Is time-blocking the secret trick to stay focused and get more done?

Whether you’re a super-planner who loves to organise and schedule, someone who struggles to focus, or one of those techy types who’s all about self-optimisation, most of us are keen to pick up tricks to make the most of our time and energy in 2022.

Our series, Better Living, is all about that goal. We’re here to help you live your best life, whether by guiding you through some unexpected uses for lemons or breaking down how to make better (and faster) decisions.

So when we saw people on TikTok chatting about time-blocking, a technique claimed to do everything from boosting your focus to reducing your stress, we knew this was a prime Better Living topic to explore.

Let’s get into it, then. Here’s everything you need to know about time-blocking, from what it actually is to whether it works (and how to give it a go).

What is time-blocking?

‘Time blocking is essentially a time management tool where you break the day up into small chunks,’ life coach Heidi Hauer tells Metro.co.uk.

‘While the concept has gained a lot of attention lately thanks to videos on TikTok, calendars are thought to date back to the Bronze Age, and it’s likely time blocking has been around for almost as long.’

The key of time blocking is in the name – rather than writing out a lengthy to-do list, you block out dedicated chunks of time to focus on certain tasks.

So for example, you might block 10am to 10.30am to checking your emails – and that would be the only thing you do during that time.

Ideally, you’d work out how you’re going to block out all the segments of your day, either the night before or first thing in the morning.

What are the benefits of time-blocking?

Productivity expert Karen Eyre-White says time-blocking can be ‘life-changing’, especially for anyone who often feels overwhelmed.

She notes that the benefits of the technique include…

  • Increased focus
  • Reduced stress and overwhelm
  • Improved decision-making
  • Increased productivity
  • Implementation of better habits
  • Reduced distraction
  • A better understanding of your time

‘You’re forced to identify everything you need to do, estimate how long each item will take and compare that to how much time you have,’ Karen explains. ‘A common challenge is that as you do this, you realise you have more to do than you have time to do, so part of the process is also adjusting your expectations about how much you can achieve in a certain amount of time.

‘The process of time-blocking forces you to confront this reality and make decisions about priorities, which is one of the reasons why it is so powerful.

‘Once you’ve done your time-blocking, and allocated everything a slot, you can feel confident that you’ll get everything done if you keep to the time blocks you’ve allocated.

‘This can be a big relief if you’re juggling a number of projects. The alternative is to have a to-do list which you consult when you have time free to do something, which gives you less certainty that you’ll fit everything in.

‘You can also build in time blocks for non-work activities, which can help to lock in good habits.

‘Want to exercise three per week? Identify how long you need for each and allocate it the time in your diary. Aiming to meditate each morning? Choose a time and block it out.’

Heidi agrees. ‘If you struggle to focus and find it difficult knowing where to start with long to do lists, time-blocking can pose a huge benefit,’ she tells us.

‘It can also help in periods where you might feel overwhelmed.

‘Time-blocking means you focus specifically on one task for the entire time period, rather than switching between different things, or even attempting to multi-task, which studies have shown is the least efficient way of getting things done.’

gif of clock rushing

How do you start time-blocking?

That all sounds great. So how do we do it?

Easy. Either the night before each day or right at the start, work out all the things you need and want to do that day, then allocate an appropriate block of time for each thing.

It’s helpful to write down your time-blocking schedule, or get smart with your tech and set up Slack notifications, calendar alerts, and ‘away from keyboard’ status updates depending on your blocks.

Karen is a fan of planning out a period of a week, rather than just a day, as ‘this way it is more than just scheduling your day – it’s about stepping back, deciding on your priorities, and working out how to use the time you have to achieve them’. She has a free guide to doing exactly this, if the weekly planning idea appeals to you.

But you might like the idea of getting granular with your day – that’s fine too. Or perhaps you want to engage in time-blocking when you’re working, then drop the technique when you’re out of office. Or maybe you only want to time-block your leisure time, so you can tick off some personal goals.

The good news is that the tool is pretty flexible, so you can do with it whatever you wish. As long as you’re sticking to the basic principle of allocating sections of time to one single task, you’re solid.

Tips for making time-blocking work for you

We asked our experts for their need-to-know tips and tricks to making time-blocking work, as well as some common mistakes people fall into.

Be proactive

Don’t wait for other people to fill up your blocks of time. Get ahead of the day and determine what you want and need to do.

Start small

Heidi recommends: ‘Start small by incorporating time-blocking for certain days of the week, or for certain times of the day such as the morning.

