Organize your schedule and work more efficiently. Task blocking, or activity blocking, is a proven way to optimize daily to-dos.
Trying to squeeze into your day — and mental bandwidth — all the stuff you need to get done isn’t always a simple or straightforward feat, though. Most people have very busy, multi-faceted lives. They are attempting to balance the demands of family, work, community, and self. Not easy!
That’s why I’m always receptive to tips and tricks to help mitigate and streamline the to-do lists. And, fortunately, there are plenty of work/life hacks out there. Seriously, have you been on Pinterest or Google lately? Zillions of brilliant ideas and tools.
Activity blocking is one of my faves. And research supports the power of this approach.
What Is Activity Blocking?
Pretty much what its name implies it is. Activity blocking is the practice of chunking up similar kinds of work to be done during a dedicated period of time. Sometimes it’s referred to as Task Blocking — same thing.
Alternately, you can think of it the other way around: It’s chunking up time during which you’d do similar kinds of work. This is known as Time Blocking.
Whatever works for you.
I prefer thinking in terms of the activities, though. This is because I have lists of things to get done, not time slots to fill. My to-do list items are discrete tasks. And I like to cross them out when they’re completed. My brain and ego like this.
Anyway…the central premise is that by grouping like activities and allocating a finite but dedicated time to doing them, you’ll be more efficient.
Why Organize Your Schedule This Way?
The overarching goals are twofold:
- Protecting yourself. Safeguarding and judiciously allocating your time (and energy and sanity) is a must for any savvy and sustainability-minded person. I’m guessing you probably want to make the most of these valuable and limited assets.
- Boosting productivity. This is the idea of doing more and better work with fewer resources. Constantly “multi-tasking” runs counter to this and can be mentally/physically taxing. Evidence has shown that people get less and less productive per unit of time as the number of projects they work on in a given period increases. Marginal utility declines. Bounded rationality starts coming into play. Yada yada yada.
These are the “whys” in all this.
You want your work product to be its best possible. You want to create an environment that’s conducive to more and better more economic opportunities to come your way. You want to do both of those things while also improving the balance and quality of your life.
How Does Activity Blocking Make You More Efficient?
Logical question. By blocking your time/activities, you’re accomplishing the following:
- You’re “shifting gears” less. By doing similar tasks together, you’re using the same tools, processes, skills, etc. to complete the work. It’s like meal prepping for a whole week on a Sunday afternoon. It takes less time to make all the meals at once than to make one meal at a time, several times throughout the week. You’re losing less time, effort and energy (for both you and your stove/oven) by transitioning from one thing to the next; and taking advantage of already having all the ingredients/pots/pans out.
- You’re giving your mind the opportunity to get into the zone. When you stick with an activity for an amount of time, your mind naturally slips into a focused state. Literally, your brain starts waving at more optimal frequencies. It’s an effect like meditation or hypnosis; and it takes at least five minutes to get to this peaked level.
- You’re establishing routines. This lets you become familiar with the steps involved with the tasks at hand. With set patterns, you aren’t floundering around wondering what’s next. It makes it easier to plan around work as well. At some point, it gets to be more like the tedious or operational elements are done by autopilot; it’s a lot less taxing on your mind.
- You’re setting expectations. By this, I mean a couple of things. First, you’re establishing your reputation. If you start including writing your blog posts late morning on Mondays, your followers will start to look for it at lunchtime. They count on this. If you miss a posting, they might start wondering what’s up. Every moment they’re wondering what’s up — they aren’t thinking about you/your product or service. Expectations are essential for communications, too. You’re figuring out how long it takes to do things, which is critical if you need to communicate such things to clients and prospects. (Project proposals, timelines, etc?) As a bonus, if you create expectations, people will start proactively anticipating. This translates into time savings for you like this: If you always send purchase orders to your vendor on the first of the month, the vendor will learn this. You won’t have to swap several emails regarding the timing of the PO. Imagine little recuperations of time/energy like this across all your tasks….
