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. 

Why You Need to Celebrate Accomplishing Your Goals

What will you do when you accomplish one of your goals for the year?1

Should you cross it off your list and move straight to the next thing without missing a beat?

No, you should pause to celebrate.

What Celebration Means

But celebration doesn’t have to be complicated. It doesn’t need to involve a party. It doesn’t even need to involve spending money or “rewarding” yourself for all your hard work on that goal.2

What counts as a “celebration” for you can be something comparatively small. It might mean

  • Telling someone close to you that you finished that article and got it submitted to a journal,
  • Having a special dinner with your spouse,
  • Taking an extra few hours away from your academic work to spend with your kids, or
  • Doing any of a host of other things that might, yes, also sometimes even include having a party. 🙂

Celebration Is about Thankfulness

The point is, celebration is about thankfulness. It’s about gratitude. It’s about being intentional in noticing that where you are isn’t where you were.

You can plunge straight ahead from accomplishing one goal into the next. But doing so ignores that you haven’t gotten from where you were to where you are on your own.

And especially over the long haul, it will be good for both you and those around you if you’re intentional about finding ways to celebrate progress that reflect that gratitude.

Conclusion

So, if you don’t already have plans for how you’ll celebrate the different goals you have for this year, take a few moments to start thinking about that.

You don’t need to do anything fancy. The important thing is to be intentional about how you choose to celebrate and mark your progress.


  1. Header image provided by Erwan Hesry

  2. For pressing the value of commemorating goal accomplishment, I’m particularly grateful to Michael S. Hyatt, Your Best Year Ever: A Five-Step Plan for Achieving Your Most Important Goals (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2018); Michael S. Hyatt, Free to Focus: A Total Productivity System to Achieve More by Doing Less (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2019).

    That said, Hyatt tends to discuss this commemoration in the language of “reward” rather than “celebration.” The terminological difference may be largely semantic. Hyatt does sometimes talk explicitly in the language of “celebration.”

    But to me, emphasizing the language of “celebration” has two material upsides. First, it relates more readily to gratitude than does “reward.” Second, “celebration” suffers less from the possibly consumerist or entitlement connotations in language about “reward.” 

How to Make Your Goals Even More Actionable

Good goal statements are already actionable.1 They’re specific enough to focus on things that you can actually accomplish, even if those things themselves contribute to something bigger.

For instance, you can’t do “being in shape.” But you can “bike 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week.” And over time, that practice can lead to “being in shape.”

But even when it comes to accomplishing an actionable goal, the goal itself is almost never directly done.

This might seem odd, but it derives from the essential nature of goals as projects.

Goals and Actions

Maybe not all projects are goals. But pretty well all goals are, by definition, projects. That is, they are results that require more than one action to complete.2

So, accomplishing even an actionable goal is never the direct result of simply taking the action that the goal describes. What this means is that “you can’t do a project … [y]ou can only do an action related to it.”3

The project, or goal, itself is too large and complex for you to accomplish in a single action. That’s true even if the project itself is actionable, meaning that it has a well-defined action in view.

To say this, though, isn’t simply to make a nice semantic distinction. It has an important function in making your goals doable even when they’re realistically risky or big, hairy, and audacious.4

Next Actions

What you can only ever do is a “next action.”5 This next action should always be small enough to be something you can easily do and large enough to move you toward completing a larger goal or project.6

So, for instance, accomplishing a goal to successfully complete your textual criticism seminar becomes a series of next actions like:

  • Obtain the syllabus.
  • Read the syllabus.
  • Obtain all the required resources.
  • Put all assignment due dates in my task manager (or on your calendar or both).
  • Etc.

These are the things that then you can make the time to do and that will move you forward to your ultimate goal of successfully completing the seminar.

Conclusion

As you have a larger and more complex goal (or set of goals),

  • The more helpful you’ll find it to be clear about the very next action(s) you need to take to accomplish that goal. Without that next action, the goal just sits there, staring you in the face as an impenetrable block. But also,
  • The less you need to be able to identify all of the next actions you’ll need to do to complete it. As you work on that goal, circumstances might require you to change how you go about it anyway.

The main thing to have in front of you is the very next action you need to take to accomplish a given goal.

Once you’ve finished that, the very next action after it should pretty readily present itself until, one small step at a time, you arrive at your destination.


  1. Header image provided by Annie Spratt

  2. I’ve adapted this definition from David Allen, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, rev. ed. (New York: Penguin, 2015), 41. 

  3. Allen, Getting Things Done, 21. 

  4. For more on this terminology, see Jim Collins and Jerry I. Porras, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, 3rd ed. (New York: Harper Business, 1994), 91–114. 

  5. On the concept of “next actions,” see especially Allen, Getting Things Done, 253–65. 

  6. On the smallness of next actions, see especially Michael S. Hyatt, Your Best Year Ever: A Five-Step Plan for Achieving Your Most Important Goals (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2018); Michael S. Hyatt, Free to Focus: A Total Productivity System to Achieve More by Doing Less (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2019). 

What Do You Really Want to Accomplish in 2021?

