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.
Whether your schedule is pretty fully regular, pretty fully irregular, or some of both, there’s a corresponding strategy to plan for your time.
When you hear comments about “budgeting,” what comes to mind?1 For many folks, finances do.
But behind this specific context is the principle of deliberate planning. So you can budget other resources as well, including time. And extending the budget metaphor can open up different ways of thinking about the time you have available to you.2
There are only 24 hours in a day or 168 hours in the week, however you use them. So in larger contexts like these, everyone’s schedule is entirely regular.
But within smaller units of time, you might have significant regularity as well. For example, week-to-week, you might have almost an identical number of hours when you’re working. And when you have those work hours might be pretty dependable too.
Budgeting Regular Time
When this is the case, you can decide how to “spend” those hours in your time budget. You want to be sure you do what’s important (not just what’s urgent).3 But it’s not so important when you do what.
Your total time you plan to spend shouldn’t exceed what you have available in that part of your time budget. If you do, for instance, you might end up over budgeting time at work so that it eats badly into time with your family.
But within that “work” portion of your time budget, you can have significant freedom to structure the contents of that time how you like to meet the commitments you have.
In this scenario, time blocking might help you visualize how you are budgeting your time. It can also help you notice things about your current plans that don’t work well but that you might not realize otherwise.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
you don’t know when you can schedule those time blocks or
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?