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Tuesday, July 16, 2024

How to Use Block Scheduling to Revamp Your Workflow

In high school, our days were scheduled in blocks. I never went.

But the block-scheduling system, sometimes used in junior high or high school programs as an alternative format that mirrors college courses, is an effective and purposeful way to structure days while also leaving flexibility for the unexpected.

Block scheduling is a variant of the time-tested productivity system known as the Pomodoro Method—in which days are split into sprints, or 20-minute chunks of time, with five-minute breaks between tasks. Block scheduling is similar. It can organize your day into activity blocks for both broad goals (errands, chores, ideation) and specific tasks (answering emails, writing a one-off memo). But block scheduling also offers the flexibility to swap blocks, rearranging them if emergencies arise or a task takes less time than was allocated. The method is used by entrepreneurs and tech professionals like Jack Dorsey, the cofounder of Twitter and Square, although the jury’s out on which type of blocks work best and whether strict adherence to the schedule is needed to remain productive.

Why is block scheduling effective? It promotes focused work, like programming, studying, researching, or writing a business proposal, while setting less important tasks aside for later.

It’s a productivity method that requires no special mobile or web app (though there are plenty) and works fine on any handwritten or digital calendar you currently use. (If you’re not using a calendar—how?!) Downloading another app—signing up, creating a profile, tinkering with settings, receiving all those pesky newsletters and notifications—would simply be distracting busywork.

The Basics

Before you start block scheduling, be honest about the way you work so you can decide how to maximize both your productivity and health. Can you work in “day themes” that are broad in scope and require initiative and advance planning? Or do you work better with detailed directives and play-by-play planning? Are you more focused in the mornings or afternoons?

Be sure to build in personal time, even during the workday. According to the Anatomy of Work Index, 32 percent of knowledge workers in a 2020 survey cited not being able to tune out or log off as an issue. Balancing time for self-care and rest is just as important as being productive. 

Neil Pasricha, the author of The Happiness Equation, suggests setting strict guidelines for your days, including a no-email policy between 10 am and 4 pm and an hour in the morning and evening for correspondence. “You create for yourself a six-hour email-free oasis this way. Very important to stop the dreaded bookmark-prioritize-switch we’re all doing.”

There are many types of block-scheduling methods. We’ll touch on four of the most common: time blocking, task batching, day theming, and time boxing.

Stay Flex and Focused

Day theming is a less-focused approach to block scheduling, in which you dedicate a single day to, say, one project or piece of writing. This is best used with the methods listed below or if you’re juggling multiple projects or part-time jobs. Imagine each day as a self-contained workflow at the end of which a project or part-time job must be finished.

For example, you can choose to block off each Friday to spend outside the house as an inspiration day; set every Monday aside for newsletter writing, promotion, and administrative work; or dedicate every Wednesday to podcast production, editing, and interviewing.

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Getting people to respect your blocks is easy. If you need help finding time for clients, phone calls, or meetings that work with block scheduling, try Harmonizely or Calendly. I only schedule calls or meetings for Monday-Thursday afternoons, leaving Fridays as my tech-free day for reading and household errands.

Pasricha also suggests creating hands-off days, what he calls “untouchable days.” If that seems impossible, start with “untouchable hours,” then lengthen the time dedicated to yourself.

“The ‘results’ in terms of increased creativity and better focus on doing the right things (instead of just doing things right) should be very evident,” Pasricha says. “The time shift away from incessant algorithm-fed provocativeness toward works of substance and depth will slowly turn you into a better leader, spouse, parent.”

Working in Batches

Task batching is less specific and offers a time frame in which to handle specific tasks, like setting aside an hour to answer emails, as Pasricha suggests, or 30 minutes to pay your bills.

Task batching is helpful when it comes to tackling regular and inevitable time vacuums: any administrative tasks that require sending an email or making a phone call to a customer service line, booking a hotel, or paying bills.

But here’s where the flexibility of block scheduling and task batching comes in: If you’re planning an entire trip, for example, rather than batching the hotel booking in with other administrative work on a single day or afternoon, set aside an hour or two to research the best vacation spot and make reservations in a two-hour batch.

Blocking or Boxing

Time blocking and time boxing require planning a specific goal, task, or deliverable around a single slot, like choosing to write for four hours each morning or setting aside two hours to finish a draft of a presentation.

If you’re setting a time block for “reading,” it helps to note any book, articles, or periodicals you plan to read in the description or notes section of your calendar. For greater focus, break those notes into smaller time boxes.

Say you have a 90-minute block each day for “second language study” but find it daunting to get started.

You could time box, breaking the larger block into smaller boxes: 40 minutes of audio listening and reading, 20 minutes of reading, 30 minutes of workbook assignments.

Plan Ahead, but Be Flexible

Whether you want to plan your weeks in advance or day-to-day, setting aside time to look ahead will give you more flexibility and agency over your deadlines and long-term projects. I take an hour at the end of each week to plan the week ahead. If travel’s involved, I plan a bit further. I also make sure to leave large blocks for reading and overflow from tasks that were interrupted by daycare issues or unexpected edits/fact-checks.

But I don’t always have overflow, thanks in part to block scheduling.

As Parkinson’s Law goes, “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” This is good to remember when working with time blocks. Intentionally schedule your work, but don’t be too rigid. If you finish a task before its block ends, shorten the block, relocate another block, or open up more personal time later. There's no sense in carrying on with busywork.

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If a task is left incomplete, build an overflow block for the following week.

Working Together

My wife and I, both longtime independent contractors (we’re not freelancers, I like to say, as our time is not gratis), have more recently begun using a joint block-scheduling approach that allows us to share household chores and child-rearing responsibilities in a way that feels natural and doesn't intrude on our individual work needs.

It relieves stress on our marriage each time one of our children comes down with a fever and has to stay home, tossing our regular schedules into chaos. We share our calendar, and if daycare pick-up times come late or one of us is unable to schedule a block of time to run an errand, we switch our shared tasks on that day.

Apps, If You’re Inclined

Lastly, here are some great apps to use in conjunction with your newfound block-scheduling method. But the moment they lessen your productivity or interfere with the wonder of freely exchanging blocks as your work or family requires, dump them. Some are great tools, but don’t let them lessen your productivity or interfere with your health

Tomato TimerGoogle Calendar (Or ProtonMail cal for the privacy-oriented)TodoistEdo AgendaTogglFantastical 2

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