Time blocking (or time boxing) is an essential productivity technique that involves setting an appointment (with yourself) to do a single, high-cognitive demand task or a batch of similar, low-cognitive demand tasks in a specific time block.
It allows you to prioritize important, deadline-driven or time-sensitive matters, make progress on growth-based projects, and communicate with clients and prospects without giving them 24/7 access to you. Ultimately, time blocking leads to strategic deadlines and productive habits that help you get important tasks done well and on time.
Here are three reasons why time blocking works:
1. Develop laser-like focus
Because a time block is a pre-planned, distraction-free period for tackling your most important tasks (MITs) or one big thing, it gives you the opportunity to practice the skill of concentrating on cognitively demanding, high-value work without giving up easily.
Instead of jumping from task to task or giving in to urges to check social media or surf the web, you learn to sit with discomfort and stay committed to the task at hand.
Focus, however, requires willpower – the mental energy to resist short-term temptations to make long-term gains. And willpower is a limited resource. With time blocking, you build daily habits that move you forward and get you unstuck, without relying too much on self-control.
Time blocks allow you to hone in your efforts on a single big task that must be done, or a batch of low-value tasks that will accumulate if you ignore them too long. Decision fatigue is reduced when you know exactly what task you need to tackle, how long you should spend on it, and when to break from it.
By routinizing and batching low-level tasks, you reserve your energy, attention span and concentration for complicated tasks that require laser-like focus.
2. Produce higher-quality work
Time blocking gets you in the zone and increases flow – the mental state in which you are absorbed in and fully involved in the task at hand – by reducing distractions and minimizing interruptions.
When you invest your cognitive abilities on a complex task ( instead of scatter your attention on busy work), you make fewer mistakes, notice significant details, and produce more creative, higher-level work. Time blocking encourages you to postpone mindless activities and time wasters so you can attend to your more important and/or urgent work.
3. Speed up progress on priorities
Time blocking encourages conscious choices in which you say yes to essentials (do list) and no to non-essentials (don’t list)
Rather than overcommitting or succumbing to endless obligations, you set clear boundaries and realistic expectations with others.
If you habitually reply to emails and text messages within 5 minutes of when you get them, the sender will come to expect the same or similar response time for all correspondence. If you answer every telephone call regardless of what time they come in and what you are doing, you teach the caller that their problem always matters more than your own. If you keep an open office so anyone can walk into your office at any time, observers will conclude it’s fine to interrupt you regardless of what’s on your own agenda.
Being highly responsive makes you procrastinate on taking action on your own, highest priorities. By having time blocks for when you meet with clients and colleagues, take telephone calls, and respond to emails, you set appropriate boundaries that allow reasonable access to you without compromising your most important work.
Time blocking minimizes multitasking (time suck) and maximizes single tasking (time saver)
The ability to multitask is generally viewed as a valuable skill in our pseudo-productive world. Performing two or more tasks at one time seems to be the way to go when time is short and you have many things to do. But as Dave Crenshaw points out in the The Myth of Multitasking, the most you can do is “switch tasking” (switch back and forth between two or more tasks) and “background tasking” (do two or more mundane tasks like listen to the radio while you drive or watch TV while you exercise.)
The human brain is a sequential processor: It cannot pay attention to more than one thing at a time. Multitasking is not possible when (1) at least one of the tasks requires focus or effort to complete, and (2) the tasks involve similar types of brain processing.
Constantly shifting your attention makes you feel busy, but actually makes you less productive. When you stop what you’re doing to attend to an interruption, distraction or another completely different task, you are left with a cognitive residue that takes about 15 to 25 minutes to clear up so you can refocus on the initial task. Multitasking (or switch tasking) is very different from taking deliberate breaks for necessary rest or taking time to let ideas percolate and incubate.
