Do you ever have time? I don’t know about you, but it continually seems like time is slipping away. That made me wonder how accomplished people like Elon Musk could work for 100+ hours per week, trying to send people to Mars, yet still have time for their family. It turns out that people who seem to be productivity machines use a technique called time blocking. I implemented time blocking about three years ago, and it’s become my de facto time management method ever since. Why? Because it works.
What’s Wrong with Your Day?
One major problem with the typical day of an average person is structure. Most people who have a job or run a business must create some system to function, but that mostly involves checklists and one-time projects.
Task lists are great if used properly, but if you don’t organize, contextualize, and design them relative to one another, they could become a disaster.
Some people also maintain a non-work-related to-do list. That’s mainly a list of things you must do outside of work. These activities are home-related, family-related, or personal, such as a hobby.
Unfortunately, that list mostly lives inside people’s heads. For others, there is no list, but items pop up when stuff gets urgent and mission-critical, such as, oh shit, we’ve run out of toilet paper.
On top of that are other things that usually don’t even make it on any list. I’m talking about things such as health and fitness, playtime, a walk in the park, playing with your kids, etc.
How long until your brain can no longer manage these and caves in? Not long, for sure. Even if you are organized and have these disparate lists in different places, there is no cohesiveness.
That is a massive problem because, with every day that goes by in that chaotic fashion, you’re just one less day away from a chaotic week, which leads to a crazy month. You keep going like this, and you are not far away from an insanely messy year or even life. Your time seems to have disappeared.
With this setup, how do you even get to do the things that matter the most? How do you get to your goals and work toward those big dreams? It’s impossible. Or is it?
It’s not. Enters time blocking!
What Is Time Blocking?
Time blocking is an advanced holistic planning technique that implies combining all your goals, tasks, events, and activities in all areas of your life, including work, family, friends, hobbies, and decide in advance when you will execute them.
Sounds simple, and it’s tempting to think you are already doing it but stick with me. It goes a little deeper than having a calendar on the fridge.
You can implement time blocking in six easy steps.
- Life-long vision
- This year’s goals
- The tasks for the month ahead
- Gathering all events and activities for the week
- Defining all priorities for tomorrow
- Reserve time in your calendar hour by hour to fit in all of tomorrow’s tasks
I know it looks a bit daunting, but bear with me. The first two steps are done, updated, or reviewed once, maybe twice, per year.
Step number three is completed once per month, while step four is done once per week. That leaves only steps 5) and 6) to be completed daily.
That already looks a lot simpler, and it is. We will get into the nitty-gritty of each step later, so don’t worry. Things will become even more evident.
Before we move on, how do you know if you need time blocking? Well, if your calendar looks like this:
Instead of looking like this:
You need to understand and start using time blocking as soon as possible.
Don’t get scared or intimidated by the way this calendar appears. Yes, it’s packed and there seems like there’s no time left. But trust the process. As you will see, it’s not the calendar driving your life; it is you who is controlling the items in the calendar. That’s the power of time blocking.
Why is Time Blocking So Effective?
The puzzle of today’s overly busy world comes from the constant fight between quantity and quality, as well as that of conflicting priorities.
If you have a job, you must do the work so you can earn your salary. If you run your own business, you need to do the same. But if you also have a family or trying to build one, you need to put time and energy into that area of your life. On top of that, you have yourself to take care of—grooming, fitness, learning, and development.
Every one of those areas of your life has its own set of priorities. If you were to write them all in a list and then prioritize across all of them, how would you order them? Even if you struggle to prioritize across functional areas of your life, I’m sure you can come up with a few top priorities.
Those high important activities have to get done. You need to go to work, exercise, and spend time with your family, for example. Time restrictions put certain limitations on when you can do each one of those.
If you work 9 to 5, that can’t be family time. If you see your family at 6 pm and the kids go to bed by 8 pm, 6 to 8 can’t be your exercise time.
When I say it like that, it sounds simple, but multiply that by ten and make it happen every day. Plus, add all the unexpected things that pop out of the blue every week. It’s madness.
Time Blocking Is Organization and Accountability
Time blocking is effective because it takes all that disorganized insanity and brings order to it. It gives it structure, forcing you to develop the self-discipline of sticking to the plan.
Optimizing your calendar is, therefore, not just a simple administrative exercise. Instead, it becomes a true extension of your life’s vision plan. Your vision has a theoretical side of it. That’s you dreaming about what could be. It also has a practical side, which comprises all the actions you take to get to that vision.
