Why time blocking works for writers: investigating the science

Chris Smith
Aug 1, 2018 · 4 min read

As a productivity method, we’re huge fans of time-blocking or scheduling. We’ve written before about how it’s essential to top academics like Adam Grant and it’s cropped up in our own research time and time again. But what’s the science behind time-blocking? Why is the act of scheduling important to helping you focus on your work — and what’s the alternative?

Time-blocking or scheduling involves booking out periods of time in your diary to focus on your work. How you schedule time is up to you. There’s no ideal way to do it — some people write effectively in short period of time each day, others book out chunks of time across a week or a month — some batch up their time into long writing holidays.

The only common element to scheduling is that it is focused, deep work time — time that’s just for you and your writing and research — no social media allowed!

Time blocking is the opposite of multi-tasking, a cool sounding term that in reality, can cause long term damage to your productivity — and happiness.

Attention residue

When you multi-task and constantly switch tasks rather than focus on one single thing at a time, we experience what researchers call attention residue — a term first coined by Sophie Leroy, a business professor at the University of Minnesota.

When you switch from one task to another, your attention doesn’t necessarily follow.

Leroy’s research finds that a residue of your attention remains stuck thinking about the original task — in other words, your attention remains divided.

The idea being that like petrol in a tank, humans only have a finite amount of attention and focus they can give to things during a given day. Every time you switch to a new task — even if it’s just quickly reading a Tweet — depletes your reserves.

In her study she gave one set of subjects a series of word puzzles to complete and continually interrupted them with other tasks — whilst she allowed the second group to complete the tasks sequentially. In between the tasks she gave all the students a test to see how focused they were and to quantify the level of ‘residue’ left.

She found that in all cases, people who are interrupted perform far worse on the next task.

“The common habit of working in a state of semi-distraction is potentially devastating to your performance.”

Dr Cal Newport, author Deep Work, prof. computer science, Georgetown University

Interrupted minds

Writing about Leroy’s study in his book Deep Work, Cal Newport — an associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University — says of the findings:

“The common habit of working in a state of semi-distraction is potentially devastating to your performance. It might seem harmless to take a quick glance at your inbox every 10 minutes or so. But that quick look introduces a new target for your attention. Even worse, by seeing messages that you cannot deal with at the moment (which is almost always the case), you’ll be forced to turn back to the primary task with a secondary task left unfinished.”

Whilst multitasking can make people feel as though they’re being super-busy and productive (presumably why people keep doing it) they’re really not.

Whilst it sounds far less glamorous, devoting chunks of time to really deep, meaningful work — using the technique of time blocking — is far more beneficial to our overall productivity and happiness than trying to do lots of things at once.

Distraction costs

In his book Happiness by Design behavioural economist Paul Dolan from the LSE explains that that ‘being distracted’ has a tangible, financial cost to businesses and economies.

He refers to a study in the US that puts the cost of ‘distraction’ to US businesses at $600bn per year and the cost to UK businesses around £10,000 per employee.

He also writes about the work of behavioural economists Buser and Noemi who examined the impact of multi-tasking on productivity.

In their experiment, they gave a group of 218 Dutch students a Sudoku word puzzle to complete and assigned the students to one of three groups.

In the first group the students were forced to multitask between different activities; in the second, they were able to choose which task to do when, whilst in the third, tasks were presented sequentially.

The scores were marked and the first group scored far lower than the second and particularly the third groups.

The researchers concluded: “Subjects who are forced to multitask perform significantly worse than those forced to work sequentially. Surprisingly, subjects who can freely organize their own schedule also perform significantly worse. These results suggest that scheduling is a significant determinant of productivity.”

Time blocking and flow

These switching costs as Dolan calls them are not just damaging because they result in lower levels of economic productivity and result in industry losing a few quid, they’re damaging because as human beings we crave focus.

When we’re prevented from having concentrated time, we feel less happy and fulfilled. That’s because being in a flow state — a sense of feeling lost and completely absorbed in a task first coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi — fulfils a basic human need.

“Subjects who are forced to multitask perform significantly worse than those forced to work sequentially.”

Buser and Noemi, Experimental Economics

Scheduling and time-blocking are vital tactics to help us not only beat our distractions and push out a few more hundred words — we need them stop us from living a life flitting from one activity to the next — something that makes us unproductive but more importantly, far less happy.

Chris Smith

Written by

Writing productivity coach, behavioural science geek and co-founder @beprolifiko https://prolifiko.com/

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