Background tasking is fine when you couple a primary task with a low-concentration or mindless activity. You can take a walk with a colleague while you discuss a work issue during your lunch break. You can listen to classical music while you organize your receipts for tax filing. You can catch up on the latest episode of your favorite podcast while you do the dishes.
But when it comes to your high-concentration, most important tasks, the best way to complete them in less time and with greater ease is to single-task. Focusing on one task at a time typically leads to better results.
Time blocking reduces procrastination (time suck) and encourages deliberate action (time saver)
Classically defined, procrastination is the act of delaying or postponing action to a future time. Neil Fiore, author of The Now Habit, defines procrastination as “a mechanism for coping with the anxiety associated with starting or completing any task or decision.”
In certain situations, delaying a task purposefully and strategically can work to your benefit. Sometimes you do need to reflect on things, allow ideas to percolate, gather and synthesize information, clarify your intentions, and determine your ultimate goal before you take action. This is known as strategic procrastination.
In other cases, delaying action on an important task while you work on other tasks to build momentum. This is called structured procrastination.
Dr. John Perry, a philosopher at Stanford University and author of The Art of Procrastination, notes that despite being a habitual procrastinator, he is very productive most of the time. He notes:
The key to productivity is to make more commitments – but to be methodical about it. At the top of your to-do list put a couple of daunting, if not impossible tasks that are vaguely important sounding (but really aren’t) and seem to have deadlines (but really don’t). Then further down the list, include some doable tasks that really matter. With this appropriate task structure, the procrastinator becomes a useful citizen. Indeed, the procrastinator can even acquire, as I have, a reputation for getting a lot done.
Perry suggest that instead of working on your most important task first, you start a different task on your list that needs attention. By making other tasks just as important, you can make it easier to tackle the most significant. Structural procrastination is supposed to motivate you to do difficult, important and time-sensitive tasks, as long as they are a way of not doing something more important.
But there are side effects. Strategic procrastination works only if you start the project early and give yourself time to develop and test ideas. It should not be used to complicate simple things that can be done quickly and doesn’t require a lot of thought. Preparation, which includes building expertise on the topic and mindfully reflecting on ideas, is key.
Structural procrastination works only if you eventually get around to doing your most important task. It should not be used to permanently avoid your main priority by un(consciously) engaging in low-leverage, shallow work instead of high-value, deep work.
They are ineffective as overall productivity strategies. Relying on strategic procrastination or structural procrastination benefits you in only some situations. You are not always creative under pressure, especially when all or or most of your work occurs when the deadline looms. You are likely to end up with mediocre results, high stress, and undeveloped solutions if you start the work too late and don’t have an adequate incubation period to develop ideas and insights.
Time blocking prevents you from delaying or postponing tasks that should not be put off to a later time.
Time blocking takes advantage of Parkinson’s Law (i.e. work expands to fill the time allotted)
Simply put, you will use up all the time to complete a task when given a certain amount of time to do it.
Think about a lawyer billing by the hour with no deadlines. Compared to a lawyer who charges a fixed fee for a specific matter, a lawyer who bills by the hour will likely do more work than is necessary to fill or exceed the minimum billable quota, as long as the client is willing to pay for it and remain a client.
By setting specific time blocks to tackle and complete a task, you learn to reduce perfectionism, ignore trivial details, simplify the steps involved, and work more productively toward a desired outcome.
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In terms of improving diligence (Rule 1.3), developing competence (Rule 1.1) and communicating effectively (Rule 1.4), time blocking works on multiple levels. It takes practice to use it consistently, but once you do, you will benefit from increased focus, higher-quality work, and more deliberate progress on your most important tasks.
To learn more, read the related article, Deadlines & Daily Habits: How Time Blocking Works.
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This article provides general information only. Do not consider it as legal advice for any individual case or situation.
The author, Dyan Williams, is admitted to the Minnesota state bar and focuses on the Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct, which are subject to change. Check your individual state rules of professional conduct, regulations, ethics opinions and case precedents, instead of relying on this article for specific guidance.