A few years ago, I was working in an office as an executive assistants. I had many roles to fill and tasks kept piling up. Most of my days were spent trying to keep afloat of my task load, but I never seemed to get anything concrete done. I was stuck in the busyness. That’s until I started blocking my time.
I decided to draft a simple schedule on a piece of paper, making sure that the most important activities were put in there first. This way I made sure that busyness could not creep up on my priorities. And soon enough, I began to thrive and regain control over my task load. Time blocking had saved me from high waters.
What is time blocking
Time blocking is the act of assigning tasks to portions of your days. You “block” a time frame of your calendar to work on your most important projects, taking in account your energy levels and your priorities, while creating margin for what’s unexpected.
According to sleep researcher Nathaniel Kleitman, our body tends to go through cycles every 90-120 minutes. Those cycles are characterized by different levels of energy and alertness. We should aim to perform our most important tasks during peak performance time, and rest during our lowest points. Kleitman coined the term ultradian rhythms to identify those cycles. Here’s what it looks like :
In an in-depth article about ultradian rhythms, Asian Efficiency CEO Than Pham explains : “Work on your most important tasks for between 60-90 minutes. Take cues from your body. When you find your concentration and energy beginning to falter, it’s a good sign that you’re beginning to hit a low point in an ultradian rhythm.”
Chances are that you are already aware of your peak performance time. Some of us do our best work at the beginning of our days, some prefer to work late at night. Personnally, I write best at the beginning of the afternoon. Mornings are for reading, researching and other low-energy tasks and my best creative work is done in the evenings. Find your peak performance time and try to follow your body’s rhythms when choosing your time blocks.
3 modes of time blocking
I like to split my time in 3 types of blocks; focus blocks, buffer blocks and casual blocks.
A focus block is a period of 90-120 minutes on which you work on a task or series of tasks uninterrupted, with maximum concentration. Normally, you would work non-stop on your crucial task, door closed, smartphone on Do Not Disturb. To keep your focus at a maximum, you can break up your time in 30 minutes increment, with 25 minutes of work and a 5 minute break, commonly known as the Pomodoro Technique. The short breaks allows your brain to recharge and to keep its energy levels. After your 90-120 minutes, take a long break, anywhere between 10 to 30 minutes. Just be mindful of your body’s needs.
I like to use focus blocks to work on my goals, my most important tasks and projects. If you are a salesperson or an entrepreneur, use this time to work on your money-making activities. If you are an employee, use focus blocks to take care of your most important assignments.
Brian P. Moran, author of The 12 Week Year, has a different take on the focus block. He calls them Strategic blocks. In his framework, they consist of one 3 hour block dedicated to work on any strategic activities you might need to focus on. He wrote that this is the time to work on your business, not in it. I use the strategic blocks when I work on business development, or when developing products for my readers. They are very effective.
As you know, even the best plans get derailed by unexpected events. But what if you planned for the unexpected? The idea is to keep time in your schedule for anything urgent that comes up and that you need to deal with as soon as possible. Buffer blocks can include tasks like replying to emails and phone calls, meeting customer needs, helping coworkers, urgent and unplanned tasks, as well as low-value activities.
Depending of your line of work, you may need anywhere between one 30-minute buffer blocks, to four 1-hour blocks. When I was an executive assistant, I planned for three 30-minute buffer blocks; one in the morning, one right after lunch, and one right before leaving the office. Choose what works best for you, but make sure to include those in your schedule.
Casual blocks are reserved for the minutae, the not-so-important stuff that still needs to get done. These should monopolize the less amount of time in your schedule. Any priority should be dealt with a focus block, and routine tasks like emails should be put in the buffer blocks. Casual blocks should be reserved for your low-priority activities, hence the activities you maybe should not be working on.
Other types of blocks of time
In his book, The 5 AM Miracle, author Jeff Sanders describes his process of “thinking time”. He would spend a whole hour asking himself a vital question and writing down any potential solutions to his problem. As some of you know, I am working on a super secret project, and I’ve come up with the squeleton of my project while in thinking time. Back in my old job, I would use thinking time to draft the structure of lengthy reports or to brainstorm for events I was organizing.
In the 12 week year, Brian P. Moran enforces the idea that, to perform your best, you also need to rest. He wrote : “To achieve greater results, what’s often necessary is not actually working more hours, but rather taking some time away from work.” He advocates that we should take a 3-hour break from work, during the business hours, to do anything but work, and fully recharge.
I agree that most of us don’t have the luxury to take time away from work, especially when we get paid for being at work. Even I, as an entrepreneur, don’t have much time to spare at will. But if you are able to take short breaks, or to go take a walk on your lunch break, you could benefit tremendously from such downtime. I sometimes get my best creative ideas while completely unplugged from my business.
What it looks like in action
Here’s what time blocking my weeks look like in my Bullet Journal. I also like to color code my blocks to know at a glance what I’ll be working on.
- Yellow are buffer blocks,
- Blue is for Productive Happiness,
- Orange is for school,
- Light green is for errands,
- And dark green is for planning and reviewing.
In a nutshell, time blocking allows you to make sure that your most important tasks get the time and attention they deserve, while the unexpected is accounted for and won’t derail you from your goals. As Benjamin Franklin so elegantly said : “If we take care of the minutes, the years will take care of themselves.”
So, are you willing to give this technique a try? If so, I have created a time blocking template that you can access for free here. Let me know if you’ve tried it and if this technique improves your productivity!