At a glance, my calendar probably looks like I'm a ridiculously busy human. The entire day is filled with events, color-coded and overlapped from multiple calendars.
But in reality, I only have a few commitments between meetings and my role as chauffeur for my three kids. The rest of my day's events are time blocks: time set aside for specific tasks and projects. It's one thing to add tasks to a to-do list. It's another to schedule time to get the work done—whether it will take five minutes or two hours.
I started time blocking a few years ago, and it made a world of difference in shrinking my to-do list. Rather than randomly hoping I'd have time to get to a task, I add time to my calendar.
I've tried a few different approaches to time blocking, from my own system to dedicated time blocking apps. I can confidently say that if one approach doesn't work (or your needs change!), try another. You can design a system that's either structured or flexible—whatever makes the most sense for you.
Why use time blocking?
Work and personal life can feel like a never-ending parade of people who need something from you. Could be as simple as replying to an email; could be a complex request. I think of time blocking in three buckets.
No matter your line of work, you probably have tasks that require focused effort. It might be client work; it might be preparing a report. It's something where you need to carve out time in your day to get the work done—and it usually has a deadline.
How often do you check your email throughout the day? Or your Slack DMs? Do you need to prep for a weekly standup meeting?
You can set aside time for recurring work on your calendar. Context-switching is bad: if you're constantly bouncing back and forth between tasks, trying to fit in a few minutes here and there, your brain can't process your work as efficiently. Better to set aside time to get the work done.
Do you go to the gym "when you have time"? Or do you have it on your calendar? You're more likely to stick to your habits if you add a block of time to your calendar. This can be anything from reading time to scheduling time to eat lunch. Don't make your important habits an afterthought.
Option 1: Manually create blocks of time
If your days have a lot of consistency, you can manually add blocks of time to your calendar.
For example, I have two blocks of time on my calendar every day to check email: 7:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Batching time to get a bunch of small tasks done works well for other tasks, too, like the time you need to schedule a doctor's appointment or call your bank. Drop some time on your calendar to do that type of work every week, and knock out a bunch of to-dos in one sitting.
I also have several large blocks of time set aside every day for focus work. Then I'll fill that block of time with something from my to-do list. It's a good assessment of my bandwidth: if my focus blocks are full, something has to give. My focus blocks are scheduled based on when I work best (mornings).
My calendar looks something like this:
But what about meetings that you might need to schedule? I use the Free/Busy setting on Google Calendar to protect my time (if needed). I also use Calendly for scheduling and don't allow people to schedule into certain blocks. And when clients book particular meetings with me via Calendly, Zapier automatically adds a 30-minute block before the meeting so I can prepare.
Zapier is a no-code automation tool that lets you connect your apps into automated workflows, so that every person and every business can move forward at growth speed. Learn more about how it works.
Option 2: Maintain separate calendars
A great thing about time-blocking: I know what I need to do each day.
A not-so-great thing: at a glance, it's hard to tell how "busy" I am that day with obligations like meetings and appointments.
Sure, I have a lot of my events color-coded, but my brain can't always process that quickly when I'm looking at my calendar. Or, when I was working at a company, people would tell me that my calendar looked full, and they couldn't find time to schedule an internal meeting—but actually, I could move my blocks of time around and make myself available.
You can get around this by creating an additional calendar just for your blocks.
In my Google Calendar, meetings are scheduled on my main calendar, and then I add recurring blocks to my second calendar. I can "uncheck" my Blocks calendar if I want to only see my meetings/appointments for the week. This also gives me a much better view when I'm trying to see what meetings I have for the day (or schedule an appointment while at a doctor's office).
Another way you can manage your blocks is to add time to a separate account altogether. Add blocks like "Exercise" to a personal calendar and then share the calendar with your work calendar (or vice versa). Once shared, you can have an overlapping view of your blocks. This works really well if you don't want to intermingle your work and personal calendars but still use time blocking to manage your day.
Option 3: Use an AI-powered calendar assistant
Time blocking can get tricky if your calendar changes rapidly throughout the day/week. You might have a two-hour block of time set aside to work on a project, but what happens if you need to meet with a client? Maybe you have time available later that same day, but manually moving blocks of time around on your calendar can become a chore.
An AI-powered calendar assistant can move your blocks around for you. As meetings are dropped on your calendar, the block of time you have set aside on your calendar moves to the next available spot. If you're approaching the deadline for one of your time blocks (like a project's due date), then the calendar assistant will "defend" the time on your calendar, showing that you're unavailable.
AI-powered calendar assistants are also great if you want more flexibility in your day. Maybe you want to block off time to eat lunch, but anytime between 11:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. is fine with you. A calendar assistant will adjust your lunchtime each day, depending on your meetings and other appointments.
I used Reclaim.ai when I was in an account manager role and had a significant number of meetings each week. I had a lot of daily tasks that I repeated and wasn't too picky about the timeframe: as long as I had a block of time set aside to get the work done. The blocks would shift automatically, depending on the day.
Prioritize your calendar needs
A to-do list without a plan can feel like wishful thinking. Time blocking is like making an appointment, with yourself, for anything you need to get done.
When choosing an approach to time blocking, ask yourself what you struggle with most. Is it focus time to work on projects? Or is it time to do your daily habits, like check email or go for a walk? Do you want to see a "full calendar" so you know how your day will unfold? Or would you prefer to keep your blocks of time separated in some way? Visualization and block management are key. You don't want your calendar to feel overwhelming or so tightly scheduled that an interruption causes the entire thing to collapse.
Sometimes I even schedule a block of time for myself called "Catch up on life." Highly recommend.