6 Steps to Block Your Time for More Focus in a Digital Workspace

Time blocking is a great way of budgeting time because it shows when you’ve spent time and whether you’ve spent it on what’s important.1

And whatever approach you adopt to how you block your time, there are 6 simple steps you can take to make that process pretty seamless in a digital workspace.

  1. Identify your main types of commitments.
  2. Decide how much time to spend on different types of commitments.
  3. Build a default weekly schedule.
  4. Roll with the punches.
  5. Condense multiple calendars.
  6. Protect your focus.

Or should you use a paper calendar?

Before I get to those 6 steps, however, I should stress that time blocking doesn’t require anything digital. That includes a digital calendar.

If you prefer to keep a paper calendar, however, you can definitely still block your calendar and reap the rewards of budgeting your time.2

Every approach has its upsides and downsides. And time blocking isn’t something to do for its own sake but for the sake of what it enables.

For me, a digital approach centered around Google Calendar is simplest and easiest to maintain. These factors have gone a long way in guiding my choice of tools. But even if your selection differs, you should still find some of the ideas here helpful and adaptable to your preferred toolset.

1. Identify your main types of commitments.

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 use up more time than it would be worth.

So, to start time blocking, identify the main types of commitments you have. What are the big “buckets” in which your commitments sit?

For example, during the workweek, I boil most of these down into “focused work” (which includes activities related to teaching and 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.”

Use however many buckets with whatever labels you need to capture your commitments. But don’t use more than you need. Doing so will just make your time blocking more complex without any extra benefit. And over time, you might want to change what buckets you’re using.

For instance, in the past, I’ve tried to have “preparation” and “grading” blocks for class. But it’s proven simpler just to include these activities under the one heading of “focused work.”

2. Decide how much time to spend on different types of commitments.

Once you’ve identified what your main types of commitments are, you’ll want to identify how much total time to devote to each type.

As you do so, remember that you have a limited amount of productive work in you each week. So, whatever work you do in excess of 50 hours per week tends to be increasingly less productive.3

How you go apportion this productive working time will vary depending on your context. For example,

  • If you’re solely a full-time student, you could start by roughly dividing your time among the courses you’re working on. You might then give a bit larger proportion to one that might seem more intensive. Or you could start by dividing your time according to emphases laid out for you in your performance review forms. Or
  • If you’re negotiating academics with work outside the academy, 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. Or it might be helpful to talk with your work stakeholders (e.g., church leadership) to work out how should apportion your time.

As you start working on this schedule, you’re sure to find things that need adjustment. That’s a good thing. It means you’re learning how your reality differs from your prior understanding of it. So, make the necessary adjustments, and press ahead.

3. Build a default weekly schedule.

A default weekly schedule is simply a plan for how you would want a typical week to go if you could fully control everything in it.4

3.1. Use the time blocking approach that works for you.

For this step, you’ll need to have decided on a particular approach to blocking your time. If you opt for the journalistic approach, you might not have set times for particular activities within your default weekly schedule. But you should know how much of that activity you want your week to include.

To illustrate, you might allocate 10 hours per week to the class you’re taking. 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),
  • 8:00–9:45 Monday morning before staff meeting, 3:00–5:00 Monday afternoon, and 8:30–2:45 on Tuesday after your breakfast meeting (a journalistic arrangement),
  • 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.

3.2. Make and arrange the appointments you need with yourself.

As you decide how you want to spend your time, create corresponding appointments for yourself. If your calendar is shared with others, be sure you mark yourself as “busy” during these times to show what time is already spoken for.

In this process, you’ll probably need to move or resize some blocks more than once. That’s to be expected. One advantage of time blocking on a digital calendar is that you can move blocks around more easily than on paper.

Work through your calendar layering in your different types of commitments identified under step 1 above. If you’re using a non-journalistic approach to time blocking, also set up your blocks to repeat every week. That way, your default weekly schedule will roll forward with you from one week to the next.

4. Roll with the punches.

Having a default weekly schedule doesn’t necessarily mean you have to rigidly enforce it. Instead, it gives you a starting point, or home base, from which you can tackle whatever one-off demands a given week might contain.

So, unless you’ve adopted a “monastic” approach to time blocking, feel free to work out from this home base to accommodate the demands you have in any particular actual week.

