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Deep Habits: The Importance of Planning Every Minute of Your Work Day

December 21st, 2013 · 54 comments

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Time Blocking

The image above shows my plan for a random Wednesday earlier this month. My plan was captured on a single sheet of 24 pound paper in a Black n’ Red twin wire notebook. This page is divided into two columns. In the left column, I dedicated two lines to each hour of the day and then divided that time into blocks labeled with specific assignments. In the right column, I add explanatory notes for these blocks where needed.

Notice that I leave some extra room next to my time blocks. This allows me to make corrections as needed if the day unfolds in an unexpected way:

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I call this planning method time blocking. I take time blocking seriously, dedicating ten to twenty minutes every evening to building my schedule for the next day. During this planning process I consult my task lists and calendars, as well as my weekly and quarterly planning notes. My goal is to make sure progress is being made on the right things at the right  pace for the relevant deadlines.

This type of planning, to me, is like a chess game, with blocks of work getting spread and sorted in such a way that projects big and small all seem to click into completion with (just enough) time to spare.

Three Concerns

Sometimes people ask why I bother with such a detailed level of planning. My answer is simple: it generates a massive amount of productivity. A 40 hour time-blocked work week, I estimate, produces the same amount of output as a 60+ hour work week pursued without structure.

Sometimes people ask how time blocking can work for reactive work, where you cannot tell in advance what obligations will enter your life on a given day. My answer is again simple: periods of open-ended reactivity can be blocked off like any other type of obligation. Even if you’re blocking most of your day for reactive work, for example, the fact that you are controlling your schedule will allow you to dedicate some small blocks (perhaps at the schedule periphery) to deeper pursuits.

(Another smart strategy in this context is to give open-ended reactive blocks secondary purposes: e.g., “process client requests; if I have downtime during this block, work on project X.”)

Sometimes people ask if controlling time will stifle creativity. I understand this concern, but it’s fundamentally misguided. If you control your schedule: (1) you can ensure that you consistently dedicate time to the deep efforts that matter for creative pursuits; and (2) the stress relief that comes from this sense of organization allows you to go deeper in your creative blocks and produce more value.

If you’re still worried, read Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals: very few of the world-famous creatives he profiled adopted a “I’ll work when I feel inspired” attitude — they instead controlled their day so they could control their art.

Conclusion

In the context of work, uncontrolled time makes me uncomfortable. If you’re serious about working deeply and producing high-end value, it should probably make you uncomfortable as well. Using your inbox to drive your daily schedule might be fine for the entry-level or those content with a career of cubicle-dwelling mediocrity, but the best knowledge workers view their time like the best investors view their capital, as a resource to wield for maximum returns.

54 thoughts on “Deep Habits: The Importance of Planning Every Minute of Your Work Day

  1. Bob Tabor says:

    I’ve bought into this idea. However, I can’t get it to work … I know it’s me. I’m so bad at estimating how long things will take or I run into technical issues that throws the schedule completely off. Suggestions?

    1. Claire says:

      I think the biggest key to time blocking is actually just that, being honest with yourself and knowing how long it will actually take you to do things and planning with that in mind. It takes a while to learn, so what I would suggest is definitely overestimating the amount of time it will take you to do things. When I first started getting the hang of scheduling, I added an extra half hour to each block of time — but still do your best to treat it like you don’t have that half hour. It’s great because if you manage to make the time you initially thought, you have extra time, and if you do need that extra time you’ve planned accordingly for it. Also be sure to note down how much time you actually took and how far from your estimate you were for next time. Then you keep tweaking the schedule until you’ve figured out how much time everything actually takes.

    2. Niko says:

      When I first started experimenting with time management systems, I tried a very strict scheduling system. This was an unmitigated disaster which failed completely and derailed me for a long time.

      Since then I have found help with other systems, but just recently have come to somewhat similar system as Cal. His system has one fundamental difference to my original failed system: the content is not strictly defined.

      One important truth is you cannot fix content and schedule at the same time. It’s just human nature we are so poor at predicting how long something will take. Scheduling a day with a sequence of very detailed actions is going to fail. You have to choose which you are going to keep up with: the schedule or the content.

      Of course you can define some specific issues you are going to get done during the time block, but you have to leave a lot of flexibility to the content.

      1. Bob Tabor says:

        Thank you both. @Niko, I am in the content business too, and I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with regards to CHOOSING either / or. Sure, I have REALIZED that this was the case (unknown unknowns with creating content leading to the impossibility to schedule) but I’ve not taken the next logical step like you did … to admit it and let the choice drive you. My immediate reaction is that I will schedule the NEXT time block or maybe two, but when the path ahead is murky planning ten steps ahead is pointless and probably counterproductive. Thank you.

  2. Mark says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this information and pictures. They help a lot in order to understand your way of blocking.

    You said you work 40 hours per week. I was wondering if that was the amount of time you worked while you were a graduate student.

    Thanks a lot,
    Mark

  3. Mark says:

    I just read daily rituals. Interesting. Better for a day at the library than a buy since it goes so fast.

