Episode 93: Using Time Blocking to Add White Space to Your Life

This is the second in a series of productivity tips. Time blocking has been revolutionary to Dawn’s ability to get her most important priorities accomplished.


Show transcript:

Welcome to the SimpleMoney Podcast where we make personal finance less intimidating. I’m Dawn Starks, a financial planner and lover of the simple life. I’m here to talk about money and simplicity. Let’s dive in. This is Episode 93: Use Time Blocking to Add White Space to Your Life. Do you make big to-do lists and then feel bad or unhappy at the end of the day when you hardly get any of those things crossed off your list?

So that certainly describes me. And I’m sure it probably describes some of you. And I want to say that I’ve conquered that, but I haven’t. I’m a work in progress about a lot of things, and this is one of them. But lately I’ve been working on two productivity strategies that have given me a little bit of extra space.

I refer to it as white space, just a little bit of buffer. And it’s also helped me kind of get a little bit more of a grip on my to-do list. And mostly it’s because of awareness, and how much these strategies have brought awareness to how little time we have in the day. And so I’ve been famous for these huge lists that I will put together. And I might have 20 things on it,

and I get up in the morning and I think, “Oh! I’m going to tackle all these things today!” And then of course, you know, the first two or three things take, I don’t know, way more time than I was expecting. And so then before you know it, the day’s half over,

you only have two things done off the list. Now you’re way off your pace. You’re never going to get all 20 things done. So maybe you can relate. So a few weeks ago on the podcast, I did the segment that I had written about back in the spring, about using theme days. So that is the one thing that I’ve been experimenting with lately

to help with my productivity, and kind of trying to develop more white space in my life. And so the second strategy is time blocking, and that’s what I’m going to talk about today. And so the time blocking has really made a difference for me. And as I said just a few seconds ago, it has brought me an enormous amount of awareness about what exactly is possible in a given day.

So first of all, what is time blocking? So I first read about time blocking in one of my very favorite books. And it’s called The One Thing by Gary Keller. If you have not read this book, you should read this book. I’m not any kind of an affiliate. I just am a fan girl of The One Thing. I love the podcast too,

so it’s great, it’s full of excellent information. So time blocking, what is it? Now of course that I’ve read the book, which now I’ve read the book maybe two years ago, but now I see references to time blocking all the time. So it’s not just, you know, it’s not just a Gary Keller thing,

other people have talked about it, but now I’m seeing it everywhere. And the premise is simple. And it’s this: all you do is you block out segments of time on your calendar, to reserve the time for a specific task, or whatever obligation you might have. So ideally, you know, according to the book The One Thing, what you’re doing is

you’ve identified the one most important thing, the single thing that’s your highest priority thing for the day, or for your week, or for your life at that moment, and you’re going to time block for that specific thing in order to make sure it gets done above all else. Because how many times have you had that one thing that was super, super,

super important on your to-do list, along with 20 other things that were not very important, or maybe sort of important, but just not as important. And you get bogged down in doing all the little things, the things you thought were easy that you would just knock out and then before you know it, the day is gone and you didn’t do that

one thing that was your priority thing. So according to the book, The One Thing, you’re trying to narrow down what that one thing is, and block out the time on your calendar to get it done, preferably early in the day, so that you get it knocked out. Then the rest of your day can be filled with the other things that were less important items on your list.

So time blocking is the most effective when you have reserved times on your calendar. So when you actually use your calendar, not just a to-do list. So, then of course you have to stick to the schedule. So that’s the main thing. So I’m guilty sometimes, I’ll be slack some days about sticking to the schedule, even if I’ve blocked it out beautifully,

even if I’ve blocked out the entire day, the night before, and I’ve said, “Oh, here’s how tomorrow is going to go. And it is just going to flow great, and I’m just going to get all these things done in these time blocks that I’ve allotted.” I’m not always very good at it. In fact, I would say it almost never happens that I have a day that ends up happening in exactly the way I’ve outlined it on my calendar.

Nevertheless, I still think time blocking is useful and I still do it even though I’ve never managed to get through a whole day exactly perfectly. And here’s why: because having the time blocked out helps me realize, “Oh, okay, well, you know what, today I have three appointments,” or maybe I have to go to the doctor, or maybe I have to do something with my daughter Rowan.

And so when I put those obligations in, the things that are already time-constrained – so they have a specific time that they have to occur – and then I see what’s left in the day. And if I take a look and make sure that I’m blocking out time for the travel time to get to those places, then there’s not a whole lot left.

