Saturday, November 9, 2019

Avoid Time Wasters Using Block Scheduling and the Pomodoro Technique

Even though we have more computers, apps, and gadgets all the time that are supposed to make our lives easier, life seems to be busier and more complicated all the time. So I tried combining two methods for a week--time blocking and the Pomodoro method. Here's how I cut out the time-wasters and got things done.

Why I decided to increase my productivity

I don't want to (and can't) work 12 hours a day. But that also doesn't mean that I want to feel distracted and rushed to get things done. Even though I'm no longer an employee, I still have work to do.

I want to set limits for that work. While I still had a job, I had to do that work, then work on my businesses after. It was common for me to start working at 6am and still be working at 6, 7, or 8pm.

Once I quit, I found I would still work late into the night. I was enjoying the freedom of being self-employed a little too much, and I needed some structure.

Why I chose time blocking and Pomodoro

In case you haven't heard of it, the Pomodoro technique was developed in the 1980s by a university student. He used a timer to break his study sessions down into 25-minute intervals.

There's science behind using focused time followed by short rest periods. A recent research study showed the average attention span of a British person is 14 minutes. And even back in 1978, an article from the Lancet showed that medical student concentration peaked after 10-15 minutes, then started to decline. Harvard Business Review reported that nearly half of our days are spent with our minds wandering.

I used the Pomodoro method while I was still at my job because the work required a lot of concentration, and it was easy for my brain to get fatigued if I kept at it for too long.

The block schedule is something I'd heard of but had not really tried before. Jordan Page has a good article and video about this practice. She's a little hyper for me--fair warning if you go to her site. But she has an excellent analogy in the video between high school or college classes and time blocking. When we're in school, we focus on one subject at a time. We don't (or shouldn't) start working on math homework in the middle of English class. Concentrating on one thing at a time leads to better learning and productivity.

The block schedule involves setting aside a set period for specific activities. Ms. Page recommends using more than an hour per block, but you can customize it based on your activities. I'll show you an example of how I scheduled my time in a  bit.

How I use time blocks and the Pomodoro technique together to maximize productivity

While I liked the idea of organizing my time in blocks based on activity, I felt like more than an hour for each block would still lead to wasting time. I knew I would not be able to focus on any task for more than an hour because the work I do is very detailed. So to add more structure to my time blocks, I combined it with the Pomodoro technique.

Instead of making a spreadsheet or paper version of my block schedule, I decided to use my Google calendar. It has built-in reminders, so I have 15-minute warnings when my block is about to end, and another reminder at the start of each block. Here's an example of a day taken from my calendar.

I like changing colors to separate the blocks. Each block is clickable, and I can look at notes to see things I should work on during that block.

Within each block, I will break down the time spent on tasks using a 25-minute timer. I don't think there's any need to buy a timer (either virtual or physical), but do what's best for you. I either use my phone's timer or one on my laptop.

Breakdown of my typical day with block scheduling

I created a 2.5-hour block for my morning routine, which includes meditation, breakfast, exercise, reading, morning pages, dishes, starting laundry, and getting dressed (for more details about my morning routine, see this post: How I Use a Morning Routine to Reduce Stress). This gives me more than enough time to get things done without feeling rushed, but not so much time that I can get distracted by non-essentials like messing with my phone.

After my morning routine, my workday begins, and the first block is content creation. This is all about writing, either for my fiction books or my websites. I also include editing my work and creating visuals for the writing in this block.

I give myself an hour for lunch, and this is my unstructured break. I eat, do dishes, and take a walk if I feel up to it. I will also catch up on personal text messages or quick phone calls during this break.

Then I have a couple more structured blocks--a short one for managing social media content and responding to emails, followed by a block for my other gigs. During this time I might work on accounting for my husband's business or create work for my other income sources. My afternoon tasks don't require as much attention from my brain and are usually shorter than a blog post. I can knock out 3-5 tasks in a typical afternoon "side gig" block.

The last two blocks of the day are less structured and more about designating time to relax. Unless there's something urgent going on, I stop working at 4:30. I don't check social media or emails after that time. I make and eat dinner, hang out with Ryan and my mom, and do some light cleaning between 4:30 and 8. 8pm is time to wind down. After 8, I do things to get ready for bed and read. I won't even deal with personal text messages after 8pm; my phone is in “do not disturb” mode.

Results for eliminating time wasters after one week

I like this system, and I will keep using it. I felt like I was more organized and productive. I'm someone who works better with routines and having a direction for each day is very helpful.

Also, on Thursday of this "test" week, I had to change my schedule entirely because Ryan and I were gone all day doing errands. I knew that was going to happen, and I put it on my calendar. Even though I didn't get my usual stuff done, I still was able to complete some tasks and had a sense of accomplishment.

Using these techniques, on a typical day, I'm starting my work for the day at 9:30 and ending at 4:30 with a 1-hour break. That's only six hours a day. On the weekends, I switch up the schedule and focus on personal tasks, including taking classes, managing finances, and hobbies. While it's sometimes necessary to put in some business-related hours, the time I have scheduled for work is one hour per day on Saturday and Sunday.

So compared to my previous schedule of 40 to 60 or 80 hours per week (when I had a job plus business work), I now have 32 hours per week of work. And if I'm lucky, at some point, I'll be making enough passive income to automate things I don't want to do (or hire them out), and then I can focus entirely on writing and other creative pursuits. At that point, my work hours may go down even further, which would be ideal.

Suggestions about integrating time blocking or the Pomodoro technique into your schedule

For time blocking, think about your typical day. In many ways you may already have blocks: things you do in the morning to get ready for the day, the time you spend at work, time spent after work, and then tasks you do at the end of your day to get ready for bed. Review how much time it takes for each part of your schedule.

If you're in a job and have some flexibility with how you manage your time, you can use block scheduling to organize your day. For example, the first two hours of your day can be blocked out for responding to emails and returning phone calls. Then another block lasts until lunchtime, where you write reports. After lunch, you could put in two or three more blocks--maybe one for meetings, one for more email and phone calls, and a third for planning the next day.

No matter what, I recommend scheduling tasks that require the most concentration at the time of day when you are most alert. I'm a morning person. Aspects of my morning routine help me become more focused, and then I do my most focused work (such as writing this blog post) immediately after.

Using a Pomodoro (25 minutes) doesn't mean that you can spend only 25 minutes on that task. It just means you work for 25 minutes before a break. Then take a 5-minute break before moving on to another Pomodoro. You could work on a single task for the entire block, but just with several breaks. The creator of Pomodoros recommends that after several rotations, you take a more extended break (30 minutes or more). That's a good place for a meal break or perhaps exercise.

I think most people would benefit from either one of these methods, but together I think they work even better. If you give it a try, let me know how it goes!