    I got into this during medical school using a calendar app. I realized that I needed at least two hours of study per hour of lecture to grasp material. So I blocked those off at the beginning of the week. Then I blocked a few extra chunks of “catch up OR relax”.

    A block is 20 mins work, 5 break 20 work 15 min break. Also, figure travel time and time to set up and organize to get into the work zone.

    I would have big 4 hour blocks where I’d get 3 hours of solid work done, but there’d be a lot of time off.

    Other students would block off every second and expect to work it all. They wouldn’t. They’d burn out. They lived their life lying to themselves, which seemed to get about the same work done in a more stressful way.

  4. Pontriyagin says:

    There are several very different tasks that are being targeted within one day. I typically find that having too many of these is hard. The reason is that each of these has a “start-up” cost: it takes 45 minutes just to get into the flow of things and then you stop half an hour later and move to something else?

  5. Rob says:

    Structures time is what you must do to increase creativity.

    See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AU5x1Ea7NjQ

  6. Evan says:

    This article stresses something that confused me about your book, HTBAHSS. One of the main ideas seems to be to allow large blocks of free time in your schedule which will allow you to increase impressiveness in a pursuit. However these blocks are unstructured by nature, so I found it hard to turn down other pursuits (e.g. social) and stay focused on, say, a programming project. Perhaps time blocking certain weeknights would help high school students, or maybe I missed what you were trying to convey.

    1. Pete says:

      Cal’s workday seems to end about 6:30, which leaves the rest of the evening for individual pursuits & projects. This means that when high school is out for the day you go right into homework mode instead of hanging with friends or playing video games, etc.
      Not being as smart as Cal, my own workday ends about 8ish. If I don’t have a project to work on, I’ll work on a hobby or do some non-brain work such as making study flash-cards or do the first reading of a novel for school. (I always do two readings: the first is straight through as pseudo enjoyment, the second is where I take notes.) The last thing I do before brain-quiet time is to go over my assignments calendar and flesh out tomorrow’s do list.
      Planning structure for the do-list is not that hard as math is always the two hours right after school and so on
      No school work is done on Saturday, Friday after supper (more or less), or Sunday morning. This leaves enough time for socializing. No socializing on school nights
      Once I stopped watching television, I had more time than I knew what to do with

  7. Maruan says:

    Thanks for sharing, Cal.

    I came across your blog very recently, and I enjoy reading and learning from each of your posts.

    Regarding the tracking, have you tried doing sort of A/B testing of time tracking vs. no tracking at all? You say, 40 hour week with time tracking equals 60+ hours without. Is it based on the tests you have done? If yes, for how long did you do them? Have you tried alternating time tracking with periods of no-tracking?

    I am asking since I was kind of obsessed with tracking my time back a couple of years ago. I gave up doing so after 6 months. That time, the reason was the unpredictability of my deadline-based and event-based schedule. It happened that sometimes when you intentionally break your plans, forget about tracking, and go and do something that just popped up as good opportunity for right now, it might make you even more effective. I tried different things, but I realized that I was spending too much time (at least 30 minutes everyday and 30-40 by the end of each week) on keeping track of every minute and making plans that don’t work or work not that good as I expected.

    Thanks,
    Maruan

  8. Swaroop C H says:

    Pomodoro technique’s daily sheet is a simple way of achieving this kind of daily time blocking :)

  9. Thanks for the post Cal.

    I’m glad I found this blog of yours because the contents are really valuable especially for someone going to medical school.

    I really need to plan my time well and your methods make the most sense.

  10. Carl Newmeyer says:

    Cal, first I want to say that your “So Good” book has changed my work life and added thousands to my bottom line since reading it six months ago–and my work life feels great to boot. So let me know where to send the royalties.

    And you wrote something interesting: “In the context of work, uncontrolled time makes me uncomfortable……probably make you uncomfortable as well.”

    I don’t advocate completely uncontrolled time. Yet I would ask–is it possible that complete avoidance of uncontrolled time equates to some fear of the unknown–as there’s a great deal of mystery to our existence–I think it healthy to let go into that mystery. Didn’t even Einstein have a perspective about this?

  11. Yuanzhi says:

    Thanks for your tips for improving working productivity. I’ve leant a lot from your post.
    I’m a PhD student in China facing my final paper and thesis writing. They’re such a huge task for me. I’m trying to adopt your suggestion to my work and hopefully I can achieve a better result in no long future. Wish you a merry Christmas and happy new year..
    Please keep on writing things like this, that help me a lot!!

    Best wishes!

  12. Dave Small says:

    Thanks for the information Cal. For those struggling with scheduling and “time blocking”, I suggest starting with at least one hour of focus per day. Even this is difficult for a lot of people — yet something that simple can begin to change the course of a person’s life/career.

  13. David Drake says:

    I am currently using GTD as my primary time management approach although recently I have adapted many of the ideas from Len Merson’s instant productivity toolkit. I am a professor of microbiology & infectious diseases and have many responsibilities at my college, university, and nationally. I do think I need more structure in my day as the hard, focused work gets pushed to the side all too often with so many “busy” tasks that come my way. So…what does everyone think of GTD and the instant productivity toolkit approaches? Is one better for integrating with time blocking as described by Cal?

