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.)
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.
This principle is sometimes, albeit slightly inaccurately, called “Parkinson’s Law.” ↩
Greg McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (New York: Crown Business, 2014), 16. ↩