Boost Productivity Using 5 Strategies to Time Block Your Calendar

Need to find a great job? Update your resume? Write a blog post? Start a new business? You’ll need uninterrupted time to focus on these ‘big rocks’ every day. I’ve been mentoring a few of my company’s interns recently as they transition from school to work. One of their biggest challenges? Time management. Surprised? I bet you’re not!

Suddenly overwhelmed by having less structure, different time pressures, new responsibilities, moving to a new place, juggling family obligations - it can be a bit much during this transitional time. The result? I see them watching themselves spin, missing work and internship related deadlines and feeling rudderless. I’ve seen many students scramble back to grad school or shift quickly to something familiar and less demanding just to regain a sense of control.

The first thing for you to acknowledge is that there is no ‘hustle trophy’. You don’t get any awards for being more busy than the next person. Let that go! Why are you still loading up your calendar and then feeling frustrated and hopeless when you
can’t run through the impossible list?

Time management isn’t really about managing your time - it’s about managing your attention. Most of us are in ‘react’ mode all day. We’re frantically moving from our email inbox to Slack to phone calls - and we never feel like we get anything ‘done’.

“To produce at your peak level you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction.” Adam Grant, psychologist, author and professor at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania

We have the power to restructure our productivity using a technique called ‘time blocking’ pioneered by author and professor Cal Newport. Newport is a professor of computer science, and a New York Times Best Selling Author of Minimalism and Deep Work

Newport teaches that the only way we are going to be able to accomplish great things is to focus for chunks of uninterrupted time every day. Here are his recommendations for time blocking your schedule:

  1. Balance the important with the urgent
  2. Leveraging a clear plan to minimize the urge to give in to unrelated distractions
  3. Replacing stressful business with powerful intention
  4. Enabling clear shutdowns at the end of the day

Time blocking is absolutely key to my own productivity. I’ve found it helps me to control the rabbit holes of distractions that always pop up every day. 

When I mentor students and new grads, I work them through five steps to help them show up for themselves first, and then for others.

Five steps to time blocking your day to increase your productivity:

  1. Find a paper AND a digital calendar system that works for you 
  2. Identify your weekly big rocks 
  3. Load in the daily small rocks
  4. Sort the sand
  5. Test and retest!

Let's break it down:
1. Find a paper AND a digital calendar system that works for you. 
It doesn’t matter whether it's paper or online, whether you like Apple or Google, but find a calendar that works for you. Newport suggests sitting down with a paper calendar every morning. Others, like three time New York Times best selling author and productivity expert Brendan Burchard, recommends setting up for the next day by spending 20 minutes planning your next day the night before. I use Burchard's 'High Performance Planner' together with (a very colourful!) Google Calendar every day.

Online, it’s helpful to have a calendar where you can colour code different kinds of events, schedule repeated tasks, and access it easily with your phone, your tablet and your laptop. When you have a reliable calendar that contains every obligation you need to meet throughout the day, you’ll quickly start to see what must be done and what becomes ‘nice’ to accomplish. 

2. Identify your weekly big rocks. Each week on the same day at the same time sit down with your calendars. Enter the biggest things you need to accomplish each week. The first entries in your calendar will be your shut down/sleep time, exercise sessions and meal times. Then add in blocks of two to three hours each day for deep work. Be careful! You might mistake your personal obligations to be not as important as your obligations to others. Flip that. If you don’t look after yourself, no one else will! 

3. Load in your daily small rocks. You have regular meetings, client appointments, a soccer practice or a child’s play to attend. Add these commitments to your calendar next. They are nonnegotiable obligations that are important to you and your family. Make sure to leave at least 30 minutes of buffer time to do those pesky inevitable last minute things. 

4. Sort the sand. Let’s face it. There are a few big rocks and many small rocks every day. But what about ‘everything else’? Emails, social media, phone calls … don't worry, there's time for that too. Just block in enough time to manage these things. Deliberately scheduling the big and small rocks and then sorting the sand actually frees you. Trust that you know exactly what you need to be doing and when. There really is time for everything you want to do.

5. Test, retest and rest! 
No system is perfect. You might discover during this exercise that you forgot some big rocks. You might see that the small rocks are really sand. And you might realize that a task you regularly do takes WAY more time than you realized - no wonder you are feeling rushed every day! 

‘You don’t get a prize for accuracy, you get a prize for intention.’ Cal Newport

Any new system will take time to use, incorporate and develop as a new habit. Do I hit it out of the park every day? No way! I’ve learned to give myself some space and grace to experiment, fail, reorganize and try again. Just get in and try it. As you begin to focus carefully on how you are spending your time, you’ll quickly be able to prioritize and watch your productivity soar. 

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