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5 Time Blocking Tips to Boost Your Productivity

9 mins
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Denis Chernobai
Co-founder of Emery, ex-Senior Engineering Manager at Bumble
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1586870371187.jpeg
Denis Chernobai
Co-founder of Emery, ex-Senior Engineering Manager at Bumble

If you’re a procrastinator at heart, you’ve probably tried many tactics to motivate yourself. Or perhaps you’re naturally a productive person, but you’re overwhelmed by your schedule. Time management tools and techniques are everywhere. Time blocking is one of these useful strategies that can improve your focus and productivity.

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What is time blocking?

Time blocking is a time management system where you split your schedule into blocks based on the tasks you have to complete. Instead of a simple running to-do list, you set specific times where you only focus on certain tasks.

For example, you may block off 8-10 AM for emails only. This means you don’t focus on any other tasks during these hours. In theory, this should help you clear your inbox and keep you laser-focused on your task.

Common time blocking mistakes

As co-founder of Emery, I regularly conduct productivity coaching sessions with our users. I noticed that many people don’t understand how to use time blocking correctly.

People often book their entire day, including breakfast and sleep. While you may think booking everything in your calendar will improve your productivity, holding yourself hostage with a 20-item schedule is not the way. If you fall behind on one thing, you’ll have to adjust the entire plan, which adds stress to your day.

Before you know it, you’re fretting about time blocking, not your actual work. Plus, you know when you’re going to eat and sleep, so why schedule it?

While you can use time blocking for long-term activities (such as learning a new language) and meeting-packed schedules, these cases are outside the scope of this article.

Let’s take a look at some time-blocking best practices. You'll be able to maximize the value of this tool and improve your chances of productivity success.

Five tips to revolutionize your time blocking

Time blocking can enhance your productivity if you use it to accomplish certain tasks. Here are some great tips to improve your time blocking skills. I’ve also included examples of common mistakes which are easy to make when learning a new technique.

Make it specific

Case study

Let’s look at Sarah. She’s naturally a hard worker, but her tasks are overwhelming her. An article about time blocking appears on her social media feed, and she decides to try it. She books a time slot called “deep work” for four hours a day.

This new block boosts her motivation for a couple of days, and she gets a lot of work done. The magic starts to wear off, and she can’t stay focused during these four hours anymore. Her mind wanders, and doomscrolling at her desk feels appealing again.

So, why has the tool stopped working for Sarah?

The main idea of time blocking is to help you complete difficult, energy-consuming tasks. These are tasks you typically delay or make slow progress with. So, for time blocking to be successful, it must be task-focused and very specific. Giving your block a generic name like “focus time” isn’t going to cut it.

If you have time slots with generic labels, your brain will start wandering, wondering what the next task is. Ideally, you should be intensely focused on the task at hand, and that’s not going to happen if your blocks aren’t specific. Precise tasks such as “proofread the contract” or “finish the white paper” are easier to understand and complete.

When you start with time blocking, non-specific labels might work for you. But once the novelty of the exciting new tool wears off, so will your excitement. You’ll end up in the same situation as Sarah, and time blocking will stop working for you.

Top tip takeaways:

  • Give your slots specific names like “write the monthly report” and “clear emails.”
  • Don’t give your slots generic names like “deep work” and “focus time.”
  • Don’t make the slot recurring. You need to make a conscious decision to complete a task within a given period for the strategy to work.
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Focus on results, not process

Case study

Joe knows about tasks and time blocking. His schedule is full of one-task things like “work on documentation” and “prepare for a meeting with Ann.”

While it’s great he’s broken his tasks down into specifics, he hasn’t focused on the result of these tasks.

He doesn’t know when it’s time to move on to the next task, and his work is taking longer to complete. If there’s no task outcome, how will he know when he’s finished?

Concentrate on a well-defined outcome for the time slot to keep you focused and results-oriented. It needs to be something you can easily measure.

Some questions to ask yourself:

  • What do I want as a result of this task?
  • How will I know when I’ve finished the job?

If your task is process-oriented, you won’t know when you’ve completed the task. This means you’ll be more likely to switch between your assignments without completing them. Focusing on your desired result is the trick to successful time blocking.