- You’re accommodating the various aspects of your life. Chunking out my to-dos helps me build variety into my schedule, all while making sure I get all the must-do things done in a timely manner. I block in the highest priority activities first. Then it’s easy to see where other task blocks can fit in. Having things marked on my calendar helps me stay organized and coordinate with others. I get reminders and notifications; so I don’t miss calls/meetings/block times.
Sounds Good in Theory. What’s It Look Like in Practice?
If you’re wondering this, you’re on fire! You are serious about finding and incorporating changes to optimize your schedule and workflows. Awesomeness.
This is really going to be a personal thing. Your activity blocks are going to be based on the things you need to accomplish. After all, your day probably doesn’t resemble mine — so it won’t make sense for your blocks to be exactly like mine.
I feel it’s important to stress: You should have a variety of block types. Make sure that you’re doing both right-brain and left-brain activities. And include sedentary and movement-based tasks within your day.
You should have a variety of block types. Make sure that you’re doing both right-brain and left-brain activities. And include sedentary and movement-based tasks within your day.
This will help keep you fresher and sharper. Having an array of activities means you’ll likely be engaging with a breadth of different kinds of people in a range of ways. This keeps you interesting, engaged, and ever-evolving.
Examples of Activity Blocks
That said, here are some blocks (in alpha order) to consider. I’m presenting them as sort of generic categories so that they’re adaptable to many people. Can you envision how these categories would fit for you?
- Admin. This includes things like answering emails, sending invoices, paying bills, opening mail, doing governmental filings, etc. You know, all that tedious, boring crud.
- Appointments. Meetings, zooming with your CPA, that 30-minute window during which you fetch your kid from school — they could all sit cozily in this category.
- Creativity. Anything artsy-fartsyish. This could be writing, doing graphic design, photo editing, etc. that you do as part of your work. Even if your job is a highly analytical, left-brainy one, find ways to include something Creative in your day. Play the guitar, make a quilt, or attack that adult coloring book. Many studies have shown that those with well-rounded lifestyles have better problem-solving, collaboration, and mental-processing capabilities.
- Errands. Some folks like to account for the time they spend running around getting groceries, picking up the dry cleaning, taking the dog to the groomer’s, etc. Altogether, these seemingly insignificant tasks can amount to a huge time suck. You can almost hear it…..
- Learning. If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it. The brain is like a muscle. You have to regularly flex it to keep it in prime condition. I know of several entrepreneurs who allocate 30-60 minutes/day to learning. They do this by reading blogs/articles, watching videos, taking online and in-person courses, meeting with mentors, and so on. In this day and age, it’s fairly easy to find ways to dovetail personal and professional development in. The takeaway here is to constantly be growing and expanding your horizons. Even if the learning you do is all geared towards topics of personal interest — that knowledge and the skill of acquiring it will reap benefits for you in a professional capacity.
- Movement. The body is designed to move. Actually many systems — like your lymph system — need you to be in motion for them to function. But movement is more than just a physiological necessity, your mind and spirit crave it, too. Getting some exercise (can be as simple as a walk around the block or taking the stairs down to the cafeteria) revives you from energy dips, destresses, gives you a change of scenery. It can reframe problems and challenges so that you can consider them from a different angle.
- Nourish. Don’t get hangry! Or dehydrated. Regular food and beverage intake keeps your mind and body fueled to do what they need to do. Don’t deny them at the precise times you’re asking them to perform.
- Play. Like dessert, there’s always room for this. There’s scientific support for play improving every aspect of life. So go have some fun, and laugh and smile a lot!
- Rest. Relaxation is non-negotiable. You can’t be “on” all the time. Sleep (and rest more broadly) must be part of your schedule. An extra cup of coffee or can of cola cannot counteract sleep deprivation — don’t try it! When you’re asleep, your body is crazy busy repairing itself at the cellular level. This helps you stay healthy and hearty.
- Self-Care. Maybe it’s just me, but if I don’t block in going to the eye doctor or getting a haircut, it just doesn’t seem to happen. If my day is looking a bit chaotic, I might even schedule in time to wash my hair and do my nails.
