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. 

How to Best Budget Your Time When It’s Regular

When you hear comments about “budgeting,” what comes to mind?1 For many folks, finances do.

But aside from that specific context, “budgeting” is all about the principle of deliberate planning. So you can budget finances. But you can budget other resources too, including time.

And thinking about your time as something you budget can help ensure you “spend” it on the work and relationships that matter most.2 That’s true whether your schedule pretty regular, quite irregular, or some combination of the two.

Regularity in Time

There are only 24 hours in a day or 168 hours in a week, however you use them. So, in larger contexts, everyone’s schedule is entirely regular.

But within smaller units of time, your schedule might be quite regular too. For example, week-to-week, you might have a nearly identical number of hours when you’re working or not. And when you have those hours fall might be pretty regular too.

Budgeting Regular Time

When this is the case, you can decide how to “spend” these regular hours in your time budget. When you craft this budget, you want to ensure you prioritize what’s important, not just what’s urgent.3

But because you pretty well know what time you’ll have when, it’s not so important when you tackle a given priority. In terms of the financial analogy, having a regular schedule is very similar to a salaried or steady hourly job.

The total time you spend in your time budget shouldn’t exceed what you have available. If you do, for instance, you might over budget time at work so that it “overdraws” time with your family.

But within the “work” hours in your time budget, you have significant freedom in how you structure that time to meet your commitments.

You can budget your regular time any number of ways. The basic principle is to plan deliberately for how you spend the hours you regularly have for your commitments.

To do so, you might find time blocking especially helpful. You can time block on a paper calendar, with Google Calendar and Todoist, or any number of other methods.

Wherever you time block, the practice easily shows the time you’ve budgeted for a given commitment. And by doing so, time blocking can show where you’re “over spent” because in your mind you’d allocated the same time in competing ways.

Conclusion

However you budget your regular time, the principle remains the same that you need to deliberately plan how you’ll use your time. That plan needs to have room for you to invest in your most important commitments.

Time blocking is a great way of planning because it immediately shows when you’ve “spent” time, how much of it you’ve allocated, and the priority that you’ve given yourself for that time. And having that immediate, visual feedback can prove invaluable in your efforts to focus your time on the people and projects that matter most.


  1. Header image provided by NeONBRAND

  2. As a basis for these categories, I’m drawing on thinking like that described in “How to Make a Zero-Based Budget,” Dave Ramsey, n.d. 

  3. On the relationship of urgency and importance, see especially Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change, 25th anniversary ed. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013), 154–92. 

How to Budget Your Time If It’s Regular and Irregular

If your schedule is regular, budgeting that time is pretty straightforward.1 You spend the time you know you’ll have on the commitments you think are most important to fit into it.

If your schedule is irregular, you’ll instead work whatever time you have against a fixed and prioritized list of commitments.

But how do you budget your time if your schedule isn’t completely regular and predictable?

Some of it might be. But some of it might also be irregular and unpredictable.

Budgeting Regular and Irregular Time Together

In this case, you can combine the two approaches for regular and irregular time.2

For the portion of your schedule that’s regular, you can plan in advance how you want to spend your time. For the portion that’s irregular, you can work on your commitments in priority order.

When you’re thinking about this combination, though, be careful not to overestimate how much of your schedule is regular. If you do, you’ll be at greater risk of running out of that regular time and still having unmet commitments.

Minimal Regularity amid Irregularity

Instead, think about how your more irregular days and weeks tend to go. If you keep a pretty detailed calendar, it might help to look back over the past few months.

As you do, what you’re looking for is the minimum amount of regularity you tend to have in your schedule, even in more irregular times.

In a good week, maybe you can keep Thursday pretty well free to tackle whatever you need to. But when things go haywire, maybe you only get until 10 am.

If you base your plan on your best case scenario, you’ll be more likely to have that plan get more disrupted more often.

Instead, you can run your regular time budget on a minimum amount of more regular time that you have. That way, your time budget will be less likely to break in more hectic seasons.3

Once you’ve done that, you can then budget your irregular time by a prioritized list of commitments.

Using the two approaches together, you can then have a proactive plan for your time, even if some of it’s regular and some of it’s irregular.

