How time blocking can save you from yourself

For people who want to do everything, but don’t have the time

I’ve always been pretty ambitious. Not in a competitive sort of way; I don’t want to be better than other people, I just want to be better. I want to learn new things. More than anything, I want to create. Creativity gives me that spark of vitality that feeds back into my natural ambition.

I like to think I’m a fairly organized person, as well, but sometimes this ambition gets away from me. New interests grab hold, and they don’t always let go. I’ll keep starting projects, putting all my heart and soul into learning a new skill, and then the next week something else will catch my eye.

Can you relate?

To combat these tendencies, and to keep the mundane bits of my life intact, I keep a bullet journal. I write down my tasks every day and track long-term goals over weeks, months, even years.

I’ve been doing it long enough that I can see some patterns in how I think and plan. One pattern that keeps arising, despite my efforts to nip it in the bud, is that I want to do everything. That ambitious streak runs deep, and I never know when a new obsessive interest will strike. I’m a software engineer by profession, but I’m also a writer and an artist and a creator of video content. I enjoy knitting, reading, exploring new crafts, and playing video games (Teamfight Tactics is my JAM right now). I’m also a living, breathing person who needs nutritious food and exercise to stay healthy, as inconvenient as that feels when all I want to do is work on my latest project.

There’s so much to do, so when I make my to-do lists I write down… everything.

Okay, not literally everything, but I write down too much. My lists end up being more like a brainstorm of all the things I want to do in my life. Ideas flow freely onto the paper as I write down chores I need to get done, work that is on a deadline, artistic projects I want to explore, and so on. Before I know it, I have fifteen or twenty items that each take over fifteen minutes.

Then I spend eight hours at work, commute home (at least, I did before social distancing became the norm), do my government-recommended thirty minutes of exercise, have a shower, eat some dinner, and toodle around on the internet for a little bit to unwind.

Even if I’ve checked off a few items throughout the day, there wasn’t enough time to do everything in the first place. I was destined to fail.

So, what’s the problem here?

The problem is actually two-fold:

  1. A simple task list doesn’t address the urgency, effort, or complexity of its tasks. They are all equal on the page, meaning that a quick chore such as unloading the dishwasher takes up the same amount of visual (and, therefore, mental) space as writing 2,000 words in that novel I’m working on
  2. The tasks are not connected to The Real. They’re hypothetical, ethereal things that don’t have a place among the other things we have to do every day to stay alive and comfortable. They don’t belong anywhere, so they don’t have substance. Sometimes we can reach out and grab them, but only when timing and priority line up just right.

A possible solution

Time blocking is a way of approaching this problem from the other direction. Rather than starting with a list of tasks, start with the time you have in which to complete tasks.

I first learned about time blocking about five years ago, when I read 168 Hours by Laura Vanderkam. It’s a deep and well-researched book with the premise that we all have 168 hours in our week to spend as we see fit. She dives into statistics on how we spend our time compared to how we think we spend our time, and makes recommendations on how everyday people can get the most out of their limited 168 hours.

I can’t remember if she uses the actual words “time blocking”, but she recommends tracking your time in 30-minute increments and then using that data to make changes and schedule time for the things that are most important. This idea, simple as it is on its surface, was revolutionary to me.

I immediately started tracking my time, crafting beautiful, color-coded spreadsheets and filling them in every hour. Sometimes this technique is just a way to procrasti-plan, but other times it gives me real insight into how my time is being spent. It’s a strategy that I come back to often, when I feel like life has gotten a little bit out of my control.

How do I get started?

Time blocking is inherently visual. Remember, one of the problems we’re trying to solve is that the tasks in a list don’t carry any visual weight when compared to the other tasks. We need to create importance, order, and represent the effort a given task will take. We need to be able to see our plan in visual space.

Now is when you get to decide if you prefer an analog medium, or something digital.

Analog might be in the form of paper and pens, a white board, a dry-erase calendar, a bunch of sticky notes, a cork board with index cards pinned to it, whatever. Personally, I enjoy using a Passion Planner, because the pages are perfectly designed to support time blocking.

There are only two requirements for your analog time-blocking system:

  1. that you can define what the task or category of work is, and
  2. that you know when it is supposed to happen.

You can adjust the scale of your plan to encompass a few hours, a day, a week, or even longer, though the further into the future you try to plan, the harder it will get to be accurate and realistic.

I think the greatest benefit to an analog system is how tangible it is. The tasks are completely connected to reality, in physical space, making them easier to grasp.

Digital is better in some ways, but it will never be quite as tangible as analog.

The great benefit that digital planning offers is the ability to rearrange your plan endlessly and seamlessly, without eraser markings or paper waste or sticky notes that have started to lose their adhesive and occasionally fall to the floor.

There are also many free or affordable tools that you can get started with right now. Google Calendar has a click-drag interface that will let you add color-coded blocks to your calendar and set up complicated repeating schedules, if you wish. TickTick is a “to do” list app that, for a small monthly cost, also supports connecting these tasks to a sleek in-app calendar. I used this app for a time, and really enjoyed it.