Time blocking allows you to do that with minimal energy and maximum effectiveness. It serves not only as a reminder platform or organization tool but as a real accountability system across all aspects of your life. Once you master it, you will gain extra time and energy, which can then be recycled and reallocated to your priorities.
How Time Blocking Can Boost Your Productivity
Think about what kind of person you are:
- One who can work for hours on end on a task without feeling fatigued?
- Someone who needs breaks often to clear their head?
- Do you need to switch between tasks often to keep going?
- Are you the kind of person that gets easily distracted?
The thing is, when it comes to time blocking, all these things don’t truly matter. They matter in the sense that you will consider them when you start building your time blocking system. What I mean when I say it doesn’t matter is that time blocking levels the plain field. Your natural style is no longer an impediment but merely another cog in the system.
Time blocking takes what you have and adapts to who you are to maximize your productivity and effectiveness. I make a distinction here because you need to be productive when it comes to tasks and activities, but you can only be effective in human interactions.
The last one is a bit tricky because human interactions are different and somewhat unpredictable.
Let’s say you have lunch with your daughter, and you’ve allocated an hour and a half for that. During the conversation, your daughter reveals something that requires a more extended discussion. Although your calendar says that you must go for a run once the hour and a half passed, that might not be a good idea at that moment. We’ll discuss these exceptions shortly, but rest assured, there’s a solution.
Types of Time Blocking
Before we jump right into how to implement time blocking, let us look at a few types of time blocking available to you. Note that these are not mutually exclusive. In fact, you can and should combine them as they complement each other quite well.
Daily Time Blocking
Daily time blocking divides your daily calendar into chunks of time from when you wake up until you go to sleep. It usually goes in 30-minute intervals and covers everything that goes on in your day, including rest and buffer times. Examples:
- “Exercise every day from 6 am to 6:45 am.”
- “Get kids from school between 6 pm and 6:30 pm.”
- “Doctor’s appointment at 4 pm for 1-1.5 hours.”
As you can see, some of these tasks are recurring, while others can be one-time activities.
This type of time blocking is the main meat of this process; it’s what you’ll be using to allocate time in your weekly and daily calendar for your tasks.
Task batching implies finding similar tasks or tasks that require a similar type of effort and group them. In this way, you will optimize the time used on those tasks, especially if they need movement. Examples:
- “When I go grocery shopping at 10 am, I will stop by the post office and the recycling center.”
- “I will read and reply to all my emails from yesterday between 9 and 10 am.”
- “I will create and schedule all my social media posts on Monday at 7 am.”
Task batching becomes exceptionally useful when the batches are recurring on a weekly or monthly basis.
Day theming is beneficial if you work on multiple projects, either connected or not. It implies grouping activities and tasks that fall into a particular category and working on them on that day. For example:
- “Saturday, I will do all my weekly house chores such as clean up, grocery shopping, and cooking.”
- “Monday, I will work on all my social media interactions for the week.”
- “Wednesday is my brainstorm day. I will brainstorm new ideas for my business or hobby.”
Timeboxing is like time blocking, but it implies a time restriction on activity. That means that you don’t have the option to push the action outside of that set time’s boundaries. Instead, you must finish it within that exact time. For example:
- “I will edit one chapter of my book between 9 and 10 am.”
- “I will finish and send my client a proposal between 1 and 3 pm.”
Timeboxing is useful for the types of tasks you tend to procrastinate about, and you need a precise time boundary.
How To Implement Time Blocking
Now, let’s look at some practical ways you can use to start implementing your time blocking system. Two things to remember when designing such a system are:
Consistency—that means that to see a real impact, you must apply the time blocking technique for a long enough period, such as a full year. This method won’t work as a quick fix, although you can use it at times when you must get out of a pickle. But to get the full extent of its benefits, you should strive to implement it long-term.
Personalization—that means to resist the urge to copy what others are doing with their time blocking blindly. Although it’s okay to learn from others’ way of organizing their calendar and apply the expert tips you’ll see below, you should align your time blocking with your lifestyle and life dynamic.
Next, let’s focus on the items you will consider when designing your time blocking strategy.
Main Priorities & Goals
Because the time blocking method aims to keep you more focused on your life’s main priorities, creating your calendar must start with your primary goals across all aspects of your life.
That implies that you have taken the time to create your life vision, and from it, you have extracted the most critical goals you aim to achieve over the next twelve months. Once again, these goals must span all aspects of your life, including family, work, hobbies, friends, etc.
The main goals and their sub-goals or sub-tasks need to be further split into months and weeks. That means that you will take a goal for the year and decide ahead of time which steps you must take toward it and in which months.
