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. 

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. 

Time Blocking, Part 3: 6 Tips for a Digital Work Space

The past couple weeks, we’ve discussed why you should take control of your calendar and provided some general strategies for how you might do so. In this final post in this series, we’ll outline six tips for effective time blocking in a digital work space.

0. A Paper Alternative?

For starters, I should mention that time blocking doesn’t require a digital calendar or any other digital tools. If you prefer to keep a calendar in a paper notebook or planner, check out Cal Newport’s reflections on analog time blocking for some helpful guidance.

There are upsides and downsides to whatever approach. For me, the digital approach centered around Google Calendar is simplest and easiest to maintain.

And time blocking isn’t something to do for its own sake but for the sake of what it enables. So, for me, simplicity and ease of use have gone a long way toward guiding my choice of tools. But, even if your selection differs, you should still find some of the ideas here helpful and easily adaptable to your preferred toolset.

1. Identify Your Main Types of Tasks

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 likely use up far more time than it would be worth.

So, to start time blocking, you’ll want to identify the main kinds of activities you’re responsible for. What are the main “buckets” in which the bulk of your tasks sit?

For example, during the workweek, I boil most of these down into “teaching,” “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.”

You can use whatever labels and however many you find convenient for encapsulating the majority of your activities. And you might want to change these over time. For instance, in the past, I’ve tried to have “reading” and “grading” blocks for class. But, it’s been simpler just to include these activities under the one heading of “teaching.”

2. Identify How Much Time to Spend Where

Once you’ve identified what your main kinds of activities are, you’ll want to identify how much total time to devote to each kind of activity.

As you do so, keep in mind that we humans are finite beings. And as a very practical consequence of this fact, whatever work you do in excess of 50 hours per week will tend to be increasingly less productive.

How you go about apportioning this time may take various shapes depending on your context. If you’re solely a full-time student or faculty, you could maybe start by roughly dividing your time among the courses you’re working on, perhaps giving a bit larger proportion to one that might seem more time consuming. Or, you could start by dividing your time according to emphases laid out for you in your performance review forms.

If you’re having to negotiate academics with work outside the academy, it might make sense to talk with your work stakeholders (e.g., church leadership) and come to some agreement about how you should apportion your time. Or, 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.

As you start working on this schedule, you’ll doubtless find things that need to be adjusted. That’s okay. Just make those adjustments, and press ahead.

Regularly adjusting your plan as needed to get it to work for you will leave you in a far better place than not having a plan at all for fear that you might not get it exactly “right” the first time around.

3. Build a Template Week

Sometimes called an “ideal week”, a template week is basically just how you would want a typical week to go if you could fully control everything in it.

For this step, you’ll want to refer back to the various time blocking approaches we discussed as you think about different options for how to structure your time.

For example, let’s say you’ve decided to allocate 10 hours per week to a class on the Pauline Epistles. 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),
  • Working 8:00–9:45 Monday morning (1.75 hours) before staff meeting, 3:00–5:00 Monday afternoon (2 hours), and 8:30–2:45 on Tuesday after your breakfast meeting (a journalistic arrangement),
  • Working 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.

As you decide how you want to try things in your calendar, go ahead and create appointments for yourself. If your calendar is shared with others, it may also help if you mark yourself as “busy” during these times to show that you’ll be occupied with working on these projects.

You’ll probably need to move and resize some blocks more than once to get everything to fit. That’s perfectly fine. One of the advantages of time blocking in a digital calendar is that you can edit things easily without having to erase and redraw your blocks.

Work through your calendar layering in different kinds of activities until you’ve included everything you identified under step 1 above. Go ahead and set these up as items that repeat every week. That way, your template week will roll forward with you from one week to the next.

4. Roll with the Punches

The purpose of having a template week isn’t so you can rigidly enforce it to exclude anything that doesn’t fit. It’s to give you a starting point, or home base, from which you can tackle whatever other requests you might get for a given week.

So, unless you’ve adopted a “monastic” approach to structuring your deep work, you’ll likely need to make some one-off changes and customize your template schedule as you adapt it to any particular actual week.

5. Use Multiple Calendars as One

If you have multiple calendars (e.g., personal, school) that you need to manage, there are a couple tricks you can use to cut down on the time you spend managing them.

If you want to keep your calendars in sync:

  • Consider inviting yourself to your time blocks. So, for instance, 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 as an attendee to the time block you create with your main (personal) Google Calendar. Doing this has the advantage of updating the invited calendar whenever you make changes to 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 (e.g., school) that your other account isn’t invited to. Rather than copying such events over manually, you can set up a “zap” or “recipe” to copy these requests automatically to your other calendar. The events won’t be linked. So, if a meeting time changes, you’ll need to update your other calendar separately. But, having something like this set up can cut down on at least one step in the process of keeping these calendars in sync.

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 as needed to accommodate how life doesn’t always conform to a predefined plan.

What you want to avoid like the plague is allowing yourself to get unintentionally distracted from the kind of work you’ve set for yourself in a given time block.

If you think of something you need to handle that’s unrelated, write it down, and keep moving. Then, you can come back to the things that you’ve jotted down and put them into order so you can remind yourself of them easily later.

Or, if you find yourself distracted by software, try using an app like 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, 5:30–8:00. Somewhere during this time, I typically look over my calendar for the day and set up in advance any additional Freedom sessions I want to run that day based on the kind of work I’ve allotted to different times of the day.

If you want to give this a try, you can find a step-by-step guide to scheduling sessions among Freedom’s support materials.

Conclusion

In the final analysis, you want to get the most out of your time that you can. That starts with making a plan for your days, having the discipline to stick to that plan, and exercising discernment about when and how to change the plan.

Whether you prefer to work digitally or on paper, time blocking can help you ensure that every minute counts and that you spend your days in ways you can look back on with satisfaction—rather than wondering where they went.

What are your main kinds of activities? How are you blocking them into your calendar to ensure you make progress on them?