Time Blocking: Working to Max Efficiency

Time blocking is one of my favorite life techniques. I won’t say “life hacks,” because it’s not a hack: it’s just an obvious and careful planning tool.

I first shared a video from Fast Company on time blocking in 2011. I had already been using the technique for at least a year, so this brings me up on 6 years I’ve organized my life this way.

What is Time Blocking?

Time blocking is a way to organize your time, whether for work projects, personal projects, goals or even regular household tasks.

You can either decide how much time you want to spend on a project or you assess how much time a project needs and put it on your calendar as an appointment. Effectively, you block off time for the things you need to get done – or, even better, those things which are important to you!

Time Blocking Examples

At the Vermont Foodbank, I blocked off four hours to pull together our monthly e-newsletter, plus a half hour for editing and scheduling a few days later.

For this website, I block off an hour to write a blog post and an hour to edit and program it a day or so later.

At home, I block off time in my calendar to cycle on my trainer every morning. These appointments can be set to send me a reminder when I first wake up.

For longer term projects, I use time blocking to make incremental progress or work on stages of the project.

For example, in pulling together the Photography section of this website, I set aside different times to pull together photos, cull the best ones, edit, and, eventually, post them to the gallery. Since this is an ongoing project, with new photos being added all the time, I just block off another 30-60 minutes when I know I’ll have more photos to go through.

In a 9-5, M-F workweek, time blocking can be especially effective in managing your time and priorities on a large scale. If you go all-in with time blocking, as I do, you can easily fill a week with your projects. This gives you the bird’s eye view and leads to questions of what is truly a top priority, what you need help with, what will have to wait or which days you’ll need to stay late, or even when you’ll need to communicate to a supervisor what’s getting done when.

Although it’s not always pleasant to tell a colleague that their request will have to wait a day, or 2 weeks, it’s at least honest and helpful. Both of you can then make decisions about the project with that timeline.

How do you start with time blocking?

Most folks can start small with what they know. For example, is there a board report due every quarter that always takes you two hours (uninterrupted)? Well, block off time on your calendar for two hours about a week before the report is due every three months. Call the appointment “Board Report, due on the 1st.”

I find that adding due dates is helpful since my blocks of time get moved around as my days and weeks shift.

For larger projects, you may be able to negotiate a work-from-home day, say, if the project takes 8 hours of focused attention. For smaller projects, you may be able to lump them together. In my last few jobs, I had a list of things that needed tending to every morning (e-mail, voicemails, social media channels, Google Analytics, etc.). I blocked off an hour first thing in the morning for these activities and put the list in each appointment. This time wasn’t always sacrosanct, but it made clear I had things to do…and those things took actual time.

Other things you’ll need to support time blocking

Obviously, you’ll need a calendar. And Google Calendar is much better than the Microsoft Outlook calendar, especially for these kinds of things. Google is more flexible and will allow you to delete appointments after a certain date while Office doesn’t. So in Office, you might no longer be responsible for the board reports, but you’ll only have the choice to delete each appointment as it arises – and annoys you – or all of them, past, present and future. Ugh.

You’ll also need a work environment in which you can check and abide by your calendar frequently. A receptionist isn’t going to be able to block off time, unless he/she allows time for their usual barrage of interruptions.

A space, whether your own office or a reserved room, in which you can sometimes make yourself off-limits to colleagues, phone calls and e-mails. Not all of your time blocks need to be uninterruptable, but by ensuring you’re not interrupted, even by just closing an office door, you’ll get work done quicker.

Benefits of time blocking

In my experience, time blocking has allowed me to:

  • Get more work done
  • Accurately assess how long projects/tasks take
  • Communicate priorities to supervisors and colleagues
  • Build transparency and honesty in how I can support my colleagues
  • Manage my energy better
  • Become an incredibly reliable colleague
  • Plan ahead with superhero foresight

Time blocking isn’t for everyone – it doesn’t work for every job type nor for every personality. But I’ve found it to be really beneficial and I’ve seen a lot of other instances when it could be used to great effectiveness.

Give it a try, even with some of your regular or big tasks, and let me know how it goes.