Want to become one of the most productive people in the office? Take a page from Elon Musk, Bill Gates, and other entrepreneurs and creatives who are famous for their productivity: replace traditional to-do lists with time blocks.
Like 43 Folders, Gettings Things Done, bullet journaling, and countless other time- and task-management techniques, time blocking helps people be more productive by providing a structure they can use to organize their time and attention. Unlike those other strategies, however, time blocking doesn't stick with a high-level perspective on a day but instead requires users to carve their time into smallish (usually 15- or 30-minute) blocks. Each block lists one thing - and that's all you focus on during that time period.
For example, if you've set aside 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. to write up a report on your latest project, during that hour you don't schedule a team meeting, you don't work on your department's budget, and you definitely don't check Facebook (no matter how many times your notification alert dings!). All you do is work on that report.
Among the many benefits of time blocking is its ability to help you focus your attention by reducing your choices. Trying to multitask or getting distracted every time a new message lands in your inbox or a quick trip to fill your coffee cup in the breakroom turns into an unplanned ad hoc chat with a colleague leaves you having to restart a task frequently ("where was I before I got interrupted?"), which can hamper your work on it. When you dedicate a block of time to one task, your ability to make steady progress on it improves dramatically.
Time blocking also helps you set clear parameters for your tasks. Whether or not you've heard of Parkinson's Law ("work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion"), you've no doubt experienced its effects for yourself. Think about how often you wake up thinking that the tasks on that day's to-do list will take a certain amount of time but find when you go to bed that they filled your entire day (and even then, you didn't manage to complete them all!). When you use time blocking to schedule all your time, there are no undefined periods that can be taken over by project creep.
Don't just take my word for it - try time blocking for yourself. Here's a quick-start guide to the technique. (Note that most time blockers recommend setting up the next day's plan at the end of the current day. Most of them also suggest writing everything in a regular analog notebook, but if a digital calendar or special app works better for you, go for it!)
- Identify your priorities. These can be work-related (such as working on a particular project or running weekly team meetings) or part of your personal life (such as family dinner together every evening or weekly yoga classes). The categories can be as narrow as you need, but when you're just getting started on this method, focus on three: "deep work" (when you really don't want to be interrupted), "shallow work" (when you're reading e-mail and social media, doing meal prep, or engaged in other tasks that don't require intense mental focus), and a "bookend" or "shutdown" period to wind down one day and plan the next one.
- Create your time blocks. Assign your time (in 15- or 30-minute blocks) to the tasks on your list. Don't try to fill up every single minute. When you first start with this method, it can take you a while to get a feel for how much time you actually need for tasks when you truly focus on them, so leave yourself a little wiggle room.
- Be flexible. One of the biggest proponents of time blocking, Cal Newport (a professor of computer science at Georgetown University and the author of several books on productivity, technology, and culture), reminds time blockers to be ready to adjust or correct their schedules on the fly "if the day unfolds in an unexpected way."
Because you can't just write a quick list of tasks, the setup for time blocking is more involved than it is for most other personal productivity tools. Unless you have the discipline to spend 15 to 20 minutes each day planning the next day's time blocks, this may not be the best tool for you. Similarly, if this approach is too rigid for your temperament, then look elsewhere for organizing tools.
Time blocking is free to try, though, so you might as well give it a shot. Who knows - maybe this will be just what you need to spur your own productivity and creativity!
Mike McKerns is the editor in chief of HR Insights and is the co-founder of Mamu Media, the SMART content division of Haley Marketing.