Daily scheduling has been a cornerstone habit of my productive lifestyle. At the end of each day, I spend about 15 to 30 minutes planning out my tomorrow. It has been an incredibly effective way to reduce stress and anxiety. By capturing tasks on paper it takes them out of my head. For the past year my daily schedule was basically in the form of a to-do list. While I listed out, by project, various tasks I had to complete and estimates of time required to complete those tasks, I didn’t have specific schedules when to complete them. I found this method made prioritising tasks less than optimal. Recently, I decided to change up that system, and the results have been positive. The technique, called Time Block Scheduling, comes from one of my productivity heroes Cal Newport.
With Time Block Scheduling, you create on paper a block of time for every task you need to complete in a given day. Then fill in each block with the appropriate task. If your schedule changes throughout the day with an unexpected task, you can easily cross out that time block and create a new block to the side. The following three instructions provide more details to help you set up your own daily time blocks.
Note – the following instructions assume you already complete some type of to-do list or schedule at the end of each day. If you aren’t already in this habit, consider picking it up today. : )
- Setting up a daily time block sheet
Setting up a daily time block sheet is easy. While not necessary, it is helpful to use lined paper. First write whatever time you wake up at about one inch from the top left of sheet. If you normally wake up at 5 am, your number would be ‘5’. Then write the times of day by hour down the left hand of the page, leaving about two lines between each hour. Keep numbering downward until you reach the end of the page. The last number should be about an hour after you normally go to bed (it is good to add an overflow buffer).
Next, draw a line from the top to the bottom of the page, immediately next to your listed hours. Then draw a parallel line about two or three inches away from the first line. You now have a column that represents the entire day as one large block of time. Next slice up that full day’s block into smaller tasks filling up smaller blocks. The key is to allocate every task or activity you have planned for that day to a time block.
- Filling in time blocks
While filling in your time blocks is relatively straightforward, a bit of guidance may be helpful. When filling in my time blocks, I find it very helpful to refer to my Simple Weekly Grid to recall what I scheduled for my pre- and post-work hours.
I usually start filling in the morning time blocks first, blocking out what ever activities I have planned before work (usually school work). During my eight hour work day, I initially block out four empty 90-minute deep work blocks. I come back to those blocks later. Also, I usually leave 30 minute blocks empty between each 90-minute work block. I leave those blocks empty for unexpected interruptions or requests. If a task comes a long that I have not planned for, I can allocate one of those 30 minute blocks to it. If I don’t leave a 30-minute block empty, I usually use that time block for important administrative type work (like filling out a time sheet). Once I have structured my work day time blocks I go back and fill in any tasks in the remaining empty blocks.
After I go through a draft of my work day, I schedule out my night blocks. The initial night hours I usually block for either exercise, additional study time, or time with friends and family. Then I block an hour from 8 pm on for relaxed ‘fun’ time – leisure reading, Master of None on Netflix, or Super Mario Brothers.
- Adjustments to schedule
At first glance, the time block method could be criticised for creating hard and fast schedules for your day’s task and time, without leaving any room for interruptions or unforeseen tasks that may arise during the day. Never fear dear friend, there is a solution for that as well. In the event that some unexpected detour happens in your day’s schedule (which invariably will happen), simply cross out the original block and create a new block next to it. Then fill in the new empty block with whatever new task found its way into the interrupted time block. While this may seem like obsessively recording time and tracking schedules unnecessarily, I assure you that it will prove beneficial.
Adjusting your time block in this way helps for two reasons. First and foremost it helps reduce anxiety, especially in the midst of interruptions and distractions. It is easy to become anxious when we feel like we don’t have enough time for a given set of tasks or that we our losing control of our time. However, creating new time blocks for unexpected tasks restores a sense of order and control to our daily schedule. The other reason using adjusted time block methods helps our daily productivity is that it helps us organise our time more efficiently. As I mentioned in the introduction, I was looking for a way to prioritise my daily tasks better – time block scheduling was the answer.