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3 Time-Blocking Tips for Managing Your To-Do List

Do find yourself thinking along these lines every week, wondering why it's so hard to get sh** done?

  • How come my to-do list never seems to shrink?
  • I really, really wanted to get that done last week.
  • I have a list of important objectives, but everything seems to get in the way.

Or maybe you've started the day by making your to-do list ... and then at the end of the day, you look down and can't check off anything?

We've all been there: tied up in the hustle and bustle of a workday, reacting to new information or requests from coworkers, meetings, vendors or customers.

Everything is important, but the "everything" is also the enemy for actually getting the most important things accomplished. Our just-in-time, continuously connected, rapid-fire modern workplaces only make this a much more pronounced feeling. (More thoughts on that at another time.)

The remedy is simple, and people throw it around effortlessly: focus! However, it is not effortless. It's actually really damn hard.

So what can you do?

My staff and I employ a technique that's been around for a long time. It's called time boxing or time blocking, depending on who you talk to. This approach allows you to dedicate a specific, pre-planned and distraction-free amount of time in your calendar for your most important tasks.

Here are the benefits:

  • Your work is better quality.
  • You get the most important things done.
  • You feel less stressed or anxious about your day.
  • Your coworkers will start to respect your focus and productivity.

Sounds good, right?

There are some really complex systems and models out there for time boxing. But most are huge overkill for day-to-day use. I like to keep it simple. So here's how to implement time boxing in three easy steps.

Plan and Schedule Time Blocks in Advance

Generally, you have three types of tasks:

  1. Regularly repeating tasks, such as meeting prep, or that report you have to pull together every week.
  2. One-off tasks, related to projects or objectives you know you need to get done.
  3. Surprise or reactive tasks, like something dropped on your desk that you weren't expecting, a last-minute meeting, an unexpected client visit or an emergency happy-hour at the bar next door. 
Reactive tasks often derail your repeating and project tasks, so time boxing can help accommodate those without derailing your productivity.

Begin your time boxing planning at the beginning of the week. Or, if organization calms you, make it the last thing you do on the way out the door on Friday. Begin with categorizing what you need to accomplish: meeting prep, top tasks (urgent/important), important but not time sensitive, and what's just on the to-do list.

I use Trello to organize my work into buckets, to help manage my to-do. Here's a mocked-up example of my dashboard.trello board example time blocking

If you're not into the whole Trello thing or just love paper, here's an old weekly focus template (click to download) I used to use.

Next, ignore the important and general to-dos. You'll get to them, but you don't need to earmark specific time to knocking those out.

Now you're organized enough to schedule your week.

Schedule Reasonable Time Boxes

Pull up your calendar and start with your meeting prep tasks. Find an open slot before your meeting and put in 15-30 minutes of time into your calendar, naming it "Prep for [meeting name]." Meeting prep can be some of the most important work you do, since it can make your meetings more impactful, usually shorter, and helps your coworkers be productive.

Next, go through your top tasks. Maybe you can't fit them all in during this week, but start with dedicating a few blocks of time to the big tasks. Block off the time and specifically name it "Work on [Task Name]". Be specific. That way you focus on the task you're supposed to be focusing on, instead of the fire drill task you're tempted to work on.

TIP: Try to limit your time boxes to 30 minutes or 1 hour, with a small break in between. There's a mountain of research suggesting peak performance can only be maintained in 25-30 minute increments, then you need to stand up and have a quick break. If you have a very large task, simply break it into a few time boxes throughout the week.

Make Your Time Blocks Distraction-Free

Even as I write this, a tiny blue light just to my left slowly blinks on my phone. There it is, just sitting there, in easy reach. It's an alluring, endorphin-laced exploration – a quick hit of information that we've all become addicted to in this digital age. God help you, you're an extrovert! :)

Just know this: Checking your phone, email or Slack is completely deadly to your time box strategy. It can derail everything in a blink of a notification light. This may be the hardest thing you do all day, but turn it off and put it away. Ignore it for just 30 minutes. (And yes, that includes your Apple watch.)

In the age of open floor plans this can feel impossible, but perhaps you can find a secluded corner, possibly work from a quiet coffee shop, or at least invest in a great pair of noise-cancelling headphones.

Whatever you do, don't grab space in a conference room without reserving it. We call that room-squatting. Not only does it tie up resources that your coworkers need, but also it almost guarantees you an endless source of interruptions.

Ask your coworkers to respect your time-box time as focused time. At EventBoard, we even have physical reminders to let people concentrate.in the zone work light

Remember to only time box the most important things. Don't fill up your schedule entirely, otherwise you won't be able to handle the surprise tasks or have an office life.

There are weeks when I look at my calendar and there are only faint slivers of daylight in between my meetings and tasks; they sometimes can feel like prison bars if I don't manage them well. If that's repeatedly the case, you need to have the conversation about appropriate prioritization or resourcing, first with yourself and then with your supervisor.

A final thought: This seems like such a simple topic to be devoting so much time and pixels to, but in a nearly 20-year career in tech startups and large enterprises, I've seen it work dozens of times. At organizations where teams feel constantly stressed and overwhelmed, they implement this simple exercise and everyone gets into a flow. Productivity explodes, and the important things finally get done.

That's when you can sit back during your Friday happy hour and ask yourself, "Wow, that was an epic week, how was I able to knock all that out?"

RELATED ARTICLES:
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