One of the strategies I encourage people to use when planning is time-blocking. It is what I am thinking of when I talk about boundaries as one of the principle elements of a good plan.
Over the years I’ve realized that there are different ways to understand what this is. I want to say a bit about what I think is useful about it. I also want to address some common misconceptions about what’s required to use time-blocking effectively.
What is time-blocking?
Time-blocking means looking at your calendar and allocating blocks of time to particular activities. That’s it. Very simple.
You already use time-blocking for activities involving working with other people: meetings and teaching have time allocated in your calendar. Electronic calendars tend to call these “events”. Even if they happen virtually, you need to agree when you will do them because multiple people are involved. You have varying levels of control over when those activities get scheduled in your calendar.
I encourage you to block time for activities you do alone in the same way. Hence “A Meeting With Your Writing” — a co-working session that helps you protect writing blocks where you and your writing project sit down together for a specified period of time.
You may have noticed that your electronic calendar will also let you schedule other things. When I create a new item in my Google Calendar I’m offered the following options:
Out of Office
I can then specify the length of time and what I plan to do with it.
Time-blocking and focus
One major advantage of time-blocking is that it can help you focus. Having a time constraint increases your focus. I’ve written more about this in “The impact of time available on your focus” This is also the basic principle underpinning the popular Pomodoro method, which uses very short time blocks (often strung together).
The term “Focus Time” suggests a different way of thinking about the relationship between time-blocking and focus.
There are certain kinds of work that require deep focus. You have limited capacity for this kind of focused work. Your capacity for this work may vary by time of day, or even season.
Charlie Gilkey, at Productive Flourishing, uses this as the basis for time-blocking. What I take from his work is the idea that you have to protect time for things that require this kind of focus. And that you need to consider the focus and cognitive capacity required by different types of work when planning.
Considering these 2 ways of thinking about the relationship together, you can see that there is more to finding time for your academic writing than having very large blocks of time available to devote to it (e.g. full days or multiple days). Even when you have time you can devote solely to writing, you may benefit from time-blocking to help optimize your focus within that time.
How specific do you need to be?
The basic principle is very simple: Use the same strategy you use for meetings and teaching, to schedule time for tasks you do alone, like writing.
To extend this analogy, your meetings have an agenda, or at least good ones do. Your teaching sessions follow a course outline or syllabus. You know what’s supposed to happen in those blocks of time, even if you adapt the plan as you go along.
There are planning systems out there that have you break your projects down into tasks, estimate the time needed for each task, and then block time accordingly. I understand that some people find that really helpful. I’ve even had clients tell me that a friend of theirs uses such a system and raves about it before asking me how they figure out how much time the different stages of their project will take. If that kind of thing works for you, keep doing it.
However, this is where some people get tangled up when blocking time for writing. A certain amount of structure is helpful. Too much structure can be counter-productive. This level of detailed planning is probably not going to work for you if any of the following apply:
- Your attention is interest led.
- You perceive time differently (sometimes called “time blindness”)
- You rebel against obligations, even ones you’ve set for yourself.
- You are a divergent thinker, with a tendency to go down rabbit holes and possibly change the focus of your project as you go along.
None of these mean you can’t use time-blocking. In fact, the constraint of time blocks can help you focus (in several senses of the word) and move projects to completion. You just can’t do it in a way that requires you to be very specific in advance about what you will be doing on a Tuesday at 10 a.m. 3 weeks from now.
Blocking time for categories of work
The primary goal of the Academic Writing Studio is to help members protect time for writing. In my experience, research and writing is the area of your job most likely to get dropped in the face of more immediate demands around teaching and service. Writing is also one of those tasks that requires a certain kind of focus.
Take the idea of time-blocking as protecting focus time. Combine it with your need to ensure that writing and research don’t get pushed out of your plans completely. Block time for writing (in general) when you plan.
The Annual and Quarterly Planning Classes that I lead in the Academic Writing Studio, focus on helping you figure out how much time you have available in a specified period for writing and research. I then help you decide what kinds of time blocks might work for you, and what support you need to protect those. I also help you make some decisions about which of your writing projects you will prioritize over this period. These classes are now available to purchase individually or as a package, separate from the rest of the Studio resources.
That’s the extent of the decision: Time blocked for writing and a separate list of projects you want to work on in those time blocks.
A Meeting With Your Writing starts with prompts to help you decide which project you will work on in this specific block right now, and what kind of work you will do on this project. You can do the same with your own writing blocks.
You can also divide the time inside your block to optimize your focus. A 90-minute writing block could become three 25 minute pomodoros, for example. The 1-2-3-4 strategy described in “Simple Time Blocking” could also be used to sequence tasks within a writing block.
Adapt your strategy based on what you already know about how you “warm up” to the heavier intellectual lifting required, and what kinds of things might seem like warm ups but might actually distract you from the work you want to do. The writing warm-ups Katherine Firth suggests in “The story of my thesis” could also be used within your longer focus blocks.
Extending this principle beyond writing
Because someone else schedules time in your calendar for teaching, it is easy to overlook the other teaching-related activities that are not scheduled. The fact that you have deadlines for completing preparation or grading may seem like enough.
