Self

How to Use Time Blocking to Take Control of Your Schedule

You’ve likely heard the phrase work smarter not harder. While this platitude may sound like too lofty of a goal, it’s more than just one of those inspirational quotes you see on Instagram (and then roll your eyes over). 

There actually is a way to reclaim your time, take control of your schedule and work fewer overall hours as a result. And no, the answer does not involve some Google calendar app. It’s a simple two word phrase  that, if properly integrated into your life, can be life-changing. Get ready to learn about time blocking.

What is time blocking?

Time blocking is a simple time management technique that actually works. When you break down your days into specific, meaningful chunks, you end up spending more time staying on-task—and slaying your to-do list—and less time feeling like you’re not making any progress. 

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By doing one thing at a time, and blocking off time to actually do all the things, you’ll be far more productive. Ready to get started? Here’s what you need to know about why time blocking works and how to implement it into your schedule right away. 

Why you need time blocks in your life

Time blocking is essentially creating blocks of time on your calendar that are dedicated to specific tasks. Instead of creating a to-do list for your day and getting to each item whenever you happen to get to them, this time management technique ensures that each of those items on your list are actually accounted for on your schedule. It’s a way to learn how to focus your mental energies where they’re needed most. 

This creates more productivity in your day and helps keep you from procrastinating or simply not getting around to something that’s important to you to finish. You can group similar tasks together into the same block (like, making phone calls, answering emails or running errands).

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You can also block time for self-care, napping, playing with your dog—whatever you need to do in your day to help you be at your best. 

If you feel like you’re losing control of your day to meetings, busy work or just general franticness or stress, time blocking is for you. Learn how to use it, and you’ll learn how to be successful!

Uninterrupted time is productive time

When you block off time to address your email, for instance, you only have a set amount of minutes to be in reactive mode and respond to those messages. If you feel like you’re being constantly interrupted by coworkers delegating tasks, asking questions or calling meetings, blocking off your schedule is a great way to reclaim uninterrupted time and get into deep work. 

Or, if you feel like you need more time to mentally wrap your head around certain projects or tasks, sectioning off part of your day to devote to said tasks can give you the ability to dive in with a clearer head knowing you can stay focused. With clear time management, you can feel less stressed, experience more productivity and work more efficiently. Win, win, win

Scheduling tricks similar to time blocking

It’s worth mentioning that there are other scheduling methods you can use instead of, or in tandem with, blocking time, in case these techniques would work better for your particular circumstances. Here are three other time management approaches to consider:

Time boxing

Sounds similar to time blocking, yes, but time boxing is quite different. It’s great for people who like to challenge themselves. Time boxing means that each of your tasks has a specific end goal. Instead of blocking off time to work on a draft of a proposal (time blocking), you’ll set aside time to finish the proposal in a set amount of hours (time boxing). You have to work both quickly and efficiently to complete the tasks at hand.  

Task batching

For smaller tasks, create a time block dedicated to a bunch of to-dos. For instance, instead of checking and posting to social media throughout the day, which can be a huge time suck, you can use a 20-minute task batch to scroll your accounts and schedule your posts for the day. This thematic catch-all for block time ensures you don’t end up down a rabbit hole of endless scrolling. 

Day theming 

For this technique, each day gets a specific purpose. For example, Monday can be your writing day, Tuesday is for editing, Wednesday is for posting and promoting your work, and Thursday is for content research and pitching ideas to your team.

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This approach may work better for you than time blocks, depending on your type of work and the kinds of tasks you need to complete. 

Key benefits of time blocking

Making your schedule work for you has a number of upsides. Not only will you feel more in charge of your day, but using a time management technique like time blocking allows you to decide what tasks are most important to you and when. 

Commanding control of your schedule can also help you feel less resentful toward others who aren’t being cognizant of your time because your time blocks put you in the driver’s seat instead of being constantly reactive to the events of your day. 

Here are some of the key benefits to time blocking more in-depth:

Time blocking allows you to take charge of your schedule

You know your priorities best. By blocking time out for the tasks that matter most to you, you’ll go about your days in active mode, not reactive mode. 

