Book Review: The Time-Block Planner by Cal Newport

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:

  1. Decide how you want to prioritize your time
  2. 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. ❤️

Cal Newport’s ‘So Good They Can’t Ignore You’ Is a Must-Read Guide to Building a Creative Career

I’ve mentioned Cal Newport on this blog before. I started implementing his daily shutdown ritual after reading Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, for example, and it has made my workday (and my evenings) so much better.

But last week I read his 2012 book So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love, and I am ready to GET EXCITED ABOUT IT.

Here’s the tl;dr, though I really really really think you should r:

If you want to build a fulfilling career, you need to develop both marketable skills and career capital. Being passionate about a particular line of work isn’t enough.

This is kind of the tension at the core of Nicole Dieker Dot Com, btw — like, I’m writing about being vulnerable online and mushing through the draft of NEXT BOOK while also being fairly hard-headed about how this type of career takes schedules and strategies and showing up every day.

Or, as I put it in one of my very first posts: there’s a difference between “the dream” and “the work of doing your work.”

So Good They Can’t Ignore You is about pushing through that difference, and going from the work of doing your work to building a dream career.

It’s worth noting that this “dream career” may not be related to your current creative passion; that is, the end game isn’t “full-time novelist” or “full-time singer-songwriter” or whatever. The end game is to develop a career that capitalizes on your skills, lets you control your time, and helps you create the life you want, which may also include writing novels or making music or working on political campaigns or traveling for three months every year.*

I can hear you thinking “but there aren’t enough of those careers to go around,” which, okay, sure, but Newport makes two additional points:

  • With enough skills and career capital, you can build your own career. (This is what I did.)
  • With enough skills and career capital, you can work to make the world better for everyone else.

To quote Chapter 13, Missions Require Capital:

Pardis Sabeti thought small by focusing patiently for years on a narrow niche (the genetics of diseases in Africa) but then acting big once she acquired enough capital to identify a mission (using computational genetics to help understand and fight ancient diseases). Sarah and Jane, by contrast, reversed this order. They started by thinking big, looking for a world-changing mission, but without capital they could only match this big thinking with small, ineffectual acts.

Go read this book. You might not agree with everything Newport writes, but I bet at least one or two chapters will make you think differently about your creative career.

It did for me, anyway, and I’ve been doing this for seven years now.

Next Tuesday I’m going to review a book that’s more about the emotional and vulnerable aspects of building a life. In case you’re curious. It’s all about balance, after all.

*Yes, you can go straight into trying to become “so good they can’t ignore you” at your current artistic pursuit or passion project. The book has some notes on that path as well — after all, the “so good they can’t ignore you” quote came directly from Steve Martin. But that path might be a lot harder than the one where you use your monetizable skills to build the type of capital that can help you achieve your large-scale goals.

The Thoughts That Occupy Your Thoughts

I’ve been thinking — and this is no way an original idea, but I’ve been thinking it anyway — about how one of the (perhaps necessary?) components of creativity is the ability to let the creative work occupy your thoughts.

Or, more specifically: the ability to let the creative work be the problem your brain tries to solve in the shower.

We already know that our brains do a lot of excellent problem-solving work while they aren’t focused on other stuff; this is why we get insights in the shower and on walks and while we’re unloading the dishwasher and when we wake up at 3 a.m. to a brain that’s all “I figured it out! Now write it down or I won’t let you go back to sleep again.”

(Or, sometimes: “I’m upset that I haven’t figured it out yet! Let’s do some thinking RIGHT NOW or I won’t let you go back to sleep again.”)

But I’ve found that my brain likes to concern itself with the biggest problem in my life at the moment, and if there is a problem that’s more important than NEXT BOOK, that’s the problem that my brain’s going to want to tackle when I’m not focused on anything else.

I am very good at focusing on work even when there are larger issues going on in my life or in the world. I can tell myself “this is the discrete task I need to complete right now, and I’ll still be in the emergency room/I’ll still have that meeting where I have to have the difficult conversation/Trump will still be president when I’m done.”

But I don’t know how to control the problems my brain wants to solve afterwards.

The thoughts that occupy my thoughts.

I just finished reading Cal Newport’s Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, and he and David Allen and everyone else notes that open brain loops are huge mind-sucks (and yes, I’m using “suck” in the colloquial way here).

Newport references the thing where you check your email on Saturday morning and learn that there’s some unresolved issue or difficult conversation or large task that you won’t be able to tackle until Monday, and so your brain wastes the whole weekend chewing over the problem and rehearsing fictitious conversations and wondering what might happen and analyzing all of the potential outcomes.

He suggests creating a “shutdown ritual,” as follows:

To succeed with this strategy, you must first accept the commitment that once your workday shuts down, you cannot allow even the smallest incursion of professional concerns into your field of attention.

[…]

In more detail, this ritual should ensure that every incomplete task, goal, or project has been reviewed and that for each you have confirmed that either (1) you have a plan you trust for its completion, or (2) it’s captured in a place where it will be revisited when the time is right. This process should be an algorithm: a series of steps you always conduct, one after another. When you’re done, have a set phrase you say that indicates completion (to end my own ritual, I say “Shutdown complete”). This final step sounds cheesy, but it provides a simple cue to your mind that it’s safe to release work-related thoughts for the rest of the day.

I’m going to start integrating shutdown rituals into my own work, but some work problems are too large to be shut down at the end of the day (ASK ME HOW I KNOW) and even though I was able to do some excellent thinking on my current work problem over the weekend and come up with a potential solution, that’s all time I wasn’t spending on NEXT BOOK.

Or anything else.

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 not saying “if they don’t have any more-important issues in their lives,” btw. People do creative work during births and deaths and illnesses and unemployments and all kinds of things.

But if the problem is still an open loop, if it hasn’t resolved into a stasis or a plan of action, if the issue is not “okay, we’re going to do X and it will be time-consuming and no fun but that’s just how our lives will be right now” but “what are we going to do about X, there are ten options and twelve difficult conversations ahead of us,” is it possible to not let those thoughts occupy your thoughts?

I don’t know.

I’d be interested to know how your brain deals with these kinds of situations.