What is time blocking? You ask, we answer.
This is the first in a series of blogs ‘you ask, we answer’ that I am writing to introduce some the principles of focused and deeper work practices, to help you move from distracted and shallow work towards more meaningful and deep work. So if you have any questions related to deep work, productivity, doing work that matters, effective work practices and meaningful work, then please leave a comment.
I aim to answer your questions about deep work practices and how you can apply them to your daily routines and work, to become more productive, to produce work that matters and to have a happier, healthier and more meaningful life.
Our mental and physical well-being is massively affected by the very disrupted world that we live in and many find work, and life in general, overwhelming. The endless barrage of noise and flow of information is often too much to keep up with and there is a fear of being left behind, not being able to cope with the demands placed on us. There is what seems like a tsunami of tasks and things to do on a day to day basis in order to feel in control and worthy.
The mind creates the emotions in our body, the chemicals that flow in us come from these emotions. A lot of shallow work creates these chemicals in us as they are time-bound tasks that create stress. Our well being is affected by this in a negative way and therefore our work suffers too. Better work comes from a calm, peaceful and focused state. That means being free from distraction and focused on one thing and one thing only at a time.
One of the core elements to help us focus is planning our day and the time that we have each day to produce something that is truly important and that will help us in achieving our goals in life.
So what is time blocking? And, how can it help?
My days used to go a little like this before I used the method of time blocking:
Make a list of all the things that needed doing, prioritise important things to do first and then start, well start at random times, with no real thought to how long the thing I was going to do would take, and then because I had no structure or deadline, with another pending activity/deadline in the day, then I would find I easily drifted off, usually to the internet/Facebook/WhatsApp…and so on.
Then when I had finished a task or activity because nothing was scheduled time-wise to do next, then I would allow myself to be further distracted, go and talk to someone, drift again as I was almost rewarding myself with non-work-related things for completing a task/activity.
On more focused days, I would find that I would, again through a lack of a planned schedule, running along without breaks and therefore the work quality would slip. Also, because a lack of planning, I would end up doing less important things over more important, which often led to emergencies/crises that needed urgent attention. This would initially lead me to believe that the day had been productive, but in fact, it had been filled with fairly shallow, non-essential and repetitive work that left a feeling of unfulfillment and then the burden of realising I still hadn’t started on the really meaningful stuff.
I had been the world champion procrastinator, if only it had been an Olympic sport, I would have won every gold medal for the last 50 years, although, I’d have never got around to collecting the medals. I have tried almost every productivity method, app, read all the books, watched all the talks and still I’d find the magpie DNA in me would lead me to be distracted by any shiny new thing.
After reading Cal Newport’s fantastic and life-changing book ‘Deep Work’ and combined with many other things I have developed through a lot of pain and tried, I decided to embrace wholeheartedly the practice of time blocking.
So Philip, ‘what is ‘time blocking’ and how do you do it?’ I hear you say.
The easiest way to explain it is to fill every minute of our working day so that there are no gaps. So that does not mean at 9.00 open laptop, 9.01 switch it on and so on. What it means is dividing your working day up into hourly blocks of time that you will fill. Gaps = distraction.
That could be filling it with anything, including breaks, lunch, meetings, time to surf the internet, picking the kids up from school and so on. The most important thing is to not leave gaps, that is when we tend to drift off into the vortex of distraction and instant-gratification, like social media. This only reinforces the bad habit of shallow work rather than more important focused and deeper work, the stuff that will make a difference. We train the brain for distraction if every time there is a gap we go to the internet or our phones.
Scheduling time for things means that they are separated and that stops us from jumping from one thing to another. Sorry to tell this, but, multitasking is a myth, it doesn’t work. We can do one thing brilliantly, two tasks OK, three…oh dear and so on. We do our best work when focused on that one thing and give it all our energy and concentration. If we skip from one thing to another, there is what is known as ‘attention residue’, this means a little of the previous task or interruption is still in our mind and does not allow us full attention of the activity that we are doing now.
This is why it is important to leave windows closed on your desktop other than the one you are using, switch-off all notifications and ideally put your mobile phone away from you.
Time blocking is simple. Divide your working day up into hourly slots on a piece of paper, or if you really have to on an online app/calendar. But always better on paper, as you are away from the digital distractions. There is more of commitment from us if we write it on paper, it’s just how our brains work.
Your day may start at 8 am or 9 am or whenever works for you. Then start by numbering down the left the hours 9, 10, 11…until the end of the day which may be 5 pm or 6 pm or again whenever works for you. The more deep work you are able to master, amazingly the less you do and the more you achieve so the day becomes shorter.
Then review the important things that need to be done and allocate a slot of time to do the most important thing first. Be realistic about how long it will really take you, allow enough time to work in depth and to produce your best work. Ensure that this is a time that is going to be non-negotiable and that you will keep to. Often, as our concentration ‘battery’ is at its’ best at the start of the day, that’s a fact that we have a finite amount of concentration in any day, then beginning with a block of deep work first thing works well.
Then on your time block schedule, place all things like meetings, travel to and from them, lunch, breaks, time to be on the internet, leave time may be after lunch when energy levels have dropped a little to do shallow tasks that need taking care of. You can set up a template in advance for the week and then modify and filling in the specifics of each block at the start of each day.
The most important thing is not to leave any gaps, as I said if you need a break schedule it in. Of course, no one’s day is ever free from situations arising, so you can shift blocks to allow for urgent things. But here is another thing, over the course of a lifetime very, very few things that come up are a matter of life or death, so they can usually wait a few hours or even until the next day very often. It is up to us to set the expectations if we want to achieve our best work.
Deep work takes practice, like most things, it is best to build up gradually over time. So to begin with perhaps schedule just one in the morning and one in the afternoon a day where you will be focused, distraction-free, and working on just one important thing.
Over time you can increase this to two hours morning and afternoon, three hours and so on.
Like all things, if you do this every day as a ritual, setting your time blocks for day and you do it for long enough, then it becomes a habit and over time you will slowly but surely notice you are getting more done and more importantly, the things that matter are getting done and the quality of your work is improving.
Below is an example template of a ‘time blocked’ day.
I hope that this was useful in explaining one of the core principals of applying deep work and if you have any questions, then please leave a comment below and over the coming weeks, I will be posting more tools and practices that you can use to apply deep work practices and do the work that really matters.