Swap To-Do Lists for Time-Blocking

Mar 15, 2021

Previously, we discussed to-do lists and the need to prioritize your list (if you use one) to make sure that you get the most important work done first.

While there is a place for keeping lists (many use them with great success), an even better strategy is to schedule tasks and block out your time. Time-blocking is the practice of planning out every moment of your day in advance and dedicating specific time “blocks” for certain tasks and responsibilities.

The reason why time-blocking works is simple. When a task is jotted down on a list, odds are that it will take a while for it to be completed (many listed tasks never get done). Or you may choose to work on the list from the top down, even when items that are further below will deliver stronger benefits.

When a task gets scheduled, however, you are committing to getting that specific thing completed at a particular time and expect to have it finished when the period has ended. In effect you’re telling yourself, “This one task is of great importance to me, and I will devote time and singular focus to it, to the exclusion of everything else.”

It is as if you’ve created a meeting with yourself that cannot be interrupted. You prepare yourself mentally for the task and go all in.

Time-blocking works since it helps us to focus on getting our work done right then. This is critical because our brains need constant focus when we’re at work. Absent focus and discipline, Parkinson’s Law will likely kick in. This law states that our work expands to fill the time available for its completion. So, a task that should require 20 minutes may take double or triple that if we don’t focus on it and instead just “let it happen.”

As author Nir Eyal writes, “In this day and age, you cannot call something distracting unless you know what it’s distracting you from.” (Check out my podcast conversation with Nir for more on productivity.)

For larger, more involved tasks, block out 90 minutes. Research conducted by Dr. Anders Ericsson from Florida State University and his colleagues found that productivity and performance are at their peak during uninterrupted intervals of up to 90 minutes.

Ericsson and his colleagues studied “elite performers,” people who excelled in their respective field, such as music, athletics or chess. They discovered that uninterrupted practice in intervals of 90 minutes or less (but not more), with breaks between sessions, worked best for maximizing productivity. 

If you typically review your next day’s calendar the night before or even that same morning (which is a healthy and productive practice), you will be reminded of the different events that have been scheduled. You will then be ready for them, mentally and otherwise. When the “event” pops up on your calendar, it grabs your attention. And since nothing else has been scheduled on top of it, you are free to dive in and get stuff done.

I also suggest you consider blocking out time for some of your deferable tasks. These are tasks that don’t need to be done right now but are important and will weigh on you until they’re completed, such as scheduling an important but not urgent meeting or booking airline tickets for an upcoming family vacation.

Knowing that you have blocked time for that will allow you to work on your prioritized items without worrying that you won’t find time for the deferable tasks.

By Naphtali Hoff