Time Blocking: How to Structure Your Schedule for Optimal Productivity

By Marie Mekosh

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Do you ever feel overwhelmed by your endless to-do list? It feels as if you could work and work without checking off a single line, yet add tens of items to your list in the meantime.

Have you ever stopped to consider that a simple checklist may be an ineffective way to structure your day?

There are four major downsides to the traditional to-do list:

1. To-do lists can set unrealistic expectations.

Sometimes, I start my day by putting three major time-consuming tasks on my agenda, along with myriad small tasks. Though I start the day optimistic, it soon becomes clear that I’m unable to achieve even half my list because I have underestimated how much time each task will take.

2. Not achieving your entire list brings frustration and inhibits productivity.

When I look at my list and see that I’m not on track to complete all of the tasks on it, I feel frustrated. I beat myself up over the fact that I won’t achieve my goals for the day. This frustration further inhibits my productivity by distracting me from the task at hand. Plus, if I know that I won’t finish everything, why bother trying to finish as many things as possible? If task A can wait until tomorrow, why not task B? And why not task C?

3. It is easy to get distracted and be inefficient.

When there are twenty things on my to-do list, I’m distracted from my current task by thinking about all of the other things sitting on my checklist. I spend more time on the task at hand because I switch back and forth between this and other tasks. Or, I may spend too long on a single task, as I don’t have a set amount of time to complete it. The task that could’ve taken an hour instead takes two.

4. To-do lists can make it easy to neglect long-term goals.

When there are five things on my to-do list that I need to do urgently, I tackle them first and ignore the long-term goals on my agenda. Since the long-term goal doesn’t need to be completed tomorrow, or the day after that, it’s easy to keep putting it off.

When I first read about time-blocking, I was interested, but skeptical. The to-do list certainly wasn’t the be-all and end-all of productivity tools and I was eager to learn of alternatives.

With time-blocking, you organize your day in a series of time slots, instead of a list of to-dos. Each time slot is then assigned to a finite task. In this way, you dedicate a certain period of time to each of the items on your to-do list, instead of taking as long as necessary to work down your list.

For four weeks, I experimented with time-blocking in place of my usual checklist. Here’s what I found:

Time-blocking allows you to focus more on each task.

One of the greatest benefits of time-blocking is that it gives you increased focus. Instead of glancing at my to-do list and worrying about all of the tasks piling up, I know that each task is carefully scheduled and has a place in my day. This gives me greater confidence to approach the task at hand with full focus.

And this is important.

Studies have shown that multitasking is damaging to productivity. In their book ‘The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results,’ authors Gary Keller and Jay Papasan share the disadvantages of multitasking:

‘Bounce between one activity and another and you lose time as your brain reorients to the new task. Those milliseconds add up. Researchers estimate we lose 28 percent of an average workday to multitasking ineffectiveness.’

Time-blocking gives you greater control over your willpower.

Willpower is a finite resource. As much as we think that we can just power through our day doing one difficult, unpleasant task after another, each task and decision actually takes a toll on our willpower. That’s why you reach for the Double-stuffed Oreos after a long, tiring day at work.

When you use time-blocking, you can take this into consideration. You can plan your day around your dips in energy and ensure that you accomplish your most important tasks when your willpower is at its strongest.

‘If you want to get the most out of your day, do your most important work… early, before your willpower is drawn down,’ say Keller and Papasan in ‘The ONE Thing.’

You can also schedule easier, more automatic tasks during periods when you regularly have a dip in energy. Thus, you can save the time when you are most focused and energetic for your most difficult or creative work.

By blocking out your time carefully, you can ensure that you have the energy and willpower to get the most out of each hour of your day.

Time-blocking helps you to get more realistic about your time and your expectations.

Over time, you’ll start to see how long repeated or similar tasks take you to complete. This allows you to better set your expectations for how much you can get done in any given day or week.

Perhaps you thought that writing that article would only take an hour, but with researching, writing, and formatting, it actually took you three hours. Next time you write a similar article, you’ll take into account this added time and adjust your schedule to better accommodate it. This will free you from unnecessary stress and allow you to make more informed decisions about how to use your time.

Time-blocking gives you more time for yourself.

Relaxation and ‘me-time’ are not just important for your sanity. They also allow you to be more productive.

As Georgetown University professor Cal Newport tells in his book ‘Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World,’ downtime has many benefits. It aids insight by allowing your unconscious brain to process complex information and make sense of the professional challenges you face. It also allows you to recharge your energy so that you can approach your next tasks with greater focus.

