I’ve known about the importance of time management for a long time. I’ve understood that you need to schedule time to do the work that you know needs to get done. But what I didn’t fully realize until recently is that effective time management means more than just blocking out time to get tasks done. It requires scheduling time to do 3 entirely different — but entirely necessary — kinds of things each week over and above simply getting things checked off your to-do list.
To effectively use the time you have, you need to block out 3 key types of time. In their book The 12 Week Year, Brian Moran and Michael Lennington spell out 3 basic types of time blocks you need to schedule during your week in order to make the most of it: buffer blocks, strategic blocks, and breakout blocks.
The trick is to both schedule them in the right lengths, total amounts of time per week, and to prioritize them correctly. As I’ve begun doing this, the effect it’s had on my productivity have been significant. Once you understand these blocks of time, and what they can do, it’s hard to go back to any other way of looking at your days and weeks.
Buffer blocks are the blocks of time most of us are familiar with, but usually don’t schedule. They’re meant for low-level activities, like checking email, messaging services like Slack, and other information and communication fees that can tend to be a source of work or vital information for you. It’s the time we spend catching up with what might have gone on while we were doing other work — deeper work.
And while we tend to do these sorts of things quite often, because we don’t schedule them, two things happen. First, we’re fragmented in how we deploy the time. We often revert to checking email while we’re trying to do deep work on a project. When we get stuck on that deep work, we hide away by checking email. But we’re rarely ever checking email in a meaningful way. We’re not processing the email. We’re not putting into our prioritization system, or integrating the information from that email into our project planning document. We’re usually cherry-picking the easiest emails, replying to them, and moving on.
Scheduling a buffer block allows you to take care of things like emails, phone calls, chatting with people — whatever comes up. And it allows you do so while being present, not being guilty, and with the goal of taking care of whatever it is that you’re working on.
According to Moran and Lennington, these blocks should be 30 minutes to an hour long, and happen 1 to 2 times a day. I see no problem with 3 times, for those of us who tend to handle urgent customer-facing issues on a regular basis. Ultimately, you can judge what works. You’ll know after a while.
The most important blocks of time to schedule are strategic blocks. They’re exactly what they sound like. They’re blocks of time for thinking and planning for the big, important stuff in your life and work. When you schedule your week, these should be scheduled first — because they are the most important.
I shouldn’t say ‘they’ because you only really need one strategic block per week — so long as it’s 3 basically uninterrupted hours. Yes, you read that right: 3 hours. 180 minutes of thinking, prioritizing, planning. 180 minutes spent building out your next week, month, quarter, and year.
While you may feel like you’re doing work during buffer blocks, the real work is done in the strategic blocks. There may not be a lot of typing or mouse clicking going on. It may not be fast-paced, but the most effective thinking in slow and free.
The important thing about strategic blocks is the when and the how. When you schedule the time is important. It needs to be when you’ve got enough energy to think and assurance that you’ll be uninterrupted for 3 hours — which is no small request.
What you do during the time is up to you, but there is no shortage of suggestions out there. My go-to is a weekly review — a la the GTD system. Another good choice is a Shultz Hour, where you spend 60 minutes just writing down things as they come to you, and think through what’s going on in your head. If you’re a Bullet Journal adherent, go through your journal.
Whatever your chosen organizational methodology, spend time deliberately working through it. Review, rethink, reflect. This is where the big things start, where the big decisions are made.
When you work hard, it’s important to recharge. And the harder you work, the more recharging you need. Ideally, this time should come in a big block, just like your strategic block. And like your strategic block, it’s a big part of sustained high-performance and productivity. Also like strategic blocks, we tend not to prioritize scheduling them, because we don’t see them as vital. But we should.
Breakout blocks are time for you to decompress. They’re blocks where you can explore hobbies, pursue relaxing interests, or just unwind. The idea is to get your mind off of work and other demanding stuff in your life for a decent chunk of time.
Moran and Lennington suggest that like your strategic block, your breakout block be about 3 consecutive hours. While it may seem self-indulgent or unproductive to spend a block of time like that on essentially leisure, the benefits are real. Taking time away from demanding work and personal projects helps you more effectively address them when you get back.
But that time has to be significant and not punctuated with other projects. Hence the 3 hour block. Schedule the time, so that you don’t feel like you don’t feel like you should be doing something else. So you can truly relax. You need to immerse yourself in something else, and relieve your mind of the weight of all the other stuff you normally exhaust yourself on. You may often find that you come back to your work with truly productive and creative energy after such breaks.
So be sure to schedule a breakout block, and stick to it. The benefits will show themselves in short order.
Making the Time
These blocks should all be scheduled in the following priority order:
- a strategic block first — whenever you can fit in a 3-hour long block that probably won’t get interrupted.
- a breakout block second — whenever you feel you could comfortably check out of work for 3 hours or so and play or recharge in a constructive way.
- buffer blocks last — because on most occasions, they tend to schedule themselves almost automatically. And once you’ve scheduled and executed the other 2 blocks of time, you’ll be more likely to be efficient in your buffer blocks.
Once you’ve scheduled those blocks, you can pencil in everything else. I’ve found that scheduling these 3 blocks each week gives me a feeling of control over my week. It makes me less anxious about my work, and it makes me feel like I actually have more time.