Nicole Dieker has written many book reviews, including posts on Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You (“a must-read guide to building a creative career”) and Deep Work (“which makes me wonder if people can only tackle a large creative project if they don’t have any more-important problems for their brains to solve”).
I’m never going to use Cal Newport’s Time-Block Planner.
But that’s only because I’ve been time-blocking, on my own, for years.
I can’t remember when I first wrote about time-blocking — I know I wrote about my personal time-block strategy for The Write Life in 2017, and YES I CITED CAL NEWPORT AS ONE OF THE ORIGINATORS OF THE TIME-BLOCK PRODUCTIVITY METHOD, always cite your sources, but the point is that I have all of this stuff already laid out on a spreadsheet.
What I’d like to do with every part of the day, from the moment I wake up to the moment I start winding down.
Cal Newport’s Time-Block Planner — aka The Time-Block Planner: A Daily Method for Deep Work in a Distracted World — asks you to do much the same thing. To plan out your day in advance, blocking off dedicated chunks of time for your most important work. To stick to the plan as closely as possible, whenever possible. To make a plan that works for you, including overflow time (because something always overflows) and enough space in your day to care for both yourself and your loved ones.
Plus, of course, the all-important rest and recovery that you’ll for-sure need if you want enough energy to spend dedicated chunks of time on your most important work tomorrow.
There’s a reason Newport wants you to do this on paper, and it has something to do with paper not having Twitter attached to it, but at this point I am so in touch with my personal time-block spreadsheet that I’m not interested in making the effort to switch.
Plus, the Time-Block Planner only includes thirteen weeks’ worth of time blocks. You’d need to buy four planners to get you through the year, and you probably already have a spreadsheet program on whatever device you’re currently using to read this book review.
Of course, that device also comes with Twitter attached. And email. And whatever might distract you from doing the work of planning when you are going to do your work.
Which is why, if you are interested in an absolutely analog method of time-blocking, a paper planner could be an effective tool.
(Please note that analog /= distraction-free. Your device could still beep at you while you’re writing something in your paper planner. The doorbell could ring. You could accidentally bump your coffee mug with your elbow and have to stop everything to clean up your mess.)
How does time-blocking work? I covered the jist of it at the beginning of the book review (plan your day, hour by hour), but effective time-blocking essentially centers on two series of decisions:
- Decide how you want to prioritize your time
- Decide how you want to prioritize changes
A paper Time-Block Planner asks you to cross out the sections of your time-block plan that no longer work (because you spilled coffee all over everything and cleaning it up took the 10-minute slot you were going to give to email) and draw a new time-block plan immediately to the right, with a newly-prioritized schedule.
A spreadsheet lets you shuffle cells around, although Newport argues that the paper method is superior because you can see how you planned your day vs. how you actually used your day, and that information can help you create better plans in the future.
Also, you’re supposed to actually use your day the way you plan it. That’s the biggest part of this whole deal, and the part that no paper or electronic sheet can make you do unless you come into this process already wanting to do it.
If you don’t stick to your plan, whether due to external or internal circumstance, you’re supposed to open your Time-Block Planner, cross out your beautifully-drawn plan, and draw up what you hope might happen next.
Or, to quote the Time-Block Planner (and Cal Newport) directly:
Your goal is not to stick to a given schedule at all costs: it’s instead to maintain, at all times, a thoughtful say in what you’re doing with your time going forward — even if these decisions are reworked again and again as the day unfolds.
Does time-blocking work? YES.
Does time-blocking work if you have the kind of job where your day isn’t solely yours to plan? YES. (Having done both, I’ll admit that time-blocking is easier when you are 100% in charge of your workday — but if you have a job that gives you at least some discretion in how you spend your time, time-blocking can help you use that time effectively.)
Does time-blocking work if you have a partner who also has ideas about what the two of you should do with your time? YES. Especially when you use the time-blocking system to block off time for the two of you to spend together.
Does time-blocking work if you have kids? I DON’T KNOW. Cal Newport has kids, so I’d wager a yes on that one… but you’d have to ask him yourself.
Does time-blocking allow for unscheduled time, spontaneity, wandering conversations, actual wandering, etc. etc. etc.? YES. You can put as much “whim time” in your Time-Block Planner as you want (I have literally written about the importance of scheduling unscheduled time, go read it).
What if I don’t want to do the thing I blocked into my Time-Block Planner? Change your plan. (If you never want to do the things you block into your Time-Block Planner, you may need to change a few other aspects of your life as well.)
What is your favorite part of Cal Newport’s Time-Block Planner? The page on which he writes “work accomplished = time spent x intensity of focus.”
I’ll write more on that particular equation tomorrow. ❤️