There's only so much time in a day. It's a cliché, sure, but it's also true.
Time blocking is a simple productivity method that actually takes this into account. Instead of completing your tasks whenever you find time, you schedule tasks on your calendar in advance. The value here is that it helps you build your day around your priorities—and by scheduling your time in advance, you're able to say no to non-priorities.
Most of us use our calendars all wrong: we don't schedule work; we schedule interruptions. Meetings get scheduled. Phone calls get scheduled. Doctor appointments get scheduled. You know what often doesn't get scheduled? Real work. All those other things are distractions. Often, they're other people's work. But they get dedicated blocks of time, and your real work becomes an orphan.
If you don't schedule time for important work, then it increases the risk that your important work won't get done. Instead of having time to focus on high-priority tasks, you're pulled in other directions: invited to meetings, asked to pick up side projects, distracted by long Slack discussions. You end up spending too much time on low-value tasks without realizing it.
Time blocking apps help by putting your calendar and your tasks in the same place and making it easy to schedule your tasks. We tried out over 20 time-blocking apps and collected the best ones here.
The 5 best time blocking apps
Plan for a free time blocking app that connects to Google and Outlook
Sunsama for helping you plan your day
HourStack for comparing estimates to actual time spent on tasks
Planyway for people who use Trello or Jira to manage their tasks
TickTick Premium for a to-do list with time blocking features
What is time blocking?
Time blocking is a time management technique where you schedule how you'll spend your time during every minute of every day. Each task you need to complete gets time scheduled on your calendar, so you can make sure you have the bandwidth for every to-do list item.
Most people's work calendars look like this:
Your meetings are there, and the rest of your time is just assumed to be open. A time blocked calendar, meanwhile, fills in all of those gaps:
Time blocking as a time management technique was popularized by Cal Newport, author of Deep Work. Newport says he dedicates 10-20 minutes every evening to time blocking his schedule for the next day, but when you choose to block your time and create your schedule depends on what works best for you. You might create your schedule every day when you get to work, at the end of every work day for the next day, or at the beginning of each week for the rest of the week.
Additionally, you can approach time blocking in a couple of different ways. You might schedule time for specific tasks around your meetings and other commitments, or you might choose to schedule time specifically for meetings and other commitments.
For example, instead of accepting meeting invites for whenever people send them, you may block off Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for working on tasks and leave Tuesday and Thursday open for people to schedule meetings. Then, you can break those big sections for Monday, Wednesday, and Friday down into specific tasks—daily or weekly, based on your priorities.
Scheduling time for tasks forces you to think about how long each task is going to take you to complete, which, over time, can help you form more realistic estimates.
What makes a great time blocking app?
How we evaluate and test apps
All of our best apps roundups are written by humans who've spent much of their careers using, testing, and writing about software. We spend dozens of hours researching and testing apps, using each app as it's intended to be used and evaluating it against the criteria we set for the category. We're never paid for placement in our articles from any app or for links to any site—we value the trust readers put in us to offer authentic evaluations of the categories and apps we review. For more details on our process, read the full rundown of how we select apps to feature on the Zapier blog.
You could just use your calendar app to do this, or even a sheet of paper, but dedicated time blocking tools make the process a lot easier because they're built specifically to help you plan. The best time blocking apps do the following:
Show your calendar alongside a list of tasks. You need to be able to see your appointments and what you need to do in one place in order to block out your day.
Make it easy to block out your day. Ideally you'll be able to drag your tasks to a calendar, so that you can quickly plan what you'll work on when.
Make it quick to add tasks. This could mean grabbing tasks from other apps, or it could mean a clean interface for adding tasks yourself, but the process needs to be simple.
Integrate with your current calendar. You almost certainly already use Google Calendar, Microsoft Outlook, or the open iCal format used by Apple to manage your appointments. The best time blocking apps aren't trying to replace those apps and can pull in your appointments from them.
Offer integrations with other tools. Whether it's project management systems or your email inbox, the best time blocking apps connect with the apps where your work happens.
Best free time blocking app that connects to Google and Outlook
Plan (Web, iOS, macOS)
Plan offers a simple way to schedule time for your tasks on your calendar. It's part to-do list, part calendar, and all business. It integrates directly with your Google or Outlook calendar, pulling in all of your existing meetings and events, and allowing you to quickly block time for tasks and projects alongside those commitments.
To-do lists in Plan can be a simple list of all of your tasks, or you can group to-dos into specific projects to create multiple to-do lists. After you've added tasks, drag and drop them within the list to prioritize, then drag and drop them onto your calendar to block time for each to-do.
The only downside to Plan is that it only supports a few integrations with other tools: Google Calendar, Outlook, Box, GitHub, Google Drive, Gmail, and Jira (and they're working on adding a Zendesk integration). So if you already have your to-dos logged in another to-do app, you'll likely have to move them over to Plan manually.
Plan Pricing: The Free plan includes 3 integrations; from $4/month for the Personal plan that includes unlimited integrations.
Best time blocking app for helping you plan your day
Sunsama (Web, macOS, iOS, Android)
Sunsama is by far the best-designed app on this list. The app wastes no space, and after setting it up, you'll immediately understand how to use it. There's a task list, sorted by date, and there's a sidebar with a calendar. You can flip this around if you want, but either way, it's quick to drag tasks over to your calendar—Google and Outlook calendars are both supported.
