Time Blocking for Productivity


I’ve been reading “The One Thing” by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan, and just finished a chapter on time blocking. This has been the single largest contributor to my productivity.

The art of time blocking comes down to creating (blocking) quiet, focused time in your day to tackle the meatiest, most critical tasks – those that require the most thought and time and effort but that will yield the largest results.

The book turned me on to Paul Graham‘s and Y Combinator‘s approach to time blocking, which Graham writes about in his post “Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule”. “Makers” such as developers and writers need long, focused periods of time in their day to be productive. These are time blocks of several hours. Any meetings, conference calls or other interruptions can be highly disruptive to the maker’s productivity.  On the other hand, “managers” that create value primarily through interacting with people  in meetings, calls, hallway directives, etc. are used to scheduling their days in 30 minute and 60 minute time blocks. These two cultures of productivity can certainly clash if you’re not purposeful about how to manage them.

This also reminds me of a concept that I heard a startup founder speak about once: when you’re the founder of an early stage company you’re “writing” a lot. In other words, you’re doing a lot of the work yourself – coding, sales, marketing, etc. But, as you grow and hire a team, you’re role as the leader of the organization shifts from “writer” to “editor” – where you are delegating the writing to your team and then “editing” their work.

While, I’m not a founder, I have started several new teams and initiatives in my previous companies. Often times, I started as the first and only person, needing to prove the concept and pitch for funding. This concept of writing vs. editing is how I approach building new things. I start as the writer, rolling up my sleeves and getting my hands dirty, gaining a deep understanding of the mechanics of how something works – or even developing the mechanics of how something works. Eventually, as we gain traction and funding and the ability to hire a team, I shift to editing mode. This is the same as shifting from maker mode to manager mode.

What I’ve found over time is that I’m happiest when I’m making time to both make/write and manage/edit. Solely focusing on one eventually becomes frustrating. I like to both create and build things, but also teach and coach people.

The busiest time of my life was between August 2013 – May 2015 when I was getting my MBA. During that period of time, I was transitioning off a significant initiative that I had built from $245K to $5.5M revenues in just 2 years – finding a good manager to succeed me and sustain the business that I had built. And, I was transitioning on to build a new consulting practice from scratch that would require a significant organizational change effort. I was traveling more frequently – several times a month. Meanwhile, I had two kids at home ages, 3 and 1 and a new baby on the way. Finding “balance” between school, work and personal life required a new level of intentionality with my time. Time-blocking is, eventually, how I designed it.

In year two of my MBA is when I really hit my rhythm. Below is my schedule:

  • 4am – wake up and read the news
  • 4:30am – exercise and meditate
  • 5am – writing time – during which I focused on the most critical thing that I needed to accomplish that day. Sometimes it was school work (homework or studying for an exam), and sometimes it was company work (usually a presentation of some kind). I would block as much time as I needed to get this one thing done, but usually by the early afternoon my concentration energy had been taxed. So, I shifted to editing mode
  • 1pm – 5pm – editing time – reserved for conference calls, meetings and emails.
  • 5-7pm – commute time / time with kids
  • 7-9pm – down time with Court (my wife)
  • 9pm – bed

Sometimes, if I knew I needed some extra time, I’d go to bed at 8pm and wake up at 3am. I also worked from my home office or a coffee shop or the hotel room frequently, so that I couldn’t be interrupted. Office time was the single largest disrupter of productivity. Working from home or the hotel also saved me unproductive commute times. I would only drive if I was going to be spending that 30-60 minutes on a call too.

When I tell people that I’m a 3-4am riser, they’re generally aghast.  “How can you wake up that early? I need my sleep,” they say. To which I respond, “Well, what time do you wake up?” The answer is usually around 6am. “And, what time do you usually go to bed?” The answer is usually around 11pm-12am. “Well, then I get the same or more sleep than you,” I say. And, I’m more productive with my time. At this point, there is usually an a-ha moment and a self-admition that they “just don’t have the discipline to keep that kind of schedule.” I didn’t think I had the discipline either when I started, but I had to for survival. And, time blocking was the key.

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