Time-blocking is one of my favorite work organization techniques and is often the first exercise I do with new clients who are overworked and overwhelmed. It has proven to be a powerful tool to help people get enough control over their time to learn and become more effective. The acronym VUCA (volatile, uncertain, chaotic and ambiguous) is frequently used to describe a typical workday in our current world. If VUCA is something you can relate to, you may believe that the whole idea of having a consistent schedule is outdated.
Despite the seemingly inescapable VUCA factor, time-blocking can still be an incredibly useful and powerful tool. Start by drawing a few boxes on a blank sheet of paper and label each box with a “category” that describes one type of work you do. I recommend sticking to no more than five or six categories. The most common categories I use with clients are: focus time, meeting time, admin time, mentoring time, and handling the unexpected. The categories don’t necessarily describe the actual work, but the mindset required to do that work. For example, focus time includes work that requires you to concentrate uninterrupted. Admin time is for work that feels routine or familiar enough that being interrupted would not throw you off. You may divide your meetings into separate categories based on the mindset you are in during that meeting. I include coaching meetings in a “client work” category knowing they require a lot of mental focus. Other meetings such as board meetings, team meetings, or networking meetings don’t require as much mental work and I classify them simply as “meetings”.
The goal of time-blocking is to build a rhythm into your day and/or week that allows you to work optimally by giving you the quiet you need to concentrate, the connection you need to collaborate, the systems you need to stay caught up, and the confidence that you have things under enough control so that you are always ready and able to respond well to the unexpected.
Here are five tips that can help you use this technique, even in the most chaotic environments:
Focus Time: Think about focus time in terms of what is best for you mentally, not what is realistic given your environment. How long are you at your best when you can immerse yourself in an important thinking project with no interruptions? This varies from person to person, but in my case, I am at my best when I can focus for about five hours at a time. In fact, if you gave me eight quiet hours, I wouldn’t be able to use the extra three productively. I’ve worked with programmers who can stay immersed for 10 – 14 hours straight, and I’ve worked with highly extroverted collaborators who do best with 15-minute “spurts” of focus. Once you know what your ideal is, try to work a few chunks of focus time into your weekly schedule. Use it specifically for the most important work you have that requires concentration, NOT administrative or catch-up work. This is your point of leverage because it’s usually the only time you are truly thinking creatively, strategically, and proactively.
Mentoring Time: If you manage people, your most important job is to build an effective team, and that requires proactive mentoring. Mentoring meetings are easy to blow off, but the more work you put into understanding, supporting, guiding, and growing your team, the more confident and productive the whole unit will be. Mentoring meetings don’t have to be time intensive. Thirty-minute check-ins a couple of times per month generally work for established team members with more frequent meetings required as you onboard new hires. Mentoring meetings are different from “stand ups” or other types of meetings and I usually have them in a category that is separate from other meetings.
Meetings: Meetings will often take the most of your time because communication is vital to effective work. However, this doesn’t mean you have to open your calendar to meetings at any time of the workday. Since most people do their best focus work in the mornings and some in the late afternoons, my favorite time for meetings is between about 11am and 3pm. I have had clients advocate for “no meeting Fridays” or “rotating focus time” and get very positive responses from their teams who are struggling with optimizing their own time as well. We need to communicate with others and also get time to focus. How can we all get enough of both? This is an excellent challenge to address and work through as a team.
Handling the Unexpected: Some people are initially surprised that one of my required “blocks” of time is for handling the unexpected issues that you have no way of anticipating. However, this makes sense when you think about how you spend time at work. For most of us, at least an hour and sometimes a full 6 or 7 hours per day is spent reactively handling requests, problems, or other issues. Since at least some of your day will be devoted to handling the unexpected, it’s wise to block off time in your schedule just for this purpose. This completely changes your mindset when the interruptions come. Instead of feeling impatient and resentful at getting derailed, you are ready and available to be 100% present to whatever is needed, and as a result your response is much more effective. During the surprisingly quiet days when nothing unexpected shows up, you can use this time for catching up on email or other administrative tasks that don’t require a lot of mental energy.
Admin / Email: It’s important to separate administrative tasks, going through email, and other routine work from your focus time. I define this category as anything you can do without thinking much. This work can be done when you are waiting in line, between meetings, or in the spaces of your day when you know you aren’t at your best or will likely be interrupted. What’s important is to block out time for this so you are NOT tempted to waste your focus time.
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