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Time Blocking Guide for Students to Accelerate Productivity

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The world can be a busy and distracting place, lucky for us techniques and strategies like time blocking, timeboxing and task batching exists to help find calm amid the chaos and accelerate our productivity.

Time blocking? Surely the average to-do list with a few boxes to tick would suffice. Time blocking is almost like a time-saving strategy, but instead of saving time, it helps you dictate exactly how to spend it more efficiently. Sure, task lists are good to have, but instead of improving productivity they only outline what needs to be done and this can make a day seem even more daunting, especially if learners aren’t able to tick off all their boxes. Time blocking tells you what you should be doing and when you should be doing it. And it’s a technique that some of the world’s greats swear by.

Time blocking helps you get the most out of your daily schedule and helps you control what your day-to-day looks like. And with pioneers like Elon Musk and Bill Gates, who run empires while playing tennis with Trevor Noa and the pros, we think there’s something to be said when it comes to swapping out the to-do lists for time blocking.

What is time blocking?

Simply put, time blocking is a time management method and is especially helpful if one has different projects, school activities and days that are chock-a-block or if the person tends to get distracted easily.

It’s a strategy that helps track time in conjunction with all the projects on your plate and it allows you to plan out days and weeks in advance. Days are divided into defined slots or chunks and each chunk is then dedicated to completing a specific task or a group of tasks. You would need to gauge how much time is needed for each activity and divide your day-to-day up according to these timings.

The technique was made popular by Cal Newport, author of Deep Work, where he unpacks focus within an increasingly distracted world. Newport explains that he dedicates 10-20 minutes every evening to time blocking. It’s a task in itself, but one that ensures other things and people can’t steal his time. “Sometimes people ask why I bother with such a detailed level of planning. My answer is simple: it generates a massive amount of productivity. A 40-hour time-blocked work week, I estimate, produces the same amount of output as a 60+ hour work week pursued without structure,” writes Newport.

The benefits of time blocking

The strategy is designed to combat something known as Parkinson’s Law – a theory (or law, if you will) that suggests that the amount of work expands to the time available for its completion. This law states that however long you work on something depends almost entirely on the amount of time you have to do it. In response to this law, time blocking highlights that the stricter you are with the time you allocate to each task, the more results-driven and focused the output.

The strategy’s aim might be to counteract one law, but it certainly boasts a few other benefits:

1. Provides an environment for “Deep Work”

Instead of spreading your attention and thinking across multiple projects, time blocking helps with what’s known as “single-tasking” – a pretty self-explanatory term. Focusing on one task at a time can make you up to 80% more productive than splitting your attention across multiple tasks. Your brain can focus all of its mental resources on one thing and the structure helps your brain think better. “Single-tasking” also helps in building mental muscle which will, in turn, help you focus more deeply and leave no room for distraction.

2. Improves your workflow

Having a plan or blueprint in place helps you follow through with whatever it is you’ve set out to achieve – fewer distractions, less procrastination, more time to be productive. A publication by Harvard’s Behavioural Science & Policy Association found that having a concrete plan can help people see their intentions through more effectively and time blocking helps you see the bigger picture so you can limit distractions.

That being said, distractions are inevitable: “In this day and age you cannot call something distracting unless you know what it’s distracting you from,” says Nir Eyal, behavioural designer and writer of Wallstreet Journal’s best-seller Hooked: How to build habit-forming products. Time blocking helps your brain identify what you need to be focussed on. The technique is not only about what you are doing at any given point, but also about what you’re not doing.

3. Creates a sense of control

There isn’t a lot we can control in life, so when we get the change to carve out our path we jump at the opportunity. Time blocking allows you to set out how you would like to group times and tasks. Not only that, but you also become accountable for your workflow and you’ll find that you come up with fewer excuses like “I just haven’t got time to exercise and eat properly.” Instead, these change to “I haven’t decided to make time for exercise and proper eating.”

This will lead you to take control over your time and everything you do with it, for each new commitment you’re forced to find a little physical slot for it, which in turns helps you prioritise what you fill your time with. The cost of saying yes to things now comes with a little more thought, and the act of saying no can become a lot easier.

4. Makes you more efficient

The time blocking method encourages you to schedule challenging tasks first allowing you to reserve your energy and willpower. The flip side of doing the big and important stuff first means you get really good at doing the distracting and tedious work faster.

The technique also makes perfectionism and procrastination difficult to execute, yes – perfectionism isn’t always your friend. Since there’s a time limit attached to daily responsibilities there’s less time spent tweaking and obsessing over details; good eventually becomes good enough. If you are working on a task that you know requires a bit more attention to detail, then schedule it in and be selective about the task that gets all of your time.

