At Monolist, we're obsessed with developer productivity. Between knocking off to-do's, cleaning your inbox, and responding to chats it's easy to feel like you're being productive at work without truly getting any important work done. When it's not clear how we should spend our time in a given moment, we gravitate to this kind of busy-work that feels rewarding, but does not contribute to progress on our larger goals.
It's possible to counteract this phenomenon by being deliberate about how you spend your time, and actually setting aside time on your calendar to work on specific tasks. This practice is called “time-blocking”.
Behavioral economics has taught us that defaults matter. People overwhelmingly stick with defaults when given choices. Time-blocking eliminates the ambiguity of how you're spending your time at work, and makes executing your scheduled tasks your default behavior.
In the same way that writing down your goals drastically increases the chance that you'll actually complete them, setting aside time to complete your tasks also increases the chances that you'll complete them.
The central issue with task lists arises when they become too long to look at without getting anxious. Your to-do list gets too long when you over-commit, and this overcommitment comes from under-estimating how long your tasks will take.
When you schedule your work, you have to confront how long those tasks will actually take in the broader context of your day. Are you going to make a presentation from scratch, draft a blog post, build a financial model between the five hours of meetings you have that day? Probably not.
When you actually set aside time on your calendar for these tasks, you commit to less, but get more done.
When you get distracted while working, it's difficult to return to the task at hand. In many instances, you have to go through the process of figuring what to work on all over again – look at your to-do's, chats, and emails. This is why context switching is so disastrous for productivity.
When you time-block, not only are you more productive because you have a strong default about how you should be spending your time, but you also have an artifact on your calendar to look back at that tells you what you were working on before you got distracted, so you don't have to go through the process of deciding what to do all over again.
Setting aside time for tasks on your calendar is a socially-acceptable way to let people know that the meetings they want to add to you have a tangible cost — the work you would have gotten done if they had not scheduled the meeting. In this way, time-blocking reduces the time you spend in non-essential meetings.
After you have finished a week of scheduled work, you can conveniently go back and look at how you actually spent your time. Did you allocate your time in accordance with your priorities? Did you spend too much time responding to emails or preparing for non-essential meetings?
Reflecting on how you spend your time can help you make better plans for the future by pushing you to ensure that you set aside time for your highest-priority tasks.
On a Monday morning, having a plan of attack for your week can help you get execute faster, gain momentum, and get more done. Try scheduling next week’s work on a Friday afternoon, while you’re still in the work mindset, but are likely not going to start any big work before the weekend kicks off.
As we’ve discussed, scheduling your tasks helps you confront how long your tasks will actually take, and plan more realistically as a result.
As such, it’s important that the available slots on your calendar reflect time you can actually spend executing. Try blocking off times where you know you can’t get good work done, like your commute, lunch, and any breaks you want to take throughout the day.
Humans hate ambiguity. When given a choice between a high-impact, but ambiguous task (roadmap proposal, for example), and a low-impact, but clear one (respond to an email), most people will choose the latter.
The more specific (less ambiguous) the tasks that you schedule are, the more likely it is that you’ll actually complete them.
As we’ve already discussed, task lists become unmanageable when you overcommit. Schedules are no different. You should budget more time than you think you need for a specific task in service of building a realistic plan.
At the end of the week, looking back on how you spent your time that week helps you figure out if you’re allocating your time in accordance with your priorities. If you notice that you aren’t spending time on high-priority items or initiatives, you should adjust your plan for the next week to make sure you set aside more time for those items.
At Monolist, we've built time-blocking directly into our app.
First, we aggregate all of our important alerts, tasks, and pull requests into one list. After that, you can simply drag-and-drop the task directly onto your calendar to set aside time to work on that task.
The best part? If you don't complete the task, it'll add it back to your calendar the next day so you don't lose track!