You know, if you think about that you do need to have time to eat your breakfast, and eat your lunch, and you need to have time to be able to get to those places, as I said, kind of the commuting or travel time, then you start to look at what’s left and you realize, “Wow, there’s just not that much real estate left on this day

on the calendar.” So then it helps you think, “Okay, wow, looks like I only have two hours free, total, today,” or the next day, if I’m planning ahead. “So, how am I going to maximize that? What is my one thing, that I have to get done that day?”

And so make sure I’ve got that blocked in. And if that thing is going to take me two hours, then that’s it. I don’t have time for anything else. So then I recognize how nonsensical it is to actually put other things on my to-do list, like other little tiny tasks that I figure I’m going to fill in the chinks, right, of the day.

I’m going to fill it in when I have these little moments here and there. That was the way I used to operate, is that I would see all the appointments that I would have during the day and I would figure, “Oh, I can fit in these other 10 tasks throughout the day, and just put them into the little chinks of time when I have them.”

And that never happens. It never pans out. Because appointments run long and, you know, or it took me longer to get somewhere than I thought it did. So I didn’t have an extra 15 minutes in one spot of the calendar that I thought I would and so on. So just having the awareness of how much time I actually have to work with in a day has made a huge,

I mean, just a huge, huge, huge difference in how I approach scheduling my days out now. And so there are days that I have more flexibility, obviously, I have fewer preordained obligations. And so I have more time that I can block out and figure out what to do. So I would say that time blocking – even though, as I said before,

I’m not perfect at it, I am not super awesome about sticking immediately to the times that I’ve blocked out – at least I know, “Hey, today’s not a work day for me. And so I’ve got two hours blocked out to write and I have three hours blocked out to work on schoolwork with Rowan. And then I have, you know,

this hour blocked out for lunch. And then I have the time blocked out to be on the treadmill.” And so when all is said and done, that I realize, “Okay, I have an hour left before it’s dinner time and kind of family time in the evening. So I only have one hour in which I can do any of the other things I might’ve had in mind to do.”

So instead of ordinarily, like I would have my big to-do list and I would say, “Oh, look at all these things I could try to get done today.” No, I know now that if I’m going to get that writing done, if I’m going to get the treadmill done, if I’m going to get the schoolwork done, and I’m going to actually have time to eat lunch,

then I only have a spare hour in order to do other things. So what could I do in that hour, then I can consult my to-do list and see, “All right, what are the things that really are super important and would be ideal to get done in that particular hour?” So that’s how this has been helpful to me. And I would say that this has kind of been like a lightbulb for me,

you know, it’s just been so enlightening to see, “Okay. I just, there’s just, you know, the saying, right? ‘There’s just not enough hours in the day.'” And there just aren’t enough hours in the day to do all the things that you want to do. And so instead of feeling bummed out at the end of the day that,

“Wow, look, I had these, I only had ten things on my to-do list today, and I only managed to get three of them done! What a loser!” So that’s the way I would sort of approach things in the past. But now instead, since I’m micromanaging it out and blocking it in, really thinking through,

“Okay, realistically, how long is it going to take us to do this schoolwork project? Or how long is it going to take me to do this writing project? Or how much time can I allot towards this particular project or that particular project? And then what’s left?”

And so the “what’s left” is the time that I have to fit in things like maybe reading a book for a little bit of time, or having a little bit of leisure time or downtime,

or maybe there’s laundry that needs to be done, or maybe I have other small tasks or phone calls to make, or whatever it is. So it really is bringing that realism into my life about what is possible in a given day. And it also has helping me prioritize. So prioritizing is not been something that I’m terrible at,

you know, I’ve been fairly successful in my life, and I think in large part it’s because I understand how to prioritize. But when it comes to my to-do list, my to-do list is never terribly prioritized. It’s just a big old list. It’s a big old list of stuff that needs to get done. And, you know, a lot of those things are the things that reoccur from week to week.

You know, laundry doesn’t get done once and then never has to be done again, laundry has to be done every week. And so on, you know the drill. So figuring out how to fit the things that are truly priorities, that’s the wisdom, I guess,

that I’m gaining from this. So then my second lightbulb moment from working with time blocking has been this: because I’m every day examining closely what I have on my calendar and what obligations I have, it’s caused me really to rethink a lot of those regular obligations. So I saw that our days were being filled up with activities for Rowan on top of the schoolwork blocks that we had,

because you may or may not remember that we homeschool, and so it was kind of like this go, go, go existence. And we were just always running around and it was, you know, a lot of it for her sake, but also, you know, errands we needed to make to, and social engagements and so on.