Some goals will be recurring once a month, others weekly, while others could be daily. Regardless of their timing, you must be crystal clear about these goals and their related tasks and prioritize them accordingly. Learning how to prioritize your tasks becomes, therefore, a critical step in the process.
Habits & Rituals
Next, you will define the habits and rituals that you aim to maintain in your life going forward. Most of them will derive directly from the goals and priorities defined above.
For example, if one of your goals is to lose weight and become more fit, you would define a daily exercise habit. If one of your goals is to improve and increase intimacy with your spouse, you may have a weekly routine of romancing him or her.
Defining your habits and rituals is a critical part of your time blocking because knowing this in advance will allow you to use time blocking productively. Because habits by definition have a recurrence to them, you will be able to leverage technology to do a lot of the work for you.
Other Events and Activities
Once you have all the goals, priorities, and habits that you must include in your calendar, next, you must take stock of other essential things to consider.
These include birthdays, anniversaries, planned vacations, other events you have agreed already to attend, doctor visits, and so on. In addition, this category also includes your common weekly recurring activities, such as grocery shopping or cleaning your house.
These are all of the day-to-day things in your life that will happen, no matter what. Of course, as you go through this list, you might as well make sure that you are, in fact, willing to still do or participate in all of them. If there is anything you can trim, do so at this time.
When you do this review, you will inevitably identify items you can outsource or eliminate. For instance, hiring a company to mow your lawn would save you time for other priorities, but it will cost you money. Grocery shopping every two weeks instead of every week will save you time, but you may have to invest in a bigger fridge or an icebox.
Your Existing Daily Pattern
With one step left to define your daily template, there’s one more thing you need to do. That is to look at your existing daily patterns.
You probably have at least two distinct patterns in your life: a working weekday and a weekend day. However, depending on your life situation, you might have even more designs.
To create your typical daily pattern, simply put on a paper what you usually do at those times of the day. What time do you wake up, what do you do first, and so on.
You are basically documenting how your day looks like today and chunk it out in larger groups, like morning time, workday, time with family, and so on.
Depending on how complex your days are and how chaotic, you may need to run this personal time audit for a couple of weeks until you get it nailed down. You may have to walk with a notepad and take notes as your days go by. Don’t skip a thing. Write everything down, and don’t interpret. You are simply documenting reality right now. At a later point, you will begin to mold it to what it should be.
For now, here’s an example of such a personal audit template (click to enlarge):
Your Daily Templates
Your existing daily pattern is the starting point. From there, you will use all the information you prepared to design an updated daily template. This would be your ideal week, all things considered equal.
First, establish if you will implement any kind of day theming. If that’s the case, you will have a template for each type of day, including a default generic template.
Each template will have the hours of the day on the left, starting with the time you usually wake up through the end of the day, in thirty-minute increments, not different than the existing daily pattern you did in the previous step.
Then, box out parts of the day, label them and add a short description. The label and description should make it easy to figure out:
- the context to which they apply (such as work, family, etc.)
- the area of life (physical, mental, emotional, spiritual/social, or a combination)
- the type of activity (related to a goal, administrative, etc.)
As you plan these templates, remember the idea of task batching. That means that you should group jobs similar in nature and require similar resources or are to be accomplished at the same location. By doing so, you optimize the allocation of those resources and become more productive.
In the end, you will wind up with two to five templates, or even more, depending on your situation. Those are going to represent the generic skeleton models for your days. From here, you will adapt each week based on its specifics.
On-going Task List
To make time blocking more effective and useful, you must also prepare an on-going task list. That is a long laundry list of things that need to get done from today until as far as you can stretch. This list needs to be comprehensive and all-encompassing because you need to have perspective.
Having a massive project list for your entire life is like running lifelong project management for your life. All the items in your plan will be linked to a context, have resources associated with them, and a target deadline.
I know it sounds daunting to project-manage your life, but isn’t that what you do anyway? So, you might as well do it in an organized fashion and work on those projects that are the highest priority.
Here are some examples of items that would be on your task list:
- Graduate from class X
- Fix the hole in the roof
- Finish my first novel
- Have weekly meaningful conversations with my spouse
- Teach my kid how to build X
And so on; you get the idea. This will be a breeze if you’ve already done your work to create your vision and set up goals. If you haven’t, now it’s a good time.
Once you have this list, you can pick and choose those items to add to your monthly and weekly planners. With every week and day that goes by, you are chipping away at those lifelong projects.
Keep in mind the difference between this on-going task list and a regular to-do list. Your on-going tasks list is comprised of all the items that you want to do and must do. These are items that you have already identified that need to be done, one way or another. Some of them might span your entire life. They’re a part of your vision for the future.
