When Forbes interviewed entrepreneur Abby Lawson, who runs the super-successful site Just a Girl and Her Blog, Lawson laid out her productivity process:

I write down all my tasks that I need to do in a day, and then once I have that list I schedule each of those tasks into a time slot on my calendar. I plan out exactly, like, “From 9 to 10, I’m going to check email. From 10 to 11, I’m going to answer comments on my blog,” or whatever it is that particular day. I plan out pretty much every minute of the day….

The technique Lawson uses is called time blocking, and she mentions many of the ways it helps her—it gives her deadlines, focus, and a reason not to waste time surfing the internet.

Time blocking is a great productivity tool. You’ll know if you’re on track for the day because you’ll be able to see if you’re on track. Humans are visual creatures; we process images 60,000 times faster than text. If you use a colorful or visual calendar, time blocking lets you get and process information quickly, and act on it.

As Coleman Collins at Road Warrior puts it, “Schedule it so it happens.”

Why Time Blocking?

There are so many reasons why time blocking is beneficial. I recommend checking out Collins’s article, which outlines 13 compelling reasons why time blocking is an advantageous technique. I won’t list them all here, but I would like to highlight two in particular:

  • Per Collins, time blocking “takes advantage of Parkinson’s Law,” which states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” If you have a specific time block in which to complete something—instead of aiming to get it done by the end of the day, for instance—you’ll compress the work, rather than letting it expand to fill up the day’s space.
  • Here’s another one: “It is a socially acceptable way to say no to time vampires.” Besides loving that vivid image, I appreciate the logic of this. If you’re getting inundated with requests, you can make it clear that the times you have blocked out are times when you’re busy, encouraging others to schedule your time rather than assume it’s for the sucking … I mean taking. That’s particularly true if you have a shared calendar with colleagues or family members.

Above all, time blocking lets you prioritize in a crystal-clear fashion, and arrange those priorities not just by importance, but by time.

As Stephen R. Covey puts it, “The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.”

How to Time Block

Time blocking is really simple. Here’s how it goes:

  1. Decide when you will do your time blocking. Options include at the end of a work week, over the weekend, first thing Monday. or at the end of each day. I prefer to time block at the end of the day (for the next day).
  2. Write out all the tasks you need to get done. Don’t write general goals or even general tasks. Seeing an hour blocked out for “write pitch meeting minutes and circulate to attendees” will give you a much better sense of what you should be doing during that hour than “review meeting.” (On the other hand, recurring tasks like “reply to email” don’t need to get really specific. You don’t need to time block exactly whom you’ll be replying to.)
  3. Start adding tasks to your calendar, estimating how long each will take.

Be sure to carve out time for breaks, such as meals and exercise. You can’t—and shouldn’t try to—work nonstop through the day.

Depending on what type of calendar you use, you might be able to color code time blocks, to add to the visual cues you’ll be receiving as you work through your tasks. Google Calendar lets you do this.

  1. Don’t worry when you have to make adjustments to your calendar as you go through the week. Instead of considering changes to be uncommon and unwanted, assume that they’ll be part of the process. Modify your time blocks as needed, and be mindful going forward of how long certain tasks ended up taking, especially if you might repeat them down the line.
  2.  Repeat the process consistently. If time blocking will help you to be more productive and focused, keeping up a routine with it will eventually make it an easy, regular part of your daily and weekly processes.

Isn’t Time Blocking Just More Work?

Yes, time blocking takes time. At first, you’ll probably spend longer with it, as you try to organize your task list and turn it into an actionable calendar. It can feel a bit like putting together a puzzle and trying to figure out where each piece should go. But time spent planning is time saved in the long run. You will have a much clearer sense of how much you can accomplish over the course of the day and week, and you won’t have to exert mental effort on repeatedly asking yourself what you should do next.

“Blocking” is also the word used by stage directors to plan out action and guide actors on where to go when. The clearer the blocking, the more cohesive the production. The same applies to time blocking: The more thought-out the planning, the more successful the execution.

Happy planning! Or as they say in theater, break a leg!