Even a spreadsheet will work in a pinch, as you can easily auto-fill dates and times and put borders around your time blocks, but it’s a little bit more finicky than a digital calendar.

I’ve been known to use both digital and analog, depending on what I need at the time.

Google Calendar is great when I have a more rigid and predictable schedule. I can set up recurring blocks for sleep, work, and my exercise regimen, and then I can fill in the tasks that change from week to week without worrying about the surrounding routine.

When life is a little more messy, or when I want to spend more time in the nitty-gritty of my plans, I’ll bust out a nice, inky fountain pen and draw out a timeline in my journal.

Listen to your heart.

Time is money, but not in the way you think

I like to think about time the same way I think about money. No, I don’t mean that time can be used to create value (e.g. earn money), though that is something to keep in mind. Rather, I mean that time can be budgeted just like money can. It follows all the same rules.

We have a certain income (our 168 hours) that we get with each paycheck, and there are critical bills that need to be paid before we even think about spending money on frivolous things like avocados.

The critical time-bills in this metaphor are things like time spent sleeping, eating, and going to work so you can pay your non-metaphorical mortgage.

There’s a little bit of room for adjustment here, but for the most part you can’t bargain with your electric company to lower your electric bill, and you can’t bargain with your brain and body to need less sleep.

Some invoices just have to be paid.

I mention this because these are the things that need to go into your plan (your budget) first. They’re immovable boulders and you can’t craft a solid plan until you know where they are and just how much space they take up.

You’ll need to think through this on your own, because everyone’s life is a little different, but here are some common non-negotiables to get your gears turning:

Sleep
Food preparation and consumption
Work and commute
Caring for children or pets
Appointments or other obligations

Slot these things into your analog or digital time table. Make it clear that they aren’t negotiable, by using bold colors or thick outlines.

Have fun with it.

Note: Getting this “big picture” isn’t something you need to do every single day, but if you’ve never really thought about how much time you have, it’s a great exercise to calibrate your expectations. Do you know how much ‘free time’ you actually have?

Next up, we have things that are important, but not critical to baseline survival. In our budgeting metaphor, these are your variable budgets that are perhaps as important as paying your mortgage but the amount or frequency may not be as rigid: restaurants, clothing or beauty items, transportation. These are typically activities that are easier to postpone or rearrange, but there are consequences to doing so (such as diminishing health or sanity)

Fitness routines
Self-care and relaxation
Time spent with loved ones
Cleaning or maintaining your living space
Group gatherings within your community, like a sports team or hobby group

You might look at this list and think things like ‘relaxation’ and ‘hobbies’ are not that important, or that they can be shoved aside so work can take its place.

I’d encourage you to reconsider, and think about health and well-being the same way you think about setting your grocery budget. Going back to the money metaphor, cutting your groceries down to just rice and beans for months at a time is doable, but it’s not a complete diet, or a fulfilling one. Similarly, you can put off fitness, or put off quality time with your partner, but think about what your life will look like months or years down the road.

Physical health and close relationships are tied to longevity and personal happiness in more ways than I can enumerate here, and you deserve to be happy and comfortable. Take your health and relationships seriously, and worry about non-critical work once your needs are met.

Now we’re finally at the fun part. The free time, the “fun budget” to be spent on date nights, new video games, or that coveted avocado toast.

If you’ve been building up your time blocks, you probably have some pretty big blocks for sleep and non-negotiable work, and some smaller blocks for your other needs. Many people will have at least a few hours per day that are still open: ready to be filled with the things you want to do. This is where you consider your task list and your personal goals.

What do you want to work on?

It might be a good idea to take this time to shift your schedule around, if you can. Can you move exercise to the mornings, so you have a longer uninterrupted block in the evenings?

Can you adjust your commute so you’re spending less time sitting idle in a car? Or, if you bicycle or take public transit, are you able to stack other activities in this block such as reading or listening to audio books? What you’re shooting for is enough time to find focus on whatever projects you want to tackle.

Priority, Color-Coding, and Optimization

If you only have a few items on your task list, you might be able to shotgun your tasks into the free spaces in your schedule and get along just fine. That’s not my experience, but I envy people who have that sort of natural clarity.

If, like me, you still have far more tasks in your list than you can fit into your schedule, this is where you’ll need to prioritize your task list.

Something that has been working for me lately, with my plethora of hobbies and interests, is to pick one to focus on for each month. A similar tactic that I have seen recommended by some productivity buffs on YouTube is to give each day a focus, often called ‘batching’. My current focus is on writing (and here I am working on my writing!).

I don’t exclude all other tasks when I have set a focus, but writing-related tasks are what I slot into my time blocks first, unless something else has an urgent deadline.

