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?

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.