  14. Ondrej says:

    These days I use very simple app called Sooner or Later. (Windows Phone, Things for iOS would work too). I have blocks of time that cover 90 percent of my needs: daily 1h fitness block with planned lifting, walking and a reminder of what is the food I should base my diet on, Social 2h block that includes girls, friends and family and 4h Development block for studying and other skills- car driving, financial intelligence, other interests in systems not directly work related. This is 7h a day, on top of my scheduled university lectures. It works, but I may have to block even less during busy days and could block more during free days. I believe people crave 3 things: connection with the wild, with people and with mystery. I accomplish these daily. The Social block helps to avoid compliance – you see people, need to collaborate etc. Value building habits that isolate you are dangerous. The app I use automatically lists these “to-dos” in a very simple manner and I tick them off. I don’t block specific time, just the smount invested. I can quickly add specific tasks for the day, like watching football or sending specific email, but most of it is kind of pre-planned. These apps are kind of scary because there is no way to play with detailed plans. You either work or you don’t.

    1. Ondrej says:

      Social block helps to bring compliance to your life…”ask yourself are you a capitalist or socialist in your personal life? Are you seeking to avoid the marketplace, head in the sand? Just count off the activites that fill your week. How many of them require you to enlist the freely-given cooperation of others or for your team to best another team in honest competition. Examples of compliance / capitalism in action….
      Going out drinking with a bunch of friends
      A road trip with buddies
      Dating a hot girl
      Sparring at your boxing / BJJ class
      Winning an argument
      Having your work colleagues ask you to lead a project
      Many activities which are good for your self-development and good for life-enrichment are also non-compliance / socialist activities.
      Reading / studying
      Writing a blog
      Travelling solo or always with the same friend
      Being disciplined about your nutrition
      Hitting the gym
      Be careful with them. Its good to have a few but if you find you are always staying home to “work on my philosophy” rather than joining your friends at a party then you might have just life-weaseled yourself. Seek the feedback…..”

  15. Laura says:

    How do you keep track of your work from day to day? Other than keeping a tally of hours of deep work, do you keep a more specific record i.e some kind of work/research journal?

    Thanks for the article, have a good Christmas,
    Laura

  16. A says:

    “my weekly and quarterly planning notes”
    Can you share what these are or how you go about making them?

  17. Rick says:

    @LAURA

    Make an Inventory sheet of what work you have to get done e.g. a list stating each activity.

    Time-blocking then can planned a night before on certain tasks from your A4 inventory sheet of the activities you need to get done before a certain period. After each activity has been completed, just put a line through it on your inventory sheet.

    note: this is not Cal’s method but something that I personally use.

  18. I’m quite meticulous in planning my day and have seen the benefits of it. But I don’t always put it down on paper which sends me off track depending on my mood. This seems like the perfect cure for such days.

    1. Well said. I was on the same dilemma prior to ‘writing things down’. There just to be so many things out there and in as much as how you’d like to remember them all, some just slips off. Writing as proven itself to be a very good tool for keeping tabs of your daily tasks.

    2. Well said. I was on the same dilemma prior to ‘writing things down.’ There just to be so many things out there that in as much as how we’d like to get them done, some just slips off. So yes, writing is really effective.

  19. Rachel says:

    I have a family member whose work requires he make space for walk ins and potential crises. He guarantees he will be in his office in the morning and that if he has out of office duties, he will take care of those in the afternoon. Because it is the only time they are guaranteed to find him, everyone comes in during the morning. This leaves the afternoon open for offsite duties and uninterrupted deep work. Very much fits with your idea of scheduling reactive time in blocks. This model has been successful for him going on 30 years!

  20. Laura says:

    Cal, is there a reason you use hard bound books rather than electronic versions of your schedules and ideas?

  21. Tjerk says:

    Cal,

    I have a simple question: how and when do you deal with your co-authors?

    As a graduate student I struggle a lot with the following paradox: on the one hand, I would like to immerse more into deep work; on the other hand, the more various co-authors of various papers (at various stages) constantly set my agenda. (The only solution I’ve been able to come up with is to work more as a single author, yet this reduces direct feedback)

    When I look at your (academic) CV, I see all of your papers are co-authored by three, four or five. How and when do you deal with co-authors, while at the same time carving out such huge chunks of deep work?

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  23. David K says:

    This is lovely. Would you make a blocking chart that includes a 3 year-old and a 1 year-old? Thanks!

    1. Study Hacks says:

      As indicated by the title, time blocking applies to work time (i.e., time at an office). If you work with a 3-year old and a 1-year old you probably have a deeper problem to tackle first!

  24. Awesome!! :D

    This tracking time way was probably the greatest thing we can start today, this will help us to improve ourself.. How we use our time relates closely to how we fuel our self-growth.. :)

  25. Justin says:

    I think this article addresses an important yet under-appreciated problem faced by many people. Especially as it relates to health, time management and prioritization of important versus urgent matters is an ongoing challenge. I personally find it helpful to have a fun, visual platform with which to design my day, called Owaves (www.owaves.com). Hope this is helpful a relevant audience.

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