When you time-block your schedule, you can be more intentional about adding break times into your day. If you notice that there are periods where your brain begins to lag, you can schedule breaks to coincide with these periods of lower productivity.

So, take a walk in the city. Meet a friend for coffee. Just get away from work for a little bit.

Scheduling in these break times will give you more focus later in the day and improve your quality of life.

Beyond breaks from work, time-blocking can also provide you a better work-life balance. One of the benefits of being more focused, more productive, and more realistic about your time is that you can ensure that you have time for yourself in your day. If you’re able to complete all of your tasks before 5 pm, you won’t have emails and reports hanging over your head when you return home. Instead, you’ll have time for family, your precious dog, or a glass (or two) of wine with friends.

So should I just ditch my to-do lists all together?

Time-blocking and to-do lists are not mutually exclusive! Instead of a replacement for your to-do list, time-blocking is simply a tool to allow you to better achieve each of your to-do’s and be more realistic about how much you can actually get done.

To-do lists are a way to organize your tasks, while time-blocking is a way to organize your time. For me, I need to be able to have a clear view of both my projects and my time in order to be productive.

When I time-block, I sit down at the beginning of each week and think through my priorities for the upcoming week, organized in the form of a priority list. I then break down each of my broad goals into smaller, defined tasks and assign them to a time slot. I space out my priorities over the days of the week so that I can adjust my tasks and expectations as the week progresses. Each night, I sit down and plan out my time-blocked schedule for the next day.

Time-blocking is a good way to orient your to-do list. As the week goes on, you can actually check those items off to make sure you stay on track to meet your goals for the week. But keeping a to-do list or priority list will help you keep track of your broader goals and deadlines to ensure that you accomplish everything that needs to get done.

Time-blocking is simply a tool to allow you to better achieve each of your to-do’s and be more realistic about how much you can actually get done.

Now that we’ve discussed the benefits of time-blocking as a tool to check off all the items on our to-do lists, how can we use this tool effectively?

Practicing time-blocking will help you to work out the kinks for yourself; here are a few important guidelines:

1. Give yourself enough time.

As I said above, one of the benefits of using time-blocking is that it allows you to get a better sense of how much time different projects and tasks will take.

When I started out, I tried to overestimate the amount of time I would spend on any given task so that I could see how long each one actually takes. Sometimes it worked, but other times I still underestimated. Over time, I started to figure out a realistic amount of time to assign each task.

Especially in the beginning, it’s a good idea to add ‘buffer zones’ to your schedule. Adding a few half-hour periods to your day in case you run over can help you to avoid having to readjust your schedule constantly.

But even if you do go over your allotted time, don’t sweat it. As the day goes on, you can make adjustments to your schedule as you’re forced to deal with unscheduled distractions or new tasks that arise. The best thing to do is view your time-blocked schedule as fixed in the short term, but flexible as new demands arise.

2. Block together small, tedious tasks.

If you can block together the small, humdrum tasks of your day, you’ll be significantly more productive.

It may not be possible in every office, but instead of answering emails each time they pop up on your screen, schedule a couple of dedicated periods of time each day to respond to incoming emails. This will decrease the stress of the emails hanging over your head and allow you to focus more on the work that’s actually important.

3. Schedule your most important work during times when you have the most energy and give yourself regular breaks.

As discussed previously, our willpower is highest at the beginning of the day. So schedule your most difficult or creative tasks early so that you can get them done with greater focus.

Avoid scheduling important tasks when you have natural downshifts in energy. If you find that you get a little sleepy after lunch, that may be a time better suited to answering emails than trying to write a complex article.

Schedule breaks throughout the day to allow yourself to recoup some of your lost energy and better tackle the next task on your schedule.

4. Schedule time regularly to achieve your long-term goals.

One of the benefits of time-blocking is that it gives you a greater ability to achieve your long-term goals. By scheduling time for your long-term goals, you can ensure that they don’t get continuously put off as you race to put out another fire.

For example, if one of your long-term goals is to write a book, you can block off an hour each morning to dedicate deep work to that project. By regularly blocking off time, you make your long-term goals a priority.

This article was originally posted on bSmartGuide.com. bSmart is a mentorship and networking platform for young women featuring curated content to help you live your best life and provide the expert advice you wish someone had given you. Our community is designed to find and spotlight women who are doing extraordinary things and connect them with women who aspire to do the same.

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