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.

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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?

Time Blocking, Part 2: 5 Approaches

Last week, we discussed why you should consider time blocking. Especially in knowledge work contexts like biblical studies, what is and isn’t actually on your plate can easily bleed together.

Time blocking can help you clarify your priorities and make space for the activities that matter most. There isn’t one right way to block your time, but here are five different approaches for you to consider as you start thinking about what might work best for you.

AltImage by Christian Fregnan

In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport discusses four “deep work philosophies” (100–17). To these, I’d like to add a fifth that combines elements from three of the other four.

1. Monastic

In the monastic philosophy, 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 not particularly feasible for those of us who want to do focused work but have other responsibilities as well (e.g., administration).

Under this approach too, time blocking is probably less useful a technique than it is under the other philosophies discussed here. If a calendar only has one recurring activity from day to day (e.g., “Write X Paper”) and you don’t allow any interruptions to this schedule, consulting the calendar may be more trouble than it is worth.

2. Bimodal

The bimodal philosophy is like the monastic philosophy in periods devoted to focused work. But, these periods are deliberately interspersed with other periods allocated specifically to unfocused or “shallow” work.

The idea in this philosophy is to batch deep work together into larger chunks, to do the same with work that requires less focus, and to keep the two quite separate.

On the scale of a week if you’re a student who’s also in full-time church work, this might look like having Monday blocked out for “Write X Paper,” Tuesday assigned to “Read Y Book,” Wednesday allocated to hospital visits, Thursday reserved for meetings, and Friday set aside for sermon preparation. On the days you’re doing a specific kind of work, you try to push aside other responsibilities.

3. Rhythmic

The rhythmic philosophy is similar to the bimodal philosophy but might best be illustrated on the scale of a day. So, for instance, you might do the same activity at the same time each day or at the same time on specific days of the week.

With this structure, the rhythmic philosophy allows times for focused and unfocused to come up more regularly. So, it may be helpful if you don’t think it best to batch different kinds of work as strictly as a bimodal approach might require.

4. Journalistic

Newport describes the journalistic philosophy as operating on a principle of “fit[ting] deep work wherever you can into your schedule” (115).

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.

5. Combination

Of course, there isn’t a “purist police” for deep work philosophies that allow you only to subscribe to one or another of them. What’s important is to be intentional about sorting through these options—or others you may think of—about how best to make use of the limited time you have for accomplishing what matters most.

For instance, the basic approach I’ve been using for about a while now (with some tweaks along the way) involves elements of each of the bimodal, rhythmic, and journalistic philosophies:

  • Like the rhythmic philosophy, each day begins with primary literature reading—mostly Hebrew Bible and Greek New Testament—and ends with email and administrative activities.
  • Like the bimodal philosophy, I try to batch what occupies 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).
  • Like the journalistic philosophy, I don’t rigidly hold to a schedule but adjust things as necessary to accommodate meetings that come up. It’s ideal to batch meetings together as well, but that isn’t always possible when coordinating multiple people’s calendars. Even so, having a plan for the week ahead of time (rather than leaving white space in it) helps foster focus in a number of ways.

Conclusion

In the end, whether you adopt any of these particular time blocking philosophies to support your deep work or whether you develop your own, the important thing is to be deliberate about how you spend your time. Even (and especially) if you have too much on your plate, you can’t afford to have your highest priorities pulled along at the mercy of what’s latest and loudest.

Tune in next week for a final post in this series that delves into the “how to” elements of making time blocking work with a digital calendar.

Meanwhile, which of these philosophies sounds most feasible to you? How do you structure your deep work?