Time blocking is great technique that helps learners stay the course and enjoy a little flexibility.Paper Videogives learners the freedom to be flexible with their tutoring time, which means they can slot their extra online classes in anywhere in their schedule. With online resources and past exam papers that cover Maths, Physical Sciences, Life Sciences and Accounting learner can take advantage of brushing up on much-needed revision wherever, whenever – all online

Is there a recipe to time blocking?

There’s no right or wrong way to start your time blocking strategy, but there are a few key things to keep in mind, especially if you’re using the technique to make working or studying more efficient.

1. Group smaller tasks into a bundle

Schedule challenging tasks first and group easier, tedious and distracting task into one bucket. These tasks are also known as “shallow work” – think of them as admin tasks, they’re important, but usually require clicking out or jumping between platforms – this becomes an easy pitfall for distractions.

When you group tasks like these together you minimise having to switch platforms constantly throughout your day. Make sure you batch all of your shallow tasks together in a dedicated time block or two, and you’ll be able to power through them more efficiently and protect the rest of your schedule for work that requires a bit more concentration.

2. Be aware of your time

Your first few time blocking iterations might not pan out quite the way you hope, and you’ll get better at estimating how long tasks take over time. Until then it’s best to block off too much time as opposed to too little. Be mindful and pay close attention to your first few time blocking schedules; keep an eye on tasks that require a bit more attention than others and focus on how you spend your time during the first few weeks.

Do you need to add a 10–15-minute buffer? Should you make room for prepping or getting ready for the next task? These are all things you’ll only learn as you start doing. If something is difficult or frustrating, use shorter work intervals.

3. Set goals or milestones

The great thing about time blocking is in and of itself, it can be seen as a goal mapping tool and should be used as such. Create milestones for yourself within your schedule. If not to finish a task, use it to elaborate to yourself how far you would like to get within that scheduled block.

As mentioned before scheduling tasks and goals creates a higher chance of you following through with your intentions. Don’t position time blocking as a means to help you schedule in work, but as a road map to help you get to different goals and milestones. 

4. Breaks are important too

We’re not machines, we’re not made to work and study back-to-back hours which is why your time blocking recipe should always include breaks. We’re not talking about lunch, but dedicated blocks for learning, stretching and even colouring – you get to decide how you spend your mental break.

Common time blocking mistakes

Time blocking should be seen as a framework for thinking about your day and not as a set of laws that you can’t break. Life happens and unexpected tasks might pop up, the key is to not let them derail you. instead, see it as an opportunity to deal with the unexpected as they come your way.

1. You’re not flexible

Being too rigid with time blocking can land you in hot water, things will come up and ruin your plans and your time blocks should be seen as a flexible way to challenge yourself. Always see this strategy as a means to help plan your day, not a binding contract.

Even productivity expert Cal Newport edits his plans and sees it as a game: “This type of planning, to me, is like a chess game, with blocks of work getting spread and sorted in such a way that projects big and small all seem to click into completion with (just enough) time to spare.” If you can’t bear to let the unpredictable get the better of you create a block every week to ‘catch up’.

2. Planning to relax is counterintuitive

Not just for your workflow, but for the leisure of relaxing. Imagine “scheduling” relax time. It almost makes it sound a little unpleasant. While our greats (remember Elon and Bill) break their days down into 5-minute increments – next level we know, overscheduling leisure is a self-defeating exercise.

It can become tempting to block out every hour of every day, but rather keep blocks empty so you can spontaneously decide what to do with them – or call off scheduling at a certain time i.e. 7 PM your calendar is a big block of emptiness. Keep the spontaneity of leisure sacred and give yourself a little freedom to do with your time what you want – not everything is about control.

3. Underestimating available time

You’ll get better at estimating how long tasks take over time but until you’ve honed your instincts, err on the side of blocking off too much time for tasks rather than too little. Pad your schedule with extra time to complete and transition between tasks. You can even create “conditional blocks” of time you can tap into if you fall behind.

Here’s how you integrate Time Blocking into your school calendar

For students time blocking can be a bit more flexible than that of a normal working day, after all, learners are often most likely dependant on other individuals’ schedules: parents, teachers, coaches. Nevertheless, when it comes to prioritising school-, revision or study work time blocking can be an effective tool that helps learners control a little bit of their day.

Here’s putting some of what we’ve mentioned into actionable steps for an everyday school calendar.