Conclusion

Whether your schedule is pretty fully regular, pretty fully irregular, or some of both, there’s a corresponding strategy to plan for your time.

Whatever shape that plan takes, having that time budget will help ensure you’re giving priority to your most important commitments.

Prioritizing these commitments in your time budget will simultaneously give you a powerful tool to help you avoid “spending” your time at the scheduling equivalent of the impulse buy rack.


  1. Header image provided by NeONBRAND

  2. As a basis for these categories, I’m drawing on thinking like that described in “How to Make a Zero-Based Budget,” Dave Ramsey, n.d. 

  3. On this principle, see also Greg McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (New York: Crown Business, 2014), 175–84. 

How to Time Block with Todoist and Google Calendar

Among many others out there, “time blocking” is an approach to organizing your time.1 As the name suggests, it normally involves visual “blocks” that show how you’ve decided to budget your time.

Time blocking isn’t as useful if your approach to work needs to be highly flexible. (The larger principle of budgeting time still is. The application just needs to take a different form.)

Where you do have a known amount of time to budget, though, time blocking can be a hugely valuable practice. It can help you get the most out of the time you have. It can also help you see when you might be planning too much activity for too little time.

Time blocking isn’t tied to a specific tool. You can time block quite well on paper.

Or if you use a digital calendar, you might want to time block there. At a basic level, that’s as simple as creating an appointment with yourself.

Time Blocking with Google Calendar Alone

That’s what I did in Google Calendar for a good while. But I found two downsides to having time blocks in Google Calendar and tasks for those blocks in Todoist:

  1. I had time blocks on my Google Calendar that didn’t reflect well what was in my Todoist task list. Often, that meant I had too much to do for the time I’d allotted.
  2. I would find myself doing duplicate work to show on my Google Calendar what I already had in my Todoist task list. That helped with the overcommitment. But it also meant I was managing my system when I could be doing what I wanted to get done.

For me, a great solution turned out to be having Todoist put tasks on my Google Calendar.

Then, I could see on my calendar the impact of setting a certain task for a given day. And I only had to manage tasks (and their blocks) in one place.

If you don’t already use Todoist, try the premium version for 2 months for free.

Time Blocking on Google Calendar with Todoist

Todoist’s Google Calendar integration allows for different preferences in how you want to use the two together.

What I’ve found most effective is to first create a new calendar inside your Google Calendar account named something appropriate (e.g., “Todoist”).

Then, in Todoist’s guide for setting up a Google Calendar integration,

  1. follow steps 1–7.1.
  2. When you get to step 7.2, choose to sync tasks from “All projects.” This way, no matter where you file a task in Todoist, it can still show up on your Google Calendar.
  3. For step 7.3, choose to have tasks you create on Google Calendar go to your Todoist Inbox. Google Calendar won’t know all the projects you have in Todoist. So, it’s easiest just to send tasks created in Google Calendar to the Todoist Inbox and sort them into projects from there. But you can ignore this feature and add your tasks in Todoist only. If you do so, you get the added benefit that, whenever a Todoist task appears in Google Calendar, it will have a link back to that task in Todoist (on the words “View source” at the bottom of the calendar event). That makes it even easier to reference and complete the task from your Google Calendar.
  4. For steps 7.4–7.7, I find the following settings a good place to start.

Of course, you can choose different preferences or come back later to tweak them.

Once you have an initial setup for the integration, though, click “Connect” in Todoist (step 8) to complete the process.

Conclusion

With these settings:

  • Any time you add a due time to a task in Todoist, you’ll also see that task on your Google Calendar. The due time in Todoist will be the event’s start time in Google Calendar.
  • You won’t sync to your Google Calendar any tasks without a due time (which they’ll all have, by definition, if you’re using them to time block).
  • You can easily change a task’s duration in Google Calendar. That will give you a visual representation of the block of time that task should take to complete.
  • Completed tasks will automatically leave your Google Calendar.

This will leave you with a Todoist task layer that you can then show or hide in your Google Calendar to help what you want to do when. And just as important, it can help you plan what not to do in order to devote more adequate time to higher priority activities.


  1. Header image provided by Android Community

A Perspective on Adaptability and Productivity

Adaptability is a keystone of productivity.

