Updated: Jul 23, 2019
If you’re trying to up your productivity and focus your energy on the things that serve you, you need a way to manage everything that’s going on. You need a way to plan your time. You need a system. And my favorite way to do all of that is with calendar blocking.
If you haven’t already read my first post that outlines the basics of how to get more done with calendar blocking, it’s probably a good idea to start there. But just in case you can’t be bothered to click that link, I’ll do a speedy explanation of what calendar blocking is.
Calendar blocking aims to fill the time on your calendar with blocks that represent what you’re doing at that time. It’s probably easier to explain with a picture, so here’s a calendar blocked calendar:
By showing everything visually like this, you can tell at a glance what you’ll be doing and when. You can see how much time you have. You can tell if you’re wasting time or booking yourself too full.
A couple of quick things to remember as you get started with calendar blocking before we dive into the more ambitious stuff:
Don’t forget to schedule those “in between” activities. By this, I mean all of those things like commuting and getting ready, that aren’t really events that you have to do, but they still take up time, and you’ve got to get them out of the way. Because that time isn’t available to use for something else, it needs to be blocked on the calendar.
Schedule more time than you think you’ll need. Sometimes things don’t go as planned. If something takes longer than expected, you’re covered. If something takes less time than you blocked out, congrats. Go get some tea or something.
Cool, now that we have the basics out of the way, it’s time to get into some strategies that you can use to really get the most out of calendar blocking.
Batch Your Time
You know how we “run errands,” i.e., wait until we have several trips that we can combine into one to save time and energy? Do that with everything. Group similar tasks together. Work in batches. This works well for creative tasks and items with a series of deadlines where you could just do all of the work at once, especially when you’re the one setting your deadlines.
Time batching is excellent because it saves time when it comes to set up and tear down, and you don’t have to switch mindsets as often. For example, when I did pottery, I’d always work for at least a couple of hours at a time because setting everything up, and cleaning up when I finished, took a long time. It wasn’t worth it to spend fifteen minutes setting up, only to throw for twenty minutes, and spend another fifteen minutes cleaning up.
If you stick to the same task for a bit, rather than switching to something new every half hour, you set yourself up for a better chance at achieving what’s known as “flow.” Flow is that state where you’re deeply absorbed in something challenging, but rewarding, and time flies by without you noticing because you’re wrapped up in what you’re doing. It’s basically what I was talking about in "The Happiness Paradox."
Alternatively, Break It Up
On the other hand, instead of batching your time, you could use calendar blocking to break up big tasks that are too daunting. The more overwhelmed you feel when you think about the work you need to do, the less likely you are to do it. Breaking up larger projects into easy-to-manage chunks can help you get started.
I used to hate writing papers in college. Ironic, considering I now run this blog, but anyway, in order to write papers as painlessly as possible, I’d spread the work out over a couple of weeks. This requires careful planning, but luckily, that’s where your calendar blocked calendar comes in. Writing papers didn’t feel so bad when I only had to write for half an hour at a time.
¿Porque no los dos?
Certain strategies may work for different people or specific activities. Mix it up and figure out what works best for you. Figure out which items can be batched and which are better spread out over a few weeks.
I wasn’t big on batching my time when I was in school, but I’ve recently started batching my work for the blog, and it’s working well. It’s faster and easier, for example, to create all of my Pinterest pins all on one day instead of doing a few every day. (Btw, come hang out on Pinterest!)
Kill Your To Do List
I love making a good to do list, and sometimes, that’s all you need. But most of the time, you’ll probably feel better about that to do list if you get everything onto your calendar. It doesn’t matter that you made the list if nothing ever gets done.
Take all of those things from the to do list, and schedule out a time to do them. Put it on the calendar. The calendar is your new to do list, except now you can actually see when everything is happening and how exactly you’re going to check every box on that list without going crazy.
Color Code It
Remember that one of the goals of calendar blocking is to visually convey information in a way that is easy to take in quickly. Color code your blocks based on class, project, urgency, location, or who they relate to.
I’ve always put exams and deadlines on my calendar in red so that I notice them immediately. Anything that involves putting pants on is bright pink, so I know at a glance that it will take me a bit of time to get ready. All of my personal self care me-time type stuff is light green because, with all the red and pink, I needed something soothing.
Commit to Yourself
For this calendar blocking thing to work, you have to be willing to stick to what’s on the calendar to the extent that your life allows. There will always be interruptions that come up, and events will need to be moved around, but take your calendar seriously.
Your calendar represents your commitments. One of the best ways to improve your life is to show up when you say you will. It’s impressive. People will respect and trust you so much more.
