Saturday 23 January 2021

A time-blocking workflow

Time blocking is a very effective workflow for me. Time blocking is a process where one creates set blocks on their calendar as a way to get things done. I have explored different ways to do it. These have been influenced by advice from the likes of Cal Newport, Nir Eyal, and Curtis McHale. What I have compiled below is something of a workflow I have created for myself to make time blocking work for me.

My workflow uses the concept of time blocking but marries it with two other productivity concepts.

  1. TO-DO lists - which don't really need to be defined.
  2. Setting specific intentions - which is the process of creating more specific intentions for tasks to be done in these time blocks. A side note: if I remember right, I heard about specific intentions in a podcast between Tim Ferriss and Jim Collins.

Specific intentions are clarifying the specific actions one wants to achieve in a specified time. The specificity is not at the outcome level, which is also needed, but the specificity is at the level of the granular actions, step by step if possible.


My workflow for time blocking follows a few steps.

  • There is information capture, which is the primary role of a TO-DO list.
  • There is converting that into specific intentions/actions.
  • Finally, there is the need to block time on the calendar to do those actions and not letting it just be a TO-DO list.
    • There might be an important sub-step which is to pre-assemble the items needed to do the work, as making the context right is very important to get things done.


Let me now provide details on how this process works and how I build a really productive workflow. As mentioned in the summary there are these steps. I encourage you to think of the steps. Thinking of it in steps is good as they reinforce the point of view that it is a workflow and needs to be done in a particular order for best results.

Step 1: Have a to-do list to capture tasks and outcomes with deadlines

This is needed for the 'capture and classify' part of the workflow. My experience tells me that using a calendar to capture is not a good choice. It does not seem to work as a good inbox. This is especially true as it does not allow for a neat list view and automatic reminders. I use Microsoft To-Do for this, but any other to-do list application can work as well.

Step 2: Then do the step of breaking the tasks up into specific sub-actions, step by step if possible

This is the essential task of schedule building as Nir Eyal calls it.

This is the way to convert a to-do list into an actionable, specific intent. Some tasks will need more effort to break down into specific sub-steps. Some will be self-explanatory or granular enough.

Spending this time to make it specific is an art and one needs to start doing it to find what works for you. And yes, this action itself will require a specific time-block on the calendar, ideally every day, to get this done. For me, one slot in the morning and one slot in the evening is needed on workdays. The evening slot can also be used to wind down.

Step 3: Then transition the specific actions into clear time-blocks on the calendar

These specific intentions are now converted into actual time-blocks on the calendar. This will take time and one will learn over a period of time how to get this right. But blocking time for tasks on the calendar is the only way to ensure there is a scheduled time to get to the job of doing this. In fact, I have seen that however specific the intention and however neatly it is captured in a TO-DO list with reminders, etc, if it is not assigned a time in the calendar, the likelihood of it getting done is low, and the likelihood of procrastinating or 'snoozing' the tasks is much higher.

Step 4: (might be needed) pre-assemble the items needed for the task or make that into a separate task and in the time block - write down the very 1st action

This is an essential task for when it is a big task that has multiple steps and has actions that are very dependent on some items which are needed to help complete the task. Allowing for the items need to to do work (tools, documents, location) to be readily accessible is a way to make it more effective and the ability to keep to the time block. This along with step 2 of articulating the exact first step will be the topics that will cause the most friction if it is not done. This is an important managing the context hack to get time blocking workflow to work well. Also, in my experience, it will help immensely in actually feeling productive and making progress.

That's it. Once these steps are followed, you have a workflow and you can actually get work done.

Other hacks that will help improve this process

There are few more hacks that can be added to this workflow which is suited for someone more advanced in this. They are:

  1. Ensure that recurring tasks are done on the same day / same time as that helps with habit-forming
  2. Ensure in a time-blocked calendar there is enough downtime and the calendar is not packed. Planning to do too much can be the easiest way for the system to fail
  3. Ensure to coordinate the schedule with others and ensure it is not infringing / too-rigid

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