In our endless pursuit to find the best methods and techniques to help with creativity and productivity, the Try Series is back with a practice that can assist you with maximizing every hour you have each day. After all, we all want to be that person who gets more done daily—you know, that one friend or co-worker who, even though everyone else is struggling with completing their tasks, manages their workload just fine. They even have time for hobbies and family!
This week, we give time blocking a try to see if it solves the issue of getting more done daily. Check it out and see if this is finally the method that will work for you.
A time management technique with many associations
You may have heard time blocking as a lot of different things: task batching, chunking, day theming, timeboxing… and more. But while there are variations among them, they do have one thing in common. Each of them involves scheduling specific blocks of time for specific tasks or activities.
The purpose of time blocking is to boost efficiency and concentration by dividing your day into smaller, more manageable segments and assigning specific intervals for particular activities. This then enables you to make the most of your time, organize your tasks, and avoid getting sidetracked or postponing things.
But how effective is it, really? Let’s take a look!
The Set Up
I planned out my time blocks using the Dot Grid Refill from my Field Journal. The photo above was taken as I was planning out day one. I also used my phone’s timer to alert me once a certain block was done and, since the key was to focus on just a single task, an additional part of the set up was categorizing tasks as deep work or shallow work—though I wasn't going to learn to do that until later.
Shallow work refers to tasks that are easy to do, typically administrative or logistical in nature, like checking emails, attending meetings, or responding to messages. On the other hand, deep work involves tasks that require a lot of mental effort and concentration such as writing, researching, or solving complex problems.
Aside from having a more rigid schedule to finish my newly categorized tasks, nothing much changed and I was able to work as usual—or so I thought.
My first mistake was forgetting to schedule breaks in between blocks.
Since I tried to breeze through one task after another without pause, eventually, my focus started waning and there went my productivity. It literally felt like my brain was slowly running out of fuel. The feeling was even worse with creative tasks. It was already a struggle to expound on the ideas I already had; what more when it was coming up with new ones?
Without a break, each time block felt more like one giant, never ending block. As each task came and went, I lost more of my motivation and it became increasingly difficult to get started on the next item on my to-do list. This, of course, defeated the purpose of time blocking.
Why this was happening made a lot of sense: I was dedicating two to three hours on deep work, completely focused, only to switch to another task under the same deep work category. No wonder I felt exhausted! I wasn't giving myself enough time to breathe and was drawing water from an empty well without bothering to give it time to be filled again.
To avoid burnout, I decided to dedicate at least ten to fifteen minutes in between each block to clear my mind, stand up and stretch, or grab a snack. These little breaks were definitely helpful and I felt more ready and refreshed every time I returned to get started on a brand new task.
There’s a saying that goes, less is more—but not in this case. I realized that I underestimated myself when it came to assigning how much time I needed for certain tasks. My time block for day two was a complete mess because of the adjustments I had to make since extending one block meant, naturally, that the rest of the blocks that came after had to be changed, too. In the end, I couldn’t properly refer to my time block at all since it had too many corrections.
I've learned the hard way (so you don’t have to!) that it's better to allot more time than less to allow for a buffer. This is especially true when doing deep work: we just don’t know if we’ll encounter a problem, get new ideas, or if something urgent comes up. In the event I don’t use up all the time I’ve allotted,I have the option to enjoy an extended break or accommodate a different task that I thought I couldn’t fit into my schedule. Either way, it gives me the flexibility to do more.
Field Journal Refill
By this time, I realized that how I structured my tasks was actually super important. It wasn't just about getting everything done, it was about maximizing my time and productivity. I found myself wondering: should I group things by difficulty? Or by similarity? Or maybe mix it up with some deep work and then take a break before diving into some more shallow tasks?
I first tried grouping my tasks based on how challenging they were. I knocked out all the easy stuff in the morning so I could focus on the tougher tasks later on. Unfortunately, having all of these mindless tasks didn’t really help mentally prepare me for what was ahead: long, tiring hours of intense work that involved research and lots of writing.
Maybe this kind of arrangement is ideal for other people but it was definitely not for me.
After realizing that my previous day’s task arrangement wasn't effective, I took some time to consider my options. I looked back to see what my typical day looked like and even checked my old planners. That was when I noticed a glaring pattern: I tended to work in “waves”.
I discovered that I was more productive and efficient when I started with a few rounds of shallow work, took a short break, and then focused on several hours of deep work. Afterwards, I took a longer break before repeating the cycle.
This new structure didn’t just feel more natural, it also allowed me to stay in control of my workday because of how it allowed me to stay in the "flow".
I spent much of my fifth day trying to get rid of distractions. I already had my flow, knew what kind of arrangement worked, but I simply couldn’t prevent all types of interruptions from cropping up. An urgent task or important email would come in and it would derail me. It was a little bit frustrating—but only because I allowed it to bother me.
Instead of letting random, unplanned tasks annoy me, I decided to simply let them be. After all, only in a perfect world would anyone be able to follow their schedules—whether that’s a time block or another method—to a T. It just wasn’t possible and there was no use getting worked up about it.
Here are my takeaways during my five-day time blocking experience:
It’s great for getting things done.Since I had a certain block dedicated to specific tasks, it helped keep me from getting sidetracked or postponing things especially since it can affect the rest of the blocks I have lined up.
Differentiating between shallow work and deep work helps.Though it may seem like it’s fairly simple to assign a level of importance to tasks, when you’re faced with a mountain of to-do’s, it can be a challenge to decide which of them you should prioritize first. The distinction between shallow and deep work takes care of that through categorization. It simplifies the decision process.
Manageable segments.Seeing your entire day as smaller, more manageable chunks removes the pressure of getting as much as you can done for the day. Broken down into specific blocks, it feels andlooks more doable.
Breaks are easy to forget. Forgetting to schedule breaks in between blocks can lead to burnout and decreased productivity, which can happen if we’re too focused on what we’re doing. Make sure to set a reminder or an alarm.
Figuring out how much time you need per block can be difficult at first. Like me, you may find it hard to assign a timeframe for specific tasks in the beginning. Until then, be prepared to deal with a messy time block.
Deciding on a structure will involve lots of trial and error. Another thing that can take some time to figure out is finding the best structure that allows you to be productive and efficient. Alternating between shallow work and deep work, with short breaks in between, works for me—but it might not for you.
Overall, time blocking helped boost my efficiency and concentration. By incorporating breaks, allowing extra time for deep work, and structuring tasks to suit personal preferences, it’s a time management method that can help with your productivity too.
Have you tried time blocking before? How was your experience? If not, how do you think it will help you become more efficient with your time? Share it with us in the comments—we’d love to hear from you!