For many years, I was a huge fan of the to-do list as the primary tool to keep on top of the myriad of things I had to take care of in my life. To-do lists were the backbone upon which I built The Simple Dollar.
In the last year or so, however, to-do lists have moved to being a secondary tool. The tool that has really taken center stage in the last year and has helped me figure out ways to take on some new challenges in my life is block scheduling.
So, let’s look at what block scheduling actually is. Block scheduling is where you use your daily planner as the primary organizing tool of your day. At the start of the day (or the night before), you simply schedule blocks of time for the major activities you want to do in a given day.
For example, my block schedule for today looks like this:
5:30 AM – 6:00 AM – Wake up routine
6:00 AM – 6:45 AM – Email, social media, and post outlining
6:45 AM – 7:30 AM – Breakfast and school prep with children
7:30 AM – 8:00 AM – Exercise
8:00 AM – 8:20 AM – Brush teeth, shower
8:20 AM – Noon – Writing
Noon – 12:30 – Lunch
12:30 PM – 2:00 PM – Research & deep reading
2:00 PM – 2:30 PM – Email, social media
2:30 PM – 3:30 PM – Other professional projects
3:30 PM – 4:15 PM – Kids home routine
4:15 PM – 5:15 PM – Household tasks & dinner prep & family dinner
5:15 PM – 7:30 PM – Evening activities
7:30 PM – 8:00 PM – Family reading
8:00 PM – 8:30 PM – Family free time
8:30 PM – 9:00 PM – Bedtime routine
9:00 PM – 10:00 PM – Free time
10:00 PM – Sleep
That might look exhausting, but in reality it’s not nearly as bad as it seems. Let’s dig into this and see why.
First of all, what each of those blocks represents is the default activity I should be working on during each of those timeframes. If I have an extremely urgent and important matter to attend to, then I ignore those blocks, but it has to be pretty urgent for me to drop the default activity.
So, for example, during my morning writing block (which means I’m turning post outlines or notes into actual post drafts and then editing them), that’s pretty much what I focus on. If there’s a huge emergency, I’ll change it, of course, but my mornings are almost always oriented on writing.
Second, when I get to the end of a time block, I simply stop with that activity, even if it’s not perfectly finished yet. I might bleed over for a minute or two just to tidy things up, but then I move on.
Let’s say I’m in the middle of writing an article and suddenly the timer goes off. I’ll pretty quickly tie up any loose ends, save my work, and go downstairs for lunch. It’s rare that I’m starting lunch any later than 12:05 or so.
Here’s the thing: unless there is an extremely urgent emergency reason to do so, I’m done with the “writing” portion of my day at that point. I don’t go back to it. Undone writing can wait until the next day.
Why do things that way? It’s because I’ve taken the time to understand how my energy and focus changes throughout the day. I simply don’t focus as well on the task of writing in the afternoon – the words don’t flow from my hands as well. If I “force” some writing into the early afternoon, the speed and the quality decline.
That time block is my time to write. When I’m done with it, I’m done, because pushing more leads to inevitable diminishing returns. I simply move on to the next part of my time block. I recognize that there will be more time to write tomorrow.
Part of the benefit of this strategy is that I approach a variety of tasks throughout the day with freshness. Over time, I’ve figured out that I tend to dig into a new task with a fresh mindset and most of my productivity comes earlier on in that session. My longest session of the day is my writing block, and even then, I can sense things starting to decline near the end of it (I’d probably break that up, but I tend to write more and more slowly throughout the day).
I switch to deep focused study for a while, and when my focus starts to flag there, I’m ready with another thing to do that I’m able to tackle with freshness, and so on.
I do still keep a to-do list, but it’s secondary. I actually keep several, and they just manage the things I want to do within each time block.
Another thing that this has really helped with: it’s incredibly valuable for establishing daily routines. If you want to establish a daily habit, this is the way to go about it. I have had more success with maintaining a daily exercise routine since starting with block scheduling than I ever have with any other approach.
This brings us to another issue: how is this different than a normal calendar? The difference is that I basically block out the entire day, not just important appointments. If at least some of those blocks are filled with fun things, it actually doesn’t seem overwhelming. Yes, I basically schedule blocks of free time or fun activities – and that’s fine. Within those blocks, I can do whatever I want knowing the the rest of my life is well taken care of.
