As far as modern productivity goes, the standard to-do list has become a primary tool that allows all of us to get several tasks accomplished. Its simplicity is as perfect as its functionality. Not only does it declutter our minds, but it also helps us to remember important tasks that can get lost during a hectic day. Once an item on this list is sufficiently addressed, it can be crossed off with a satisfying slash of a pen. It is practically a work of art in and of itself.
I do not wish to take any glory away from the marvelous to-do list, but I have found that the addition of time-blocking to any to-do list increases its effectiveness exponentially. As an independent filmmaker who makes short films every week, reads lots of books, actively plays three musical instruments, and cares for an entire household of plants, animals, and furnishings, I need the effectiveness that this provides. Time-blocking gives my creative life the space to flourish every day.
Take for example the simple act of meeting up with a friend for coffee. It would never be enough to simply say “Yes!! Let’s have coffee some day!”. A mutual agreement that the meeting is desired does not in any way fully guarantee that it will ever happen. Now, if you commit to a specific time and place for the coffee meet-up to occur, then the value of the commitment and the likelihood of it materializing virtually quadruples.
When you assign a specific time of day and timeframe for a task to be accomplished, you are time-blocking.
To give you a real world example, let’s compare a (highly fictionalized) simple to-do list with one that incorporates time blocking:
Saturday Morning To-Do List:
- Call Bubba about “The Party”
- Order pink leggings
- Dig a hole 4’X6′ in the back yard
- Buy formaldehyde at corner store
- Look up Lemon tart recipe
- Eat vinegar
On the one hand, it is beneficial that all of this written down. A person can simply choose any task at random and just do it. What this simple list does not do is prioritize the more valuable tasks, and it does not take into account how long each task will take. (Digging a hole of that size without a big machine will take a while.)
Here’s the same list with time-blocking added in:
Saturday Morning To-Do List
8:00am-10:00am—Dig 4’X6′ hole in the back yard
10:00am-10:30am—Look up Lemon tart recipe
10:30am-10:45am—Order pink leggings
11:00am-12:00noon—Go to the corner store to buy formaldehyde and call Bubba about “The Party” on the way there
12Noon—eat vinegar for lunch
Notice how the most difficult and time-consuming task of digging that hole takes top billing. Prioritization is a key element here. What I also like about time-blocking is that it formalizes the task into more of a commitment. It also gives you a sense of what you can realistically do given the amount of time you have.
In my experience, there is one caveat that I need to explain. Time-blocking can be difficult to implement if you’re not used to it and can take a lot of trial and error to tweak.
Here are some helpful tips that I have learned as I have worked toward implementing time-blocking in my workflow:
- Instead of trying to time-block an entire day or workday, do it within smaller chunks of tine. For example, I generally divide my day into two time-blocked ranges. One chunk extends from around 8am to 12noon, and the second chunk extends from 12noon to 5pm. I do not plan out the second chunk until noon. I do this because events can happen during the day that can derail your well laid plans. Priorities can shift, and surprises happen. By delaying the planning of the afternoon, I allow for some flexibility and spontaneity.
- I use a digital calendar for my time-blocking. I tried using a physical notebook at first, but it got a little too messy when I have had to shift tasks and timeframes around throughout the day. The digital calendar that I use lets me move items up and down along the day’s schedule as well as color code different groups of tasks such as “house chores” and “client work”.
- Exercise the freedom to be as specific or generalized as you want. For example, you can allot small chunks of time to micro-tasks that would not take an entire half-hour. For example, from 5:10pm to 5:15pm, you can send that text file you’ve been meaning to get out to your co-worker, and then, from 5:15pm to 5:30pm write out your shopping list for your stop at the grocery store on the way home from work. Otherwise, you can just say “house cleaning’ from 9am to 11am and group all related tasks together under that heading without being so specific. I actually do both of these depending on the tasks at hand. If I have a lot of small but important tasks, time-blocking down to the minute has helped to keep my momentum going and to be more detailed and methodical in my approach; however, this is generally not necessary all of the time.
- Give yourself plenty of buffers. Each big task I assign almost always has at least a half hour of extra time already built in. I might give an hour to a task that only needs a half hour. This gives me more time to finish the task with less pressure and allows space for interruptions. Time-blocking does not have to be rigid at all if that’s what you prefer.
- Think about incorporating tasks that have more of a long-term significance in your life. If you have a huge project that will take months to finish, time-blocking small parts of your day to work on it will progressively get you closer to finishing.
- Do not time-block every minute of your life. You can make your evenings and weekends completely schedule-free for example. Make time to decompress without a detailed schedule that incorporates doing nothing, chillaxing with a good book, or anything fun you like to do. Your mind and body will always need a break from being on your “A” game.
- Think about time-blocking across an entire week or a month. This practice is not restricted to a daily schedule and can be adapted toward long-term goals and dreams.
- Lastly, be gentle with yourself. I have had mornings that were completely derailed by an unexpected event or with meandering on Etsy trying to find a birthday gift for a friend. Don’t beat yourself up. Simply review your to-do list and re-do the schedule. It’s all good. You’ll still have the satisfaction of getting through your work in a systematic and organized fashion eventually.
I need to reiterate that this might be quite difficult to implement depending on your work style and environment. If you work in an office space that requires constant email exchanges and phone interruptions, this would be extremely tough to carry out. However, it is a worthwhile pursuit to try incorporating this into your day. For myself, it has VASTLY improved my workflow and helps me keep my time and priorities in perspective. Play around with different time chunks, or use time blocking to fine-tune a daily ritual that addresses short and long-term goals.
All of this might feel like extra work, but remember that this is all up to you. You can do this in any way that works for you.
Be creative, but most of all, give yourself the benefit of at least giving time-blocking a try. This is what I have done, and it has given me more control over everything and the life-affirming satisfaction of having a plan for getting my life together in a way that suits all of my needs and desires.