Top tip takeaways:

  • Early finish = reward. If you complete your task early, feel free to spend the remaining time on other activities as a reward. You could take a walk or read a book.
  • Keep your tasks results-oriented, like “finalize the article” or “prepare five goals for the next quarter.”
  • Avoid process-oriented tasks like “work on the article” and “consider next quarter goals.”

Break down your tasks

Case study

Ann is great at completing small-to-medium tasks. She struggles with larger projects, especially if she can’t finish them in one go.

Recently, Ann started working on new onboarding documentation for the team. She booked several “write onboarding documentation” slots during her week.

While she’s made some progress, it’s been very slow. She’s only halfway through. Reaching level 4737 of Candy Crush became much more exciting than work.

How can Ann get back on track?

Big tasks can feel overwhelming. Scheduling two hours for an entire project that takes ten hours to complete isn’t going to help you tackle it.

It’s best to break your tasks into bitesize pieces. They’ll feel easier to handle, and it’s an ideal approach for time blocking. You can schedule the smaller tasks, and your big project will feel much more manageable.

If you need to write an article, planning to “write an article” has several problems:

  • It’s not specific.
  • It doesn’t focus on the result.
  • It’s not manageable in a short block.

Breaking your process down into steps like “prepare article’s structure and high-level plan” and “research statistics for introduction and headings” makes it more manageable. You should be able to complete a whole task during one slot. Plus, you’ll have a goal in mind, and that ties into the previous tip.

Make sure the smaller tasks have outcomes you can achieve during their time slots to keep you motivated. Otherwise, you might check out and be tempted to stop working on your project early.

Top tip takeaways:

  • Make sure your tasks are small and manageable.
  • What not to do: Create a huge slot called “improve hiring pipeline.
  • What to do: Block off time to “prepare an analysis of the current hiring challenges.”

Take regular breaks

Case study

Ben’s been using time blocking for a while, and it works well. He’s come up against a challenge, though: He’s struggling to stay focused over a long period.

Usually, he can focus for an hour, but if he books more than an hour, he starts spending his time on something else. His mind wanders, and now he’s engrossed in a basketball manga.

He’s tried drinking coffee by the gallon and disabling notifications, but he’s still less productive than usual. What gives?

You might feel like a productivity hero when you’re booking huge work slots, but you’re more likely to give up and lose concentration. Procrastination might slip back in, and that’s a whole other productivity enemy to defeat.

In many cases, booking long hours doesn’t help you stay focused. Your brain needs a change at some point, and you’ll find yourself doing something else instead of what you’ve scheduled. That could cause a whole host of emotions, and no one wants to feel guilty for not being as productive as they should be. So, what’s the answer?

Take frequent breaks and don’t book long hours. With breaks, your brain has time to refocus, and it can even improve your memory and creativity. Suddenly, the task you couldn’t see a solution for has an answer, and all it took was a short break. Yes!

Top tip takeaways:

  • Can you focus on a task for long hours? You don’t need to schedule focus time.
  • Check out the Pomodoro Technique: 25 minutes of focus with a 5-minute break.
  • What not to do: Book two hours of work with no breaks in-between.
  • What to do: Book three 30-minute slots with 10-minute breaks.

Disable your notifications

Case study

Jolina is regularly distracted by notifications. She starts working on a task, but a Slack message promptly rips away her focus. Now there’s an email from her boss who needs her help. Someone just liked a photo she posted of her cat yesterday. They’ve sent her a picture of their cat. Look how similar their toe-beans are!

As you can see, it’s a slippery slope of distractions, especially when cats are involved. So, how can Jolina cope with this?

You might think you’re a multitasking master, but only 2.5% of people can multitask effectively. Completing your tasks will be tricky if you’re constantly distracted by notifications.

Try Focus Mode on your devices, including your desktop. This setting stops notifications coming through that might distract you from your work. It’s a great tactic to keep your focus where it should be.

If you finish your task early, you can use that time to check your notifications and reply to people. Getting to jump into a group chat full of memes is your reward for your hard work.

Top tip takeaways:

  • You’re probably not the awesome multitasker you think you are, sorry.
  • Make the most of new productivity technology, like Focus Mode.

It’s time to break free from overbooked days and a rigid schedule. Try these techniques and see if they boost your productivity and level up your life.

Emery supports a time blocking in it's core:

  • Drag'n'drop tasks into your schedule
  • Easily reschedule task in the calendar
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