Working in Blocks of Time
By: Amy M Haddad
I used to be a to-do list fanatic. Each evening I wrote the things I wanted to accomplish the following day on a pocket-sized notebook pad or Post-it note. I thought I was productive by listing everything I wanted to achieve for the day ahead. But as I got older I became busier, and my to-do list grew longer and longer. I constantly felt overwhelmed by the list and frustrated at the little progress I made. Something wasn’t working.
The solution wasn’t immediate. Over the past year, I’ve been learning a lot about productivity. I wondered why some people get so much done in a day, let alone a lifetime. Through my research I came across a common theme: working in blocks of time.
This way of working has a long history. Benjamin Franklin scheduled his days in large blocks of time. According to his autobiography, he worked from 8am to 12pm and 2pm to 5pm. Peter Drucker, a management thinker and author, advocated working in “fairly large chunks” of time, as opposed to a few minutes here and there. These individuals not only work in blocks of time, they were also wildly successful.
A few months ago I began working in blocks of time. Each evening I create schedule and allocate hours to specific tasks I want to complete for the following day. I use this scheduling method in my personal work as a freelance writer and blogger and in my day job. This is what I can tell you: it works.
Scheduling My Day in Blocks of Time
For me, working in blocks of time is a two-part process. First, on Sundays I look at my calendar and identify tasks I need to work on during the week ahead. Then, I write out each day of the week and make brief notes under each day. For example, “start new article on Wednesday.” Keep in mind this is broad weekly sketch; details come next.
Second, each day I take a few minutes to create a specific plan for the following day — hour by hour. So on Monday I create my schedule for Tuesday. I use the general outline I made on Sunday to determine what needs to be done, then I find buckets of time to devote to specific tasks. Here’s an example:
6am-8am — Write first draft of "xyz" blog post
8:15am-9am — Commute to work
And so on.
I apply this practice to my day job, too. Before I leave the office, I spend 15 minutes planning my day — hour by hour — for the following day. A typical day looks like this:
9am-10:30am — Finish writing first draft of "abc" article
10:30am-10:45am — Meeting
10:45am-12:30pm — Write outline for "xyz" article
And so on.
As you’ll notice, I specify the task I want to work on during each block of time. Instead of saying “write for two hours,” I determine the type of writing task I want focus on. Examples include researching a particular topic or writing a certain number of paragraphs.
This specificity is a crucial part of the scheduling process for me. First, it’s a way to hold myself accountable, since it’s easy to fill a block of time without accomplishing very much. For instance, I could say I’ll write for two hours, but if I’m lackadaisical about it I may not get much done. In contrast, “write first draft of essay” is more detailed and gives me a goal to strive for.
Second, it helps me see the progress I’m making. At the end of the time block, I’ve got instant feedback about what I did or did not accomplish. This is useful information when planning future blocks of time, as I may need to make a block longer or shorter to complete a task.
The Many Benefits
A common reaction to this type of scheduling is that it takes too much time. Critics also like to point out that such a schedule is too rigid. I’ve got responses to both.
First, yes, it takes time at the front end to plan my days in advance. It takes me about 30 minutes or so on Sundays to sketch out my week ahead. Then it takes about 15 minutes, sometimes less, at the end of the day to create my hour-by-hour schedule for the day ahead. However, the small time investment is well worth it. Not only do I get more done in less time, but I also leave on time from my day job, meet deadlines for freelance writing assignments, and have time for non-work activities.
My second response to working in blocks of time revolves around an unanticipated outcome: I feel far less stressed because I’m in control of my time and know where my time goes. My planning process forces me to prioritize tasks, find time to complete them, and determine exactly what I want to accomplish for each. It prevents over planning and false expectations, which is what I experienced when I made my lengthy to-do lists. In short, the structure of working in blocks of time brings freedom.
Everyone has the same number of hours to use each day. But some people are much more productive than others, as underscored by the success of Franklin and Drucker. Working in blocks of time is a simple and effective way to make significant progress in your work, stay on top of deadlines, and have time to enjoy non-work aspects of life.
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