A common pitfall people have with time management is underestimating how long it takes to do something. The result is that days are hectic and cramped, projects that needed to get done this week slide into future weeks and cause a sliding project cascade, and, at higher levels, the things that matter most don’t turn into projects that get done because we already have too much going on.
While it’s true that our reach will always exceed our grasp, it’s also clear to me that a significant contributor to the problem is the standard way we learn to think about time. We don’t account for the fact that:
- Our productive energy ebbs and flows throughout the day based upon circadian rhythms, diet, and mental drain.
- We need a good mix of creation, connection, and consumption.
- Our tolerance and desire to work on tasks depends on what kinds of tasks they are, and some tasks can’t coherently be worked on in too-small chunks of time.
Without keeping those facts in mind, it’s easy to look at your calendar, find some random time opening, and put a task in there. It sounds good at the time you’re doing the planning, but when it comes time to do the doing, the facts mentioned above come to bear. Perhaps it was a meeting that you agreed to in the morning before you’re your best version of human, or when you really would’ve been in the creative zone. Perhaps it was a creative task that you put at the end of the day when you know you’re not good at creating anything but self-destructive stories about why you’re not getting anything done. Or maybe it was something that would take you forty-five minutes to get into but you only gave it your open twenty-two minutes, so you resist doing it when the time comes and instead find yourself checking email.
In any of the cases like the ones above, you have either lost that time, have not used it optimally, or will be on the struggle bus trying to force yourself to get something done when you’re not in the right flow. Given how common those patterns are, it’s no wonder lots of people resign to an overwhelmed fate.
Time Blocking Is a Better Way to Organize Your Day
If you’ve ever played with any type of building block system (think Legos), you already know how to chunk, link, and sequence time and projects. (Now would be a particularly good time to thank your parents and teachers.)
Time blocking is a much better way to think about and organize each day, and it’s been an under-explained part of the Momentum Planners since their inception. Rather than thinking about time in an open, unstructured way, I approach time blocking by figuring out a coherent daily structure with four different kinds of blocks based upon the type of activity done in those blocks. This makes things much easier and natural because a lot of the decision work about where things go is solved for me. Here are those four basic blocks:
- Focus blocks are 90–120 minute blocks of time where you’re especially creative, inspired, and able to do high-level work that requires focus.
- Admin blocks are 30–60 minute lower-energy blocks of time where you’re not in the zone to do the work that requires heavy lifting, but there are still other types of work you can do effectively.
- Social blocks are 90–120 minute blocks of time where you’re primed and energetically in the right space to meet with other people.
- Recovery blocks are variable-length blocks of time that you use for exercise, meditation, and self-care.
So you can see what the end product looks like, here’s what my weekly block schedule looks like:
Yes, you’ll get your own planner to figure out your weekly block schedule. But you might want to know what goes where first.
I’ve got good news and bad news when it comes to focus blocks. The bad news is that most people have a hard time creating and using more than three per day because of distractions, interruptions, daily routines, and a lack of intention. The good news is that you can get a lot done with three blocks per day, and accepting the constraint will make your life a lot easier and happier.
Okay, I have one other bit of bad news: my experience of working with and teaching thousands of people shows that most people don’t have a free focus block to work on the projects they most want to. Their schedules look more like Swiss cheese, and they’re trying to do their creative work after they’ve done other kinds of work either all day or first thing.
Focus blocks fuel your highest-value deep work. No focus blocks, no finished deep work. It’s really that simple. (Tweet this.)
The major advantage here is that rather than thinking in terms of hours required to get something done, you can just count the focus blocks you have available. Anything over ten hours starts to become hard for us to deal with because it gets amorphous and hard to visualize, but five blocks is easier to understand because we can think about the chunks of the projects we can do in that amount of time.
