Time blocking and types of work

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Recently I posted about how I schedule my whole day using time blocking. This sort of thing can be controversial, and it clearly doesn’t work for everybody. Some of the conversation around this got me thinking about what makes it more suited for some folks than others.

I think a lot of it has a lot to do with what kind of work you do. Think of work as a spectrum: on one end of the spectrum is work that’s completely interrupt driven. For instance, a manager who spends all of his time responding to emails and phone calls from other people and dealing with urgent issues as they come up. On the other end of a spectrum is work that’s completely predictable and consistent. Say, assembly line work.

If your work is very interrupt driven, where most of your day is spent reacting to stuff that comes in, time blocking probably isn’t going to be very useful. There’s just not enough predictability to plan out your day in advance.

It might seem that time blocking would be helpful for very routine work, but if the routine is totally consistent time blocking isn’t really that helpful. There’s no reason to sit down time block each day if all you’re doing is repeating the same schedule over and over.

Where time blocking really works best is in the middle of the spectrum. The work is variable enough that planning is useful but consistent enough that planning is possible. This really boils down to lead time. If you can’t know what you’ll be working on 15 minutes from now, time blocking is impossible. If you know what you’ll be working on at any given time next week or next month, time blocking is unnecessary. The sweet spot is when you can plan out the rest of the day or tomorrow’s work with reasonable certainty.

Of course, this is an oversimplification. Lots of people’s work is a mix of different types. There are times when you get interrupted even in the most consistent of jobs. And even in very interruption-driven jobs, there might be some things that are totally consistent, like weekly meetings.

While time blocking is most useful in situations where most of the work falls on the middle of that spectrum any time blocking system needs to be adaptable to some level of interruption and some level of consistency. Of these, dealing with consistency is much easier. Those regularly scheduled events can be the skeleton that you build your time blocks around.

Interruptions are trickier. At a basic level, it may just amount to staying flexible and not getting too committed to your time blocked schedule. If it’s a quick interruption, you may be able to deal with it and get back to your planned time block, but sometimes you just have to roll with the punches blow up the schedule. I like David Sparks’ description that, “A calendar is a soup, not a puzzle.” Sometimes you need to stir the soup.

Another alternative might be scheduling your interruptions. “Scheduling interruptions” may seem like an oxymoron, but depending on how time sensitive the interruption is, it may be possible. If most of your interruptions can wait a few hours, you might be able to do something like scheduling a block of time at 11 o’clock to deal with all the interruptions that came in that morning (this is effectively what the advice to only check your email twice a day is doing). Similarly, you may be able to set up “office hours” when you’ll be available for walk-ins from colleagues and others while walling off other time in your schedule to do deep work.

Time blocking isn’t for everyone. Depending on the type of work you do it may or may not be suitable (not to mention other issues, like whether it fits your personality or how much control you have over your work). Even for those who find time blocking suits them, it’s not going to work the same way for everyone. That said, it can be a very adaptable practice.


Shameless link to this post on my blog.

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