Time blocking is a deceptively simple strategy for taking control of your time and managing your productivity. The default approach most people take is to complete their non-meeting work at whatever time isn’t scheduled as meetings – often by someone else. This approach is particularly challenging for product managers as you can easily end up with a calendar Jam-packed with meetings. Then your only way to “get work done” is to multitask during meetings or do it after everyone else has gone home whether on nights or weekends. The latter is a perfect recipe for burning out.
Running a Time Audit is a framework for analyzing how you spend your time and strategically freeing up space for important work. If you already know where your time is being wasted, try The CARD Framework to identify which of the four approaches will best free you up from a given activity. As long as you have enough time on your calendar to actually schedule time blocks, it will help you both protect your time and increase your focus on the right things.
What is time blocking?
Simply put, time blocking is the act of putting time in your calendar to work on specific tasks or projects – whether recurring or one-off.
This helps focus your energy by preallocating time to work exclusively on a given task or project. Just like a meeting, you should reduce distractions and commit to showing up. If you can, mute notifications, quit slack, and close your emails. Time blocking is best used for high-importance tasks that aren’t necessarily urgent and are prone to being kicked down the road. It’s also great for projects that need you to spend a larger chunk of time to make meaningful progress.
Time blocking protects your time by showing you as unavailable in the calendar your colleagues are scheduling against.
Pro tip: I highly recommend color-coding your events so you can see at a glance how your week is being spent. I use one color for time blocks, one color for 1:1 meetings with my team, and another color for hiring/interviewing-related work.
“A 40-hour time-blocked work week, I estimate, produces the same amount of output as a 60+ hour work week pursued without structure.”
— Cal Newport, Author of Deep Work
What if people book over your time blocks?
If you find people still book over these slots I’d suggest two escalation strategies.
First, try telling your colleagues why you use time blocking (you could even send them this article). It’s often helpful to agree on a process of booking over them when it’s a many-person meeting etc. For me, I’m always willing to discuss via slack and if I can shift my time block, I’ll let them know to still book the meeting.
Secondly, (the more drastic approach) is to invite a trusted colleague to your time block “meeting” even though there won’t be a meeting. I’ve never worked anywhere that this was necessary and hope I never do. But nonetheless, I bet this would work like a charm.
Use time-blocking to better align with your manager
Does your manager have a good understanding of how you spend your week?
How you spend your time is the single biggest indicator of your priorities. Meanwhile, it’s critically important that you and your manager have a shared understanding of your priorities. If your calendar is now representing both the meetings you have and the important tasks you’re working on, the time blocked calendar is a comprehensive representation of your planned priorities.
Make time in your 1:1 to walk your manager through your week and talk about whether your time allocation matches their expectations.
Plus, when taking on a new project or task, you’ll be able to have a very tangible conversation about the tradeoffs and ensure there’s clarity about what you’re doing less of in order to make room for the new thing.
Should I do this for all my tasks?
Beware of taking time blocking too far. I would advise against booking every aspect of your day in task-focused time blocks if you can avoid it. For better or worse, it’s inevitable that some portion of your day and week will be consumed by firefighting or other unexpected interruptions. Be sure to leave enough room for these interruptions.
I’d also suggest embracing that things don’t always go to plan and that’s totally okay. If you have to reschedule a time block or end up spending it on a totally different task, that’s totally okay. I even suggest amending your calendar to reflect how you actually spent your time. It’ll make it much easier to audit your time allocation.
When should you do your time-block scheduling?
I recommend making time blocking part of your personal weekly planning ritual. I like to plan my week on Monday but others prefer Friday so they can jump right into it on Monday morning. Other folks swear by taking an hour out of their Sunday to prepare for their week – personally I’d rather savor every moment I can off the weekend. Experiment for yourself and stick to whichever works for you.
What about timeboxing?
Timeboxing can be used in combination with time blocking but is quite a different strategy. In a way, it’s quite the opposite. Rather than trying to ensure you spend enough time on a task, timeboxing is there to ensure you don’t spend too much time on a task. It takes advance of Parkinson’s Law (that the time an activity takes will expand or contract to fill the time allotted) by only allotting the amount of time you want to invest, and knowing that so long are you’re reasonable about the time box you choose – you’ll get the job done.