What do you really want to accomplish this year?1

Without clear intentions, you’re liable to get to the end of it having done plenty of things except give enough attention to what you’d otherwise select as most important.

To avoid that, it’s important to take some time to identify what you want to work toward achieving.

How you do that will likely look a bit different from how someone else does it. But if you’re looking for a place to start, I’d like to suggest 5 steps to get you going:2

  1. Reflect on your experience.
  2. Brainstorm what you’d most like to accomplish this year.
  3. Turn your brainstorm results into goal statements.
  4. Assign each goal to a particular part of the year.
  5. Each week, ask what you can do to move toward one or more of your goals.

1. Reflect on your experience.

Before you start making plans for the year, it might be helpful for you to reflect on what you’ve learned from the last year.

At least for me, when I do this, I inevitably pull out some things that help me plan better for the future.

You’ll have your own lessons that you’ve learned, but let me share an example of my own to help get your wheels turning.

I’ve sometimes found myself with one or more goals that’s too large to accomplish in any one time period. (I structure my year into quarters. Semesters work great too, but more on that below.)

That meant those larger—but possibly more important—items could get lost in the shuffle. So, in response, I’ve tried to be more mindful about chunking down larger projects into smaller units that can fit into single quarters.

This naturally means a larger project will have more discrete goals that lead up to its completion. But that’s part of the point. Larger projects are larger and will take more to complete.

So, having any given quarterly goal will be pretty achievable within that quarter has been helpful.

It gives me a better sense of just how committed the year and its quarters already are. It also helps me see better throughout the year how I’m progressing on larger-scale projects.

This is true whether that larger project is professional or personal. For instance, if I have a goal to take a certain number of days out of the office with my family by the end of the year, it does some good just to plop that goal down into the fourth quarter.

But if that goal is going to require meaningful chunks of time in other quarters too, what’s still more helpful is again to segment that larger goal down into those major per-quarter chunks.

2. Brainstorm what you’d most like to accomplish this year.

You’ll certainly accomplish many more things this year than you can count. But what are the most important things for you to accomplish?

2.1. Make a list.

Make a list of what you think of. Be sure to think both personally and professionally.

It can be easy to think about professional goals and ignore personal ones. But biblical scholarship isn’t about being an academic automaton.

So, it’s important to have a mix of both personal and professional goals that you’re working toward.

Do you want to write an article? Spend more time focused on your family? Take a class? (As a hint, if you’re a student taking a class, completing that class successfully should be one of your goals. 🙂 )

It might take a few minutes for you to get going. But once you do, your list is liable to grow pretty quickly.

Keep brainstorming until you have at least 10 items on your list.

2.2. Subdivide your list.

Once you get to this point, carefully review your list. As you do so, you’re asking one question: What item(s) on your list needs to be subdivided?

Don’t worry about making any of these subdivisions too detailed. All you’re trying to get a handle on are the major component pieces of any larger goals you’re considering putting on your plate.

As an example, you might have on your list “Write my dissertation.” That’s not something you’re going to finish all at one go. Nor is it something you’re going to be able to do all in one quarter or semester.

You’ll want to subdivide this project, and as you do, you’ll start to see your list better reflect the complexity of what writing your dissertation requires.

You might subdivide this project into

  • completing your prospectus,
  • completing each of the individual chapters, and finally
  • editing, proofreading, and submitting your project.

So, for instance, if you have five chapters, “Write my dissertation” immediately becomes seven discrete activities (one for each of the chapters, one for the prospectus, and one for final editing).

2.3. Focus your list.

Now, out of your subdivided list, you only get to pick 12 items at most to really work on. If you only have 10–12 items, that’s great.

What do you do if you find yourself with more than 12 items in your brainstormed list (like I have)?

It’s tempting to think you can do it all or fit everything in that you want in the scope of a year. But that’s rarely realistic, and if it is, that probably means your goals weren’t really stretching you to begin with.

The beauty of limiting yourself to no more than 12 major objectives over the coming 12 months is that it helps you feel at this planning stage the strain that these goals will put on your time, attention, and resources as the year moves along.

Anything that goes on this list ultimately means something else can’t be on it. So, to come down to your most important objectives for the coming year, you might need to reflect, write down, scratch out, reorder, and otherwise hash and rehash your list over a few days until you’re satisfied with it.

That’s okay. And whatever doesn’t make the cut for this year you can definitely save as ideas for another time.

The important thing is make space to think and intentionally commit to what will be most important to you this year.

3. Turn your brainstorm results into goal statements.

Once you have your main yearly objectives, take a few minutes to turn them into SMARTER goals that are

Doing so will help you crystalize for yourself exactly what you’re committing to accomplishing by when.

Specific

“Write an article” or “spend more time with my family” are too general. Aiming at them is much like trying to hit anywhere in a target rather than in the bullseye.

“Write an article about the land promise to Abraham” or “Be home by 5:30, and give my full attention to my family the rest of each weekday” are much more specific targets to try to hit.

Measurable

“Make progress on my dissertation” doesn’t cut it because “progress” is very vague.

What counts? In principle, one additional character in your dissertation file could count as “progress,” but at that rate, your project will likely outlive you and still not be finished.

