If your work schedule looks like most Americans’, you wake up, drink some coffee, check your email, and then chug through your list of tasks. In the evenings, you unwind or work on personal projects. At the end of the day, you go to bed to start the cycle over again.
The problem is, this system doesn’t work for most people. It assumes that we’re built to work for eight hours, then turn off work and pursue our passions — or enjoy some good TV. For many people, it can be hard to turn off the work. Indeed, seventy percent of people check their work email in the evenings.
This tendency to stay plugged into work speaks to a larger problem: We divide our day into two halves: work and non-work. When we speak about finding the famous work–life balance, most of us are talking about keeping work out of those non-work hours. But we’re also forcing all of our energy into our working hours.
So what happens? Our personal projects fall by the wayside. We get home and simply crash — or we figure we can just knock out a couple more work tasks that we didn’t get done today.
In other words, we can’t escape work, and we’re letting it fill up our schedules. We backburner our hobbies, self-care, and time with family. Work takes over your life.
And if you’ve been working from home, the problem is even worse. There’s little barrier between your workspace and your non-work space.
How can we resolve these problems? It’s simple: you need to start time blocking.
What is time blocking?
Time blocking is the art of arranging your schedule for maximum productivity — which usually isn’t 9-to-5. In this approach, you block out different times of day for different types of work. You can organize it around themes or simply carve out time for particular projects.
Charlie Gilkey of Productive Flourishing recommends dividing your blocks by the type of energy each one requires. In his paradigm, these are your four types of blocks:
Focus:These are the blocks you devote to “deep work.” No distractions, no multi-tasking…just getting shit done. You’ll want to schedule these blocks during the times of day you feel most energetic.
Admin:During your admin blocks, you take care of “housekeeping” tasks, such as checking email, organizing your office, and so on. Many people start their day by doing these things, but it’s better to save these for times when you’re low on energy, such as your afternoon slump.
Social: People need people, but workaholics can find it challenging to make time for friends and family. It’s too easy to let social time fall by the wayside because you’re so “busy.” That’s why Gilkey recommends that you schedule time to be social, whether that’s calling your mom or going out with friends.
Recovery: As the saying goes, you cannot pour from an empty glass. Ironically, the more you rest, the more productive you will be. Schedule downtime for yourself to indulge in a good book or movie, take a walk, or get a good nap. You’ll thank yourself later.
Of course, you can define your blocks however you’d like. For example, I break mine up into “client work,” “writing,” and “chores/errands,” to name a few, but I still create my schedule with my energy demands in mind. I know that I am most productive in the late morning and early evening, so I schedule my most energy-intensive tasks during that time.
The key is to divide your day into manageable chunks rather than approaching it as an endless expanse of time. This strategy helps you feel more in control and less overwhelmed.
How does time blocking work?
Ever heard of Parkinson’s Law? It’s the idea that work expands to fill the time allotted. Author Cyril Northcote Parkinson coined the term back in 1955 in a humorous essay, but anyone who has had to deliver work under deadline has seen its effects. When you work with a deadline, you give yourself urgency. By contrast, when you start working on a task with no end in sight, you’re much more likely to dawdle, grab an extra cup of coffee, check your email, and otherwise procrastinate. After all, you’ve got all the time in the world, right?
Time blocking adds that sense of urgency to all your tasks. It also helps prevent you from burning out or overthinking a project. Think about complex projects: is it better to hack away on them until they’re done, or measure out digestible steps and take some time away from the project to reflect? I think you know the answer.
Studies show that people procrastinate because they are fearful of failure, but I think there’s more at play. Subconsciously, we’re trying to shorten our time because we know that we “work better under pressure.” What if you could get that boost of energy born of urgency without having to frantically scramble to get things done? That’s what time blocking offers.
How to get started with time blocking
To start time blocking, Gilkey recommends identifying the times of day that you feel most energetic. Then, schedule your focus blocks for those times Choose no more than three 2-hour blocks — and remember, even that might be pushing the limits of your focus. Next, build in time for administrative tasks, social time, and recovery. Try to limit your admin blocks so that you don’t fall into the procrastination trap of checking emails, etc.
You can also take stock of the schedule you already have in place, then start scheduling blocks within this framework. Don’t wipe the slate clean and try to force yourself to adapt to a wildly new schedule. Trying to overhaul your routine with time blocking will only lead to frustration. Start carving out blocks within the structure of your existing commitments.
Gilkey recommends alternating between types of blocks throughout the day. Don’t try to power through three focus blocks in a row — that’s exactly the problem with the 9-to-5 workday that we’re trying to avoid! Once you start time blocking, you’ll notice a natural improvement in your work–life balance.
Tips for time blocking
I’ve been using time blocking for about six months now, and I’ve switched up my schedule a few times as I figured out how to make this system best work for me. Here are some of the lessons I learned.
Don’t run your blocks back-to-back. When you look at a calendar, it’s tempting to try to schedule every minute. You see a 15-minute space in between appointments or deadlines and you figure you can squeeze a short task in there. After all, you’re going to stick to your blocks, right? The problem is that life gets in the way. A task might take a little longer than expected, or you get a phone call that sets your schedule behind a bit. It’s important to build leeway into your blocked schedule, and don’t feel like you have to start or end a block on the dot.
Know your limits. Science shows that most people can only sustain focus for four hours per day. And if you’ve ever used time tracking software, you’ve probably noticed that you don’t actually work for the entirety of your shift. In fact, many people only spend 2–4 hours of their workday on actual tasks. The rest is taken up by bathroom breaks, chatty coworkers, answering Slack messages, and so on. With this in mind, don’t over-schedule your day when you assign your time blocks. Believe me: you’ll be much more likely to crash and burn out.
Be willing to swap blocks. Those of us whose tasks, meetings, and commitments shift from week to week might find time blocking to be frustrating at first. You have your day perfectly planned out — and suddenly your boss calls a meeting, or you experience a personal emergency. Now, your carefully plotted time blocks have been taken up by other activities. Be flexible with your blocks. You may have to adjust them on the fly, but keep your time limits in mind. For example, if one of my blocks gets hijacked, I’ll swap it out for a block of the same length later in the day.
If you’ve been feeling overwhelmed by your task list or unable to find that coveted work–life balance, you need to try time blocking. You’ll find that you feel more control over your day and are better able to direct your energies where they’re due. By blocking your day, you enable yourself to tackle a variety of tasks without burning out on any of them. Plus, you’ll force yourself to step away from the work and take time to recharge and enjoy your friends and family.
After all, there’s more to life than work, isn’t there?