Your to-do list, on the other hand, is the shorter-term version of your on-going task list, augmented with new things that appeared from the present. So, buying a gift for a birthday party that you must attend next weekend is not part of your on-going projects. However, it will be a part of your weekly to-do list.
The emphasis here is that you must address and act on those goals that come from your vision first and foremost. Otherwise, the avalanche of mundane daily administrative things that fall in your lap will continuously push them farther and farther into the future. That’s what I mean when I say that time blocking becomes an accountability tool.
Current To-Do List
Now let us focus on your current to-do list. That is the list of things you must complete during the week ahead. It’s a combination of the parts of your on-going task list that you’ve allocated for this week, plus any other items that are specific for this week.
Here are some examples:
- grocery shopping on Saturday
- client proposal for work
- calculate the commissions for my team
- take my son to the doctor for a vaccine
- buy new glasses
- write 5000 words for my book
- get ice cream with the family
Your to-do list is now a complete blueprint of everything you need to complete this week, from Monday through Sunday. It’s a well-thought-out list that began with your life vision brought down-to-earth via your life goals and combined with all the other things in your life or that are at least tangential to your life.
This list is your weekly bible, and all that is left now is to layer it over your calendar.
However, one thing to keep in mind is not to confuse your to-do list with a mere checklist. A checklist is designed to remind you of things to do, but it lacks context and deadlines. Sometimes you need to create a separate checklist for a project comprised of multiple tasks, but I wanted to make that distinction clear. Your to-do list is an accountability tool, while the checklist is a simple reminder tool.
Manage Your Calendar for Time Blocking
Never start a week without a plan
You now have your daily templates for the week and the complete to-do list. Armed with these two pieces of information, open your calendar. By the way, I’ll address the pros and cons of digital versus analog calendars in another section down below.
Ideally, you should do this the day before your week starts. I like to think of my week as beginning on Monday, so I always plan it on Sunday night. In a worst-case scenario, if I happen to be too busy on Sunday night, I will do that planning on Monday first thing in the morning. I won’t allow myself to be on a Monday at 9 am without my entire week planned into the calendar one way or another.
Use the ideal daily templates you created earlier for each type of day and block that time in your calendar. Make sure to label the items in the calendar clearly, so it’s obvious what they mean.
If you are using a digital calendar, you can set up reminders or pop-ups to remind you when it’s time to switch. If you use an analog calendar, you may need to set up reminders on your phone or a different type of reminder app, such as Google Home or Alexa.
One way or another, you have to make sure that you create the right environment to follow the calendar. Just setting it up but not following it won’t get you anywhere.
When you complete the work, you’ll wind up with something that looks like this:
Beautiful, isn’t it?
Fixing Your Daily Schedule
When you plan your week on Sunday night, there might be things that you are not yet aware of or simply cannot plan yet due to lack of information. As you go through the days of the week, you need to stop and refine your daily schedule for the following day. At this point, you’ll have the opportunity to expand the information in the day with the better details you now have.
Here is an example of such a transformation (click on image to zoom):
Notice how the generic “ideal” daily template is now enriched with the information that is specific to that day. This is critical because, as they say, the devil is in the details. By setting it up in this fashion, now you have an exact picture of how your day will look like.
Of course, there might be bombs dropping during the day which could derail your plan, but this is a great step to actually achieving the items on your list. When the bombs come a dropping, you’ll be able to reshuffle your schedule and catch up. The more details you can add, the better as it will increase the clarity of your day.
When the week is finished, you can look back at your weekly schedule and reflect.
- What went well and what didn’t
- Was the week overly packed or too lightly packed?
- What were the main distractions?
- What did I struggle with the most?
Over time, these reflections will help you refine your process and become better at time blocking your weeks and days.
Time Blocking Expert Tips
As you start practicing time blocking, there are some best practices that I want you to keep in mind because they will make this process a lot easier for you.
- Bake buffer times between tasks. It takes your brain a few minutes to get out of the mood of one job and leap into the next. Even a simple 5-minute walk away from your workspace will give you that necessary break, and you will tackle the following task with better energy.
- Keep in mind that you tend to underestimate how long it takes to complete a task, so always try to overestimate at least until you learn more about the tasks and your abilities to achieve them.
- Remember that you are not only time blocking “busy” or “productive” time. Your calendar must include everything, including development time, learning, relationships, and so on.
- Don’t forget to plan your breaks, including breakfast, lunch, and dinner. If you don’t plan for them, you won’t take them.
- Get into the habit of checking off items on your list and in the calendar. Cross them out, use a checkmark, whatever works for you. It helps create a feeling of accomplishment and gives an extra boost to your self-confidence.
