Cal Newport, the author of Deep Work, was also a big proponent of time blocking.
"A 40-hour time-blocked work week, I estimate, produces the same amount of output as a 60+ hour work week pursued without structure", he said.
Time blocking is a way of controlling your schedule and workday that's been used and popularized by the likes of Elon Musk and Bill Gates. And on its surface, time blocking looks like a great way to juggle multiple tasks and projects, avoid distractions, and regularly build time into your days for everything from meetings to deep work to big-picture thinking.
But how do you embrace the power of time blocking, while still leaving time in each day for your team and their needs? It's easier than you think — read on to learn from time blocking experts on how to nail this sometimes tricky balancing act.
What is time blocking?
Time blocking (also called calendar blocking) is a time management technique where you schedule your entire day. The idea is to divide all of your time into dedicated and easily manageable "blocks" that each have a purpose or a goal.It's not known who "invented" time blocking — it's been used for as long as there have been calendars. In fact, there's evidence that calendars discovered from the Bronze Age were created to correspond with specific agricultural jobs, which is a very rudimentary form of time blocking!
One of the earliest (and best-known) proponents of time blocking was Benjamin Franklin, who was known to carefully schedule his days, right down to time set aside for taking naps or doing chores. Franklin was also known for blocking off hours at a time for deep work, as well as time blocking his two-hour daily lunches.
Today, time blocking is extremely popular in productivity circles. Many people who practice time blocking do so not just for work, but also for their personal time — they follow Benjamin Franklin's example and schedule everything from work meetings to workouts.
How to time block
Time blocking is pretty straightforward, and only takes a few steps.
Step 1: List all your tasks and projects
The first step is to set aside time for planning. You can do this daily (many people choose to block time at the very end of their work day for planning the following day), or, if you typically know your schedule in advance, you can do this weekly.
List all your tasks and projects for the upcoming time period in which you want to time block. Tasks and projects for work will be the obvious ones, but you may want to time block for your personal life, too, and include things like meals, chores, workouts, social gatherings, and anything else you can schedule.
Step 2: Define time blocks for each task or project
Once you have your task list, it's time to start assigning each item to a time block. Start by estimating how long each item on your list will take you to complete. When it comes to work tasks — for example, completing a report or doing project research — aim high. It's better to have extra time leftover in your blocks than to be rushing to fit everything into blocks that are too short.
Once you've estimated the length of time needed for each block, insert it into your calendar with start and end times. The idea is to build your time blocks so that when one ends, a new one begins very quickly, scheduling your entire day — even if that means adding in blocks for "free time". Even though each block may not have a specific goal, this lends structure to your entire day — it allows you to give yourself time to relax, catch up, and avoid burnout, but doesn't allow that time to get away from you.
A great example of this in practice comes from founder, investor, advisor, author, and podcaster James Beshara. James recently told us about how he consciously blocks off "maker time" in his calendar on a regular basis.
"For my calendar, one of the things I learned to do is block off 'maker time' when things can't be scheduled", he said. "This goes back to the idea of intentionally choosing what not to do. I really try to avoid having any meetings before noon or 1 PM… I try to bunch up meetings to give myself enough opportunity to get into flow. And on Wednesdays and Fridays, I don't schedule any meetings at all. It makes Tuesday night feel like I'm an 8th grader on a Friday night!"
Step 3: Follow your schedule
Now for the fun part: it's time to live your time blocking schedule. Follow it for a few days to a week to see how it works for you. It might also help to keep notes on which parts of your schedule work, and which parts don't.
Step 4: Test and revise your time blocking strategy
Over time, you'll get better at time blocking — especially estimating the amount of time you need for different tasks, one of the hardest parts. As you continue to use this time blocking method, make changes as needed to fit your work and your schedule.
How to time block without isolating yourself from your team
One of the tenets of time blocking is that every moment of each day should be accounted for. But that doesn't necessarily mean every moment needs to be assigned a specific task.
When writing about his own experiences with time blocking, Cal Newport advocated for leaving "reactivity blocks" in your days — time when you can address unexpected tasks.
"Periods of open-ended reactivity can be blocked off like any other type of obligation", he wrote. "Even if you're blocking most of your day for reactive work, for example, the fact that you're controlling your schedule will allow you to dedicate some small blocks (perhaps at the schedule periphery) to deeper pursuits".
Newport's idea is also a great way to ensure your time blocking doesn't isolate you from your team. Reactivity blocks are a great way to leave time in your calendar that's shared with your team, open for communication and collaboration.
It's also completely OK to time block specific interactions with your team. Whether it's a meeting, a brainstorming session, a working lunch, or a one-on-one, time with your team should be assigned to blocks just like any other task.
