank calendar is that it doesn’t actually mean you’re free. Yes, it has whitespace. But you’re probably already needing to use that whitespace for different purposes.

The whitespace on your blank calendar is probably already spoken for. But a blank calendar makes it look like you’re free—both to others and to yourself.

If you receive a request that fits into whitespace on your calendar, you’re liable not to immediately call up everything you’d implicitly hoped to do during a given time slot.

Sometimes you might. But that probably won’t be before you’re so overwhelmed you know you can’t add anything else to your plate.

And that kind of overwhelm is clearly not a great place from which to live or to work on your most demanding projects.

Time Blocks Are Appointments

But you don’t have to succumb to the default of a blank calendar. Instead of letting your calendar fill and investing in your key projects and relationships with the time remaining, you can proactively block out time on your calendar.

You Can Make Appointments with Yourself

This “time blocking” adds to your calendar even appointments you make with yourself for particular activities. And it stands on its head the default “blank” calendar approach.

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 invest in your major projects and relationships. You then let other things filter in around that.

Once your time is gone, it’s gone. Less essential items have to be eliminated, roll forward until there’s time for them, or get handled some other way. Meanwhile, you’re being careful to devote your attention to what matters most.

Even if you’re the only one who sees your calendar, it’s still helpful for you to see that you’re busy. Time blocking removes whitespace from your calendar. By removing this whitespace, your calendar will reflect the demands on your time that your current commitments call for.

This reflection is particularly helpful when new opportunities present themselves. If your calendar is clear, you might agree quite easily. But a calendar that reflects a full plate can help you be more cautious about agreeing to new requests.

Knowing You’re Busy Can Help Others Schedule Meetings

If others look at your calendar to send you meeting requests, it can be helpful if your time blocked calendar shows you as “busy” during the times you’ve already set aside. That will help others know when they can connect with you in ways that won’t impinge on more important commitments.

Of course, blocking your calendar and showing yourself as busy will reduce the times you look like you’re available. But that’s the point—if your attention needs to be elsewhere, you’re already not available at that same time for something else.

(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.)

Conclusion

Like creating a financial budget by spending money on paper before a month begins, time blocking your calendar encourages you to spend time in your calendar before you actually get to it. This way, you set aside time to give attention to your most important projects and relationships.

Time blocking helps you avoid being driven along by whatever is most urgent and wondering where the time went. There are several strategies for effective time blocking, but there isn’t one “right” approach.

So, start somewhere, even if it’s small. Learn what works and what doesn’t for you. And from what you learn, you can better steward the time in your calendar and how it gets spent.


  1. Header image provided by Djim Loic

  2. This principle is sometimes, albeit slightly inaccurately, called “Parkinson’s Law.” 

  3. Greg McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (New York: Crown Business, 2014), 16. 

How to Best Budget Your Time When It’s Regular

When you hear comments about “budgeting,” what comes to mind?1 For many folks, finances do.

But aside from that specific context, “budgeting” is all about the principle of deliberate planning. So you can budget finances. But you can budget other resources too, including time.

And thinking about your time as something you budget can help ensure you “spend” it on the work and relationships that matter most.2 That’s true whether your schedule pretty regular, quite irregular, or some combination of the two.

Regularity in Time

There are only 24 hours in a day or 168 hours in a week, however you use them. So, in larger contexts, everyone’s schedule is entirely regular.

But within smaller units of time, your schedule might be quite regular too. For example, week-to-week, you might have a nearly identical number of hours when you’re working or not. And when you have those hours fall might be pretty regular too.

Budgeting Regular Time

When this is the case, you can decide how to “spend” these regular hours in your time budget. When you craft this budget, you want to ensure you prioritize what’s important, not just what’s urgent.3

But because you pretty well know what time you’ll have when, it’s not so important when you tackle a given priority. In terms of the financial analogy, having a regular schedule is very similar to a salaried or steady hourly job.

The total time you spend in your time budget shouldn’t exceed what you have available. If you do, for instance, you might over budget time at work so that it “overdraws” time with your family.

But within the “work” hours in your time budget, you have significant freedom in how you structure that time to meet your commitments.

You can budget your regular time any number of ways. The basic principle is to plan deliberately for how you spend the hours you regularly have for your commitments.

To do so, you might find time blocking especially helpful. You can time block on a paper calendar, with Google Calendar and Todoist, or any number of other methods.

Wherever you time block, the practice easily shows the time you’ve budgeted for a given commitment. And by doing so, time blocking can show where you’re “over spent” because in your mind you’d allocated the same time in competing ways.

Conclusion

However you budget your regular time, the principle remains the same that you need to deliberately plan how you’ll use your time. That plan needs to have room for you to invest in your most important commitments.

Time blocking is a great way of planning because it immediately shows when you’ve “spent” time, how much of it you’ve allocated, and the priority that you’ve given yourself for that time. And having that immediate, visual feedback can prove invaluable in your efforts to focus your time on the people and projects that matter most.


  1. Header image provided by NeONBRAND

  2. As a basis for these categories, I’m drawing on thinking like that described in “How to Make a Zero-Based Budget,” Dave Ramsey, n.d. 

  3. On the relationship of urgency and importance, see especially Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change, 25th anniversary ed. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013), 154–92. 

How to Budget Your Time If It’s Regular and Irregular

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.

Conclusion

Whether your schedule is pretty fully regular, pretty fully irregular, or some of both, there’s a corresponding strategy to plan for your time.

Whatever shape that plan takes, having that time budget will help ensure you’re giving priority to your most important commitments.

Prioritizing these commitments in your time budget will simultaneously give you a powerful tool to help you avoid “spending” your time at the scheduling equivalent of the impulse buy rack.


  1. Header image provided by NeONBRAND

  2. As a basis for these categories, I’m drawing on thinking like that described in “How to Make a Zero-Based Budget,” Dave Ramsey, n.d. 

  3. On this principle, see also Greg McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (New York: Crown Business, 2014), 175–84. 

How to Budget Your Time If It’s Irregular

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

  1. Both urgent and important,
  2. Not urgent but important,
  3. Urgent but not important, and
  4. Not urgent and not important.4

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.

Conclusion

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.


  1. Header image provided by NeONBRAND

  2. As a basis for these categories, I’m drawing on thinking like that described in “How to Make a Zero-Based Budget,” Dave Ramsey, n.d. 

  3. 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. 

  4. For this framework, see especially Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change, 25th anniversary ed. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013), 154–92; see also Greg McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (New York: Crown Business, 2014), 215–24. 

Daily Gleanings: Time Blocking (11 December 2019)

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:

  1. Set your priorities.
  2. Create deep work blocks.
  3. Add shallow work and reactive blocks.
  4. Assign specific tasks to time blocks.

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.”

For the balance of Stephen’s discussion, see his original post on the Freedom blog.

For more about time blocking, see this blog post series.

Daily Gleanings: Persisting (30 August 2019)

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).


Todoist releases a “complete guide to timeblocking.” The post has some helpful examples, illustrations, and other discussion around timeblocking.

For further discussion of timeblocking, see this series of posts.