If you’re struggling with your to-do list, you can use time-blocking to achieve balance in all areas of your life.
When you’re a busy woman, it’s easy to get to the point where you feel as though you might be winning in some areas, but are falling woefully behind in others. Think about all those jobs on your to-do list that stay on it from week to week, month to month, maybe even to year, and you’ll know what I’m talking about.
Of course, we all know that eventually the not-important task suddenly becomes urgent, and often now presents with a heap more problems because it’s been left to fester.
For an example, we live out in the country, and last year we left our almost 1400 square foot effluent field, which had been freshly planted out with day-lilies to absorb all our nasties, for about six weeks. We did this right at peak growing time, as it clashed with a insanely-busy period at work for us both. Over 100 hours of weeding to try tame it over summer STILL didn’t have it completely weed-free (We hired a gardener in the end. Best decision ever).
Therefore, it’s important to not let things slide and to try and pay equal attention to all those categories of your life as much as possible. But how, you ask? Well, I think time-blocking might be the answer.
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The theory behind time-blocking.
Time-blocking works by grouping together similar types of tasks and working on them in batches.
One theory behind time-blocking relates to the ‘multi-tasking versus single tasking’ argument- that being that multi-tasking uses more mental energy, takes longer in total, and often produces an inferior result. This is because we can’t really do two things at once when thinking is required. What we actually do is switch rapidly from one thing to another. And every time we switch, we lose momentum.
Caroline Webb, in How to Have a Good Day: Think Bigger, Work Smarter and Transform Your Working Life uses an example that I’d like you to try.
Firstly, say abcdefg.
Now count out 1234567.
You were probably pretty quick, right? Now I want you to interleave them: a1b2 and so on.
I bet you it took longer and required more mental energy to complete the last task. That’s a basic example of how multi-tasking can take longer than single-tasking.
Another idea behind time-blocking is reflected in this quote from Eric Barker which really resonates with me. He says, when talking about productivity and how we manage our tasks and time, that we often “do what’s easy or urgent, not what really moves the needle.” By this, he means we take the easy jobs, the urgent jobs, but not those which enable us to make meaningful progress in our lives. However, by giving a category a block of time, we are forcing ourselves to hone our intentions regarding how we intend to spend that time: we’re consciously trying to move the needle.
So how do you get started?
Create your categories and identify your tasks.
Most of us can group our at-home activities into categories. You may already have them in your head, or you may need to do a bit of brainstorming.
My categories are as follows:
Personal. This includes things like buying birthday presents, doing my taxes, making appointments.
Home. This includes all tasks for things to be done around the home, like calling the repair man about the dishwasher, regular home maintenance and so on.
Garden. This includes all garden tasks that the gardener doesn’t have time to do, both one-offs like repotting herbs or regular maintenance like weeding the front garden.
Social. This includes any social commitments I have, including making contact with people as this is something I am terrible at doing. Having it written down helps me a lot!
Now, some of you will know that I recently started using Trello, and I love it, as it enables me to do the next few steps with ease. If you haven’t heard of Trello, go check it out. I have a board for every one of those categories above. Within that I have sub-categories. On Trello, these are called lists. For example, on my Home board, I have three lists: repairs, tasks and monthly cleaning.
Within each list is a task, which is called a card and if you click on the card you can add a heap of information, including due dates, comments, a checklist and so on. The cards can be moved around within the list, from one list to another, and even on to other boards.
Now of course you don’t need Trello. You could just as easily use a page in a notebook with your category as a heading. But the reason I like it is that it enables me to sort things really clearly and you have that flexibility of shifting things around.
The next step is to identify your tasks per category. If you don’t already have a list, brainstorm all your to-dos within that category. Write them down, create a card, or whatever it is that you are using to record your information. Don’t worry about sorting them by priority, as priorities are often fluid.
Now establish your time-blocks.
Deciding how long your time-block should be is the first step here. If you’ve read my articles on 10 tips for a better night’s sleep, you’ll know that we typically sleep in 90 minute cycles. The ultradian rhythms that create this 90 minute cycle work during the day as well, in 90 to 120 minute blocks. What this means is that 90 minutes is the optimal amount of time you should spend focused on one task. After that, Scott Tousley suggests that you spend 30 minutes doing something that does not involve any highly cognitive work such as going for a walk, having an afternoon tea break with your spouse, or talking to your kids.
I allocate one to two 90 minute blocks to the categories described above. I also allocate time blocks to running. I admit I can’t handle the idea of 30 minutes off for every 90 in most cases, so instead I have mini-breaks of five minutes or so every 30 or 60 minutes. This is often when I do my morning, afternoon and evening routines. Alternatively, I do more brain-dead activities for 30 minutes after a focused 90 minute slot (for example, pin on Pinterest for 30 minutes after 90 minutes writing a blog post).
To give you an example, this what my Sunday looks like (remember I don’t have kids at home anymore!):
7.00am – 10.00am: Running
10.00am – 1.00 pm: Gardening (this includes having lunch and tidying up)
1.00 – 4.00pm: Blogging
4.00pm – 7.00pm: Home (this includes having dinner and tidying up from that)
7.00pm – 10.00pm: Relax with husband
When you are allocating your own time-blocks, it’s important to think about when you work best and other factors relevant to your life. I know if we don’t run first thing on a weekend, then it doesn’t happen, so it needs to go in first. I actually probably do my best work between 10.00am and 1.00pm but at this time of the year, gardening takes priority. In addition, I love blogging so much that once I start it’s hard to stop, so starting at 10.00 would probably take out the rest of the day. 1.00-4.00pm is also a consistently productive slot, so it works well enough. I am trying to switch off more, hence the relaxing in the evening.
Allocating your tasks.
Once you have your time-blocks worked out, it’s time to select what you actually plan to do during these blocks. I simply look at my Trello board for that category, look at the lists, and select the task I intend to do. I love crossing things off, so I copy it out onto my daily planning sheet under the relevant time-block (you can download the planning sheet by signing up to my mailing list at the bottom of the page).
Choosing the tasks is about going back to the Eric Barker quote at the beginning- look at what is going to move you forward, as well as just being quick or urgent. With two time blocks, you should be able to do at least one of each! On my downloadable planning sheet, I’ve added “frog to eat” (the job you are most putting off that you need to get done), and also your top three tasks that are must dos. This helps give you focus.
It’s also a good idea to look at your balance between proactive versus reactive tasks. Proactive is something you have picked that’s important to you. Reactive is something you’re responding to, like email. Aim for at least a two to one ratio of proactive to reactive.
I recommend working out this planning sheet every night for the following day, so you know exactly what your priorities are.
The best thing about time-blocking.
Time-blocking gives you increased focus. Knowing your time is limited makes you less susceptible to distractions. It’s reduced the anxious feeling you may have had in the past when you’ve looked at your to-do list and wondered where to start. In addition, somehow knowing that you have a section of time allocated for that category makes the day seem bigger. And never fear- it has flexibility – one day one category might take up more time blocks than usual, and that’s okay.
But most importantly, by ensuring you take the time to allocate different sections of your day to those distinct areas in your life, time-blocking can help you achieve balance.
If you haven’t already signed up for my daily planning sheet, and would like to try it, then fill out the form below.
Have you tried time-blocking? Have any thoughts or tips to add? Let me know in the comments!
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This super-simple daily planning sheet, with sections for your top three, your "frog", appointments and time-blocks, will help you focus on what matters most.