‘A morning routine can be really helpful in setting new habits. If you have time, break it up into small chunks for exercise, stretching, a morning meditation, whatever that might be.

‘Then you can gradually build it up and incorporate organisation into all elements of your life.’

Don’t ditch your to-do list entirely

Karen tells us: ‘You still need somewhere to keep track of tasks which you haven’t scheduled in, perhaps because they’re to be done in a future week.

‘I think time-blocking complements a to-do list as a way of deciding when to do the tasks, it doesn’t replace it.’

Write it down

Writing it down makes your schedule feel far more official. Don’t worry if you’re not a pen and paper type – it’s fine to type it out or use an app, too – just make sure you have a visual reference to your schedule.

Don’t force it

You might find that time-blocking leaves you more stressed, or you get annoyed by the faff of mapping out your day. If that’s the case, don’t force your brain into a neat little box.

‘The idea with time-blocking is that you’re more productive in the period you set aside for certain tasks because you have a greater focus,’ says Heidi. ‘If you find it doesn’t work for you that’s fine, move on and remember there’s no one-size-fits-all approach.’

Don’t overdo it

‘If there are others who regularly look at your diary to find a slot to speak to you, be careful of excessive time blocking,’ says Karen. ‘If you block out every single minute of the day, in can make you look unavailable and inaccessible. I’ve seen particular challenges with this with people who manage a team.

‘To counter this, I suggest building in regular slot of free time or “office hours”, which you communicate to your team as time when you’re available for drop-in chats.’

Give yourself enough time

Try not to be too ambitious with what you can actually get done in a block of time.

Heidi suggests: ‘Allow yourself enough time to complete tasks. You don’t want to over-commit yourself and find you don’t have enough time to do everything.’

Yes, it might be nice if you could whip through a task in ten minutes flat – but is that a reasonable expectation? Should you give yourself half an hour instead?

Keep track of how long tasks actually take to complete

‘The most common mistake is massively underestimating how long things will take you to complete,’ says Karen ‘We call this “optimism bias” and it’s a natural human trait.

‘But you’re creating a huge headache for yourself if you schedule a week (or even a day) full of tasks that you aren’t going to complete in the time available. You’ll feel behind from the start and stressed all week.

‘It’s better to start off with overestimating how long things will take, get in to the swing of time-blocking, and then reduce your estimates if you need to.

‘Over time, you can improve your time estimating by keeping a record of how long you expected something to take and how long it did take, and noticing how accurate you are.’

Schedule breaks

‘It’s important to remember to schedule breaks and restful activities,’ notes Heidi. ‘You don’t have to commit to being constantly busy. Sometimes it’s necessary to commit time to doing absolutely nothing.’

Heidi seconds this: ‘On the topic of breaks, another mistake is forgetting to build them in. We aren’t robots and we need time away from our work to rest.

‘It might just be a five-minute screen break or a 10-15 minute walk outside, but don’t forget to block them in to your schedule.’

Stay flexible

You can plan, plan, plan and you’ll still find your day throws up something unexpected.

Don’t be so rigid that the slightest stray from the path causes a meltdown. Remember your schedule can change, you can move things around throughout the day if needs be, and things can stay fluid. Breathe.

Give yourself some space

Karen explains: ‘For some people, time-blocking can feel oppressive. If you schedule your entire week, there isn’t much room for spontaneity. For some, the confidence that everything will get done over-rides this, but for others it doesn’t.

‘If you’re one of those people, try building in blocks of unscheduled time for you to work on whatever takes your fancy.’

Remember: you don’t need to block every second of your day

‘Scheduling every single minute of the day is a common mistake,’ says Karen. ‘This can be tempting as an extreme form of time-blocking, but it’s a recipe for disaster.

‘We can’t be productive every single minute of the day. We need to make cups of tea, go to the toilet, and stare out of the window every now and then.

‘So don’t schedule everything too tightly. I also recommend leaving some chunks of time unscheduled, so you can run over with a task that you’re in the flow of, or for unexpected things which drop in to our to-do list.’

What are some good time-blocking apps?

If you’re happy with pen and paper or the humble Notes app, go wild. But if you prefer the guidance of an app, here are some good ones to try…

  • Timebloc
  • ClickUp
  • Trello (it’s not designed just for time-blocking, but you can easily use it to make a schedule)
  • Clockify (to start tracking how long it takes you to do certain tasks)
  • Edo Agenda
  • Plan
  • HourStack
  • Planyway
  • TickTick
  • Things

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