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?

Setting (and Limiting) Your Goals for the Year

What do you want to accomplish in the next 12 months? As we greet the new year and look forward to making the most of it, it’s important to take some time to identify—and limit—what we most want to do with it.

Otherwise, we’re liable to get to the end of the year and have done plenty of things except give enough attention to what we would have chosen as most important.1

AltMan archery bow and arrow by Annie Spratt

1. Brainstorm 10–12 things you’d most like to accomplish in the coming year.

You’ll certainly do more than 10–12 things in a year. But, what are the 10–12 things that are most important for you to accomplish by the end of the year?

These can and should be both personal and professional. We can often tend to think about setting professional goals and ignore personal ones, which can be just as or even more important in the long run. So, it’s important to ensure you have a mix of both.

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.)

And here’s the magic: a limited list of 10–12 items fills up really fast when you’re looking out over the scope of a whole year. So, if you find yourself with more than 10–12 items in your brainstormed list (like I have), what do you do?

It’s tempting to think we can do it all or fit everything in that we want in the scope of a year, but that’s not very realistic.

The beauty of limiting yourself to 10–12 major objectives you want to accomplish over the following 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, just like anything you do ultimately means you can’t do something else.

So, to come down to your 10–12 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. The important thing is make space to think and commit to what will be most important to you over the next 12 months.

2. Turn each brainstormed item into a goal statement.

Once you have your 10–12 objectives, take some time to make these objectives into SMARTER goals that are:

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 four dissertation chapters” 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.

Realistically risky. A good goal should be doable but stretch you. For instance, if you’ve comfortably maintained a “B” average in your coursework so far, you might set a goal to “complete the biblical theology seminar with a final grade of A.”

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 “send an article about the land promise to Abraham to a journal by 30 June”? If you’re using a “due by” time key, you’ll want to match that time key to the quarter (or semester) into which you put that goal in step 3 below.

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, and either remove it to concentrate on something more important or try to reframe it in a way that you can be enthusiastic about it. If your interest in that research project you began last year has waned, how can you adjust course to align it better with your current interests (preferably while still using most or all of your existing material)?

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 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 probably want to do a good deal of groundwork first to “plan a semester abroad at INTF” as a stepping-stone goal.

3. Assign each goal to a particular quarter (or semester).

Academic life often revolves around semesters. But, depending on the nature of your academic obligations and how those relate to what else you have going on in your life, you might find it better to think on a quarterly basis.

Either should work, although I’ve found the slightly shorter and more regular quarters to be more helpful. The point is that, in laying out goals over a whole year, it can be tempting to let several slide either in planning or in execution until the very end of the year, when there might not be enough time to complete them.

Instead, of your 10–12 annual goals, assign at most 3–4 to each quarter or semester. Just like limiting yourself to 10–12 annual goals, limiting yourself to 3–4 goals per quarter or semester helps you feel the constraints of that time in your planning process.

You might want to “Draft four dissertation chapters” in this period, but if you have anything else going on—and you probably should—this might not be feasible during that time frame. Instead, consider assigning to one quarter the goal to “draft the literature review for my dissertation.”

4. Each week, ask what you can do to move toward one or more of your quarterly (or semesterly) goals.

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

So, however works for you, make it a point each week to ask yourself what you need to do that week that will help you complete the goals you’ve set for that quarter or semester.2 Again, 3–4 major activities for the week is probably a rough upper end to aim for, but you’ll obviously do more than 3–4 things each week.

Conclusion

Stephen Covey helped immortalize the advice to “begin with the end in mind” (Effective People, 102–53). By the time December rolls around, the year will be too far spent to do much to change what it involves. So, don’t wait. Begin now, think about how the coming year should look, and start taking deliberate, well-defined steps toward that end.

What big objectives do you have for this year? How will you define and tackle them?


  1. In this post, I’m much indebted to the advice in Michael Hyatt, Your Best Year Ever. I’ve found this hugely helpful for myself and have tried to supplement and apply it here in a way that addresses some of the specifics of living and working well in biblical studies. 
  2. Depending on how close to the beginning of a given quarter or semester a goal’s due date falls, you may need to start working on a goal for that next time block. So, it’s a good idea to review your annual goals regularly to keep this larger horizon fresh in your mind.