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?

If you've found this content helpful, take a couple seconds to subscribe. While you’re at it, think about joining my students and me in our daily Bible readings this term. The readings are short enough to complete in Hebrew or Greek to help keep your languages sharp. Or of course, you’re welcome to follow along in a translation too.
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