You’ll be able to meet your deliverables without feeling like all you do is work because you’ll build in time for yourself, too. (More on this later!) Having your time blocked can make your to-do list less overwhelming because there will be a set time for each task to get your attention. Time management can be a major key to success and time blocking makes it possible.

Time blocking makes you more aware of how you spend your time

When you time block, all of your time is accounted for. You’ll soon discover how long certain tasks really take and how much time you used to spend on other things, like completing your morning routine, firing off emails or chatting on Slack whenever someone messaged you. 

Instead of wondering where all the time went during your work week, you’ll know. And by the end of each day you can look at your calendar and feel more accomplished knowing that your valuable hours didn’t go to waste. 

Time blocking boosts productivity

When the clock is running, you typically feel more of a fire under your seat to get things done. Time blocks (and especially time boxes) can give you the motivation you need to get going on certain tasks and see them through to completion. 

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If you build in reward time for yourself on your calendar after these chunks of work, you’ll have extra incentive to get things done. Productivity is the name of the game here. 

Time blocking keeps you focused

It’s hard to get mental clarity when you’re being pulled in multiple directions or have to stop every 20 minutes to duck into yet another meeting. Scheduling a set amount of time to devote to projects or tasks allows you to really focus. Single tasking, not multitasking, is what you really need when it comes to deep work. Block time ensures that you stay on the right track. 

Time blocking encourages follow through

​​When you write something down, you’re more likely to do it. But often a to-do list just isn’t enough to really get things done because it’s not specific enough. Time blocking encourages following through by making a set time on your calendar for all of your tasks. 

Having a concrete plan for devoting your time to certain tasks ensures that you will indeed tackle them—and with clear focus. In this way, time blocking your schedule keeps you accountable.

Time blocking helps you keep up your self care

For many people, finding time to take care of yourself falls to the end of the to-do list. And oftentimes, self care becomes optional—you don’t have to go to yoga or meal prep your lunches or take a bath. These things don’t pay the bills after all. 

However, with time blocking you’ll not only have more time in your schedule to actually do things for yourself but you’ll be able to section off self care time for more restoring tasks. In this way, creating blocks of time isn’t just about productivity and getting things done in your work week, it’s about helping you find balance and peace in your day, too. 

When your self care is time blocked, it becomes non-negotiable. 

How to use time blocking to manage your day

It’s important to recognize that, like anything else, time blocking is a skill to hone. You might need a few days (or weeks!) of trying it out to discover how to make your calendar work for you instead of the other way around. Focus on progress over perfection. You’ll get the hang of it as you practice your new way of scheduling. 

If you’re ready to start time blocking and really dig into this time management method, here’s how to get started:

Write down your daily to-do list

Before writing out the time blocks on your calendar, start with a simple to-do list of tasks. From here, you can start building in how long each of your tasks will take and how often these items should appear week to week. You might consider taking a macro look at your schedule and calendar on Sunday nights (or the last day of the month) so you can plan your time blocks for the week(s) ahead. 

Overestimate how long tasks will take

One of the biggest pitfalls time blocking newbies face is underestimating how long each item on their list actually takes. Chances are, you’ll need more than 20 minutes a day to answer emails, at least when you first start off blocking your time. Get into it slowly by overestimating the time to complete tasks—you could even go as far as to expect that your tasks would take you twice as long as you think. You can always modify your calendar after you get into the swing of things. 

Block both work and home tasks

Use time blocks for all of the time on your calendar, not just your time spent at the office. You can batch home cleaning tasks (folding laundry, doing dishes), childcare tasks (like packing lunches and going over homework) , personal tasks (grocery shopping, food prep, home organization)—you name it. By giving yourself dedicated time for these things, you’ll have more productivity at home and at work. 

Determine your prime time

Prioritize deep work for when you’re at your sharpest. You should know by now when you work best, whether that’s first thing in the morning or after you’ve had lunch. Make sure that your time blocks are scheduled so that your prime time happens when you can really take advantage of working without distractions. This will keep you on track. 

Create do not disturb time

When possible, move meetings into blocks of time so that you can section off areas in your calendar for deep work. If you want coworkers to respect your time, share your calendar with these portions marked as “do not disturb” so you can ensure that these time blocks stay yours and will not be filled with requests and mindless tasks.

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When you set aside time for yourself, you may also encourage others to create dedicated time for themselves as well. 

