At some point in your professional, academic, or personal life, you’ll wonder how can I become more productive. In fact, you’ve likely landed on this blog post to improve your organization and time management skills!
If managing your time and workload has become an impossible feat every week, you’re not alone. 78.7% of people experience daily stress from a lack of time for their weekly tasks, and 41% of those to-do list items are ultimately never completed.
The real shocker is, 82% of people don’t have any sort of time management system in place to help them succeed.
Time blocking has generated a lot of buzz over the past few years – and there’s a reason people swear by it! Time blocking has been proven to boost productivity up to 80%, and is super easy and accessible to try. In this blog post, we’re going to break down the ultimate guide to time blocking – covering exactly what it is, how it works, its benefits and challenges, and three easy steps to get started.
What is time blocking?
Before we dive in any further – what exactly is time blocking? Time blocking is the habit of dividing your days and weeks into dedicated blocks of time for your task work. And this goes beyond just scheduling your meetings and appointments! Time blocking involves scheduling time for everything on your to-do list like daily work tasks, routine habits, email catch up, errands, relationships, and anything else that you make time for.
So instead of just flying by the seat of your pants (or in this case, your neverending to-do list) – you actually schedule your days with estimated time blocks for how long you realistically think it will take to complete everything on your daily list. While some people use a pen and paper method to time block their physical calendars or bullet journals – digital time blocking offers way more flexibility for plan changes, automation around processes, and transparency with your team around what you’re actually working on. The successful result of time blocking is a schedule that outlines exactly how your time will be spent every day.
What are the benefits of time blocking?
Time blocking works effectively at increasing productivity in several ways.
- Better focus: Single-tasking reduces context switching between different tasks and interruptions which can actually end up wasting 6 hours/day.
- More productive task time: Create more room for deep work on cognitively-demanding tasks (like research, writing, and designing) to boost efficiency, innovation, creativity, quality of your work, and even job satisfaction.
- Optimize busywork: Make shallow work like email catch up, checking Slack, and entering data more efficiently by actually scheduling time for all the busywork you need to do so it doesn’t distract you during more high-value work.
- Improve time estimate planning: See where your time actually goes every day so you can better estimate your time for tasks in the future, and audit your time and performance to continuously improve.
- Minimize decision paralysis: Prevent the stress of decision paralysis and perfectionism by creating a daily structure and action plan so you know exactly what you’re going to be working on, when.
- Hit more goals: Improves your chances of accomplishing your future goals by planning ahead your daily goals for consistent long-term progress.
- Communicate better: Creates more transparency around your availability so your team, superiors, clients, and even friends or family can see when you’re available (and when you’re not) to manage interruptions and defend your days from being constantly overrun with ineffective meetings and other people’s priorities.
- Lower anxiety: Reduces time anxiety by visualizing your plan against your to-do list and recording where your time went during the week. When you get to Friday, you can easily see just how much you got done this week!
Who does time blocking benefit?
Whether you’re a busy professional with a packed meeting calendar, a student juggling school and work, or a full-time parent managing several kids’ schedules and activities every week – time blocking is a valuable organization technique that can help you.
Time blocking can help if:
- You’re always multitasking (and struggling because 98% of brains can’t do it!)
- You have cognitively-demanding projects that require deep work.
- You work on larger projects over extended periods with recurring task work.
- You’re constantly interrupted by messages, emails, and meeting requests.
- You want to defend time for your important habits and routines.
- You need to audit your time every week for tracking or billing.
The great thing about time blocking is that it can work with any scheduling style. You can be super committed and create a work plan for the week ahead with every day booked to your exact tasks and priorities, or you can schedule generic focus time sessions to defend time for task work around your meetings and your recurring habits and routines (like lunch, exercise, or weekly reporting).
Basically, if you have things to do and a calendar to put them in – you can reap the time management benefits of time blocking. And if you don’t have a calendar yet, check out the best calendar apps to get started with - like Google Calendar which is 100% free to use. (We’re just going to assume you’re reading this because you have a decent workload!)
4 popular types of time blocking
Now that we’ve covered the benefits – let’s take a look at some of the most popular approaches to time blocking your calendar.
Task batching is when you group similar or related tasks together into time blocks on your calendar. This boosts efficiency by minimizing context switching between drastically different topics, which can actually cost up to 40% of your productivity during the workday just trying to refocus.
You can group shallow work communications together - like checking your inbox, responding to Slack messages, and returning calls - a few times a day to avoid the constant stream of distraction from checking every notification as it comes in. Other task batching examples could include recruitment efforts across roles, outline writing for written assignments, or recurring data entry for reports.