Step 1: Identify tasks that require focus

Whether you need to sharpen up on mathematics, aim to get a higher score on your tests or simply aim to hunker down and get work done, it’s important to be intentional and understand what your priorities are.

Think about all the task you have and factor things like school sport, extra classes and chores in – things that will affect your day. Once you’ve identified your tasks you might find that a number of them might not be a priority right now – a test in the distant future or a project that’s due later in the week, aim to limit your daily schedules to 2 priority tasks per day.

Step 2: Associate time variables to each of these tasks

Get your layout ready – a calendar or diary with which you can break down each day into individual hours. Use the blocks as guides and start allocating tasks to each block. Think about the time you think it will take to complete each task or how much time you would like to spend on different activities. Remember the first few weeks won’t be perfect. You’ll find your balance.

Colour code your tasks according to different subjects or activities (much like you do your school timetable.) Using colours to show each category gives you a great visual picture of where your time is being spent.

  • Study: Blue
  • Homework: Yellow
  • Sport / Exercise / Health: Green

Step 3: Decide on how flexible your schedule can be

Prioritise tasks you know you can’t or wouldn’t want to move or change and fill in your blocks with those first. This could include things like sports practice, scheduled classes – things that you can’t control. Once you’ve filled in dedicated times, you can decide how flexible you want your calendar to be and remember to also prioritise personal time, your health, family and personal relationships make for a healthy balance.

Step 4: Review

If we’ve said it once we’ll say it again, time blocking should be seen as a guide, not a binding contract. Continue to review your strategy and make tweaks and changes where necessary. Track time on each block as you go – this way you can tell whether or not you’ve allocated enough time for different tasks. Continue to revise your schedule based on your findings. You’ll find, as you start implementing that the better or more comfortable you get with different subjects the more efficient and faster, you’ll get with completing them.

Step 5: Implement

You should now be ready to start following your schedule – keep the goal you’ve set for yourself in mind to help you stick to your schedule. Use time blocking in conjunction with other time-based strategies like the Pomodoro Technique: Using a timer of 25 – 30 minutes to work in intervals and taking 10-minute breaks in-between.  At the end of the week repeat step 4 and check on your progress.

Once you’ve reviewed, get started with step 1 again and repeat the strategy. 

5 Quick time blocking tips

  1. Try placing buffers in between tasks anything from 10-15 minutes. We tend to stray a little bit whether it is to get a snack or materials for our next assignment.
  2. Use other time management strategies in conjunction with time blocking, learn about a few here.
  3. Overestimate your time and underestimate your abilities, this can help take off a bit of the pressure.
  4. Tell people about your schedule, not only does this help you stay accountable, but people will respect your time.
  5. Always improve, the more comfortable you become with time management strategies and techniques the more efficient you’ll get

Time Blocking Template

Paper Video is all about helping learners with a little structure and study assistance. Along with access to expert teachers and a bank of material to help students stay the course and stay focussed here’s a little time blocking template to help you get started.

Free tools that can help create a Time Blocking planner

The strategy of time blocking may sound time-consuming and tricky on its own, but there are already multiple tools, tricks and apps that can help you track your time and plan a well-balanced and effective schedule that should inspire you to be more productive. Here are a few of our favourites:

Google Calendar

Universal and easy to access. What we love about using Google Calendar is that it’s digital, syncs up with your phone and you’re able to divide your day up down to the minute, (we’re not saying you have to). Plus, it’s free to use and easy to chop and change a few things around if need be.

Notion

A step up from Google Calendar is Notion. It’s a digital productivity app with easy-to-use features that stretch a bit further than a digital day planner, and it’s free (for personal use anyway). It’s also rated in the top 20 in task management software. A commonly used feature on the app is the task list which provides an easy way to tick tasks off your list, just like you would on a planner. The digital version lets you move around and rearrange the items as needed.

Wall calendar or Day Planner

Yes, Day Planners and wall calendars are making a comeback – what with shops like Typo that have brought our love for pen and papers back to life. While these are a little time consuming, they’re oh so satisfying to make and allow you to create a clear outline based on your style. The great thing about pen-to-paper time blocking is you can make it yours until you feel like you’re ready to move to a more digital space.

Once learners have got the hang of their schedule, they can experiment with a bit more flexibility and platforms that encourage more freedom. Visit Paper Video to get a sense of online revision and assistance with a difference. Learners not only have access to thousands of past exam papers that feature step-by-step video guides but can get stuck into additional lessons that are covered in every-day classrooms.

Create a Free Paper Video Account to get you started.

Visit papervideo.co.za or contact Paper Video on 061 357 2304 for more information.

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