Add blocks for reactive tasks each day

Be sure to block in time for answering email and other reactive tasks. But also add in a time block for unexpected tasks that could come up in your day and threaten to take over your calendar. By accounting for the inevitable last-minute ask from your boss or the random ball that somehow lands in your court, you’ll be able to stay on track. 

Don’t overschedule your downtime

Time blocking doesn’t mean that every minute of your day needs to be accounted for. In fact, blocking in chunks of “free” time is essential for avoiding burnout.

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Make sure that your downtime doesn’t become overrun by the to-dos in your calendar. 

Stay flexible

From the boss calling an emergency meeting to your kid getting sick and having to stay home from school, life happens. Remember that your schedule needs to be somewhat flexible in order to work. 

Explore different time blocking methods

Breaking down each and every day into time blocks can take a lot of, well, time. For some people, the effort and inflexibility that comes with blocking each day into chunks just isn’t worth it. (Or it’s just not possible, depending on your job and life circumstances.)

That doesn’t mean you’ll be left out of the time management game. You can still get the benefits of time blocking with these two methods that can be implemented whenever you need to get into some deep work or want to drill down on your tasks:

The Pomodoro Technique: 

Entrepreneur Francesco Cirillo is credited with this time block idea, which was named after his tomato-shaped timer. The Pomodoro Technique is when you break down all of your tasks into 25 minute time blocks. 

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The idea is that these short chunks of time keep you focused without getting burnt out or distracted. While it may not work for everyone, it’s a great way to get started with time blocking. Be sure to add a five or ten minute break between each 25-minute burst. (There’s also an app to help with this—more on that below.)

Parkinson’s Law

​​This time management technique is built on the idea that having too much time to finish a task could actually make that task take longer than it needs to. Parkinson’s Law comes from British historian Cyril Northcote Parkinson who famously said that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” 

Instead of allotting a certain amount of time for your tasks, try working without your computer plugged in (meaning that you have to finish the job before your battery runs out) or cut your deadline by 50 percent so you need to finish a project well before its due date. 

The three best time blocking apps to try out

When you start time blocking, it may help to have an app guiding you along the way. (Though, time blocking apps are actually great for time management newcomers and pros alike.) Here are three great apps that can get you going and help you continue you manage your calendar as you get more and more comfortable with time blocking: 

Plan 

As far as time blocking apps go, the Plan app is both streamlined and convenient. It combines your Google or Outlook calendar with your to-do list. You can also make multiple to-do lists within the app for specific projects or categories for further organization and time management. 

Sunsama 

If you want an app to do the work for you, look no further. Sunsama prompts you each morning by asking you what tasks you need to work on today and for how long. Then, like your very own personal assistant, this time tracking app builds your day out for you, integrating with Google and Outlook calendars. Scheduling, check! 

TickTick Premium

This app allows you to list your tasks as well as block out time on your calendar for those tasks but it also incorporates a Pomodoro timer into the mix, making it stand out from the rest. If you need a ticking clock, literally, to get things done, then this is the app for you. 

All in all, these apps make scheduling and time tracking easy so that you can focus on the tasks at hand. While they all cost money to use (after each app’s free trial period), having an app to integrate your tasks with your calendar is a great tool to have at your disposal. 

Time blocking ensures that your time is well spent

Having a calendar that’s organized with your important tasks and deep work as your priorities can help you stay focused—and flourish—in your day to day life. By utilizing time blocking, you’re putting yourself and your time first, which can feel like a major step if you tend to go through life in reactive mode.

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With your time blocked, you’re taking a great first step toward reclaiming your precious hours and putting them to optimal use. As you get more and more comfortable taking up space in your own schedule, your confidence and ownership of your time will spread to other aspects of your life.

Natasha Burton

Natasha Burton is a freelance writer and relationship expert who has written for Cosmopolitan, Maxim, Women’s Health, Livestrong and Brides, among other publications. She’s the author of What's My Type?: 100+ Quizzes to Help You Find Yourself―and Your Match!, 101 Quizzes for Couples, 101 Quizzes for BFFs and 101 Quizzes for Brides and Grooms, and the coauthor of The Little Black Book of Big Red Flags.

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Natasha Burton