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Time Blocking Your Way to Improved Productivity
Do you believe that the ability to multitask increases productivity? If you do, you would not be alone. Many people see the skill of multitasking as a strength. So, what would you think if I told you that multitasking actually hurts productivity and that the real trick to increased productivity is time blocking?
I first introduced the concept of time blocking to my readers in How to Survive Working from Home with Kids: Summer. The response to this post was incredible, and the top theme of the comments received on the blog post and through social media was that they were intrigued by the concept of time blocking. Based on the response, I decided to take the opportunity to expand on the topic.
What is Time Blocking?
Time blocking is the concept of only focusing on one task at a time and controlling when you complete each task by scheduling out your day.
Focusing on one task at a time is the opposite of multitasking. Instead of trying to complete numerous tasks simultaneously, you are only working on one item from your to-do list at any given time. That one item is your sole focus until it is complete or until your allocated time is up and you must switch to a different action item.
This means that when you are working on a proposal, you are only working on the proposal. You are not reading or responding to emails or flipping back-and-forth with another project.
When it comes to scheduling your time, it is not a high-level plan that says you will do this on Mondays and that on Tuesdays. It is a granular schedule where you assign specific timeframes to the tasks that need to be completed.
9:00-9:30 – Read and respond to email
9:30-10:30 – Write review for employee ABC
10:30-11:30 – Complete sales pitch presentation for client XYZ
11:30-12 – Social media marketing
During the allocated time, you only work on the assigned task. With the above example, unless you complete the employee review early, you will not work on anything else between 9:30 and 10:30.
Why you should Time Block your work time
The number one reason to block your time is that it increases productivity.
Every time you start performing a task, your brain directs its focus to that task. When you stop and switch to a different task, your brain changes its focus. If you switch back to the first task, not only does your brain need to refocus, you need to remember what was completed and what should be completed next.
Time is lost, or productivity is lost, as you refocus and start a task again.
Productivity impact examples
If you are a multitasker, you probably doubt the benefit of productivity. You probably believe that you accomplish more when you multitask. However, this is probably not true. Let me walk you through two examples to help show you the advantages of time blocking.
One task at a time example
First, let’s look at how it helps you, and your clients (internal or external) to focus one task at a time.
You have three projects requiring 12 hours of work each, and you have six hours a day to dedicate to the projects.
If you multitask and work on the projects simultaneously, the completion schedule might look like the following.
All projects are complete on the sixth day.
Now, let us look at the same example but with focusing on one project at a time.
With this example, the last of the projects is still not completed until the sixth day, but the other two projects are completed days beforehand.
Completing projects earlier is essential to your productivity for two reasons. First, you are clearing items off your to-do list. Once you finish the project, you no longer worry about when you will work on the project or think about next steps. Instead, you can completely focus on your other to-do items.
Second, you no longer need to supply status updates or reply to inquiries about the project. This time, instead, can be spent working on the next project on your list.
Revenue Bonus: Let’s say these projects are continuous revenue generating projects. This means that instead of earning revenue once for the project, it makes money each day the completed item is available to your customers. With focusing on one project at a time, you are earning money off Project A while working on Project B, and making money off Projects A and B while working on Project C. With focusing on the three projects simultaneously, you have no potential to earn revenue until day six.
While our example used days, the reality is sometimes weeks or months.
Time Blocking Example
Now, let’s look at an example on how time blocking increases productivity.
You have two hours to work between other obligations. Your top priority is working on your business plan, but you also need to check your business social media accounts.
Without time blocking, you start by logging into Facebook. 45 minutes later, you realize you have been spending most of the time scrolling through your personal newsfeed and transition to start working on your business plan. After 30 minutes of writing, a Twitter notification pops up. After 35 minutes on Twitter, you go back to your business plan. You write for about 10 minutes before your time is up.
- Business plan – 40 minutes broken up over two periods of time
- Facebook – 45 minutes
- Twitter – 35 minutes
With time blocking, you set the below schedule before you start working.
- 12:30-12:45 – Facebook – check business notifications and pages only
- 12:45-1 – Twitter – check notifications and find tweets to retweet
- 1-2:30 – Write Business Plan.
You resist distractions and follow the schedule. Your work time recaps as:
- Facebook – 15 minutes
- Twitter – 15 minutes
- Business Plan – 90 minutes straight.
These examples closely mirror my work time when I do and do not practice time blocking. With time blocking, I am more productive because I limit my time spent on tasks that can lead me down a rabbit hole. When I limit my time, I know I must use my time wisely, or my business will suffer.
My productivity also increases because I give myself uninterrupted time to focus on bigger tasks. As you can see in the example, I can end up with more time for my business plan because I did not allow myself to become distracted by other duties in the middle.
How to apply the concept of Time Blocking
Do I have you intrigued? To use time blocking, follow the below steps.
