Do you make huge to-do lists and then feel unhappy when you don’t even get half of your tasks done? I would like to say that I have conquered this particular situation, but I am a work in progress. However, two productivity strategies are working well for me lately to help with my lack-of-white-space problem.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about the first strategy – using Theme (or Focus) Days. Today let’s cover the second strategy I’m using with great success – time blocking.
What is Time Blocking?
I first read about time blocking in one of my favorite books, The One Thing by Gary Keller.* Of course, now that it is on my radar, I see references to time blocking everywhere! The premise of time blocking is simple: you block out segments of time on your calendar to reserve that time for a specific task or obligation.
Time blocking is most effective if you set aside the reserved times on your calendar, and then actually stick to your schedule! I am guilty of being a bit slack on some days when it comes to sticking to my schedule, no matter how beautifully blocked my day is.
Ideally, according to The One Thing, you will have identified the one, single thing that is your highest priority for the day and block out time on the calendar for that. Other tasks and commitments have to take a backseat to your most important work.
If you have pre-established appointments or obligations, you might block those out first for your day. You can work from there and block out time to accomplish tasks on your list. Don’t forget that you have to account for personal tasks (such as eating meals and taking a shower). You might also need to account for transition time for commuting to and from your job or other errands. Otherwise, you’ll happily block out all the hours of the day and then immediately blow it when you have to eat your breakfast and get ready for work.
Lightbulb moment #1 for me while practicing time blocking
Working with this strategy has really provided me with some lightbulb moments. Yes, these are all pretty obvious revelations, what can I say. First and foremost, time blocking has proven to me that there are not, actually, enough hours in the day to get all the tasks done on my to-do list.
If you start your day with a big list, you feel optimistic and might even get a few hours into the day before things start to fall apart. Once your regular obligations kick in, you end up only having a small amount of time in which to get your to-do list done.
Even if you don’t want to micromanage every hour of the day with time blocks, it can be instructive to do it for a week or two. Block out the known obligations (work time, doctor appointments, sports practice, etc.), and then block out the transition time around those errands. Block out your meal times and time to shower and get ready in the morning. And what about family time?
Now take a look at what is left. Probably not much in an average day. Yes, this can be a depressing exercise. But it is a useful one. Maybe it turns out that you have only about two hours total in the day to work on tasks. Now you know you can’t get all ten tasks done, you might only be able to get two or three completed in that amount of time. This forces you to prioritize your tasks.
Learning to prioritize is an invaluable skill in work and life. When we don’t prioritize our tasks in a given day, what happens? We fill the snatches of time we have here and there with the easy, but less important tasks, just because we can fit them in. Then the end of the day rolls around and our most important work goes undone.
Lightbulb moment #2
Working with my daily calendar in this way over the past year has made me rethink many of my regular obligations. I saw our days filled with activities for Rowan on top of our schoolwork blocks (we homeschool). That drove home the need to pare back the “go-go,” for her sake and for ours. I learned to spread out my social engagements across a month to be home in the evenings with my family as much as possible.
Time blocking has also caused me to question some regular obligations I have and how I can reduce them. Even the necessary regular obligations like doctor and dentist appointments have received an overhaul. I now elect to schedule them all in a cluster, versus scattering them throughout the year.
Scheduling this way took a bit of work. The first time I spent most of a day going from one appointment to another was a bit of a shock to my system. But it was worth it. Now, instead of feeling like a day gets interrupted by an appointment multiple times each year, I have a small number of days dedicated to these appointments. Rowan and I take books and snacks. And if there is a gap between appointments, we’ll fill it with other errands.
How Time Blocking provides more white space
Another important revelation I’ve had by practicing time blocking is that I am terrible at estimating how long projects or tasks will take. I am definitely improving in this area, and adding buffer time around blocks has helped. It is tempting when starting out with time blocking to fill every nook and cranny of a day with a block for something.
First, I made sure I was adding appropriate time between obligations for travel time. Forgetting about commuting time was a rookie mistake in time blocking that I discovered quickly. You probably have a pretty good sense of how long it takes you to drive various places. For us to leave our house for town, it takes between 15 and 30 minutes to get where we need to go. I always block out at least 30 minutes for that drive, and I’ll block out 45 to be extra careful if there might be traffic at that time of day.
My beginner time blocking efforts must have assumed I could beam myself from one place to another! Adding that bit of buffer adds white space to my day: now I seldom feel like I am rushing around and running late.
Next, I learned to block out time for meals. Eating on a regular schedule is good for me, both for a steady energy level and also a steady mood. Here again, my early efforts completely ignored the need to stop and refuel. Not that I skipped meals just to stick to my schedule, mind you, but I had a few early days of blowing up my carefully crafted day by having to squeeze in a meal break.
Our family has always been good about having a family dinnertime most nights of the week. Now I am finding that by adding in set times for breakfast and lunch, it is providing me with predictable breathing space in the day. I have room for improvement in this area, though. For these mealtimes to be useful white space to me, I have to curb the urge to multi-task while eating.
Most importantly, I found that I was routinely underestimating how long certain projects would take. If I was deeply engrossed in a project, I didn’t want to shift to my next task just because my time block was over for my current project. Now I try to block out a multi-hour chunk for things like writing and editing. I need that wiggle room.
For more mundane tasks like making calls and doing laundry, I’ll use one of two tactics. If I just have one or two quick calls to make in a day, I’ll add buffer time to my block for breakfast or lunch and jot a note to make the calls then. If it is a call that might be longer, I will instead block out the time I think it will take.
For tasks like laundry, I tend to tack that on to a larger block such as writing time. If I throw in a load before I sit down to write, it offers me a nice break later on to get up, stretch, and process the next step of the laundry. Other household tasks might require an actual time block of their own.
And guess what? If you are in control of how your day blocks out, you can actually make time blocks specifically for white space!! Just time to be, to breathe, or to do nothing. By prioritizing white space, you will prevent yourself from filling your day with clutter.
Is Time Blocking right for you?
Are you a person that likes to greet the day and all its possibilities in the morning and then just go with the flow? Then time blocking is probably not for you. My husband is a bit like this. Sure, he might have a loose idea of a few things he wants to do each day. But he prefers to just roll with the punches and leave room for spontaneity.
Time blocking can feel overly regimented to some people. It might feel like it takes all the fun out of life by carefully orchestrating how you will spend each moment. I actually agree with that sentiment to some degree, and yet I practice time blocking most days. For me, knowing I will get my most important work done allows me the freedom to be spontaneous at other times.
Now that I have the hang of it, I don’t actually block out every hour of the day. Mostly I am looking for ways to make sure I will fit in my priority work for the day, and I am making sure that the niggling little less-important tasks don’t rule the day.
Are you a person that likes to get many things accomplished in a day? Do you feel bummed when the end of the day arrives, and you didn’t accomplish your most important work? Then try time blocking for a few weeks. It is worth it to get a very good sense of how you are wasting time in your day. It also helps you become more realistic about that unending to-do list.
So, there you have it, the second of the two productivity strategies that are working well for me right now. If you are interested in the other strategy I use, check out my essay linked below about using Theme Days.
How do you keep yourself consistently productive? Which strategies have worked for you, and which have not? Share below! Or if you want to start a discussion with some like-minded friends, join the free SimpleMoney Community on Facebook to share your thoughts!
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