5. Condense multiple calendars.

If you have multiple calendars that you need to manage, you can often manage them together. For instance, you might

  • Invite yourself to your time blocks. 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 to the time block you create. Doing this will also update your invited calendar whenever you change 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 that your other account isn’t invited to. Rather than copying these events manually, set up a “zap” or “recipe” to copy these requests automatically to another calendar. The events won’t be linked. So, if a meeting time changes, you’ll need to update your other calendar separately. But this kind of automation can still help reduce the time you spend keeping multiple calendars in sync.
  • Use Todoist’s Google Calendar integration to pull onto your calendar the specific tasks you’re wanting to complete in a given larger bucket. This integration provides a convenient way for you to layer particular activities on top of your default weekly schedule blocks. Once set up, you can see and manage everything from one place.

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 to accommodate how life doesn’t always conform to a predefined plan. What you want to avoid getting unintentionally distracted from what you’ve committed yourself to in a given time block.

If you think of something you need to handle that’s unrelated to your current time block, write it down, and keep moving. After that block is done, come back to the things you’ve jotted down, and arrange how you’ll address them later.

To avoid getting distracted by software, try using 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, 5:30–8:30.5 Somewhere during this time, I look over my calendar for the day and schedule any additional Freedom sessions I want to run that day based on the kind of work I’m doing.

Conclusion

In the end, you want to get the most out of your time that you can. That starts with planning your days, living by that plan, and discerning when and how it needs to change.

Whether you work digitally or on paper, time blocking can help ensure every minute counts. That way, you can look back in satisfaction on how you spent your days rather than wondering where they went.


  1. Header image provided by Zan

  2. For thoughts on how to time block on a paper calendar, see Cal Newport, “Deep Habits: The Importance of Planning Every Minute of Your Work Day,” weblog, Cal Newport, 21 December 2013 or the Full Focus Planner

  3. Bob Sullivan, “Memo to Work Martyrs: Long Hours Make You Less Productive,” CNBC, 26 January 2015. 

  4. For this reason, Michael Hyatt dubs the concept an “ideal week.” Free to Focus: A Total Productivity System to Achieve More by Doing Less (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2019), 161–82. 

  5. For instructions on creating a recurring Freedom session, see “Start Later and Recurring Sessions,” Freedom Help Center, n.d. 

5 Ways You Can Block Your Time to Focus on What Really Matters

Especially in knowledge work contexts like biblical studies, what is and isn’t actually on your plate can easily bleed together.1

Day to day, there can be a hectic scrum of incoming requests and possible opportunities. Amid all of this, time blocking can help you ensure you’re prioritizing what matters to you. There isn’t one right way to block your time, but there are five basic ways you can approach it.2

  1. Monastic
  2. Bimodal
  3. Rhythmic
  4. Journalistic
  5. Combination

And with some thought and experimentation, you can find what approach works best for you.

1. Monastic

In a monastic approach, the main idea is to eliminate everything except focused work. You avoid anything that doesn’t fall in a very specific, narrow range of activities (e.g., writing).

This approach is possible for some. But it’s not particularly feasible if you have a broader slate of essential responsibilities.

Somewhat ironically too, time blocking is probably a less useful technique under a monastic approach. Your calendar only ever has one activity, and others know you don’t allow interruptions to this schedule.

So, actually blocking your calendar may be more trouble than it’s worth. The monastic approach blocks your calendar simply by adopting it.

2. Bimodal

The bimodal approach is like the monastic strategy in periods you devote to focused work. But if you block time bimodally, you’ll deliberately intersperse other periods specifically to address less demanding activities.

The idea in the bimodal philosophy is to batch focused work together into larger chunks, to do the same with work that requires less focus, and to keep the two quite separate. In this way, you get the efficiencies that come with longer, uninterrupted stretches of a particular kind of activity. But you also don’t commit yourself to ignoring everything else.

On the scale of a week if you’re a student who’s also in full-time church work, this might look like having

  • Mondays blocked out for class reading,
  • Tuesdays assigned to writing papers,
  • Wednesdays allocated to hospital visits,
  • Thursdays reserved for meetings, and
  • Fridays set aside for sermon preparation.

Then, when you’re doing a specific kind of work, you try to push aside other responsibilities.

3. Rhythmic

The rhythmic approach is similar to the bimodal strategy, but it involves more frequent alternation among different kinds of activities. So, for instance, within a given day, you might do the same activity at the same time each day or on specific days of the week.

With this structure, the rhythmic approach allows times for different kinds of activities to come up more regularly. So, this approach may be helpful if you don’t think it best to batch different kinds of work as strictly as you would in the bimodal approach.

4. Journalistic

The journalistic approach operates by “fit[ting] deep work wherever you can into your schedule.”3

Thus, in this case, you might leave mostly white space on your calendar leading up to a given week. But once you come to planning that week, you allocate your remaining time to accomplish the focused work you have to do.