Step 1: At the start of your workday, or at the end of the previous work day, spend five minutes planning. Create a list of what administrative items you have to do (those you must do daily) and what items from your to-do list you would like to complete.
Step 2: Next to each item on your list, put how much time you need to complete the task.
Step 3: Assign each item from the list a block of time that reflects the time determined in step 2. If you do not have enough time to complete all tasks, see what can be moved to the next day.
Step 4: Begin the first task. Work on that item until you have fully completed the item or when you reach the end of the allocated time.
Step 5: Move on to the next scheduled item. If you finish any task early, either move up the next block or see if there is something else on your to-do list that can fit in the remaining time.
When you start, you will realize that time blocking requires some daily work. However, like any habit, it will soon become a natural part of your day.
Granular or high-level – In some cases, you might have to get very granular about your tasks while in other situations you might be able to group related items together. For example, every day you might block time for checking and responding to email. Then, one day you get an influx of sales leads, and you need to dedicate more time for these emails. On that day, you might add a block of time that is labeled respond to sales lead emails in addition to your regular email block.
Repeating tasks – It is ok to have the same activity scheduled multiple times throughout a day. For example, most of us cannot get away with only checking and responding to email once a day. Another example is larger tasks needs to be broken down into smaller parts.
Close your email – To minimize distractions, close your email application, or at a minimum turn off notifications. Only checking your email during the allocated time will be an adjustment, but it is possible.
Know when to stop your task and when to extend your time – Time blocking is flexible when you need it to be. If you assign yourself 30 minutes for an item, but you end up needing 35, take the extra time before moving on to the next task. If you must stop an activity before finishing, do not stop working until you reach a natural break in the project.
How much time to apply – At first, you will not know how much time to allocate to each task. Be flexible and learn as you go. Start by blocking more time than you think you need. It is easier to add more tasks to your day than remove items because each block is running over.
The impact on those you work with
If you work with other people who are used to immediately getting in touch with you, you should warn them that you will be time blocking.
Be aware that at first, they might see it as a negative change. After all, you will be telling them that you will not be responding to their requests right away. Instead, you will be responding to their emails or working on their needs only during scheduled times.
It will be an adjustment for them so make sure you are open about when you are available. At first, you might want to schedule a chance to talk to needy clients, bosses or team members each day. Think of it like office hours. While a daily check-in might not be something you want to continue forever, it can help with the transition. You are showing them that you are still available while not allowing them to interrupt your productivity multiple times throughout the day.
After some time, they should see that your productivity is increasing and any initial doubts and concerns that they had should subside.
How to handle emergencies
Time blocking does not stop work emergencies from occurring. When real emergencies happen, it is ok to throw out your schedule until you resolve the issue. Once you are ready to get back to your regular tasks, take a moment to adjust your time blocking schedule for the remaining work time.
It is also beneficial to have a plan as to how those you work with can get in touch with you when there is an emergency – especially if your email notifications will be off.
Time Blocking is flexible
One of the benefits of time blocking is that you are in control. This means that the schedule you set is flexible. While you should always continue to focus on one task at a time, you can adjust what you are going to work on and the time allocated as needed.
For example, most mornings I give myself time to check my business email before starting my day. Let’s say one day I receive an email that contains a customer issue right before my allocated time ends. The customer is impacted every minute the problem continues which means my company’s reputation is affected. In this example, I would adjust my schedule so I could focus on the customer issue and reschedule the work I originally had planned next for a later portion of the day.
When Multitasking is not really multitasking
In my experience, I have seen people take the concept of one project at a time too seriously. Therefore, I wanted to clarify what is multitasking and what is not multitasking.
- Being able to manage multiple projects at once is not multitasking. Having more than one project open at the same time and jumping back-and-forth is multitasking.
- If your project requires the input, approval or resources of others, you will reach points of the project where you must stop and wait. During that wait time, it is perfectly ok to switch to another project. This is not multitasking but rather using your down time wisely to maximize productivity. The key is to take Project A as far as you can. Then, when you are waiting on others, work on Project B.
- Moreover, then there are times you simply need a break from a project. Some projects or assignments are so mentally draining that if you do not take a break, the output quality will decrease. It is ok to take these breaks and work on something else to reenergize yourself. Work on the tedious project until you reach an obvious breaking point. Then, move to your next scheduled task and come back to the project later.
Time blocking can work for anyone
The concept of time blocking works whether you are a company of one or work on a team that is part of a larger organization. While I have success with the concept while running my small business, I was first introduced to the technique when I worked for a much larger company. The team members that applied the concept went from feeling like they were always drowning in their to-do list to being ahead on their work.
I will admit, I am not perfect. There are days that I do not plan my time. On those days, I end my work time feeling unorganized, and I feel like I did not spend enough time on the important tasks. I also find my mind wondering a lot throughout the day.
For me, I accomplish more during my working hours, and I am less stressed about my to-do list when I use time blocking.
Now it is your turn. Try it for at least a week and see if you notice a change in your productivity.