My experience with time-blocking

Time-blocking is a method of managing one’s time by scheduling in advance what tasks or activities you will do throughout the day. It was popularised by Cal Newport in Deep Work, but I’m sure it’s been around long before then. Bill Gates and Elon Musk apparently do it too.

I started time-blocking about 2 months ago after hearing about it on Cal Newport’s podcast. My success with this time-blocking strategy was what motivated me to finally read Deep Work.

Buy Deep Work at: Amazon | Kobo (affiliate links)

In this post, I share my own personal experience with time-blocking. I’ll explain:

  • Why I started time-blocking;
  • My personal approach and how it differs from Cal Newport’s;
  • Benefits of time-blocking; and
  • Drawbacks and common obstacles.

Why I started time-blocking

Contrary to popular belief, time-blocking is not just for doing deep work. In fact, when I started time-blocking, I was already reasonably satisfied with the amount of deep work I was accomplishing and had no intention of pushing it further.

The catalyst for my attempt at time-blocking was a recent move. I found myself staring down an overwhelming list of time-consuming, albeit “shallow”, administrative tasks. I needed some way to make sure I was getting through them, without overburdening myself or losing my sanity.

Initially I was sceptical of time-blocking. It seemed similar to keeping a fixed timetable, which I’d previously tried unsuccessfully. The rigidity of a timetable was too constraining, and I couldn’t endure even a week before giving up.

But time-blocking is different in two significant ways:

  • The planning occurs less than 24 hours in advance. By then, you’ll likely have a broad idea of what upcoming day might look like, and can get more specific about the tasks you need to do.
  • It allows flexibility to adjust on the fly. The point is not to “tie yourself to the mast” and execute the day exactly as you’ve planned. The point is simply to become more intentional about how you spend your time.

So, despite my earlier misgivings, I decided to give time-blocking a go. I needed to change something, because my existing system was not coping well with my sudden increase in life admin.

My personal approach

My approach to time-blocking differs from Newport’s slightly in several ways. Perhaps the biggest difference is that I schedule my “free” time and don’t bother with my work time. The reason is that I always have more that I want to do in my free time than I have time for, so I’m forced to make trade-offs.

By contrast, I’m paid for each hour I work and don’t feel the need to over-optimise my time there. Not to imply that I sit at work waiting out the clock — I just don’t have the problem of having more that I want to do than time to do it in. I attend to work as it comes in and I’m fine saying “no” if I already have too much on. This depends on your job, though — if I had a less structured job like a freelancer or an academic like Newport, that may be a different story.

Another difference is that I schedule each day the evening before, rather than first thing in the morning. Having a schedule in place when I go to bed helps me wake-up on time, since I know “snoozing” will push everything back.

Lastly, instead of time-blocking with a physical notebook, I use Google Calendar. Either tool can work fine, but I preferred a digital calendar because:

  • I can check it anywhere on my phone;
  • The colour-coding lets me see at a glance how my day looks overall and if I’m getting the “balance” between work and rest right; and
  • It makes the scheduling slightly easier as I can drag and drop to adjust my schedule. This in turn makes me more likely to actually do this habit.

Newport suggests using time-blocks of at least 30 minutes, which I agree is a good minimum that prevents over-planning. But I set my Google Calendar to use 15 minute increments as I’ve found many “30-minute tasks” seem to take me closer to 45 minutes (this also allows for transition time, bathroom breaks, etc).

Benefits of time-blocking

I’ve found the three biggest benefits of time-blocking to be that it:

  1. Makes it easier to do things that are time-consuming and important (including, but not limited to, deep work);
  2. Brings our “finitude” into focus; and
  3. Reduces anxiety and guilt.

1. Easier to do things that are time-consuming and important

Time-consuming and important things are hard to do without planning

Things that are time-consuming and important are the hardest to fit into a busy schedule, so are most likely to get neglected.

Small tasks easily fit into our days — you don’t need to plan to find 10 minutes here or there to do them. However, anything that takes at least an hour usually requires some planning.

Moreover, important tasks are rarely urgent enough to become priorities unless we make them priorities. As former US President Dwight Eisenhower said:

I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.
— Dwight D Eisenhower

Deep work is an example of a time-consuming task — it can’t be broken up into small chunks because the context switching costs are too high. Deep work also falls into the “important but not urgent” category — because its effects are only realised in the long-term, it’s always tempting to defer it to another day.

But deep work is far from the only type of activity that time-blocking can facilitate. Exercise is similarly important and time-consuming, especially if you have to travel to a gym. Eating well is another example, as it can depend on other activities like grocery shopping and meal prepping. Even quality time with friends or family can be time-consuming — it takes a while to “get out of book” as the first 5-10 minutes are spent on small talk and pleasantries.

Why time-blocking helps

When you don’t time-block, you’re deciding how to spend your time on a moment-to-moment basis, when you may be tired, frazzled or hungry. You want to eat a healthy meal, but you haven’t prepared one, so you get take-out instead. You feel like there was something you were “meant to do” but can’t remember what it was. Meanwhile, your kids, pets and co-workers are all vying for your attention. No wonder you default to the 2-minute tasks and the squeakiest (but less important) wheels — how can anyone make thoughtful trade-offs in these circumstances?

When you time-block, you don’t have to decide how to spend each moment in the moment. Instead, you find a quiet pocket of time to decide how you’ll spend your day. During this time, when you’re calm and composed, you’re more likely to prioritise the important and see what you need to actually execute on your intentions. For example, if you want to eat a healthy dinner tomorrow, you can make sure you’ve bought the groceries and built in enough time to cook. Furthermore, once you’ve made a plan for the day, you’re more likely to follow through with it — it’s like an implementation intention — even if you end up revising parts of it (more on this below).

