If you were to brush your teeth for 2 minutes every day, twice a day, for 30 days, you’d spend 2 hours a month brushing your teeth. That’s not the same as saving all your teeth brushing until the last day of the month, and then doing it for 2 hours.
The opposite is true for baking a pie. Let’s say it takes 40 minutes to cook a pie. You can’t break it up into 2-minute sessions that you do twice a day until you get to 40 minutes. Cooking a pie doesn’t work that way.
How We Divide Time Matters
When we think about time, the division of it matters. It matters based on what we’re trying to accomplish.
I’ve been reading Brigid Schulte’s book Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time. In the book, she meets with sociologist John Robinson who tells her that according to his data, if she keeps a time diary for a week, she’ll discover she has roughly 30 hours of leisure time.
Schulte is gobsmacked. Thirty hours? As a staff writer for The Washington Post and a mother, she thinks there’s no way it’s possible. Like most working mothers, she’s desperately trying to meet deadlines, be available to her children, take care of a pet, run a household, and manage other problems that come up.
Schulte can’t even find the time to make the time diary. Eventually, she does, and she brings the results to Robinson. He goes over her data, looking at what activities she did every day. He sees she exercised in the morning and tells that’s leisure time. Reading the newspaper, which is part of her job, also gets cataloged as leisure. Then there is all the social and familial tending that women typically do, such as emailing friends or sending family members photos, that gets lumped into leisure time, too. Some of her “leisure” time is clearly up for debate.
In the end, Robinson identifies 28 leisure hours for the week. Schulte says those hours don’t “feel” very leisurely.
One reason (among many) that her leisure time doesn’t feel leisurely is because it’s fragmented. Leisure time is more restorative when we get it in blocks. That’s partially why weekends are more restorative than weekday nights. There are other factors, too, such as having more ability to choose what you want to do on a weekend versus a typical weeknight that might be filled with responsibilities.
In any event, certain kinds of work also benefit from being done in blocks. Those high-value, high-focus tasks are easier to do when we are not interrupted, when we can attain a state of flow, when we have the ability to cultivate a sustained focus on one thing and one thing only. Plus, we do them better.
Keeping a weekly time diary may indeed uncover slivers of time that, when added up, total something close to 30 hours per week. But changing how you live and work so that you can cobble together all those slivers of time into blocks can be a real challenge.
How Time Blocking Can Help
I recently hit a wall with a couple of projects. Everyday, I managed to work on a few important projects, but there were always two other projects that I didn’t get to. I had been neglecting them. They aren’t core work, so let’s call them bonus projects. My bonus projects don’t have deadlines and they don’t have an immediate payoff. Still, they’re important to me, and I knew I had the time to work on them if only I could change how I was using my time.
Meanwhile, I had just finished an intensive online Spanish language course. It was 5 hours per day for 4 days per week, with a shorter 3-hour day on Tuesdays. My instructor started each day by reading out loud the daily and weekly objectives, and then showing his calendar. Each calendar day had 5 entries, in other words, 5 blocks of time. Each one was 50 minutes long followed by a 10-minute break, with a longer break in the middle of the day for lunch. Each entry said exactly what we would work on during that time, and the instructor was very clear about showing how that work connected to the daily and weekly goals.
I loved it. I loved the clarity of having these time blocks. The other student and I knew exactly how we would use our time in class. The expectations were clear. We knew when a break was coming. The instructor even used a timer to remind him of breaks so that we didn’t run late for any given block.
When the class ended, I took this same time-blocking method and started using it for my projects. I had known about time-blocking for years, but using it in this way, with someone else managing the schedule helped me see it in a new way.
So I created a calendar entry, set it to for two hours, and wrote the name of the bonus project I wanted to work on. I filled in the rest of the day with time blocks to make sure I worked on my other projects, too.
After a few weeks, I realized that I didn’t even need a full two hours of time to make good progress on my bonus project. Often, an hour or an hour and half was sufficient. I’d hit a natural stopping point, open the calendar, and readjust my time blocks for the day according to what time I had left.
Using a calendar and seeing the blocks of time made a huge difference. If I had tried to prioritize the work in my head and just by sheer will tell myself I should work on this or that, I would have never “found the time.” The time was there. I just had to prioritize it into a useful block and draw it up as such.
Surprisingly, I found that time blocking works for me even if I don’t do it ahead of time. Some days I find myself in front of my computer at 8:45, realizing it’s nearly time to get something worthwhile done. I can open my calendar, create a time block that starts now and write down what I intend to do and for how long I will do it.
Time-blocking doesn’t stop pets from interrupting you or make it easier to be a parent. It doesn’t solve every problem related to how we use our time. If you’ve hit a wall, though, and want blocks of useful time whether it’s for leisure or work, I highly recommend drawing those blocks on a calendar so you can literally see them.