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. 

Daily Gleanings: Atomic Minimalism (6 December 2019)

James Clear and Cal Newport discuss the symbiotic relationship their prior work has in terms of fostering focus.

In particular, Clear and Newport situate Clear’s program for habit formation as an excellent way of making operative the program Newport has articulated for the need to foster focused work.

It’s a rare thing when authors of two productivity-related lines of thought sit down for such a mutual exchange, and the full recording is well worth the listen.

Daily Gleanings: Starting (29 August 2019)

Freedom gives some practical steps to take to clear your mind ahead of creative work. The post begins from the premise that, sometimes when we sit down to do focused work, our minds sometimes remind us of everything besides that work. In response,

You could throw your hands up and spend the next two hours — the hours you set aside for your art — chasing ball after ball as your brain lobs them at you.

You could tough it out, trying to fumble your way through your work while your brain continues to yell chaos at you.

Or, you could sweep all the chaos out of your brain and lock it out of sight.

Let’s do that last one. It’s easier than you think.

I’ve found value in several of the specific recommendations Freedom provides for choosing this last option. For the full list of suggestions, see the original post.


Brett McKay discusses willpower with Kelly McGonigal, a psychology professor at Stanford and author of The Willpower Instinct. The discussion has some helpful observations for anyone needing to do something challenging like learning a language or writing a dissertation.

Daily Gleanings: Thoughts from Freedom (31 July 2019)

Freedom discusses procrastination. The essay comments helpfully on different types and causes of procrastination, as well as some strategies for overcoming it.


Freedom interviews Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Director of Digital Humanities and a Professor of English at Michigan State University. Commenting on how she nurtures focus for deep work, Fitzpatrick says,

I spend that first bit of time, when it’s still dark and quiet, with whatever major project I’m working on.… And when I know there are pressing things in my email inbox, I have a very hard time keeping my attention on the long-term, slow projects that I know to be important. So the ritual I just described — making sure I touch the important things every day, at least briefly, and that I do so before anything else gets to claim part of my attention — is crucial to making sure that I can keep them moving forward.

Reflecting on knowledge work more broadly, Fitzpatrick observes, “the biggest challenge many of us face is fragmentation of our time and attention.”

For the full interview, see Freedom’s original post.

Daily Gleanings (7 May 2019)

Doist provides a “complete guide to deep work.” The essay is mainly geared toward summarizing the advice of Cal Newport’s Deep Work with some additional insertions from Digital Minimalism.

Both books are definitely worth reading. But Doist’s essay is a thorough crash course on the basics.


Douglas Estes offers some helpful reflections on perfectionism, especially as it affects academic writing.

On perfectionism and writing, see also Ryder Carroll’s pithy analysis of perfectionism versus failure.

TopTracker

TopTracker provides a straight-forward, free time tracking utility that works on both Windows and OS X. The utility allows commenting on each session tracked (e.g., words written during that session). It also allows export via CSV, from where numbers can be crunched further in Excel to see how well progress is going.

By default, TopTracker will upload screenshots periodically while it’s running, but this feature can be disabled and other elements customized in the program’s settings.

For other similar utilities, see the Zapier blog. For additional discussion of the value of tracking writing progress or other “deep work,” see Paul Silvia’s book How to Write a Lot or Cal Newport’s Deep Work.