However, when the time needed to do that work isn’t blocked in your calendar, it’s easy to forget that it’s needed when someone asks if you are available for something else, leaving yourself without enough time to do this essential work. A similar thing can happen with meetings that require preparatory work. This is especially important if you struggle to determine how long things will take, or to notice how long you’ve been working on things (sometimes called “time blindness”).
Having time blocked for focus work in your calendar also makes it easier to determine whether you have capacity to say yes to new opportunities. Saying No is still difficult, but you don’t need to make it more difficult than it needs to be.
Blocking focus time for the main areas of your work can help you get everything done, without being in panic mode all the time. In the current climate, it also makes you realize how unreasonable many of the demands are. You are not broken, but the system might be.
Time blocking for routine tasks
Time-blocking can both protect time for important work, and limit the time you devote to some types of work.
Focus time usually needs protecting. One of things it needs protecting from is encroachment from tasks that don’t require as much focus. They seem easy. You get a sense of accomplishment from ticking lots of things off your list. They may seem more urgent than they really are.
Time blocking can help you limit the time you devote to these other tasks. The time container you create for them can also help you focus your attention more, make quicker decisions, and limit your perfectionist tendencies.
This post on the Bullet Journal blog about “Simple Time Management” suggests blocking time for “zombie mode” to do some of these kinds of tasks. If that’s a focus mode that resonates with you, I recommend reading and thinking about how you can use that strategy as part of your planning.
Dealing with email probably fits into this category. Blocking time for email triage once a day can help you go through your inbox quickly, deal with the easy stuff, and make a plan for the things that require more than a quick response. In this case, the focus block helps you limit the time and emotional energy spent on dread and procrastination.
How long do you block?
When blocking either focus time or time for your routine tasks, the time you need for the type of work is always in tension with the time actually available. It is helpful to know what would be ideal, but don’t let that stop you from blocking something less than ideal.
Start with what you already know about your own focus and the particular type of work. Consider what time of day might work best for you, given the energy and cognitive capacity required.
For some tasks, you may want to strictly limit the time available to force yourself to do tasks quickly, focusing on the essential elements and *not* allowing yourself to do your best.
Don’t worry too much about whether you know exactly how long you need. If you build in contingency for them to take longer, you have plenty of things to reallocate the time to if you take less time than allocated.
This is particularly important for grading, where the number and complexity of plagiarism cases is unpredictable. Set things up so you can celebrate having few or none, creating bonus time for your writing (or something else). This feels much better than having your other plans derailed by even one case.
Writing projects are also difficult to predict, especially in the stage of the process where you are still working out the argument, the evidence necessary to support it, and the necessary secondary literature. The difficult part is deciding which words you want to put on the page. I’ve written more about using different kinds of writing time in Finding Time for Your Scholarly Writing
Making “Ta-da” lists of each thing you accomplished at the end of each session will help you develop a better sense of how much you can do in a specified amount of time and how much that varies.
Combining time blocks into daily and weekly plans
Another principle I’ve taken from Charlie Gilkey’s planning tools is that you have limited capacity for highly focused work every day. And you can only distribute that focus amongst a limited number of projects.
He suggests 4 types of block, to allow for different energy and cognitive demands:
Social (e.g. meetings and teaching)
When planning your weeks and months, you need to keep your energy, focus, and cognitive capacity limits in mind as you set goals for how much progress you might make on specific projects. You also need to consider how your energy, ability to focus, and cognitive capacity varies over different time periods. The academic year varies in intensity, and you often get more tired as the semester or academic year progresses.
On a smaller scale, there is often a big difference between Mondays and Fridays, for example. When planning your days, you need to vary the types of time blocks to optimize your focus and cognitive capacity.
Because writing requires that kind of highly focused time, and that kind of time is both difficult to protect generally and difficult to protect for your writing (when it is also needed for some of your teaching and service work), many of your writing blocks will be these focus blocks.
Some of your writing or teaching blocks will need to be used for tasks that contribute to those projects, but require a different kind of cognitive capacity or focus. Planning, file organization, routine tasks that can be done following a checklist, and so on. You don’t want to waste your high quality focus time on stuff that doesn’t need it but, these things are essential to keeping the project moving and finishing it.
If you are at your cognitive best in the morning, I recommend starting your day with a focus block for either writing or teaching preparation, then using an email triage block as both recovery and admin time.
This sequence also has the advantage of prioritizing the work you have already planned, over things that might be in your email inbox that require you to adjust your plan for the day. The kind of task that is so urgent it would require you to do it before 10 a.m. is extremely rare in education.
You’ll feel significantly different about your plans being derailed if you got a focus block in first.
Time blocking is a really helpful tool for planning. The trick is not to be too rigid about what it means.
The basic principle is that it’s a way of creating boundaries around certain types of work. Those boundaries both protect time for certain activities, and limit time for activities that tend to expand to fill the time available.
You’ll need to experiment to work out the right balance between the structure of time blocking and the freedom to follow your interests.
Enjoy your planning!
This post was originally sent to the General Newsletter on Fri 12 May 2023.