Why Traditional Time Blocking Methods Don’t Work

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Sep 6, 2022
Table of contents

What is time blocking?

Time blocking is a productivity method where you create calendar events for the things you want to do. They could be work events, such as “Check emails”, or personal events, such as “Pick up kids from school.” They could also be breaks and habits, like “Lunch,” “Exercise,” and “Meditation.”

People use time blocking to help them focus better and get more important things done. Research conducted at Stanford University shows that multi-tasking is much less effective than focusing on a single task. Cal Newport, author of Deep Work and a prominent figure in productivity, believes that “To learn hard things quickly, you must focus intensely without distraction.” He describes time blocking as “each day you fill out a time block grid with a preliminary plan that gives every minute a job” (Newport).

There are a few concepts related to time blocking: time boxing, task batching, and time tracking. They are similar, but not the same. Here are the differences:

  • Time blocking is the practice of scheduling your day into blocks for what to work on.
  • Time boxing is for specific tasks, such as “Finish landing page for new website”, where you limit yourself to a period of time (e.g. 2 hours) to finish the task. Time boxing helps you have more urgency and defeats perfectionism (perfect is the enemy of good), because you are imposing an artificial deadline for yourself to complete the task.
  • Task batching is grouping similar tasks into one bigger task, such as “Respond to all emails in my inbox.” Technically, responding to each email is an individual task; however, it makes sense to group them all together because you avoid context switching. Phycological studies show that you lose 40% of productivity when constantly context-switching. It makes sense - think of all the times you have worked on a deep-work task like “write an article” and been distracted by a notification. You then start reading an email related to the notification, and you have trouble focusing back to the original task. Task batching solves this problem by batching together all email-related tasks instead of spreading them throughout the day.
  • Time tracking is the practice of tracking when you worked on each task and how long they took. You can use it to remember where your time went and figure out how to improve in the future. If you are a consultant or lawyer who charges by the hour, you’d use time tracking to bill clients.

With all this context in mind, let’s find out why time blocking (along with time boxing, task batching, and time tracking) is such a great productivity method.

What are the benefits of time blocking

  • Time blocking helps you focus, prevent context-switching, and remove distractions
    When you commit to working on a task at a specific time, you are more likely to get it done. Your mind stops worrying about “should I be doing something else” and actually focuses on the thing in front of you. Time blocking helps you get into a deep work state, where your mind is zoomed in on just one important task. According to Y Combinator founder Paul Graham, this state of deep work is necessary for working through hard problems that require lots of thinking and focus.

    Time blocking also prevents you from constantly context-switching. How often do you see an email or text notification and immediately shift all your attention to it? Each time that happens, you lose at least 5-10 minutes of productivity, because 1) you might not remember what you were originally working on, and 2) it takes a bit of time to “pull yourself back” into the original task. Time blocking ensures you stick to the task at-hand. We recommend putting your notifications on do-not-disturb mode during these blocked times.

    With social media platforms like Tik Tok and Instagram trying to steal our attention all the time, time blocking can also serve as a counteracting nudge. Each time you are tempted by these distractions, you are reminded to focus on the task at hand.
  • Time blocking prevents burnout and create positive life habits
    According to Deloitte research, 77% of people are experiencing burnout at their job. Common burnout causes include working late hours and into weekends, constantly stressing over deadlines, and being in meetings all day without breaks. Time blocking allows you to make time for breaks during the day, block time for lunch and dinner, and prevents others from booking meetings during your free time.

    You can also use time blocking to create positive life habits, such as exercising, meditation, reading, or learning an instrument. By blocking out time for these events, you make sure you have time for them. Over time, you’ll form habits that improve your health and happiness.
  • Time blocking gives you clarity that you can actually finish everything on time
    Do you ever get so overwhelmed by work that you don’t know whether you have enough time to meet all the deadlines? Time blocking can solve this because it entails finding out when each task is estimated to be completed. After you time block your week, you have a sense of clarity and relaxation because you know that, as long as you follow the schedule, you will get everything done on time.
  • Time blocking and time boxing give you motivation and a sense of urgency to combat perfectionism
    Time blocking, and more specifically, time boxing can give you motivation and feeling of accomplishment. Everyone likes to check off todo items. When you see a time-boxed task, you are motivated to finish it on-time so that you can check it off. You feel a sense of accomplishment by finishing the task during the allotted time block.

    Perfectionism is the enemy of good. Sometimes, you just don’t have the time to get to perfection, and need to be okay with a good-enough delivery. Time boxing achieves this by giving you a sense of urgency to finish a task during the time block. If you are past the time block’s end time for a task, you’ll know you’ve spent too much time on it, and might be a good time to wrap up. Of course, this isn’t always the case - often times you simply under-estimated the amount of time it takes to complete the task; that is totally fine - in that case, you are making a conscious decision to extend the originally-planned time box.
  • Time blocking and time tracking give you control over your time and awareness of how you spend it
    In the post-Covid world, we are in Zoom calls all day, and it is exhausting. Time blocking gives you back control of your time by creating non-meeting hours. You are telling your co-workers that you need time for deep work and don’t want to be disturbed by non-important meetings. It also prevents over-booking of your calendar with meetings.