So it’s really caused me to start recognizing “Wow, you know, my days are really full of things.” And so I’ve started really carving back, or cutting back, on those things and carving out more time to be able to have time for the things that are truly priorities. Because if you’re not careful, if you don’t manage your time and your calendar –

and I forgot who, somebody said this in a book or something that I have seen lately – if you don’t manage your calendar, somebody else will. Because they’ll ask you to do something, you’ll say, “Oh yeah, I can do that.” And then you put it on your calendar. And then before long you have all these obligations that are important and priorities for other people on your calendar and you’ve neglected to put in your priorities.

So getting my schedule reworked in this way has been a bit of work. I mean, it’s been a bit of soul-searching and thinking through and recognizing that, you know, I just don’t have the time to give all this time to all these other people and organizations and obligations, and also be able to get my own priorities done and satisfy the needs of my family and

my home life. So now, instead of scheduling multiple social things in a week, maybe I might try to just do one in a week. And then so, you know, now I know that I have four possible social times in the month to work with, sometimes two will happen in a week. It just works out that way,

but then I’ll make sure that the following week there are none, and so on. So just things like that, where I’ve tried to narrow down what are the priorities and what can I cut back on? So it’s, again, it’s that awareness. And so now how has time blocking provided white space? Well, if it’s not obvious already,

then I’ll just spell it out for you, that by practicing with the time blocks, even if I’m not following them to the letter – and I keep repeating that because I don’t want, if you try it, I don’t want you to feel like, “Oh, I’m such a failure. I didn’t get anything, I didn’t follow it exactly today. So time blocking doesn’t work for me.”

Then you’re missing the big point. And the big point is just by blocking out the time on your calendar and thinking through what’s going to go in those blocks on your calendar, helps you develop your priorities and make sure that you’re making time for your priorities, even if you don’t follow the times exactly. So the white space has come in because I recognize now how important it is to factor in,

“Oh, it actually does take time to drive from here to there.” And sometimes you don’t think about those things. You just put those appointments on your calendar and then before you know it, you’re driving around like a maniac because you’re trying to get from one place to another in too small of a time. So now I’ve learned to put a little bit more space in between things so that if I get to somewhere that I’m going after another errand, and I’m a little early – now I have

a few minutes to read, or whatever I need to do. So it just gives a little bit of breathing room there, a little bit of white space in there. And on my more free days when I’m not running all around town, I have time to build in a little bit of leisure. So some time to be able to read or do something that

is relaxing and doesn’t have anything to do with work. So it has given me the opportunity to better craft my days, I guess, to put that little buffer, that little bit of white space around things. So maybe this will be something that can work for you. So a couple of things that

you might want to watch out for, because when I was a beginner at time blocking, I made some mistakes. And so one of them I already mentioned, and that was kind of assuming, I guess, that I could beam myself from one place to another by not putting in that travel time. But also, block out time for meals,

which sounds silly, right? Well, how are you going to forget to eat? Well, I wouldn’t forget to eat. It’s just that if I don’t put the time on there, then I forget that it actually takes time to prepare a meal and eat it. Or if I’m going to have to go out somewhere and eat it.

So just putting it on there helps you recognize what amount of time that’s going to take, for that portion of the day. And also by making sure that I’m putting in my times for my breakfast and my lunch, then that’s also some breathing time in there too, because if I block out 30 minutes or an hour for,

you know, for the lunch hour, it doesn’t take me an hour to prepare and eat a lunch. So it does give me a little bit of extra breathing space there that I can either get some house chores done or little reading or whatever. And it also helps me make sure that we’re scheduling our family time in the evenings; dinner together,

either family game night, or if we watch a movie or something, or just time to read and be together, whatever it is, it helps me think about what things I want to make sure we’re including in our day. And then the, you know, other rookie mistake that I sort of have alluded to

in this episode so far, is underestimating how long things take. So, when I would get engrossed in a project, whether or not it was, like a house project or a writing project or whatnot, I didn’t want to necessarily just shift to the next task, just because my time block was over. And so now when I know it’s something that is, like for instance, writing. So for writing, I can’t just put a 30 minute block and expect that I’m going to be able to get something done in there. So I’ll give a bigger time block to be able to give myself some buffer in there, and so that I know that I have a little bit of breathing space in there.