You can find all manner of helpful advice about how to be more effective and productive. But not all of this advice is equally good for everyone at all times.

Force-fitting some guru’s advice into your situation may not be the best idea or give you the best results.

For you to work better requires you to be adaptable in your individual situation.

A Personal Example

What Normally Works

Normally, I time block my schedule so I can batch similar kinds of activities together.

Those activities might be research. They might be grading. They might be email.

For me in a “normal” week, that kind of discrete batching works well. I focus on one particular kind of activity for a while. And as needed, I use Freedom to help avoid “quick checks” distractions that dilute that focus.

When Circumstances Require Adaptability

But not all weeks are “normal,” let alone all days or months.

This is patently obvious amid recent efforts across the globe to address COVID-19. But I’d like to share a different story.

The Circumstances

Not long ago, my wife, Carrie, had an x-ray that showed she had a broken collar bone.

That meant she couldn’t lift anything with either arm, including our 18-month-old. And when you have an 18-month-old, you do a lot of lifting.

You might not think you do. But when you suddenly have restrictions on lifting, it’s surprising how many things you notice require lifting. 😉

All of this meant I was going to be home with Carrie and the kids rather than at the office.

It would have been best to have enough margin in my schedule so I didn’t have to worry about working while I was home with them. But that wasn’t the case.

There were still deadlines that had to be met and projects that had to get done. But what was normally an 8–9 hour continuous workday instantly became 2–4 hours very much spread out into comparatively small slices through the day.

And time blocking is pretty useless as a productivity strategy if

  1. you don’t know when you can schedule those time blocks or
  2. how long you can schedule them to run.

That didn’t really bother me. Being there for Carrie and the girls was an infinitely higher priority than anything else I had on tap for school.

But there were still things that had to get done for school.

The Adaptability

It took me a couple days. But I soon realized the best approach for me in those particular circumstances would be to rank my Todoist tasks for the day strictly in terms of priority—highest to lowest.

Whenever I had some time to work, I’d start at the top of the list and work down for however long until I needed to stop.

Whatever didn’t get done by the end of that day had to get rolled forward to a future day. But working from highest to lowest priority helped ensure that the things that didn’t get done were the things that weren’t as important anyhow.

This story’s twist is that about a week after the x-ray that showed Carrie had a broken collar bone, an MRI showed her collar bone was fine.

Instead, the problem was an inflamed shoulder joint. And she could start moving her shoulder and lifting again as much as she felt like until her shoulder got back to normal.

Two Lessons

From this story, I’d like to draw a couple lessons on the importance of adaptability to productivity.

1. Be Creatively Adaptable

First, productivity requires adaptability. You have to look for what works for you in your particular circumstances.

For instance, if you find yourself working from home while also taking care of kids, put it to yourself as an open question how you can creatively combine the two. Don’t assume they’re in conflict.

Sure, you can only put your attention on one thing at a time. But you’ll be more productive (not to mention, in this example, a better parent) if you take this situation as a challenge for your personal creativity to rise to rather than as an opportunity to bemoan how one obligation doesn’t allow you to focus fully on another.

2. Be a Whole Person

Second, recognize that you’re a whole person and need to live life as such.

You’re a spouse, a parent, a student, a teacher, a ministry leader in your church, and more.

Your life is complex. And because it’s complex, you might well be able to envision how your contributions in one area (e.g., school, church) could be better than you’re able to make them given everything else that’s also in your life.

It’s always good to prune lesser responsibilities that pull you away from those that are more important.

But once you’ve done that, you’ll still have a multi-faceted and complex life.—And that’s a good thing.

Give yourself grace to strive to do the best you can with the responsibilities in your life as a whole. And this may mean that one or some responsibilities don’t get everything you could imagine giving them in other circumstances.

But if you’ve pruned down to what’s really essential, “other circumstances” by definition means cutting or shirking something you consider essential. And long term, that’s a great recipe for regret.

Conclusion

So know what’s essential for you, and prune what isn’t.

And amid the complexities of what’s essential and the surprises life brings your way, stay adaptable and open.

Ask yourself the question “What’s best now?” And keep asking that question and being open to adjusting your answer to what your circumstances require.

What story do you have about how adaptability has proven key to your productivity?

Header image provided by Joshua Oluwagbemiga