How time blocking keeps me accountable

We've all been in this scenario: you have a bunch of tasks to do, so you sit down to get started. You look at your task list, trying to decide which task to tackle first. Eventually, you decide that none of them take your fancy right now, so you end up watching YouTube videos about productivity instead.

Recently I've been facing this problem pretty much every day. I have stuff I know I need to do, but whenever I sit down to tackle my to-do list, I lose all motivation. My reflex then kicks in: I open my browser, type "you" and hit enter. I end up in a YouTube rabbit hole.

So how does this happen? How can our motivation collapse so quickly and dramatically?

The problem here isn't actually about motivation; it's about planning.

If you find yourself trying to figure out what you should be doing right now, you've failed to adequately plan your time. On the flipside, if you sit down to work with a specific goal in mind, you're much more likely to succeed.

If this sounds appealing to you, consider adopting the time blocking technique.

What's time blocking?

Time blocking is pretty simple. You take some time at the start of each day (or the night before) to plan out how you're going to spend your time the next day. You plan exactly when you will start and stop working on each task or project.

That's it! In many ways, the beauty of time blocking is that it's so simple. It's flexible too; you can plan your day on a notepad, in your calendar, or using a dedicated app. It's really up to you.

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Why does time blocking work?

There are a few good reasons why time blocking is more effective than a traditional to-do list.

It avoids the biggest motivation sink

While you're planning your time blocks, you're much less worried about what you will actually want to do in the moment, so you're more likely to commit to the less attractive items on your to-do list.

When you then sit down to do it, you don't have to go through the process of deciding whether to do the thing or not; past you has already made that decision. All you have to do is crack on.

It gives you a deadline

It's pretty clear that deadlines are a great motivational tool. When you use time blocking, you not only specify when you will start a task; you also have to decide when you will move on to the next one.

For example, at the moment I'm working on this blog. It's currently 10:54; I started at 10:30, and I know I need to be done by 11:30, because I have another time block scheduled for another piece of work at that time. Simply knowing that I have to be done with this by 11:30 is making me work at a pace that I definitely wouldn't be if I'd given myself a deadline of "sometime today".

It fits into your other productivity techniques

The pomodoro technique is a very popular method for breaking up your focussed work. If you're a pomodoro fan, you can use it with time blocking. Instead of allocating 2 hours to a task, just say "I'll do 4 pomodoros". Be careful with this though; remember to still plan start and finish times for each session.

Similarly, it can work great with your traditional to-do list. For example, my first task every morning is to check my to-do list (in Things 3), and allocate time blocks for everything on it (or reschedule stuff I'm not going to be able to get to). Then, at the end of the day, I can use my to-do list to review what I was able to get done.

It forces you to stop

This sounds like a strange one, but many people do struggle to remember to take downtime. Using time blocking, you can plan your day so that you know when your downtime is going to be.

Today, for example, my last time block finishes at 5pm. That means two things. First: I know that I should stop working at 5pm and take some downtime. Second: I won't feel guilty about taking this downtime, because I know I've achieved what I planned.

How do I get started with time blocking?

  1. Pick a tool. Some folks use paper; others use their calendars (I have a separate "Time blocks" calendar in my Google Calendar); others have a dedicated app. My recommendation is to go with the simplest possible tool.
  2. Tomorrow morning, your first job is to plan your day. If you want a tip, make sure you plan every moment of your work day. If you have laundry to do, or cleaning, add them as time blocks. Schedule time to eat lunch.
  3. Tomorrow evening, remember to review your to-do list and check off what you were able to achieve. Reschedule stuff you didn't get to. If you over- or under-allocated time for a particular task, make a note of it so you can plan better next time a similar task comes up.

If you try it, I'd be really interested to hear how you get on. Hit me up on Twitter @ptrbrynt.

Peter Bryant

Peter Bryant

York, UK