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 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?