Time Blocking: A parents’ guide to getting it all done

As a parent, you may feel like you never have enough time in the day. There are mouths to feed, a home to clean, work, and planning to be done! Just when you think you’ll have a window to target something on your to do list, life happens and throws you off course. Prioritizing your tasks for all parts of your life (being a parent, employee, good family member, thoughtful friend) can help, but you don’t need a blog to tell you that prioritization is important! You need to know HOW to prioritize and what to do every day to make life happen and get it all done.

No fear, I’m here to help!

Several years ago, I read about a strategy that changed the way I work and the way I manage my life: time blocking.  I wish I had the creativity and ingenuity to invent it myself – I am by no means the inventor, but I am an adopter, fierce advocate, and strong believer in time blocking’s potential to completely change your life. I know that sounds dramatic – but really – it works that well.

The concept of time blocking was recently popularized by Cal Newport, his message aimed at knowledge workers who have dozens upon dozens of tasks to attend to everyday, but no matter what just can’t seem to get them all (or even some of them) done. Newport has written several books, two of which are related to time management and I’ve found to be deeply valuable in my life as a knowledge worker, mom, blogger, etc. These books are deep work and a world without email.

 I like to think of time blocking as far reaching and particularly valuable to busy parents, whether you work inside the home, outside the home or both. On a basic level, it’s a way to look at your entire day, plan it, and to get the most out of it. I highly recommend you read Cal’s work for a deeper dive into all the facets that make up time blocking, but for the purpose of this blog, I’ll give you concrete examples and demonstrate how time blocking works in my life.

On the surface, my life seems very busy and my guess is that most people would look from the outside and wonder how I’m doing it all (or if I’m doing any of it very well at all!). My busy life consists of: being the chief clinical officer of a mid-sized behavioral health company, mother of a toddler, serving as an associate editor for a popular behavior analytic journal, a commonly invited guest speaker at industry conferences, a published author (books, peer-reviewed research articles), and running my LLC/website. On top of that, I’m an avid cross-fitter and training for a half marathon. I don’t share this with you to brag, only to represent that even though you may have a lot on your plate, there are ways to feel less stressed and get things done. Because, I have a secret: I rarely ever feel too busy. That sounds crazy to write – but it’s true. Of course, there are the occasional days (once every 2 to 3 months, perhaps) when I feel rushed and like I didn’t get to everything I wanted to, but most days I feel I have ample time to get things done in all areas of my life, to prioritize the things that are important to me, and I feel my stress is very minimal. I attribute this experience mostly to time blocking. So here it is:

Time blocking consists of planning your day (preferably a planning task you do daily, the day or night before) and breaking your day into chunks of time that you have available.  Then, you assign tasks, projects, or activities to each block of time. A few things that are important here:

For time blocking to be effective, you must have lists of the things you need to do and those lists should break tasks down into concrete behaviors that are clearly defined. Behavior analysts call these lists: task analyses. For example, for your list to be effective, you wouldn’t want to say “organize Sam’s birthday party,” instead you’d break this task down into small behaviors, such as

Make a list of everyone we’d like to invite to Sam’s birthday party

Obtain all invitees’ email addresses

Choose a date and time for the party

Choose a location for the party

Create an online invitation

Etc., etc. You get the idea! So, we’ll assume you have these task analyses already created for each area of your life and/or all the things you need to accomplish (but if you don’t… get to writing them now!).

  • You should have a way to visually depict your time blocks. I strongly prefer paper and pen here, as does Cal Newport – in fact, he has a planner you can purchase to support your time blocking efforts (I use it religiously!). You can also just use a plain piece of paper and pen. If you must work electronically, try to do it as basically as possible, like on a word or excel document.
  • You need to have a way to get things on to your task analyses as soon as possible and be aware of what is coming your way. I’ve seen people try and time block, and while they get the basic strategy down, they don’t have a way to capture what they need to get done early on, so the system breaks down because they time block after it’s too late (the deadline is nearing). I do this rather basically and simply create a word document for different responsibilities I have: work, writing, personal), and any time I think of something, I add it. I also have advanced planning sessions where I sit down with my calendar and add things to the list that I know are coming up in the next 6 months.