This is all standard so far as time blocking goes, but where Sunsuma really stands out is how it helps you plan out your day. Sign on in the morning, and you'll be asked which tasks you have to work on, how long you think they are, and when you want to do them all. It really makes the process of blocking your day painless, and there's even support for sending a summary of your plan for the day over to Slack in a single click.
The app is full of little touches like this, and the result is that time blocking feels easier here than in any app we tested. And integrations with Trello, Gmail, GitHub, and Jira mean you can drag tasks over from a variety of apps. The main downside: there's no free plan.
Sunsama Pricing: Starts at $20/month. No free version, though there is a 14-day free trial.
Best time blocking app for comparing estimates to actual time spent on tasks
HourStack (Web, iOS, Android)
HourStack will help you monitor how the time you actually spend on tasks compares to your initial estimates.
You start by blocking time for the day/week. Then, when you're ready to start on each task, click the task, and select Start to initiate a timer. When you're finished working on the task, you can complete it if it's finished, or if you run out of time, you can roll the task over to work on it again later. In the Reports section, you'll see detailed metrics for the time estimated and spent on each task.
HourStack will pull events from Google Calendar and Outlook 365, but it doesn't add those events directly onto your HourStack calendar. Instead, you'll see them in a sidebar on the right side of the screen and can drag and drop them onto your HourStack calendar.
The main downside to HourStack is that it doesn't have a place to keep a to-do list. Instead, you're mostly using your calendar to capture your to-dos. But it does have native integrations with apps like Trello, Todoist, and Asana, so you can see your to-dos from another app within HourStack to plan and schedule in one place. There are also integrations with HubSpot, GitHub, and Google Sheets—plus basically every other app, thanks to HourStack's Zapier integrations, which let you do things like automatically add new calendar events to your HourStack calendar and vice versa:
Add new Google Calendar events to your HourStack week
HourStack Pricing: 14-day free trial. Personal plan starts at $9/month.
Best time blocking app for people who use Trello or Jira manage their tasks
Planyway (Chrome, Safari, Opera)
If you use Trello or Jira as your to-do list or project management tool, Planyway lets you block time on your calendar using those tasks.
You can create all of your tasks in Trello just like you normally would, install the Planyway extension, and then drag and drop your Trello cards onto Planyway's calendar to block time to work on those tasks. Or you can use Planyway's web app to drag tasks from Trello or Jira, or even to add tasks directly.
Planyway also gives you the option to connect it to your Google, Outlook, or Apple calendar, so you can see your calendar appointments in context. On its Free and Basic plans, Planyway supports one-way syncing: you can see your Planyway cards in your calendar using an iCal URL, but you can't see your calendar events in Planyway. Two-way syncing that keeps both calendars in sync is available on the Pro plan.
Planyway Pricing: The Free plan includes one-way calendar syncing; from $3.99/month for the Pro plan that includes two-way calendar syncing and recurring tasks.
Best to-do list with time blocking features
TickTick Premium (Web, Android, iOS, macOS, Windows, Chrome, Firefox, watchOS)
TickTick Premium lets you compile your tasks in a to-do list and then block time for those tasks on your calendar. But TickTick offers a feature that the others don't: a Pomodoro timer. So if you want to combine time blocking with the Pomodoro Technique, TickTick Premium may be the best option for you.
Adding tasks to your calendar in TickTick isn't as simple as it is in some of the other apps. Instead of dragging and dropping tasks onto your calendar, you have to take a few steps. While adding a task, you can use natural language processing to add a due date—for example, you could type "walk the dog tomorrow." Do that, and your task will have a due date. If you forget, that's ok: you can edit a task and select a due date. It will then show up on your calendar as an all-day event—you can drag it to whatever time you want.
TickTick can also pull events from your existing calendar and display them on your TickTick calendar; or you can set it up to push TickTick events to your main calendar. You can't manage calendar appointments in TickTick, though—the appointments from your calendar are basically only there for reference. But it's enough to plan your day.
You can integrate TickTick with thousands of apps using Zapier's TickTick integrations. This is great for adding tasks to your calendar or pulling in tasks from other apps like Gmail or Slack.
Create TickTick tasks from new saved Slack messages
Add detailed events in Google Calendar for new tasks created in TickTick
TickTick Pricing: The free TickTick product doesn't include a calendar view; from $2.79/month for TickTick Premium that includes the calendar view and RSS feeds to and from third-party calendars.
Do you need a time blocking app?
You might decide that you don't need a dedicated app for time blocking, and that's fine. Here are some other ideas:
Honestly, any of the best calendar apps could work for time blocking. Just add your tasks as calendar appointments.
Also worth noting: if you already have a great to-do list app and a great calendar app, you could just connect the two using Zapier.
Create Google Calendar quick events from new Google Tasks
Add new JIRA issues as detailed events in Google Calendar
But if you want everything in one app, one of the tools in this list should do the trick. Each app offers a free plan or free trial, so you can try them all and pick the one that works best for you.
This article was originally published in June 2019 and has since been updated with contributions from Justin Pot.