“Draft my first dissertation chapter” is much better.

Actionable

To “be less distracted while reading” is a great idea, but what do you need to do in order to be this way?

Do you need to “Use Freedom to block online distractions during scheduled reading time”? That you can do as you cultivate the habit of deep work.

By clarifying exactly what action you need to take to achieve a given outcome, you’re that much more likely to make good forward progress in that area.

Realistically Risky

A good goal should be doable but stretch you. For instance, you might have been comfortably writing academic papers at 200 words per hour.

But how would things be different if you tried to stretch that to 300 words per hour? What kind of time would that free up? What steps would you need to take to get that much more focused during your writing time?

Time-keyed

By when do you want to have this goal complete? Or how often do you want to do it?

For example, do you want to “Spend two hours a day, five days a week writing my dissertation”? Or do you want to “Finish drafting my last dissertation chapter by 30 June”?

If you’re using a “due by” time key, you’ll naturally match that time key to the part of the year to which you assign that goal.

Exciting

Whether a goal is exciting can be related to how much it stretches you, or it might be something you just simply enjoy doing. So, this criterion has more to do with the topic of the goal than with how you frame it.

If you look over your goals list and you find something that makes you yawn, ask yourself why. As you do, consider removing it to concentrate on something more important. Or if it’s something you need to keep, try reframing it in a way that piques your interest.

Relevant

If you’re working full time in a non-faculty post outside Europe, have an active family life, and have ongoing commitments in your community, it still might be a lot of fun to “Spend the semester at INTF.”

But it might not be realistic to pull up stakes and start actively moving on this goal in your current circumstances. At the very least, you’d back off this goal to something more preparatory like “Plan a semester abroad at INTF.”

4. Assign each goal to a particular part of the year.

Academic life typically revolves around quarters or semesters. And that natural structure is something to consider when you think about how to segment your year—whether into 3 or 4 major parts.

Either should work. I’ve found the slightly shorter and more regular quarters to be more helpful.

But they do sometimes overlap in odd ways with academic semesters. So, choose whatever approach seems most natural and least likely to create friction for you.

In either case, the point is to avoid letting goals slide in either planning or execution. The more of your important objectives get lumped into the very end of the year, the more likely they’ll be still incomplete at the start of next year.

Instead, from your list of no more than 12 SMARTER goals for the year, assign

  • No more than 4 to each semester (fall, spring, summer) or
  • No more than 3 to each quarter.3

Just like limiting yourself to 12 annual goals, limiting yourself to 3 per quarter or 4 per semester helps you feel the constraints of that time in your planning process.

Reckoning with those constraints ahead of time can be key to helping you avoid larger-scale scheduling crises.

5. Each week, ask what you can do to move toward one or more of your goals.

If you only have 12–16 weeks to complete 3–4 major goals, you need to be intentional about what you do each week.

So, however works for you, schedule time each week to review your goals for that quarter or semester.

Then, ask yourself: “What do I need to do this week toward completing the goals I’ve set?”

You might not be able to work on everything for that quarter or semester in a given week. That’s fine.

The point is to make regular progress, even if its on a small handful of meaningful tasks. Overtime, those small handfuls add up to much larger results.

If you want some ideas about how to structure your time, and your goals in it, see my free guide, How to Budget Your Time: A Guide for Regular, Irregular, and Mixed Schedules.

Conclusion

By the time December rolls around, the year will be too far spent to change much of what it involves. So, don’t wait.

Instead, “begin with the end in mind” of what you’d like to have done this year once it is at an end.4

Then, you’ll be ready to start taking deliberate, well-defined steps toward that end.


  1. Header image provided by Annie Spratt

  2. In this post, I’m much indebted to the advice in Michael S. Hyatt, Your Best Year Ever: A Five-Step Plan for Achieving Your Most Important Goals (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2018). I’ve found this guidance hugely helpful for myself. And I’ve tried to supplement and apply it here in a way that addresses some of the specifics of life in biblical studies. 

  3. A possible exception is if you’re running a habit goal throughout the year like “Bike for 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week.” In that case, you might need to have that habit goal in each quarter or semester. And you can decide whether the time commitment for that goal is small enough for it not to occupy one of these 3 quarterly or 4 semesterly slots. 

  4. Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change, 25th anniversary ed. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013), 102–53. 

Daily Gleanings: Finishing (23 December 2019)

In episode 14 of the Focus on This podcast, Courtney Baker and Blake Stratton discuss “how to finish goals that drag on forever.”

Using a quarter-by-quarter framework Courtney and Blake particularly define “dragging on” as a goal rolling from one quarter to another without completion.

In the episode, they primarily discuss different kinds of time keys (e.g., due dates, frequencies) and how clarity about these keys might help with completion.

It wasn’t so much discussed here, but another cause for the dragging on of goals (or the projects they represent) might be simply that the project is too big for the time frame allotted.

In that case, a given goal or project might need to be broken down into several and these several spread throughout the year.

Of course, doing this will use up a yearly goal budget faster. But that’s really just an admission of what it means to have the larger project on your plate in the first place—there’s less room on that plate for something else.