- Work. Oh yeah. You gotta do whatever your “work work” is. This block is anything like client meetings, project work, etc. It’s the stuff you’re doing to pay the bills.
- X-Factor. Sometimes you just need a bucket to chuck all the random or uncategorizable things into. Miscellany is a big, vague, but completely legit and necessary umbrella to duck under when all the weird sh*t starts raining down on your schedule.
This is up to you. Only you know when and how you function best. Only you know all the other life components (family, community, school, etc.) that need to be factored in.
But, here are some thoughts on scheduling.
- Use an app or some other visual schedule. This will help you stay organized and often looking at something re-enforces the information.
- Activity blocks can be any length and frequency that makes sense for you. Adjust them as needed.
- Your blocks will probably evolve over time. This is natural. Our lives go through phases so our needs and obligations change.
- Activity blocking is infinitely flexible. Yes, it’s a framework and yes, it has structure. But it’s yours and it’s intended to make your life better. So adapt it to work for you. Move blocks around, or omit or add some, if you need to. Not every week has to map out the same.
Resources to Help You Activity Block
I wouldn’t toss you into the deep end without a lifeline!
You can use this worksheet to start your activity blocking. Follow the steps and tips and you’ll be well on your way. (It may be easier for you to recreate a similar type of grid in Excel or Google Sheets.) Remember, your tasks, blocks, and schedule are your own — so customize this to meet your needs.
To give you an example, I used this worksheet in two ways. I first jotted down tasks that I thought fit in each kind of activity block. Then, after scheduling the blocks into my calendar app, I kind of use this worksheet to keep me accountable. I mentally tick the intersections of activities and days when I’ve completed that block.
Also, check out the blog from time to time as I add new posts on a regular basis. Most of the subjects I write on are geared towards demystifying biz-related topics for small businesses and entrepreneurs.
I’m also ramping up to provide more tools to facilitate you doing all the diverse functions and activities needed to establish, grow, and maintaining a thriving biz. More likely than not, these goodies will be mentioned in blog posts.
Be sure to stay connected by subscribing to my email list and via social media. This is how I tell the world about new blog posts and resources that’ wi’ll help them strike back at their business challenges.
Smooth to the Groove
Need some tunes to help you wriggle into the zone? Here are a few of my favorite Spotify playlists for just that purpose.
- Productive Morning – This one is a mixed bag of mostly instrumental music. It’s like a lively or invigorating ambient sound bath. I usually skip the few tracks that have words in them.
- Binaural Beats: Focus – If you aren’t familiar with binaural beats, you’re in for a treat. This playlist settles into the background and helps you just get on with your work.
- Relaxing Classical – This playlist has some lovely compositions. It’s great for filling your workspace with legit music. It’s also wonderful whenever you want to just chill out. I listen to this list a lot in the evenings as I’m trying to transition to bedtime (not because it’s sleep-inducing, but because it’s mellowing and brain de-cluttering).
- Personally Curated – Over time I’ve saved the songs I like from around Spotify to a playlist I created for myself. Give this a go for yourself. This is a great way to make sure everything entering your ears is pleasing to you.
- If you prefer cafe, urban, or nature sounds, maybe try something like Noisli. It offers a ton of customization and is really a nice tool.
Want to learn more about Activity Blocking and related techniques? Check out these articles and sites. (And, yes, they can count towards your Learning activity block!)
- Time Blocking: a Productivity Power Tool
- [Workflow Guide] Reclaim Your Schedule with Time Blocking
- Master Your Time: 5 Daily Scheduling Methods to Bring More Focus to Your Day
- A Quick Guide to Time Blocking
- The Pomodoro Technique
- Ali Abdaal / Feel-Good Productivity
Throwing this topic out to you. Do you use activity blocking? Why/why not? What are your experiences with it? How do you chunk out your time? What apps or tools do you use to help you manage your time and productivity? Feel free to share any other activity and efficiency tips. Thanks!