If you’ve ever put off doing a “bigger” creative project because you simply didn’t know how to get started or how much time it’d take, you already know what I’m talking about. Our wiring is faulty enough that spending twenty creative hours on a project over the course of a month feels overwhelming, but working on that project for a focus block a day for a month doesn’t. It’s a three-in-the-morning situation: it’s the same amount of energy in a different configuration, but the configuration makes all the difference.
You may also need to use focus blocks for projects and work that look like admin but actually require a good bit of strategizing, thinking, problem-solving, or wordsmithing to get right. For instance, responding to some kinds of emails will need to happen during focus blocks. Planning, invoicing, data analysis, and getting caught up in your task/project management system can also need to be done during focus blocks because of the combination of the amount of time it takes plus the mental load of pulling all the parts together.
Pushing too many focus blocks leads to creative burnout. It’s quite common for people to have a four- or five-block day, only to drag for the next few days and wonder what’s wrong. This would be like going to work out for four hours when you normally keep your workouts to one hour. We’d expect to be sore and/or fatigued the next day, even if we really enjoyed the workout. The same is true for going on a creative block sprint. Consistent progress is better than fits and starts.
The number of focus blocks you have available is the limiting factor to how quickly and steadily you’ll be able to make progress on your high-value creative projects. Many people misdiagnose their struggles with getting creative work done as procrastination, lack of capability, or lack of creativity, when the reality is that a more common root cause is they just don’t have any or enough focus blocks in their schedule to get started and keep going.
Your particular context will determine what counts as admin work, but in general I’m counting email, phone calls, digital/paper filing, low-level editing, organizing your projects (whether that be cleaning up brushes, scrubbing code, reviewing and making To-Do lists, or formatting documents), bookkeeping, and anything that supports the deep work but isn’t the deep work itself.
That broad list of work may be exactly the type of stuff you don’t want to be doing — what I call frogs — but it still needs to get done. Not doing the admin work catches up with you somewhere down the road.
That said, many people find that once they start using their focus blocks well, admin blocks are far more tolerable and sometimes even enjoyable for several reasons:
- Admin blocks give you time to reflect upon your work, and they create space and context for things to gel.
- Knowing that there will be admin blocks allows you to stress less about all the admin work that does need to be attended to. There’s a time and a space for everything.
- Well-positioned admin blocks make it easier to catch the frogs because that task is confined to smaller periods of the day.
Imagine that you’ve had a day where you’ve “left it on the field” when it comes to how you spent your focus blocks, and you’re in the sweet spot of both spent and satisfied. And then you get to tackle some of the other important work that’s been building up. It’s a double win.
That reality isn’t a leprechaun or unicorn. It takes some trial and error, but it’s absolutely achievable. I know because I experience it many days and my clients and students do, too.
For many people, focus blocks and admin blocks can be summed up as “the work I want to do” and “the work I don’t want to do,” respectively. Social blocks tend to be closer to focus blocks, even for introverts, but their purpose is different than focus blocks. Focus blocks are focused on creating something, whereas social blocks are focused on connecting with someone.
It’s important to consider the purpose of the blocks because I’ve seen many people discount the value of social blocks by saying they “didn’t get anything done” with them. Productivity is about more than getting stuff done — it’s about using your resources in ways that bring about the most value in your life.
The time you spend with friends, family, colleagues, and your tribe is valuable time. Sure, it displaces creative or admin work, but that doesn’t mean it’s less valuable than those types of work. Especially when you consider how lonely and disconnected creative people are (as a whole).
If there’s a part of your work that requires you to be real-time with people, that part of your work goes in social blocks. For that reason, I usually will speak of social blocks as social/service blocks to remind people that real-time service hours are social blocks.
Aside from the intrinsic value of social blocks, they make for great bookends to other blocks because most of us honor commitments to other people more than we honor commitments to ourselves. When we’re in the flow with a focus block, it’s easy for it to bleed into the next block of time, sometimes to our own detriment in the following days when we’re creatively winded. Similarly, sandwiching an admin block between two social blocks creates both a coherent flow (because there is often some type of admin work that follows social blocks) and a bookend to the admin block.