Assuming you’ve got these three main things in order: your task analyses, a way to visually depict your time blocks, and a method for capturing what you need to do in all areas of your life, you’re ready to time block. Here is an example of what a time block might look like for me for a personal day:

  • 5am-5:30am: Wake up, watch “shows” (aka cartoons) with my son (yes, I sit with him, and we are early risers, even on the weekends!)
  • 5:30am-6:30am: Cook breakfast, get dressed, shower
  • 6:30am-7:30am: Grocery shopping as a family
  • 7:30-9:00am: Walk to park, play, return home
  • 9:00am-9:30am: Snack
  • 9:30am-10:30am: Blog and work on website while hubby plays with kiddo!
  • 10:30-11:30am: my turn now – play with kiddo while hubby gets things down around the house
  • 11:30am-12:30pm: lunch and reading
  • 12:30-3:00pm: baby naps, I take a run (while hubby stays home)
  • 3:00pm-3:30pm: snack, wake up, change and play
  • 3:30-5:00pm – family errands (we have a bunch to catch up on)
  • 5:00pm-6:00pm: cook dinner/play
  • 6:00pm-6:30pm: eat dinner
  • 6:30-7:00pm: bath time
  • 7:00pm-7:30pm: reading
  • 7:30pm: bedtime for baby
  • 7:30pm-8:30pm: reading for me (perhaps some professional articles or leisure if I feel like it)
  • 8:30-9:00pm: prepare next day schedule

You can see it’s a big day, with a healthy amount of activity. At the end of the day, I’ve spent a lot of time with my family, but I’ve also: blogged and worked on my website, taken a run, completed the grocery shopping, several errands, and read (for fun or for work, depending on my mood). Every day might be a bit different, and that’s okay  – it should be! You can also time block differently than I do in terms of blocks of time– I mostly have my day chunked by 30 minutes or 1 hour increments, but if more or less works for you, that’s okay! You can see how if you did this every day, you could easily work through your to do list and knock things out in the time chunks you have available to do so.

Here’s an example of what a working day might look like: similar beginning and end, but different “in-between.”

  • 5:00am-5:30am: Wake up, watch “shows” (aka cartoons) with my son
  • 5:30am-6:30am: Cook breakfast, get dressed
  • 6:30am-7:00am: Breakfast
  • 7:00am-7:30am: Commute (dropping son off at preschool)
  • 7:30am-8:30am: Run
  • 8:30am-9:00am: Shower
  • 9:00am-10:30am: Meetings
  • 10:30am-11:30am: Catch up on emails, complete 2 administrative tasks on my to do list
  • 11:30am-12:00pm: Lunch
  • 12:00pm-12:30pm: Meeting
  • 12:30pm-2:00pm: Work project: writing a report (broken into specific tasks)
  • 2:00pm-3:00pm: Meeting
  • 3:00pm-4:00pm: Finalize a training presentation
  • 4:00-5:00pm: Email catch up, time block for the next day
  • 5:00pm: Pick son up from preschool
  • 5:150pm-6:00pm: Cook dinner/play
  • 6:00pm-6:30pm: Eat dinner
  • 6:30-7:00pm: Bath time
  • 7:00pm-7:30pm: Reading
  • 7:30pm: Bedtime for baby
  • 7:30pm-8:30pm: Reading for me (perhaps some professional articles or leisure if I feel like it)
  • 8:30-9:00pm: Prepare next day schedule

A bit more of a complicated day, but you can see that even though I had several meetings and personal commitments I was able to use the chunks of my day that were unaccounted for to get several things done: catch up on emails, administrative tasks, write a report, and finalize a training presentation – that’s a lot of stuff! Like with my personal time blocking example, if you commit to time blocks every day, you can easily keep running through your to do lists and tackle a lot before the deadlines are even close to hitting.

The trick is that you have to stick to the schedule – if you let yourself get distracted on social media, or drawn into emails, you’ll never have the level of productivity you want and only end up getting frustrated. Of course there will be times when you have to switch course and you won’t’ be able to adhere to your schedule – when this happens, just quickly adjust – cross something out and put a new task in its’ place. But the important thing is that every moment is accounted for and you’re doing something that you’ve deemed important.

Check out Cal Newport’s work for more awesome details and give time blocking a try – I promise you’ll surprise yourself with the amount you can get done ,even on days when you feel you have no time at all!

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