- Make sure to run the necessary items in your plan by the people in your life. If you have a spouse or a roommate, make sure that your time blocking doesn’t clash with other items your partners have in mind. Discuss your calendar and make sure it’s all agreed upon.
- Review and revise. You won’t get the schedule right the first time. Heck, you won’t get it right the tenth time. It will always be a work in progress. Make sure you review your results weekly and adjust as needed.
- Be flexible. Shit happens, okay? All the time. Be ready for your pretty neat schedule with its nice colors and fonts to be messed up more than once per day. That’s okay; it’s all a part of your life. Learn how to adapt and, over time, refine the process.
Digital or Analog Time Blocking?
There’s a question about what’s best for you, a digital calendar or an analog one. By analog, I mean, of course, a hand-held, hand-written planner.
I don’t think there’s necessary a “best” per se. I use both because each has pros and cons, and I recommend a mixed usage. Here are some of the advantages and disadvantages of each system:
Digital Time Blocking Pros
- Easy to edit and move things around
- Can create automatic recurrences (huge pro)
- Ability to use colors and fonts to mark different contexts
- Provides reminders and notifications
- Ability to have multiple calendars and see them separately or combined
- Can be printed and thus turned into an analog version
Digital Time Blocking Cons
- Learning curve of editing and entering data.
- You need to be around a digital device all the time unless you print the data.
- Out of sight out of mind danger
- Must go with the look-and-feel defined by the app creator.
- On a small screen, things might look crowded.
Analog Time Blocking Pros
- Very personal and intimate
- Can choose a preferred predefined look and feel
- Easy to carry on the go and check things off
- Ample time for custom notes and drawings
- Easy to review past pages
Analog Time Blocking Cons
- Harder to edit once you change your mind
- Can easily become messy
- Unable to create any automation
- Can be damaged or lost
So, Which One Is It? Analog or Digital?
Let me share how I use the combination of digital and analog calendars. I use Google Calendar as my main digital calendar. There, I have my family shared calendar where I enter all our everyday family events. Then, I have a separate calendar called “Weekly Tasks,” where I document all my weekly tasks with reminders and recurrences.
Then, daily when I review my tasks for the day, I print the Google Calendar page, and I clip it onto a clipboard. That allows me to keep that page in front of my face, make notes, and check things off right then and there.
For projects that require a longer time and multiple sub-tasks, I use Todoist to track their progress in connection with the calendar. For highly complex projects, I use Trello. Both apps have paid and free plans, and they work well.
Each app allows you to print the current information, so that’s a great way to connect the digital with the analog. I feel like this combination gives me the best of both worlds.
For a while, I also used a desktop “skin” for my calendar called, Woven. Woven is actually a great application, but the problem I ran into was spending way too much time managing and checking reports and analytics. Eventually, I gave it up and stuck with the simpler Google Calendar.
For my phone, I bought an app called Timepage created by Moleskin, which works in combination with Google Calendar and provides an enhanced mobile phone experience.
Start Using Your Calendar to Drive Your Day
Successful people live in their calendar.
I know that this idea is a bit radical, and it seems like it might turn you into some kind of robot, and you will lose all the spontaneity in life. I beg to differ.
Most successful people live in their calendar. It’s a fact. A simple search about calendaring and time blocking will reveal dozens of people who we all hold to be highly productive and successful who swear by this technique.
If you’ve never done it before, know that you will face a learning curve and an adaptation period. You need to become comfortable with the method, and in time, I guarantee that it will become an integral part of your life.
At the end of the day, by putting an order in your life in this way, you will create the space you need to allow spontaneity to flourish. What good is some spontaneous opportunity if you have no time even to consider it? With time blocking, you do just that; you create space as in time and energy for a thoughtful embracing of spontaneous opportunities.
Other Time Blocking Resources
- Time Blocking / Task Batching / Day Theming
- Time blocking 101: A step-by-step guide to getting the most from your daily schedule
- A Quick Guide to Time Blocking
- Schedule it so it happens: the art of time blocking
Now, before you go, I have…
3 Questions For You
- Have you experienced time blocking before? If so, what do you like about it?
- What prevents you from using time blocking?
- What are some specific ways in which you use time blocking?
Please share your answers in the comments below. Sharing knowledge helps us all improve and get better!
Hi there! I’m Iulian, and I want to thank you for reading my article. There’s a lot more if you stick around. I write about personal development, productivity, fiction writing, and more. Also, I’ve created Self-Growth Journey, a free program that helps you get unstuck and create the beautiful life you deserve. Enjoy!