Focus, admin, and social blocks are energy output blocks, but just as a battery outputs energy, it also needs to be recharged. While it might seem like we don’t need to be intentional about our recovery blocks, I’ve learned the hard way that we actually need to be more intentional about them than about any of the other blocks precisely because we’re over-focused on output.
Each of us has different things that help us recover and recharge. Extroverts might like to go to a party, whereas introverts might want to curl up with their cat and a book. Playing tabletop games might exhaust one person and recharge another. Yoga might do it for some, whereas CrossFit might do it for others.
What’s especially tricky here is that some ways of being social with people are more rejuvenative than others. And to make matters even more confusing, some activities may be rejuvenative in some contexts and not so much in others. For instance, whereas hanging out with each other is normally rejuvenative for me and Angela, there are other times where we just need some alone time.
What’s more important than the type of activity is what the activity does for you.
A major upshot to acknowledging and using recovery blocks is that it allows you to find dead zones in your day that can be repurposed for recovery. For instance, I’m usually spent on the creative, admin, and social fronts around 4:30 and don’t really hit a groove again until 6. Doing anything during that time usually amounts to a lot of clicking and mindless grazing. I’m far better off when I reclaim that block as a recovery block.
Much as service blocks make for great bookends to a creative block, recovery blocks can also be a good follow-on to a focus block since focus blocks are often the most taxing of the blocks. While your mind is recharging and recycling, you can be doing something else.
Exercising after a creative block has a few benefits worth specifically calling out:
- It triggers kinesthetic processing that can augment mentally and emotionally processing what you’ve been working on.
- It takes enough mental focus that you have to let go of what you’ve been working on but not so much that it’s mentally taxing.
- It undoes the damage and discomfort caused by sitting at desks and engaging in unnatural repetitive motion and stationary postures.
Eating can also count as a recovery block, especially if it’s done with some intention and separation from your work. For instance, I avoid eating in my office or wherever I work and don’t eat while looking at devices, so that I can take a pause from the work and recover — at this point, eating at my desk feels as gross or taboo to me as the idea of eating a sandwich while I’m in the bathroom. That kind of intention around eating is much different than just cramming food in while you’re doing something else.
As a general rule, plan on a recovery block for every two focus or social blocks.
How to Use the Weekly Block Scheduler to Start Time Blocking
We’ve created the Weekly Block Scheduler and the Focus Block Planner to help you use the ideas in this post. I’ll cover the Weekly Block Scheduler first since it’s the one that’s going to require the most heavy lifting and will help you use the Focus Block Planner.
The main idea of the Weekly Block Scheduler is that it helps you shape your week and see where all of your blocks are and/or should be. It is not a place to keep all of your projects, goals, actions items, and so on — you’ll want to use the Momentum Planners or your task management system for that. The easiest way to think about the Weekly Block Scheduler is that it shows you when certain types of activities need to be done, but not what specific thing needs to be done during that time.
For review, here are the four kinds of blocks and how long they last:
- Focus Blocks: 90–120 minutes
- Social Blocks: 90–120 minutes
- Admin Blocks: 30–60 minutes
- Recovery: dependent on the activity, but try to give yourself at least 30 minutes of intentional separation from the activities you do in Focus, Social, and Admin Blocks
Your first order of business with the Weekly Block Scheduler is to place these blocks in your day where they make the most sense for your energy levels, your work, and your requirements. While I can’t say exactly where your blocks should go without knowing more about your daily rhythms, work, and requirements, here are some suggestions:
- Don’t go longer than two Focus and/or Social blocks back to back without a Recovery block. You need to recharge, and the work and the people you’re meeting with will benefit more.
- Put your Focus blocks where you have the best creative energy. If you’ve filled out the Productivity Heatmap, red and orange times are where your Focus Blocks should go.
- Put your Social blocks where you’re most fit for human consumption. Note that you can be red/orange in the morning for solo work but not for meeting with folks.