This strategy imposes the least structure on your calendar ahead of time. That can be good if you need that flexibility to accommodate irregularity in your schedule. But the more of your calendar you leave blank, the more you’re inviting that whitespace to find something to occupy it.

So, if you’re going to use a journalistic approach to time blocking, you might want to set yourself a “budget” for how much of a specific kind of activity you’ll allow in a given period.

For instance, you might decide you’ll allow eight hours of meetings per week. After those hours are spent in a given week—wherever in that week they occur—other meetings have to find a place in a following week.

By capping how much of a given activity you’ll include, you ensure you still have the time you need for other commitments. But you can stay flexible with exactly when you address them.

5. Combination

Of course, there isn’t a “purist police” for time blocking approaches that allow you to use only one of them. What’s important is to time block in a way that helps you focus on what matters most.

For instance, the basic approach I’ve used for about a good while involves elements of each of the bimodal, rhythmic, and journalistic strategies:

  • As in the rhythmic approach, each workday begins with a startup routine that includes primary literature reading—mostly Hebrew Bible and Greek New Testament—and ends with a shutdown routine that includes email and administrative activities.4
  • As in the bimodal approach, I block the bulk of any given day into as large a chunk as I can (e.g., devoting those hours to teaching, class preparation, or writing on any given day).
  • As in the journalistic approach, I don’t hold rigidly to the same schedule every day. Instead, I’ll adjust as necessary to accommodate other essential activities that come up.

Do You Need to Block All Your Time?

To this point, I’ve discussed time blocking primarily in a professional context. But what about your personal time? Do you need to block that too?

In short, yes. You need to block all your regularly occurring time, but you don’t need to block it all in the same way or to the same degree.

To take another personal example, when I’m at work, I have a pretty detailed plan for those hours. When I’m at home, however, that’s not the case, but the time is still blocked.

It’s likely just blocked in large chucks of “with family,” “at church,” “sleep,” and so on. What those large general blocks contain could vary quite a bit from day to day or on the spur of the moment.

If these blocks are firmly ingrained as habits for you, you might not need to put them on your calendar. Simply by seeing 6:30 pm on Tuesday, you know what that block holds.

The important thing, though, is to visually block on your calendar anything commitments that are softer and more liable to get bumped by less important things.

For instance, if I’m in the middle of something at the end of a workday, it’s all to easy to spend “just a few more minutes” tying up the loose ends. But those “few more minutes” quickly eat into time I’d planned to spend elsewhere.

So, while I don’t have explicit “family time” or “sleep” blocks on my calendar, I do have a block for “Leave the Office” to help ensure that happens when it’s supposed to.

Conclusion

In the end, whatever time blocking approach you adopt, the important thing is how time blocking helps you spend your time deliberately.

Even (and especially) if you have too much on your plate, you can’t afford to have what’s most important at the mercy of what’s simply latest and loudest.


  1. Header image provided by STIL

  2. Cal Newport discusses the first four of these strategies under the rubric of “deep work philosophies.” Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (New York: Grand Central, 2016), 100–17. I’m here focusing on these general ideologies in terms of the specific time blocking practices they imply. 

  3. Newport, Deep Work, 115. 

  4. On “workday startup” and “workday shutdown” routines, see Michael S. Hyatt, Free to Focus: A Total Productivity System to Achieve More by Doing Less (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2019), 116–21. 

Pro Tips for Busy Writers: David DeSilva

David DeSilva headshotTo the series “Pro Tips for Busy Writers,” I’m pleased to welcome David DeSilva.

David is the Trustees’ Distinguished Professor of New Testament and Greek at Ashland Theological Seminary.

David has published or in press more than 15 academic books and another 13 for popular audiences. Beyond this, he has contributed upwards of 50 articles and essays to journals and edited volumes.

For more about David, see his personal website.

Larger projects (e.g., a dissertation, a second monograph) can be more important but less urgent than others (e.g., conference papers, book reviews). How do you avoid letting good-but-less-important projects push out or cause you to procrastinate on those that are more important but less urgent?

I’m personally not very good at this, but the key is, first, to say “no” to conference papers, invitations to contribute essays, and especially to book reviews (and usually invitations to respond to questionnaires that aren’t about one of my projects!).

[Given this principle, my special thanks to David for his decision not to say “no” to participating in this interview! 🙂 ]

I think I’ve done five book reviews in the last decade. When I do think about conference papers or essay invitations, I try to make sure they are in line with my current (or anticipated) project so that my head keeps swimming in the same pool.

