Time-blocking: the time-management strategy that can help reduce stress

Blocking off time for your tasks — and building in flexibility — can help you gain control over your days.
With the COVID-19 pandemic we have a much longer to-do list, but no extra time to get things done.
With the COVID-19 pandemic we have a much longer to-do list, but no extra time to get things done.TODAY Illustration / Getty Images

These days, it’s easy to feel like you’ve lost control of your schedule. Your day flies by, leaving nothing to show for it. You’re on a hamster wheel of email, video conferences and homework help that spins into tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that.

Cal Newport has a suggestion to help you regain control: time blocking. In his book, “The Time-Block Planner: A Daily Method for Deep Work in a Distracted World,” he provides guidance on how to use time blocking to plan out how you’re going to spend your working hours. You build in time for your projects, meetings and email. You schedule time for lunch and breaks. You always know what you’re supposed to be doing and when.

Taking time to plan can feel like one more thing to do. You might think you’d be better off checking something off your growing to-do list instead. But Newport says that’s the wrong way to look at it.

“When you intentionally allocate your time and attention, you get way more back than if you don’t. Whatever time you lose planning, you make back five times over the course of the week,” he told TODAY.

When you work in time blocks, you’re more focused and less distracted. “You know what you’re supposed to be doing, and you don’t want to fall behind,” he said.

Flexibility is key to time blocking

When the unexpected happens, with time blocking you don’t abandon your plan. You reschedule the rest of your day based on the time and tasks you have left.

Newport’s planner provides four columns every day so you can reorganize your time. Maybe it takes you 20 minutes to clear a printer jam. Maybe your baby starts teething and she doesn’t nap. Maybe an email comes in and you need to respond right away.

“The goal is not to stick to your original plan. The goal is always to have an intention for the time that remains in your day,” Newport said. “It’s not a problem if something takes longer than you thought. When you’re done, step back and fix your plan for the rest of the day.”

How time blocking can help give you a sense of control

Time blocking builds in ways to master your day:

  • It helps you make the most of small blocks of time. When you see you have just a few free minutes, you can pop in a small task like scheduling an appointment or placing an online order.
  • It helps you get a better sense of how long things take and how much time you have available. “It can be scary to confront it, but confronting those realities is the first step toward improving the situation,” Newport said.
  • It frees you from the “fear of forgetting.” When you’re afraid you might forget something, you lose focus. “If you load Outlook or load your calendar, you’re exposing yourself to lots of unrelated work tasks. It slows down your effectiveness,” he said. Newport’s planner builds in a page every day where you can capture ideas and tasks when you think about them. “It gives your mind confidence that you’ll deal with that later, and you can go back to the block you’re working on. You’re not afraid you’ll miss it or forget it,” he said.

Time blocking can counteract the pandemic’s drain on your time

Newport estimates that you can get twice as much done with time blocking. And with COVID-19, that’s huge. “With childcare and schools closed, a lot of people have half as much time available,” he said. “With time blocking, you can get as much work done as you used to. It’s playing a big role for those of us who suddenly lost a lot of time,” he said.

If you have kids at home, Newport recommends time blocking with your partner. “You can synchronize all of the things that have to get done. It’s a powerful technique for finding some stability in a chaotic setting,” he said.

Time blocking can help you mark the end of the workday

Newport has long been a fan of the shutdown ritual. “You check everything that could be a source of open loops,” he said. That could mean reviewing the tasks and ideas you jotted down, checking your email for anything urgent, and reviewing your calendar for what’s coming up the next day. The ritual signals to your brain that you’re finished with work for the day.

The shutdown ritual also gives you a sense of division between work and home. That’s even more important these days, when we don’t have the routine of leaving the office and commuting to transition from work life to home life.

Newport used to say the phrase, “shutdown complete” out loud. “It’s over-the-top weird on purpose. During the evening if your mind gets anxious, you’ll remember you said that ridiculous phrase. It prevents you from ruminating,” he said. His planner includes a “shutdown complete” checkbox, so you can train your mind not to think about work in non-work hours.