You know the feeling – you’ve come to the end of your work day and you’ve put out fires, sat in a few meetings and responded to a bunch of emails...but what did you really accomplish?
Meanwhile, your list of “Tasks I Absolutely Must Do This Week No Matter What” keeps growing.
If you wear a lot of hats at a nonprofit, your to-do list is probably a mixed bag of importance and urgency: meeting a budget deadline, responding to questions on social media, planning a staff holiday party, and launching a major fundraising campaign...all at the same time.
So what’s the secret to taking back control of your work schedule and actually getting things done? My productivity hack of choice is time blocking.
What is time blocking?
Time blocking (or calendar blocking) is a productivity practice for scheduling your time around your priorities.
I start each week by scheduling dedicated blocks of time on my calendar for every project I need to work on. To do it, I review my upcoming project deadlines and task lists. I estimate how much time it will take to complete the work and and schedule intervals of “focus time” on my calendar. The trick is to commit to these time blocks like I would for any other meeting.
Time blocking isn’t just for projects, though. I use time blocking to set boundaries on how much time I spend on “time stealers” like email and social media, too.
Why does time blocking work?
Time blocking encourages you to be disciplined about your priorities. By creating a proactive schedule, you can pace your progress toward your deadlines.
Time blocking creates mindful decision points for when competing priorities emerge (a constant in the nonprofit world). When a team member urgently needs your help on a project, your time blocks will show you when you can help and what it will mean for your own priorities.
This is a meaningful practice for visual and kinesthetic learners for that reason – you actually move your time blocks around as plans change. When the puzzle pieces no longer fit your priorities, then you know it’s time to say no to a project or ask for help on a deadline.
How to time block (and still be a good teammate)
You might be wondering whether time blocking is too rigid or makes you seem unavailable to others. Not to worry! I’ll show you my tips for responsive, flexible time blocking that puts your priorities first.
Here’s what you need to get started:
- An online calendar with color coding and a busy/available function (like Google Calendar)
- Your to-do list for the week and upcoming project calendars
- A list of anything else you spend time on, like checking email, social media, following up on tasks, etc. plus how you like to spend your break time
- Your meeting schedule for the week
Set your priorities.
I usually begin time blocking on Sunday afternoon, away from the office. With my project deadlines and to-do list for the week in front of me, I ask myself, “What are my top three priorities for the week? What three things am I going to focus on each day?”
Whatever your method of prioritizing, you’ll need a list of all the tasks that will require your attention that week. Note which tasks have hard deadlines and which can be done any time during the week.
Create your calendar code.
I use free/busy settings and color coding for all of my calendar events:
- busy - red = meeting with others
- busy - orange = priority time block (hard deadline)
- free - turquoise = flexible time block (can be done any time that week)
What are free/busy settings for? If your organization makes heavy use of online calendars like mine does, your teammates will schedule meetings based on when your calendar says you’re available.
This is where time blocking comes in handy. You’ll mark your priority time blocks “busy.” If you have flexibility to work on a task at another time, you’ll mark it “free” or “available” in case you need to make your time available to others. If a teammate schedules a meeting with you, you can move your “free” block to another time and mark yourself “busy” then if needed.
Using distinct colors between busy/free time is a quick way to see when you need to focus.
Give yourself a “focus day.”
On that note, I highly recommend you block out an entire “focus day” where you don’t schedule meetings with anyone else. (Read Asana’s approach on “How to take back your productivity with No Meeting Wednesday.”)
Time block an entire workday as “busy” – even better if you can do it to support a major deadline, and if you can set it a week ahead of time. If a whole day isn’t possible, try to give yourself a good chunk (first thing in the morning until lunch, for example).
Schedule meeting prep and follow-up time.
I typically have a lot of meetings throughout the week that require preparation and follow-up work. Depending on the meeting, I’ll time block 30 minutes or so directly afterward to carry out meeting deliverables. For newly scheduled meetings, I incorporate meeting prep into my overall time blocking plan.
Example: For a meeting to plan an upcoming e-newsletter, I might schedule prep time to review our e-newsletter results metrics and follow-up time to start drafting the content.
Put recurring “other” time into the calendar.
I like to give myself dedicated, recurring blocks for potential “time stealers” like email and social media. They’re things that need attention, but can also help to break up the workday. I find it’s helpful to batch breaks around these times, too. I usually mark these blocks as “free.”
For example: Catch up on social media at 9:00 a.m. and 3:30 p.m., respond to emails at 12:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m., take a walk at 12:30 p.m.
Put your priorities into the calendar.
Now that your weekly structure is set up, it’s time to fill your priority time blocks into the calendar.
- Tune into your natural tendencies and your environment. Do you feel most productive after coffee? More creative after your daily walk? Is your office quieter in the mornings or the afternoons?
- Generously estimate how much time each task will take. This gets easier with practice!
- Break up your time into phases. Assess your progress at each phase and move your “free” blocks if you need more time.
Time blocking in the real world
As I said before, time blocking is like a helpful jigsaw puzzle: you use it to see how priorities fit within your time.
The reality is, distractions and competition for your attention will “push” your time blocks around – and I do suggest rescheduling your time blocks as they happen. You can quickly shift incomplete tasks to another day and see in real time how your schedule is shaping up before taking on new commitments.
More time blocking and productivity resources
I’ve shown you my method for time blocking, but plenty more folks have good advice on productivity:
- Must-read article and visuals from Rob Nightingale: “Time Blocking — The Secret Weapon For Better Focus”
- Solid tips from wikiHow: “How to Time Block”
- List of time management techniques for nonprofits from Kivi Leroux Miller: “Chunking Out Your Time: What Works for You?”
- Post from Jeff Brooks on using the Eisenhower Matrix to manage your time: “How to take control of your fundraising life”
Did this help you? How do you manage your time? I want to hear from you!
I’m Leili Khalessi, and I love nonprofit technology, marketing strategy and project management. How about you? Connect with me on Twitter @Leili4Good.