What if a major crisis occurs? Well, if something urgent interrupts things, then I just skip those blocks and settle back into them as time allows. However, most days, I think through tomorrow’s block schedule the night before and review it in the morning, so it has to be a genuine emergency for that to happen. As I mentioned earlier, during normal times, I simply stop at the “edge” of blocks and move onto the next one. I keep doing that and jump right back in once a crisis passes.
It’s also worth noting that not every blocked day is identical to the last one. Each day has variations. Today is about as “vanilla” as it gets, as many days have appointments and other things going on.
That’s why a big part of block scheduling is the daily review. At the end of each day, I look back at the day that passed and ask myself to name three things that went well, three things that didn’t, and how I might improve those things that didn’t go well. I actually write those down (it takes just a couple of minutes to do it). I use that to tweak my block scheduling going forward, as I’ll often go through those notes once a week and see if there are any patterns that I can use to actually change things going forward.
For example, I used to try to exercise between 6 and 7. This worked pretty well during the summer because I could go outside and exercise, but it’s not really something that clicks in an Iowa winter where the weather is freezing at that time of the day, plus during the school year the children have left for the day if I do it later. So, what I essentially did is swap what I used to do from 6-6:45 and 7:30 to 8:15. It clicks so much better. That’s just a recent tweak, one that I figured out simply because I spent a minute or two each day thinking about what worked and what didn’t work.
At first, those daily reviews changed a lot of things. I found that I was radically altering how I did this almost on a daily basis, because there were things that clearly didn’t work too well. I almost gave up on it at one point, but it was through that daily review that I gradually began to find patterns that really worked.
Right now, I feel more on top of my life than I have in a long while, and that’s amazing to me because this time of the year is incredibly busy. I attribute it almost entirely to block scheduling my life.
So, how can you try it out? Here are my recommendations.
First, commit to trying this for more than just a few days. Agree with yourself that you’ll give it a month.
Second, use a planner of some kind. If you like digital tools, Google Calendar is a good place to start. If you are using a paper planner, use one that feels comfortable to you; I like goal-oriented planners, myself.
Third, at the end of the day before you’re going to start, sit down and block out everything you’re going to do tomorrow. Allot times for all of the day – work tasks, personal tasks, commuting, everything. I strongly recommend blocking it a little loose at first, with perhaps some half-hour “free time” blocks throughout the day so that you can deal with overflow. You won’t need these as much later on.
This might seem overwhelming or constricting, but if you’re filling all of your time with something meaningful to you, then all this is doing is making sure you have time for everything that’s meaningful in your life. Basically, you’re stepping out of the moment to think about your life from a bit broader perspective, so that you don’t wind up at the end of the day feeling completely burnt out and still feeling like you didn’t do the things you wanted to do.
The next morning, review those time blocks, first thing. Look through them, make any last minute adjustments, and then spend your day trying to match those time blocks. It won’t be perfect, trust me. Whenever you find yourself off the rails, make note of it and try to come back to the schedule. Notice when you’re flagging on tasks, or when you wish you had more time for them. Accept that some will probably be interrupted if you have a job that involves that kind of interruption, but try to block off some time for focused work where you kill distractions.
At the end of the day, look for things that went well, things that went poorly, ways you can make it better, and then pencil in tomorrow’s time blocks. Then, just rinse and repeat. (I really recommend writing down those reflections, by the way, so you can look back through them regularly and see patterns that might help you find a better way to block things out.)
For the first week or two, you’re going to feel like this isn’t working, that it’s too constraining, that you’re forgetting things or committed in ways you didn’t expect. Give it time. Keep track of when you feel that way throughout the day. Also, make note of when you find a particular time block to be really effective – put stars around it or something. Try to strive to duplicate that activity and time when possible going forward.
What you’re going to find is that day by day, the time blocking gets better. It takes time to get there, but you’ll reach a point where it starts to fit pretty smoothly, and then you’ll find yourself on a run of two or three or four days where you actually feel really on top of things in almost all aspects of your life. It is amazing, and it really only happens for me when I time block. When that happens, you’ll stick with it.
Remember, it takes time. It’s not going to happen in the first day or two or even the first week or two. You have to stick with it, and perhaps the most important part is to remember to reflect on it and then refine it a bit each night.
This is a process that I’m incredibly glad that I brought into my life. It has enabled me to be more productive in less time in my work and, outside of work, has enabled me to feel very on top of things in almost all aspects of life in a way I haven’t felt in a long time.
Give it a shot, and good luck.