    Time tracking helps you be more aware of how you are spending time, answering the question, “where exactly did all my time go?” You can discover interesting findings like “I spent 26 hours in meetings last week” or “I spent a full 12 hours on this task, when I thought I only spent 4.” This will allow you to adjust your future schedule to better align with your goals.
  • Time blocking and task batching help you power through shallow work efficiently
    With task batching, you can get through shallow work more efficiently. Shallow work is work that doesn’t require much critical thinking and is usually frivolous and time-consuming. Examples of shallow work include responding to emails, checking notifications, or completing house chores. By batching a group of similar shallow tasks together, you’ll get through them faster instead of constantly juggling between lots of shallow tasks throughout the day.

Why traditional time blocking methods don't work

With all these benefits of time blocking, it seems perfect. However, most people who try time blocking give up after a few weeks. Traditional time blocking requires you to manually block out every chunk of time. Here are reasons why traditional time blocking doesn’t work:

  • You have to manually prioritize and time block for each day
    Time blocking is an extremely tedious process. There are two components that are required in traditional manual time blocking: 1) prioritize tasks until you decide which ones you want to work on today, and 2) manually schedule them on the calendar. The first component of prioritization might take up to 30 minutes at the beginning of each day, depending on how long your task list is. The second component is also very time-consuming and annoying, as you have to find a fitting time block for every single task; and some of them might not even fit.
  • Even worse - whenever things change, you have to manually re-plan
    The only thing worse than having to manually prioritize and schedule all tasks is having to manually do that 10 times a day. That’s exactly what you need to do in traditional time blocking. Each time something changes - like an emergency coming up, a quick meeting scheduled by your boss, or something taking longer than expected - you have to manually reshuffle your entire calendar again. And things like these happen all day, every day - because we all know nothing will ever go according perfectly to plan.
  • When new meetings or tasks get added in, you have to re-do everything
    Time blocking demands maintenance any time you create a new meeting or task that overlaps with an existing time-blocked task. Let’s say an emergency meeting comes in that overlaps one of the planned tasks you previously time blocked. Moving the conflicting task to a later time will cause another conflict - you have to keep doing this until there are no conflicts left. The longer your task list, the worse this process becomes. This is usually why people with many tasks give up on time blocking - it’s simply too tedious and annoying.
  • When you have hundreds of tasks over the next month, each with different deadlines and priorities, it’s a mess
    Time blocking does not work if you have too many tasks. When you have lots of tasks - like dozens per week - manual prioritization gets really hard. These tasks likely all have different deadlines and different priorities. How do you trade off between tasks with high priority and tasks due soon? Is a medium-priority task due tomorrow more or less important than a high-priority due in a week? How do you plan in a way such that you can meet all deadlines, while ensuring higher-priority tasks get completed first? The answer is usually trial-and-error: make a plan first, realize it doesn’t work, repeat. Traditional ways of manual time blocking can take hours to produce a great prioritization plan. And, as soon as anything changes, you have to do it all-over again.
  • When you are working with a team - thousands of tasks and dependencies between them - it’s even more of a mess
    Time blocking is even worse when working with a team. You have one more dimension to worry about: dependencies with tasks of other team members. Sometimes, you can’t start on a task until your teammate finishes one of their tasks. Usually, a team of 10 will have thousands of tasks over the course of 1-2 months - it’s literally impossible to use the method of time blocking to plan out your work when there are dozens of dependencies happening.

How Motion solves problems of traditional time blocking by automating planning and re-prioritization

  • Motion automatically prioritizes your tasks and schedules them on your calendar
    Motion’s advanced AI software can automatically prioritize your tasks and schedule them at optimal times on your calendar, taking into account your meetings, existing commitments, work hours, and everything else that goes into making a perfect day. This will likely save you an hour every time you need to manually prioritize and schedule your week.
  • Whenever things change, Motion automatically reshuffles everything for you
    Even better - whenever things change, which they always do, Motion will automatically reshuffle your entire schedule for you, like a personal assistant, without you lifting a finger. In many cases when you get a conflict (e.g. your boss put a meeting on your calendar that conflicts with a time block), Motion will resolve it before you even notice. This will save you so much time whenever something changes, whether a task takes longer than expected or an urgent meeting comes in.
  • Motion warns you when you don’t have enough time
    When you have too many tasks that are due during a concentrated period of time, and you don’t have enough time during work hours to finish them all, Motion will warn you. Motion would still schedule the task, but when the estimated finish time is past the deadline you inputted, Motion will give you a big red warning. So, you can rest assured knowing Motion will warn you beforehand about potentially missing deadlines.
  • Motion can automatically prioritize thousands of tasks simultaneously for an entire team in the most ideal way, eliminating manual coordination
    Each member of your team probably has dozens of tasks each week - that adds up to thousands of tasks each month for a team of 5-10. They might have dependencies on each other (e.g. task B can’t finish before task A), and some tasks might require multiple people to finish. Motion can automatically plan what each person should work on across the entire team. And the best part? Whenever anything changes, Motion automatically re-plans in the most optimal way.
  • Motion creates transparency and aligns the entire team
    How often do you get Slack or Teams messages about “what’s the timeline for task X” or “when do you think task X will be done” or “I’m blocked by task Y - when can we finish it”? In addition, whenever things take longer than expected or task priorities change, your team might need to have a meeting to manually re-plan things. All this manual communication and coordination is the result of an opaque system where no one knows what others are doing, and the team isn’t aligned. Motion aligns the entire team and ensures that everyone always knows the most important thing to work on. Motion gives everyone visibility into their teammates’ progress on every task. Most importantly, we live in a messy world where things are always changing. Each time something changes, Motion will sort it out, automatically.