How Time Blocking Can Save Your Sanity
Recent news about the modern workplace has been awash with CEOs pushing for higher levels of worker productivity. In response, workers can detrimentally push themselves to working longer hours or being excessively available, which in an extended context negatively affect health, personal wellbeing, and retention. But busyness is not a good proxy for productivity. And while productivity and communication software tools are plentiful, the impact is often workers reactively answering emails or chat messages throughout the day and having difficulty in finding dedicated time to get important and purposeful work done.
According to a Timewatch survey, 32% of workers are constantly looking at email with another 31% looking at email whenever they see a notification. It is fair to say that time management is a challenge for a majority of the workforce. In this article, I’ll outline how I formerly organized my time in 2019, the mindset and behavior shift I made, and how it has greatly improved my productivity, results, and sanity.
Like many working professionals in 2019, I kept an ongoing To Do list. Each week, tasks were added, completed, with some that seemingly fell behind. I had many tasks spread across various operational needs, had deadlines for important projects that sometimes weren’t met, and although I felt organized, I knew that I was not as effective as I could be. I didn’t prioritize. At times I found myself quickly switching between tasks, computer applications, and meetings which resulted in higher levels of stress. My biggest challenge was being intentional about how I used my time and absorbed information. I tended to focus on short/quick tasks and activities versus the important. While checking off items felt good, activity didn’t equate to getting bigger results on the important.
I then discovered the writings of Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown University who has studied and written extensively about knowledge worker performance and attention management. Newport’s writings about knowledge workers typically being reactive (to email, chat) versus proactive in how they used their time and absorbed information was eye-opening. This was also my introduction to the concept to time blocking.
Time blocking is a proactive approach to managing your time in which you visually schedule your day with uninterrupted blocks of time to focus on priorities. It involves leveraging your To Do list, prioritizing what work needs to get done, and then assigning a focused block of time.
Here’s a snapshot of my approach:
- Reflect: I first reflect on when I’m typically most productive with focused work like analysis or writing or meeting preparation. For me, it’s the morning hours.
- Prioritize: Each Friday, I have a 1-hour block of time on my calendar for “planning”. I utilize this time each week to review all my To Do list items, upcoming meetings, and deliverables. I then prioritize and write down the most important outcomes for the week ahead.
- Block: Once I have my priorities written, I review my calendar and block out specific “working blocks” of time each day based on how long I think the priority will take. This provides large blocks of distraction-free time where I can dive deep into uninterrupted work. I also try to reserve at least two hours of “unscheduled time” each day to answer/send emails and allow for ad hoc flexibility. I also have a dedicated morning each week where I don’t accept in-person or virtual meetings.
- Focus: when the time comes for these “working blocks”, I turn to my priority list, pick one and then focus on the work at hand. During this time, I don’t check email or chat messages.
- Reflect Again: at the end of each week, I reflect on what I did and how I’m feeling. I outline if there is anything I could do differently in the weeks ahead.
When I started this practice, implementing the consistent planning discipline each week was the hardest aspect. But after a few weeks, this discipline turned into a habit. The overall impact of time blocking has been profound to me in the last few years, including getting more done at higher quality, reducing my anxiety, increasing my confidence on ending work for the day, and optimizing my energy levels and well-being.
It’s my sincere hope that you consider how time blocking may help focus your intention on the things that deserve your attention in a distracted world. For more opportunities to improve your work life, consider our flagship training options that are heralded by thousands of organizations around the world.
Interested in other opportunities to improve your work life, take a look at our flagship training options that are heralded by thousands of organizations around the world.
About Chris Williams
Chris’ experience includes work in operations, recruiting, and complex research. He has supported senior-level executives in a variety of industries including economic development, government contracting, and strategy consulting. Chris holds a BA in Political Science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a Masters in Public Administration (MPA) from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.