Not only is it important to show up to the commitments you made with other people, but it is also equally important to show up to the commitments that you made with yourself. That block of time that you set aside to read is just as important as the block for your doctor’s appointment. Show up for yourself. Honor your commitments.
Assuming you aren’t a Luddite, your calendar has a repeat function. Take advantage of it. If you have to go in every week and schedule your gym time, you’re much more likely just to brush it off. Schedule in your gym time and set it to repeat until the end of time.
This also saves time when you go to schedule out the rest of your week. You’ll never have to wonder if something is missing and you can see at a glance how much free time you have each week. Most of us probably do pretty much the same things at the same times each week.
Schedule Time to Schedule
Yes, I’m serious. Figure out how much of your time you like to plan at once. In school, I used to spend ten minutes at the end of every day planning out my schedule for the following day. This worked well for me because my schedule was so variable.
Maybe you’d prefer to schedule a week at a time. Your Sunday Reset would be a great time to do all of your planning for the week. Figure out when you’ll take the time to plan out your schedule, and then block that on the calendar.
While you’re at it, make sure anything new that comes up gets added to the calendar the moment you find out it’s happening. Put your next hair appointment on the calendar before you’ve even left the parking lot after this current appointment.
Schedule in time to relax. There are two sides to this coin.
On one side are the people like me—the go-getters. The “oops I was busy and forgot to eat” people. (Kidding, I love food). If I don’t schedule in break time, I won’t take a break. That is, until I inevitably burn out and can’t focus to save my life. Then I take an unintentional two-day long break where I don’t do anything at all.
For us, it’s important to remember that breaks are healthy. Relaxing your mind and body allows you to recover so that you can perform better later. Burnout isn’t healthy or fun. Schedule some downtime.
On the other side, it’s easy to mindless watch seven hours of Netflix and go to bed at 4 a.m. even though you meant to go to bed early and have to get up at 7 for work. Schedule out your evening routine. If you know what you’ll be doing before bed, and how long it will take, and calendar block it out, you can start pushing yourself in the direction of bed before you get too tired to turn off the tv.
And remember, you can always watch Netflix in the morning—it can even be a great motivator to get you out of bed and moving early. There’s no shame in having some relaxation in your morning routine. Just block out some time.
You Aren’t a Robot
Don’t schedule yourself too full. It’s easy to want to fill every little white space with something productive when you start calendar blocking because you’re suddenly realizing that you have so much more time than you thought you did.
I’m definitely guilty of this. It just leads to burnout. Start small. Trying to build thirty new habits all at once isn’t going to happen whether you put them on the calendar or not. The calendar may help a bit, but without the motivation and self-discipline to back it up with action, it won’t happen. I know it’s exciting, but take it one step at a time. You’ll ultimately be much more successful.
I never remove old events from my calendar. It’s neat to be able to go back and look at everything you’ve done. Plus, when you have a busy week, it’s reassuring and empowering to look back at previous weeks and think, “If I got through that week, I can totally survive this one. I’ve got this.”
Examine Your Priorities
One of my least favorite excuses—and I have zero patience for excuses—is, “I don’t have time.” You have time for whatever your priorities are. If you have time to watch Netflix, then you have time. Figure out your priorities. A life audit can help you if you aren’t sure what you value. Then, look at how you spend your time. Track it, if you want.
Use your calendar to make sure that your actions line up with your priorities. If you’re scheduling two hours a day to watch reruns of The Office, but working out is higher on your list of priorities than Netflix is, something needs to change. Go watch Netflix on a treadmill.
Now that you have your priorities figured out, say no to anything that doesn’t align with them. Your time is precious. It is your most limited and valuable resource. Don’t give it away to just anyone. Learn to say no to things that you don’t want to do. Obviously, you’ll still have to go to work, but stop saying yes to your friend’s sister’s cousin’s kid’s birthday party. Use that time for something that you actually value.
Figure Out When You Do Your Best Work
Some people are most productive at night. Some work best in the morning. The critical thing to look at isn't whether you like to stay up late or not; it's whether you can get work done at night or not. If you do your best work late a night, cool! Schedule your focused work then. Don’t force yourself to become a morning person.
On the other hand, if you stay up late but don’t actually get anything done in the evening, you might be a morning person. Do some experimenting. Once you figure out when you are most able to focus and do your best work, schedule anything challenging or important during those hours.
Calendar blocking offers a lot of flexibility. It’s a handy system for a lot of people. Play around with it to find a system that best serves you. Don’t force yourself to do it a certain way just because I said so, and ultimately, there are always people who find the whole system too stressful, rigid, or overwhelming. We’re all different. Do what works for you.