So just learning that I was really sorely underestimating how long things would take. I’ve gotten so much better at blocking out a more appropriate amount of time. So I encourage you, if you’re going to try time blocking, you know, pay attention to how you blocked it out and how you executed those time blocks and recognize going forward, then, “You know,

I need to have a little bit more time blocked out around this particular type of activity, because it takes longer than I thought, or I need to have a little bit of breathing space, or I just purposefully want to put in more white space or whatnot in there.” And so, you know, for things like household tasks, like doing the laundry,

which doesn’t, I don’t know about you, but I don’t sit in the – you know, we have a mudroom where the laundry is – I don’t sit in there and do laundry for hours at a time. So I certainly wouldn’t block out an hour for laundry. For me, I throw a load in and I’m onto something else. And then I go and move the load over to the dryer and then do something else.

So for that, I’ll just tack on a longer period of time, for example, on maybe a writing block or on the homeschool block. I just tack on a little bit of extra time to know that, “Hey, in the breaks, I’m going to be doing the laundry by moving it back and forth and folding it, putting it away and whatnot.”

So, that’s how I fit in those sorts of tasks. You know, everybody is going to have to figure out their own way of doing this since you control how your day blocks out, you can make space for white space. You can decide for yourself that you’re going to put in, you know, 30 minutes here, an hour there,

whatever, to put space for your own white space, whether that is time to meditate, take a nap, read, whatever. Whatever floats your boat. You can build it into your calendar and then by putting it on your calendar, you’re going to see it. And it’s going to remind you to do it, and you’re not going to get to the end of the day and go, “Darn it.

I didn’t get any time to myself. I didn’t get any time to read, or I didn’t get that nap in that I really wanted to, or I didn’t get to meditate,” or whatever. So you are prioritizing your day by prioritizing how you’re blocking your time. So is it right for you? You know, you might be thinking, well, that sounds interesting.

Or maybe you’ve tried it before and it’s failed for you. And so you just think that it’s never going to work for you. If you are the type of person that wants to just get out of bed and greet the day and just decide, you know, whatever’s going to happen during the day is going to happen, and you’re just going to go with the flow –

then time blocking is probably not for you. I don’t know anybody like that. I admire you if you’re like that. I’m not like that. My husband’s a little bit like that. He might just, he might have loose ideas of what his day is going to look like, but he just more or less goes with the flow.

I want things planned out. I need to know what’s going to happen today and what things need to get done. He’s much more spontaneous and willing to roll with the punches. So if you’re like that, maybe time blocking isn’t for you. Maybe you’re going to want to just keep doing things the way you’re doing it. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.

So time blocking can feel overly regimented. So it can feel like you’re really being nitpicky with your day. But as I said earlier, I would encourage you to try it anyway, because I’m telling you, I’ve never had a day where I’ve perfectly executed my day according to the times that I’ve blocked out.

It’s never been a perfect execution, but just the act of doing it helps me prioritize my day and recognize how much, or how little, time I actually have to work with in a given day. So it’s really educational if nothing else, even if I don’t follow them precisely at all, I mean, I might get into the day and flip-flop, you know,

two of my time blocks and realize, “Well, I don’t really feel like doing that right now. So I’m going to do this other thing first and then come back to it.” But at least I know if it’s blocked out, that’s the priority for the day and those things that I need to get done. So if you are a person that likes to get a lot of things accomplished in the day,

or if you, you know, how I led off the episode – if you get bummed at the end of the day and you haven’t gotten all the things done on your list, then try time blocking for a few weeks. Just to get a sense for where are you wasting time, where are you overestimating, or rather underestimating, how much time something takes.

And so then that, you know, gets you into that frustration groove, because you don’t get everything done by the end of the day. So give it a try. And I’d love to hear from you and see what you thought about the experiment. If it’s new to you and you’re experimenting, or if you’ve tried it before, and it didn’t work

I’d love to hear from you about that also. So you can come to the Facebook group and join that, it’s free. It’s the SimpleMoney Community on Facebook. You are also welcome to email me at dawn@simplemoneypro.com and share what your thoughts are about that. So, that wraps it up for this time. So I’ll look forward to being with you next week.

Thanks for listening. If you enjoy the SimpleMoney Podcast, be sure to subscribe on your favorite podcast player. We’d love it if you would leave us feedback and a review. And don’t forget to check out my blog simplemoneypro.com. There you’ll find dozens of posts about financial issues that matter to you, as well as thought-provoking pieces about simplifying your life. Bye for now.


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