- Avoid putting an Admin Block first thing in the morning, but if you must, be intentional about processing it, looking only for items that are relevant for the day.
- Recovery Blocks are the wildcard — I highly suggest a morning routine that includes some combination of movement, eating, meditation/prayer, and planning/intention-setting. Night owls still benefit by starting with self-care.
- As best you can, be consistent with the times you’re putting your blocks in. For instance, if your best creative time is from 9 a.m.–12 p.m., try to have two creative blocks per morning every workday. If you’re most fit for human consumption in the afternoon, try to schedule your meetings for the afternoon. This will help you get into good grooves, improve your habit-building, and give you some powerful defaults that limit decision-fatigue.
- Chores and commutes are closest to Admin blocks, so you can give them time as such. That said, feel free to create Commute or Chores blocks if that makes the most sense for you.
A pitfall that people fall into is trying to convert their real schedule to their ideal Weekly Block Schedule all at once or too fast. Obviously, if you have complete autonomy over your time, you can do that. But many of us don’t have complete autonomy over our time and face real constraints that prevent us from magically transforming our schedule. Depending on the amount and strength of your constraints, you may have to lock in and change one block at a time. You may not be able to get two Focus blocks every morning, but you may be able to get Monday morning back for yourself so that you at least start the week with some momentum on your deep work. In general, people struggle the most with finding/creating Focus blocks, with the real root cause being that it’s harder to claim time for ourselves than to give it to others.
You’ll note that the Weekly Block Scheduler has a section for daily themes. The idea here is that setting an intention for a day to be focused on, say, Writing or Planning or Outreach is helpful for figuring out what to do during your blocks. For instance, many of my clients have Sales days where they make sure to do all of the tasks related to sales. It’s not that the whole day is spent on sales, but that that’s when they check their lists and prioritize sales-related activities. (Hat tip to Mike Vardy who beat me to the punch in writing about daily theming.)
How to Use the Focus Block Planner
The main idea of the Focus Block Planner is that it shows you how many Focus blocks you have over the course of a month. We know that chunking your projects down into two-hour chunks is a really good way to get creative momentum. Those two-hour chunks are Focus blocks, so the Focus Block Planner can give you an idea of when a project might get done. And this helps you get real about how much space you have to get your high-value work done and what needs to shift so you can do it.
You can use the Focus Block Planner in two ways. The first way is as a planning tool to see how your Focus blocks pan out in the upcoming month; this is the way I most often use the framework. The second way is as an assessment tool to see how you used your Focus blocks over the course of a completed month. The second way helps you see how closely your plan matches reality, so you can update your plans more intelligently.
Here are the steps for using the Focus Block Planner:
- Put in the number of Focus blocks you have per day. You can get this from your completed Weekly Block Scheduler OR from an analysis of the flow of the last three weeks if those weeks were normal-ish (no travel, sickness, or atypical disruptions). This will show you your total number of blocks.
- Look at your action lists, task management systems, and calendar to see how many of those Focus blocks are already accounted for. These will be your used blocks.
- The remaining number is the number of Focus Blocks you have available. A negative number shows you that you need that many Focus Blocks that you don’t have; i.e., something is not going to get done.
The Focus Block Planner falls into the “simple to understand, but difficult to apply” category of things. Obviously, if you have negative or zero Focus Blocks, you’re going to need to look at your work, expectations, and schedule to see what needs to shift. Lots of people assume it needs to be their schedule, but my experience is that schedules are the least malleable variable in the equation for most people. The second thing people will do is assume that they can get their project done faster, regardless of the fact that they’re already prone to underestimating how long it takes to do something. So that gets us back to Drop, Defer, or Delegate as the only reasonable ways forward.
If you want the complete handbook on productivity planning and time blocking, pick up Start Finishing. It’s full of of strategy and motivation to get you from idea to done.
As always, I’d love to hear any questions you have about the ideas and tools here. Here’s to more momentum!