By making it easier to do the time-consuming and “important but not urgent” tasks, time-blocking helps increase the overlap in the Venn diagram of how you intend to spend your time and how you actually spend your time.

Venn diagram - how I intend to spend my time vs how I actually spend it
A rough approximation of my Venn diagram. What does yours look like?

2. Brings our finitude into focus

Another benefit of time-blocking is that it brings our “finitude” into stark focus. Finitude is the idea that our lives are finite, which means it’s impossible for us to do everything so we have to make trade-offs. (For more on this idea, see Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman.)

Before time-blocking, I’d start each week with a vague hope to do A, B, C and D. At the end of the week, even if I accomplished the first 3 tasks, I’d find myself thinking: “crap, I wanted to do D this week but still haven’t”.

The problem was that my vague hopes were far too optimistic. As Newport says, when you start time-blocking, your schedule is more likely to reflect a wishful thinking, best case scenario than a realistic plan that accounts for the boring but necessary things in life. When I first started, I sometimes even forgot to block out time for eating and showering!

Time-blocking showed me that I didn’t have as much free time (or energy) as I thought I did. After some practice, I am now far more realistic about what I can reasonably accomplish in a week (though still not perfect by any means).

3. Reduces negative feelings such as anxiety, guilt and decision fatigue

Last, but certainly not least, time-blocking can reduce negative feelings such as anxiety, guilt and decision fatigue.

For me personally, this was huge. When I have a massive list of tasks to do, I feel anxious about whether I’ll be able to get through them. This makes it hard to relax even when I’m not working on those tasks. An overhanging feeling of guilt that I “should” be doing something on the list pervades any downtime, no matter how well-deserved. Time-blocking alleviates this anxiety and guilt by reassuring my brain that I’ve already prioritised the most important tasks, and that the rest will eventually get done.

Another benefit of time-blocking is it can make annoying, time-consuming tasks slightly more palatable. For example, when I recently had to call up the tax authority to sort out an issue, I budgeted a whole 2.5 hours. When it “only” took 1.5 hours, I was happy that I’d “gained” back a whole hour! Without time-blocking, I would’ve just felt annoyed that I had to waste so much time on that one issue. It might sound silly, because I know rationally that I don’t “gain” any time. But it worked for my simple brain.

Drawbacks and common obstacles

Interruptions and poor time estimates

As Newport points out in Deep Work, two common obstacles to time-blocking are:

  1. You’ll get interrupted and have to revise your plan; and
  2. You’ll underestimate the amount of time it takes to do tasks.

Newport’s suggested solution for interruptions is simply to revise your schedule for the rest of the day, as shown in the example below. For underestimates, he recommends using overflow conditional blocks with two purposes. If you need more time for the first activity, use the overflow block for it; if you’ve finished the first activity, you’ll have some non-urgent tasks already lined up.

Time-blocking example - revising your schedule

While Newport’s suggestions are helpful, we should also just acknowledge that time-blocking can feel stressful, especially to begin with. Facing your finitude head-on is confronting. When you find out you take longer than expected to do many tasks, you may experience feelings of failure or disappointment. But I think this gets easier over time as you get a better sense of how long things might take and learn to stop beating yourself up.

Requires some predictability and control

For time-blocking to be useful, you must have some ability to predict and control your next 24 hours.

Take an out-of-town vacation as an example. If you have a weekend in Paris and want to tick off all the main sights, you won’t achieve that without advance planning and scheduling. But if you don’t know much about Paris and prefer to discover a foreign place by wandering around in it, time-blocking won’t be suitable.

Time-blocking is similarly inappropriate if you don’t have the ability to control your day. For example, if you’re at a business trip, conference, retreat, or planned tour, you may have zero autonomy over your time. If your job is to be on-call and respond to incidents, or if you have young children, you may also find time-blocking to be impractical. Even though you can rearrange your plan when something unexpected crops up, you might not be able to realise the benefits of time-blocking if this happens too frequently.

Illness is another reason why you may have limited control over your time. When you’re sick, it’s usually more important to listen to your body and only do as much as you feel capable of in the moment than it is to do time-consuming and important tasks.

Time-blocking takes extra time and planning

I’m not going to lie — time-blocking does take a bit of extra time and planning, especially at the beginning. When you first attempt it, you may find it takes half an hour or more to think through everything you want to do for the day and estimate how long each task will take. But don’t worry; it won’t take that long every time.

Time-blocking gets easier with practice as most days are pretty similar to previous days and you’ll get a better sense of how long tasks take. I’d recommend trying time-blocking for at least a week before deciding it’s not for you.


While I’m pretty excited about what time-blocking has done for me so far, I don’t want to oversell it. There are some drawbacks and it may not be suitable for everyone. But don’t write off time-blocking as being for obsessive planners only. Like I said, it’s nowhere near as rigid as keeping a timetable and you can build in plenty of room for flexibility.

Also, it’s perfectly fine to time-block sporadically. Rather than being a daily habit, it could be something you deploy only when you require a heightened level of productivity.

So, to summarise:

  • Time-blocking makes it easier to do time-consuming and important things (including, but not limited to, deep work).
  • There are also other benefits, including bringing your finitude into focus and reducing negative feelings such as anxiety, guilt and decision fatigue.
  • Initial challenges, such as interruptions and time underestimates, can be addressed by revising your schedule and using overflow conditional blocks.
  • Time-blocking may not be suitable when you have little ability to predict or control your days.
  • Although time-blocking can feel stressful to begin with, it gets easier over time.

Have you tried time-blocking? If so, share your experience in the comments below!
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One thought on “My experience with time-blocking

  1. This sounds good. I’ll try it. Might try the Venn diagram too, although I know for me it’s too much Twitter, not enough book reading

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