This time management system really works!

Updated to Business, Productivity on February 8, 2023.

I have been writing and speaking about time management for too long.

And I think I was stuck.

I was feeling the dis-ease that comes from the same infections in productivity interfering with me getting stuff done. Important stuff.

Lists were growing on their own, small stuff was crowding out client work. I was depressed. Is my life only about climbing up mountains of To-Do just so I can see the next mountain?

In short, I wasn’t taking my own medicine.

I looked busy but I was just going around in circles.

What about you? Are you going around in circles?

And just to be clear, when I throw around the word productivity I’m not just referring only to head-down get’er done work. I’m also talking about balancing work with some sweet downtime, putting my body through a hard workout and reading a great book time.

That’s in my definition of productive.

In Cal Newport’s very timely book Deep Work he recommends blocking your whole day, hour by hour.

It seemed so elementary I looked down my nose and sniffed “That will never work – it’s too simple.”

I was wrong.

What I was forgetting was that sometimes we all need stupid-simple to move ahead in life.

How it works

Here’s how Newport’s design works.

He recommends writing this on a full-size note pad. Lots of reasons why writing is superior to a text file, word doc, etc.  When you write it’s more tactile and permanent and there’s something about writing by hand that seems to engage more of our brain.

Step 1

Start your day by writing the hours of your working day on a full sheet of note pad (see picture). I’m back from walking Riley, dressed and ready to go either to the gym or my office by about 8:00. So I start with “8:00” and double-spaced I can create a list from 8:00 AM to 5:00 or 6:00 PM on a single sheet of a note pad.

Okay, that’s step one.

Step 2

Next, fill in your blocked time (I wrote about blocking in this post).

Blocked time includes appointments, working on client proposals, team calls, writing and travel. I’m generally blocking time for client work and projects I might otherwise procrastinate about.

Back to our planner…

Step 3

Next, list on the right side of the page any other work you need to find time for. This could include: making travel reservations, checking in on a team member, dealing with banking or a marketing issue. The trick here is to not make this a laundry list you have to move from Monday to Tuesday to Wednesday because you don’t have time to get to it.

That’s depressing.

Start by writing the hours of your working day on a full sheet of a note pad.

Now that you have the blocked time on the left and the separate work on the right, block the openings in your day to accommodate the remaining work. For example, I might block 45 minutes for “Administration”, or one hour for “Marketing”, or 30 minutes to “Check in with Muriel.”

I also block in breaks as a reminder to move my butt and clear my head.

Somedays, I leave open time slots empty because I’m not certain what will come up in the day. That works as well.

The results

I’ve been using this system for three months. There was a six-week break while I was travelling in India and Nepal, but otherwise, I’ve been religious about this practice.

Here’s what I like and don’t like.

I like that I’m forced to fill in the blanks. Seriously. Once I have the hours of the day listed down the left, it’s a quick exercise to start moving blocked time into the slots.

And I like the sense of urgency (read about getting the Day Before Vacation feeling in this post) that blocked time gives me. Work hard for 30 minutes and then I get to shift gears and move to other work.

It only takes a few minutes and already I’m feeling successful.

I also like that I can see where I have big blocks of time open. I might leave them open or move an overdue project into them. Either way, it’s a reminder that I have an opportunity in my day to take advantage of. I know you can get all this using a standard $10 day timer, but there is something visceral about going through this exercise every morning that works for me.

What I don’t like is that when someone jumps onto my nicely planned day it’s hard to adjust the schedule. I don’t think Newport was necessarily promoting this as a permanent solution—it might be trainer wheels for a more sophisticated planning method.

The goal is to build a discipline of working from blocked time. Sure, stuff comes up. But I am twice as effective with my time, even though reality doesn’t always perfectly match the plan.

Give it a go, you might be surprised by how this changes your thinking and your results.

Related articles:

How I overcame procrastination by blocking time
Why every day should be your day before vacation
13 shocking facts about how we waste time