A more advanced approach to task batching is day theming. Day theming is the practice of time blocking full days dedicated to a specific topic or project. Elon Musk famously uses day theming to run his two companies, SpaceX and Tesla, by working on just one per day to maximize his productivity.
This approach facilitates deep work by allowing you to really get into a flow state and stay focused on a specific area to make substantial progress. Some day theme examples could be for coding, recruitment, learning, content creation, planning, or brainstorming. Day theming is also great for professionals who are managing several jobs or clients - like freelancers - so they can dedicate certain days to work on a specific account or project.
Time boxing is often confused with time blocking, but actually has an element that sets it apart. While time blocking ensures you have time defended on your calendar to get work done – it is flexible to be extended and moved around. Time boxing on the other hand actually limits the amount of time you will spend on that task. When the time block is up for that to-do, you move on.
This technique can help you stay on track with tasks that can easily take up too much of your time. Especially beneficial to very busy professionals with packed schedules and extensive to-do lists – time boxing streamlines resourcing and productivity during the session and can offer valuable insight to your capacity and efficiency with certain tasks. For example, a manager might time box 3 hours/week for reviewing potential candidate applications. They get through as much as they can during those allocated time blocks, and then move on to the rest of their task list.
The Pomodoro technique is a method of focus work for time blocking that works on 25-minute increments. Francesco Cirillo developed this time management technique in the 1980s as a student when he grabbed his tomato-shaped kitchen timer to maximize his productivity – which is where the name originates from.
This technique works by honing focus on one objective with an element of time pressure (in Francesco’s case – a ticking tomato!), and can work effectively for task batching and getting through shallow work to-dos. Similar to time boxing, using the Pomodoro approach lets you get as much done as you can in the 25-minutes at full focus, with a 5-minute break before you move on to the next item. Today, you don’t need a tomato-timer on hand to get the most of the Pomodoro technique. Online apps like Pomofocus or even just your phone timer can be great (less tick-y) substitutes.
How to time block your calendar
1. Create a masterlist
You likely have a to-do list going, or a project management platform that outlines all of the tasks you need to get done. A master list is a consolidated record of all the to-dos on your plate.
You can separate these into personal and work lists for organization and privacy, but put down anything that will require your time to be completed – big or small. It offers you an overview of your responsibilities and priorities so nothing falls through the cracks of your busy workweeks. From here you can work to find time on your calendar according to what’s most important in the short-term and long-term.
2. Learn to prioritize & deprioritize
When you’re staring down a monstrous master list, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by everything you need to get done. Workplace stress is higher than ever in recent years, and can result in employees feeling mentally exhausted or even lead to job burnout when unaddressed.
The thing is, you can’t effectively prioritize without simultaneously deprioritizing tasks. This can be difficult when everything feels important in stressful seasons. Learning to be more critical of your priorities and aware of your actual availability is key to maximizing your limited time every week. Methods like the Pareto principle or the Eisenhower Matrix can help identify which to-dos are important vs. urgent and which of these can be deprioritized, delegated, or dropped from your list.
3. Determine time estimates
While 70% of people use a to-do list to track their most important tasks – tasks usually take twice as long as we estimate they will. This can definitely contribute to why only 41% of to-do list items are ever accomplished!
There’s a big gap between knowing what you need to get done and actually finding enough time to get them done. Add time estimates to your master list items so you have an overview of - not only what you need to get done - but also how long it will take you to complete.
4. Time to time block your calendar
Once you’ve prioritized your task list, it’s time to block out your calendar. Take a look at how much availability you have around the existing meetings and responsibilities in your calendar. Then, schedule your to-dos with their realistic estimates in your calendar, prioritizing your most important work first, balancing both your short-term and long-term goals.
You can set aside time at the start of your workweek to time block your schedule, or daily if your priorities or availability often shift. A few questions you might want to ask yourself when building out your weekly plan:
- When are you most productive? Many people feel most focused in the morning, so try scheduling deep work sessions for challenging task work then.
- Which tasks can you batch together to reduce context switching during the day?
- Can you consolidate shallow work (like checking emails) a few times during the day?
- When do you want to be available to your team for collaboration and check-ins?
5. Automate your time blocking
So you’re already super busy – how are you supposed to find additional bandwidth to time block your calendar, and keep it updated as your plans or priorities change? Automating processes is a powerful way to optimize your time even further.
