Time Blocking: Why it doesn't work for me and productivity methods that do.

October 1, 2018


Time Blocking is the practice of scheduling your day out into 'appointment-like' chunks in which you dedicate specific work or recurring tasks to be completed. Sounds great in practice, right? When your desk calendar bings at you and the happy little box pops up warning you that you have 15 minutes until your next task starts, you happily bundle up the previous work and move on to the next. This is the equivalent of meal planning for dieters. If your calendar is the one telling you what to do after you've done all the legwork, following through should be simple!


When my department director approached our team a couple of months back with the request that we try out this time management strategy, I was like a raccoon in a trap. Wide-eyed and afraid because this wasn't the first time I'd been down this road. I was hungry for an escape route. I begged and pleaded, explaining that this just wasn't for me, and he insisted that we try for a couple of weeks and report back to him.


Now, this the part of the story where you would expect that I grudgingly accepted the task set out for me, and after some time was amazed to find that time blocking had worked. No. Not even close. Instead, here is what happened in all the gory detail.


1. I lied. A lot. (don't act so surprised)

The most difficult part of this method is that everything needs to be tracked and accounted for before it happens. If you don't have it on your calendar, it might as well not exist. This type of rigid thinking has never served me. I am a kitten in a butterfly factory. I am the glorious multitasker with many arms. I have three computer screens for a reason and that reason is not to work on one thing at a time. There are people reading this right now scoffing at three computer screens and my many many arms, but this works for me (and maybe it works for you as well).


ANYHOW, back to the story and how I lied. This little experiment set out by my director was the result of two major factors - we were failing to complete projects on-time as a team and we were constantly using the excuse of being 'too busy' to take on more work. This created an endless vortex of out-of-control timelines and project extensions, all the while we were working on side jobs for people who asked nicely (derail items as we like to call them). Since I am terribly bad at keeping track of all the butterflies I am chasing as a happy little kitten, my two month experience in time blocking was basically backloading my calendar after my day was through with as much information as I could 'remember'. I use the term remember loosely, I made shit up. Plain and simple.


2. I became WAY more stressed out.

Did I mention that I have a mostly-functional level of constant anxiety? No? Well there it is. Things I have ridiculous anxiety about include: leaving my house, getting in cars, speaking to people on the phone, going to the grocery store, and considering the ways in which I will probably die today. Think I'm joking? Ask my husband. The most mundane tasks cause me immense amounts of fear an crippling indecision. Time blocking set something sinister off in my head. Typically, I do an amazing job at compartmentalizing the work I do and the actions I have to take in order to be successful each day. I have constructed a bubble in which I can function and not cry at my desk. It works for me and it works for my team (at least that's what they tell me).


The funny/not funny thing about anxiety is that the dumbest things can set it off. Unfortunately for my team, being told that I had to break my day into tiny pieces and only work on what fit in those boxes was akin to strapping me to a medieval torture device. I became agitated at very small things, secluded myself in my office so that I didn't have to speak to anyone, and became increasingly obsessed with logging my activities on my calendar.


3. I stopped being productive.

You're not surprised, are you? You've learned today that I have crippling anxiety triggered by big scary things like keeping a calendar, and that I probably have some form of undiagnosed ADHD and can't keep myself confined to working on one thing at a time. I got absolutely. jack. shit. done. However, my calendar looked GREAT. Activities were color-coded by priority and task type. My calendar alerts happily binged at me to change tasks between activities I hadn't really been completing, and I hurriedly clicked them away with a flourish of the DISMISS ALL ALERTS button. It was easier to pretend that they were never there.


The experiment had come to a close, and the team all really seemed to be benefiting from this new technique. Our completion rates for projects were up, the team seemed far less stressed, and they had a great new tool for pushing back on people that wanted to 'derail' their priorities. "Sorry Ted, I've got three other priorities today, but I can fit you in tomorrow!"


What did I do wrong? How could my process be so irreversibly broken that I couldn't keep to a schedule?


The short answer is: it wan't.


How my brain works and how yours might too.

I am a spurt worker through and through. Inspiration hits me, and I immediately have this sense of urgency and vigor that will push all the negative and shitty thoughts out of my brain. I am overwhelmed by a level of courage and kick-assery that makes me feel like a normal, sane human. Working inside of a strictly regimented schedule stops those creative juices from flowing. When the frame of mind shifts from solving problems to making sure that I'm on-task, all that creative energy is tapped for record-keeping and worry.


So what DOES work for me (and maybe you)?

  1. Keep a running list of tasks that need to be accomplished.

    - I call this my Getting Shit Done List and it works by placing items with closer due dates or higher priorities towards the top, and things that are less important but still need to get done towards the bottom. If something doesn't really need to be accomplished in any sort of reasonable amount of time, it goes in my backlog (another list that I can pull from when I have free time hahahahaah)

  2. Give yourself FREQUENT breaks.

    - I'm not telling you to slack off all the time and fall into a constant pit of clickbait and phone distraction. I'm telling you to get up and stretch, get some water, say hello to a coworker. Don't let yourself become the secluded office troll who is angry at everyone and never takes a breath. This is very important for your mental health!

    - Some people find it helpful to use the Pomodoro Method. To put it simply, work for 10-20 minutes, make a check mark on a piece of paper, and then take a short 2-5 minute break. When you get FIVE checkmarks, take a 10-15 minute break. Then you start again with no check marks. You'll be amazed at how focused you can be if you just do little chunks at a time.

  3. Be realistic.

    - If you having a hard time focusing, it probably means that you need to check in with yourself and get real. WHY do I not want to work on this, WHAT will motivate me to focus, and WHO can I reach out to that will give me the kick in the ass I need to move forward. I find that having a strong social support network in your workplace is as important as it is anywhere else in your life. You are way more likely to succeed if you can vent your fears and frustrations to someone. If you don't have someone in the workplace who can do that for you, find a facebook group - family member - unicorn plushie - blogger who shares TMI - ANYTHING that grounds you and allows you the space to work through whatever shit you're experiencing.

You're not weird, and you can do it. Some methods aren't for everyone, and I encourage you to keep trying new things until you find something that does.


Have another productivity method to share that I didn't mention here? Subscribe to my email list and drop me a line at heckameg@gmail.com


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