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.
- Identify your main types of commitments.
- Decide how much time to spend on different types of commitments.
- Build a default weekly schedule.
- Roll with the punches.
- Condense multiple calendars.
- 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.
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.
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. ↩
Bob Sullivan, “Memo to Work Martyrs: Long Hours Make You Less Productive,” CNBC, 26 January 2015. ↩
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. ↩