A smart calendar app like Reclaim.ai can elevate your time blocking game by automatically scheduling tasks, regular routines, breaks, travel time, even recurring 1:1 meetings in your busy calendar. Reclaim also features native integrations with your favorite project management platforms like Clickup, Todoist, Asana, Jira, and Linear (with Monday.com and Trello coming soon!) so you can automatically block time for your task list in Google Calendar to defend the time you need for heads down work.
Top time blocking challenges & tips
While time blocking is a phenomenal way to boost productivity, protect your availability, and manage a packed task list – there are common challenges that people run into when trying to get the most out of this time management approach. Let’s break down a few top issues and solutions as you begin time blocking.
Challenge: Busy professionals know that creating a well-intentioned plan is not as easy as it seems. Urgencies come up, meeting conflicts arise, and sick days or personal emergencies can derail your perfectly planned workweek. You have to be adaptable to changes in your schedule, and unfortunately, that could mean a lot of calendar tetris if you’re not automating your time blocking.
Tip: Manually moving events is the #1 challenge for busy professionals using time blocking – and can end up as another task in your already packed day. Taking advantage of smart calendar apps like Reclaim.ai allows you to automatically schedule your time blocks, and automatically reschedule your tasks and routines around your meetings when priorities change. You’re able to keep your schedule flexible while you still have availability, then lock in your time blocks as you get closer to your due dates so you can focus on actually getting your work done vs. trying to make time for everything!
Processing a busy calendar
Challenge: When you start time blocking, it can be overwhelming to see your ‘busy’ calendar filled with events. But ironically, a fully time blocked calendar can actually end up being more manageable than an empty one! It allows you to communicate your actual availability with your team to avoid being overrun, defend time for your task work before deadlines, and even routines and breaks. But how do you make it easier to process?
Tip: If you’re managing your schedule in Google Calendar, you’re probably staring down a packed week covered in the default light blue event blocks. Color-coding your time blocks by task topic is an easy way to visually break up your week so you can see where your time is being spent in an overview.
(P.S.: Reclaim automatically color-codes your to-dos according to event type! Set your color choices for team meetings, solo work, personal events, travel and breaks, external meetings, and one-on-ones once and let Reclaim do the heavy lifting on the organizing.)
Planning your capacity
Challenge: 70% of people use a to-do list to manage their tasks, but almost always underestimate how long each task is going to take. In fact, most tasks end up taking twice as long as we think they will. When you’re not scheduling enough time for your task work, this can quickly jeopardize your time blocking efforts as you’re going to end up reshuffling your calendar again and again – and kicking out more tasks to the following week.
Tip: Time estimates are hard to plan, especially when you’re getting started! But with practice and a little reflection, you’ll get to know what your actual capacity looks like and how long certain tasks realistically take. Regular calendar audits can be a great way to analyze your weekly productivity and give you insight around where you’re allocating your time so you can optimize it every week.
Another tip to avoid overbooking yourself is to follow the Most Important Task (MITs) strategy, where you select just 2-3 high-value tasks to focus on completing every day. This approach reduces overwhelm, allows you to fully focus on making progress, and is more productive than trying to cram your entire to-do list into 8-hours only to end up feeling stretched and stressed.
Making time for breaks
Challenge: A time blocked calendar is a beautiful sight! But when you actually start scheduling your time across team meetings, task work, and habits – a busy professional can end up working through exhausting back-to-back days.
Tip: Scheduling breaks in your day is important to remember when you’re time blocking – but of course, this can become tedious and especially difficult when your few openings throughout the day are quickly grabbed by your team. Reclaim addresses this pain point by auto-scheduling Buffer Time - custom breaks - in your busy calendar after your meetings, tasks, habits, and even travel time to get to and from your in-person events. This is a lifesaver for a healthy workday so you have a few minutes to stretch your legs, grab some coffee, or just prepare for your next meeting between a jam-packed day.
Start time blocking = maximize productivity 🧠🗓️
Whether you discovered time blocking from Elon Musk or time blocking TikTok (13.9 million views!) – this guide will help set you up for success.
By getting clear on your priorities and defending realistic time for these on your calendar every week, you can get more done, hit more goals, and have happier and more productive workdays. And by automating your time blocking with Reclaim – it is easier than ever to get started! As with all things, practice makes perfect. So experiment with what works for you and build the time blocked calendar that maximizes your productivity.
Have a time blocking question that we didn’t answer in this post? Tweet us @reclaimai to get in on the conversation!