When you’ve worked on multiple projects concurrently, what processes, principles, or practices have you used to be sure you’re making good progress on all fronts?

To be honest, I don’t really work on projects concurrently. If necessary, I set the one aside and get the other done, then return to the first one.

I find immersion to be the best way for me to make progress on something.

Do you divide your process between research and writing? If so, how?

Yes, I tend to try to do the bulk of the research first, take a plenitude of notes, and shape them into the orderly progression that will become the article or book.

Of course, new questions arise in the course of the actual writing. But those tend to be rather specific things that I had not anticipated having to dig into and don’t stall the writing process too much.

What do you do to help you avoid overcommitting yourself either on timelines that are too short for their projects or on how many projects you take on? How do you avoid undercommitting?

Undercommitting has just never been a danger for me. I’ve used those rare occasions when I’ve had free time between projects to be creative in other ways, like composing anthems or arranging organ music for my church work.

I have a serious problem with overcommitting, and I’ll simply say that it’s better to err on the side of undercommitting—and having some good free time for other interests or just for the tasks of home ownership and yard maintenance!—than on the side of overcommitting.

The Hebrew Bible image for enjoying covenant blessings was sitting under one’s vines and trees, not incessantly working on them.

When working on multiple projects concurrently, what tools do you use (e.g., filing systems, project management tools, apps)?

When I can’t avoid working on multiple projects in the same time frame, I tend to compartmentalize and devote, say, Monday and Tuesday to the one and Thursday and Saturday to the other (before our kids were grown, however, Saturdays were sacred to playing!). That way, I can keep my focus in one place at a time.

But in these cases, they’ve also been significantly different kinds of projects, e.g., working on the Greek handbook on Galatians (so a lot of very technical and not-so-creative work) alongside writing my novel, Day of Atonement.

Organization is, of course, essential. I’ve never used “project management tools.” I just put all the physical books I need for one project on one group of shelves and those for the other on another group of shelves. I divide all my notes and drafts into appropriate folders on my computer desktop.

How has your approach to concurrent writing projects changed over time?

I have accepted my tunnel-vision approach and try not to work against myself.

What are two or more projects you’re particularly excited about that you’re now working on concurrently?

I’m excited not to be working on two or more projects concurrently!

What closing advice (if any) would you offer to (post-)graduate students and new faculty as they try to become comfortable and competent for themselves in making progress concurrently on multiple writing projects?

Publish articles and present papers on the way to completing larger monographs. If there are key new works that you must engage to do your own research, target those (and only those) for book reviews. (This is essentially advice not to get involved in concurrent projects, but to get the most out of a single project.)

Don’t stress yourself out about the quality of what you’re writing. Just keep working at the level at which you were working as you successfully completed your dissertation.

What you did once, you can do again—and again. Your skills will naturally grow with use and exercise, particularly as you keep engaging the research of your peers.

What’s your biggest take away from this interview?

Header image provided by Freddie Marriage via Unsplash

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: Focus (2 December 2019)

Corey Pemberton has a very helpful essay on focus. The essay discusses eight specific types of challenges with focus and provides some suggestions for overcoming each type.

In particular, the eight types are:

  1. Trouble prioritizing what’s most important,
  2. Emotional procrastination,
  3. Lack of motivation,
  4. Too much multitasking,
  5. Time management issues,
  6. Physical health issues,
  7. Mental health issues, and
  8. Distraction.

If you work through this list, you will probably identify a trouble spot or two that you have. But, Pemberton also suggests keeping a distraction log for a while if needed to capture what is hurting your focus if you can’t readily identify it.

For Pemberton’s full discussion of these reasons focus can be difficult, see his original post on the Freedom blog.

Daily Gleanings: Digital Distractions (13 November 2019)

Freedom interviews Tyler Shores about avoiding digital distractions.

Tyler is doing a PhD in Education at Cambridge. Some of his advice to fellow academics is to

Keep[] track of your progress with any kind of word count spreadsheet, or other means of tangibly tracking what you are doing. This kind of feedback and ability to quantify is what social media and distractions also rely upon to keep us hooked — so we can use those principles to our advantage.

The open-ended nature of [academic] work is challenging. There can be no shortage of angles to chase up. Academics are no strangers to productive procrastination. Having social pressure can be a wonderful way to not take too long with things.

The older I get, the more I seem to realize how important sleep is. Matthew Crawford talks about the science of sleep and why we need it in his book, Why We Sleep.

For the full interview, see Freedom’s blog. For more about using Freedom to beat distractions, see “How to Use Freedom to Support Your Priorities.”