And finally, time blocking can actually help you and your team be more intentional about your time at work. Luba Yudasina, co-founder and CEO of a video startup, recently shared how she uses time blocking just for email to help set an example for her team about maintaining boundaries and developing work-life balance.
"I recommend email blocking. I only check my email during specific blocks of time I have set up. I'm also protective of my time and make it clear with my team — not only for myself — that it's important to set healthy examples", she said. "If I'm ever sending an email outside of work hours, I'll schedule it on Superhuman to be sent out in the morning, so that they never feel pressured to work late into the night or wake up extra early".
Different types of time blocking
From Luba's example, you can see that time blocking doesn't look the same for every person who uses it. In fact, if you've ever used the Pomodoro technique, you've used a simple form of time blocking!
When most people talk about time blocking, they're talking about the kind we've described in this article so far: taking a list of your tasks, projects, appointments, and obligations, and scheduling chunks of time for each. But there are a few other types of time blocking you should know…
Task batching is similar to how Luba talked about "email blocking" above — it means setting aside a particular time to handle all of one type of task. For example, if you decide to triage your email inbox and handle all emails at one time each day, that's task batching your email.
Day theming is a type of time blocking that's great for people whose jobs include several large responsibilities that can each be assigned their own days. I use this method for my own calendar, time blocking my weeks like this:
- Monday: writing
- Tuesday: meetings
- Wednesday: writing
- Thursday: content strategy and consulting
- Friday: catch up on any work that I wasn't able to complete earlier in the week
Time boxing is similar to the general sort of time blocking we've already talked about in this article, but rather than blocking your entire calendar, it involves blocking off a specific day and time to do a specific task. For example, if you have a large project that's due in two weeks, you might say, "I'm going to work on that project each day from 9 AM to noon". The rest of your work time remains unblocked, but that specific time is boxed off for working on that project.
Time blocking tips and tricks
Before you try time blocking for yourself, take a look at these tips and tricks that can help make your workdays more successful.
- Create a time blocking template if you have a lot of similar tasks each week. This will help you save time during planning sessions.
- Include non-work priorities, like your morning routine or any social gatherings you've planned.
- Don't forget to block off time for planning the next day or week's blocks.
- Use recurring events on your calendar to save even more time while planning your time blocks. This is especially useful for tasks that repeat daily, like your meal breaks, or weekly, like a standup meeting with your team.
- When moving into or out of a deep work block, add in some buffer time to allow your mind to reset and refocus.
- Include blocks for breaks and time off.
- Overflow days can be great, especially for time blocking beginners. These are days without any set blocks, allowing you plenty of time to catch up on any unexpected tasks or tasks that didn't get finished during their assigned blocks.
- Reduce your time block for email with Superhuman, which can help you and your team get through email twice as fast.
Does time blocking help you be more productive?
There are countless productivity experts (and non-experts too!) who swear by time blocking. Can it actually make you more productive? The answer is yes! Here's how…
- Time blocking forces you to prioritize your task list. When you're creating your list of tasks and projects to block into your calendar, prioritizing your most important work happens naturally. Multitasking is discouraged and single-tasking is built in as you assign both priority tasks and smaller tasks to their time blocks. And while priority tasks may be the first to get scheduled, time blocking doesn't allow smaller tasks to fall by the wayside. They receive dedicated time blocks, too.
- Time blocking dedicates time to deep work. Shallow work gets moved to its own time block, and knowing there's a dedicated time for handling all those small tasks frees your mind to really focus and find your flow state.
- Time blocking is a great time management method. It makes you hyper-aware of how you're spending your time both at work and outside of it.
- Time blocking can also help counteract perfectionism. While each time block should be dedicated to focused work toward accomplishing a task or goal, you also have limited time to finish, which means getting more done without spending too much of your time trying to make everything you do perfect.
- Finally, time blocking promotes following through on your goals. It keeps you on track by dedicating regular time to working toward goals, and it helps curb distractions and procrastination.
Time blocking apps you might want to try
To start time blocking, all you really need is a calendar, a timer, and a time tracker. But there are other apps that can help implement the process in all areas of your life. Here are some of our favorites:
- Google Calendar: A straightforward calendar app with recurring events settings built in and clean visualization of your days and weeks.
- Clockify: A time tracker that divides tracked time into different projects and tasks, creating clean visualizations.
- Any.do: A task planner that allows you to drag and drop your time blocks into place, making it easy to organize and reschedule your blocks.
- ToDoist: An all-in-one project management app with to-do lists, project boards, due dates, recurring events, and other features helpful for time blocking big projects.
- TimeBlocks: A calendar and planning app made with time blocking in mind.
- Cozi: A family organizer that allows for multiple members of a family to time block together.