Color-coding your task list and timeblocking schedule can be very useful here, to show which of your blocks are essential tasks, which are recommended for wellness, and which are your chosen non-essential tasks. It’s easy to go overboard with color-coding, and end up with a rainbow-colored mess that is hard to visually parse, so keep it simple to start.

Make it functional, but also make it beautiful. Your planning tools should be pleasant to look at, or you won’t want to look at them.

It’s also important to consider when you do your best work.

Some people work best on creative projects in the morning, because they are fresh from sleep and haven’t had to go through a day of making decisions and doing things.

Others do better work at night, because their minds are more tired and somewhat pliable with lower inhibition.

Others can’t quite feel alert before noon and do their best work in the afternoon after they’ve had time to spin-up.

If you haven’t figured out what works best for you, this might take some experimentation. Many of us have day jobs that don’t allow for true flexibility every day of the week, but it’s still worth exploring for days off, or to inform a potential job change. Let it be part of the fun! It’s an exercise in self-discovery, and even if you find that your schedule doesn’t allow for your personal optimal work, take comfort in knowing you can still accomplish great things doing work during a ‘bad’ time of day.

Any progress at all is more than you would have had if you’d gotten overwhelmed by your task list and watched Netflix instead.

Pitfalls (what to do when you can’t predict the future)

If there is one thing that you learn when working as a software engineer, it’s this: people are terrible at estimating how long something will take. Like, really terrible.

It doesn’t really matter what the task is, it’s just easier to see in a project-focused team environment like software engineering, but I’ve repeatedly heard advice to “take your most generous estimate, and then double it”, because the problem is the same everywhere.

As you go into time blocking, incorrect estimation will probably be your biggest pitfall. You may think something will take thirty minutes, plan your day accordingly, and then realize you’ve spent two hours and you’re not done yet! What do you do with the tasks you skipped over?

First: take a breath. Everything is okay.

There are a couple ways to get around this, but the most important thing to remember is that there are no truly negative consequences to deviating from your plan, or from creating a plan that isn’t perfect. Accept this, and try to learn what you can from the experience.

That being said, there are ways to prevent an estimation disaster.

  1. Leave space between tasks; more than you think you’ll need. I like to leave at least 15 minutes between all my blocks as a buffer, so that when I take a minute to transition between activities, or if one task overflows a bit, it’s not the end of the world.
  2. Leave larger blocks in your day for impromptu recreation. I’ll do some reading, take a snack break, or just chill for a bit. When dealing with schedules, it’s easy for forget that we’re human and need breaks.
  3. Use limited blocks of time as a focusing tool. Similar to how people use 25-minute timers for the Pomodoro Method, knowing that a small block of time is intended for a specific chunk of work creates a deadline. A deadline creates urgency, and urgency creates focus.
  4. Keep a record of how long certain tasks actually took. Writing down how much you completed during your time block can help you hone your estimation skill. This is a technique used by Cal Newport, author of Deep Work, who keeps a second column on each time blocking schedule to write down blocks that had to be shifted or skipped throughout the day. In addition to improving future estimates, it also serves as a record of what you’ve accomplished. A “ta-da” list to mirror your “to-do” list.
  5. If you need to, make your blocks more general. If your work is difficult to estimate because each task is unique or unpredictable, trying to estimate at the task level may not be productive. Take a step back. Instead of blocking out time to “implement X software feature”, block out time for “software development on Project Y”. When you get to that block, put all your focus into whichever specific task is most appropriate. Again, we are leaning into the Pomodoro Method, with a little hint of Getting Things Done. Regardless of what your productivity system looks like, there are certain tricks to encouraging focus and productivity that are common between all these systems and we should use everything we can to our advantage.

Let’s Do It

We’ve covered how to find free time in a busy schedule, how to set priorities, and all the pit falls that come with making time-based plans.

Now, sit down with your medium of choice and start slotting in those tasks.

Notice how I haven’t really talked about a time frame here. Once you’ve evaluated your overall needs, you can use time blocking wherever it makes the most sense.

You can block out the next day, taking time each night to prepare. You can block out a whole week as I’ve done in these examples. You can block out two or three weeks, similar to a project management “sprint”. You can even sit down in an afternoon and block out just a few hours to regain direction and focus.

This is a tool, not a prescription. You don’t have to time block at at 7am and 7pm each day, with a meal. Instead, you can use it for whatever feels right, and as often as you need, like using a hammer to either drive a nail, or to tear down a wall. The power is in your hands now.

There’s not much else to say here, except for good luck!

I’d recommend starting easy: plan out your time for tomorrow on a sheet of paper, or in Google Calendar. See how it feels to audit your free time and give it purpose.

Challenge yourself. How well you can stick to your plan, just for a day?

This might be the tool that helps you find time for everything that you want to do, but the only person who can figure it out for certain is you.

Links in this article may be Affiliate links, which mean I may make a small amount of money if you purchase items at no extra cost to you.

A software engineer and artist interested in self-development, creativity and becoming a better version of me.

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