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How Roam Research Helps Me Time Block My Day

I’m a big believer in time blocking. I’ve been using some form of time blocking to plan my day ever since I first stumbled on Cal Newport’s blog post. I’m even teaching my kids how to do it:

When I shared this the other day, I got two kinds of responses:

  1. That’s nerdy & awesome!
  2. What the heck is time blocking?

So in this post, I’m going to share a little bit about how time blocking works, why you should consider using it to plan your day, and how my time blocking routine is supplemented by my use of Roam Research.

Let’s start at the beginning.

What is Time Blocking?

Think of time blocking as time budgeting. Some financial gurus will tell you that when you budget, you should give every dollar a job. The idea is that whatever money doesn’t get budgeted often gets wasted.

That’s even more true with your time. Whether you realize it or not, you are “spending” your time with each hour that ticks by.

Why Should I Care About Time Blocking?

Because time is your most precious resource. Once it’s gone, we can never get it back. You can always get more money, but you will never be able to buy more time.

It’s also the great equalizer. We all have the same 24 hours in a day. If we intentionally invest our time in a way that is consistent with our vision and values instead of spending it frivolously, it can be a powerful tool in designing the kind of life we want to live.

How Time Blocking Works

Getting started with time blocking is incredibly easy. All you need is a piece of paper and something to write with (GoodNotes on the iPad is great for this).

  • Starting on the left side of your paper/screen, write down the hours in your day.
  • Next, write down a couple of tasks that you want to get done in the space on the right.
  • Determine when you’re going to complete your most important tasks (MITs) and slot them onto your timeline.
  • Fill in the rest of your timeline around those MITs.

That’s all there is to it! the whole process doesn’t need to take more than 5-10 minutes.

A word of caution: don’t get upset if your day doesn’t go exactly according to plan. The accuracy of the time blocked plan is actually not that important. The fact that you have the plan is.

“Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” – Dwight Eisenhower

When you time block your day, what you are really doing is setting the intention for every hour you have. This means you never get stuck not knowing what to do, and it enables you to roll with the punches a lot more effectively.

Time Blocking Tools & Apps

There are many different tools you can use for time blocking:

  • Pen & Paper — This is the most basic one, but it’s also the one I personally use every day (I do love my fancy fountain pens). A purely analog system forces you to slow down and plan carefully. Once the plan is in ink, there’s no erasing it and starting over.
  • Calendar app (like Fantastical) — A great option for a digital native. With a calendar application, you are free to move things around and sync them to your other devices. For example, you could create a separate time blocking calendar and sync that to your Apple Watch so you always know what to be doing when with just a glance at your wrist.
  • Task manager app (like TickTick) — Some task managers integrate with your calendars so you can see your appointments and tasks in one place. But TickTick has some special tools specifically designed to help you time block your day.
  • Hybrid system (like GoodNotes on the iPad) — This gives you the best of both worlds, allowing you to combine the intentionality benefits of analog with the searchability and syncability of digital. You still write out your plan by hand every day, but OCR makes it searchable and you can even use PDF templates to make it easier.

No matter what tool you decide to use, the process is the same: first you pick your tasks, and then you decide when you’re going to do them.

The Role of the Task Manager in Time Blocking

Time blocking does not mean that you don’t need a task manager. On the contrary, the task manager is even more important because you’re putting a hard cap on the number of tasks you’re trying to get done in a day. A well-groomed task list in an app like Things or OmniFocus can make it much easier to decide what to work on when you sit down to time block your day.

The Brain vs. The List

Shawn has written about his hybrid productivity system before, and I have my own version I’ve written about here. The basic idea is the same, and there’s two key components:

  • The Brain — this is your computer-based task manager
  • The List — this is what you work off each day

We both start by letting the computer do what it’s good at: look through everything and show us only the relevant stuff. You can decide for yourself what’s relevant based on context, tag, project, due date, or other metadata. But the computer is really good at taking your criteria, crunching all the 0s and 1s, and showing you what you need to see.

But it’s also good at giving you a million other potential things to look at. Which is why Shawn and I both don’t work out of the task manager, but instead transfer those tasks to a short list in a notebook and work off that the rest of the day. This makes it easier to stay on track with our time blocked plan and follow through on the intentions we set when making it.

Common Task Management Problems Time Blocking Fixes

As talked about in the last section, the computer (the brain) is great for showing you options, but the list is better for producing quality focused work. When you time block your day and slot these tasks in, you can overcome a couple common problems people face when working out of a task manager.

  1. Fiddling — It’s easy to justify the time you spend playing with your tasks inside of your task manager as productive time. It feels like you’re setting things to get done as efficiently as possible. The problem is that you still need to do the work. Thinking about the work doesn’t count. Time blocking is a simple process that forces you to stop fiddling and start working.
  2. Overwhelm — The sheer number of tasks in your task manager can be intimidating. If you have thousands of tasks to complete, selecting 3-5 for the day may feel like you’re not even making a dent. When you click around to other projects and the see the things in your someday/maybe list that it feels like you’ll never get to, you can quickly lose all motivation to get anything done.
  3. Urgency — Notifications (especially from email) have a way of making things seem more important than they really are. If you work out of your task manager, you may find yourself distracted by the things that are incoming and may even put off your important work to go deal with them. After all, you want your coworkers to feel like they can rely on you, right?

With time blocking, you are forced to make some decisions before you start your day about what success looks like. It’s limited to a few vital tasks, so you naturally do a better job of selecting the things that really move the needle. And when you break away form your inbox to focus on the work, it’s amazing what you can actually get done.

How Roam Research Helps Me Time Block My Day

I’ve been using time blocking for several years now, but only recently have I started using Roam Research to help me with this.

I’ve been hesitantly embracing Roam Research over the last several months, and it has become the single place for just about anything worth remembering. I find it especially useful for connecting ideas, which makes it easier for me to create content on a regular basis.

Roam = Digital Bullet Journal

Roam Research is built on the concept of Daily Notes. I talked about this quite a bit in my Using Roam Research for GTD-Style Task Management article, but the TL;DR is that Roam is built a lot like a digital Bullet Journal because every time you open it you’re taken to the Daily Notes page.

Anything that you add on that day’s Daily Notes is linked to that day, as well as anything that you assign that specific date to. So if you open to the Daily Notes page for December 1st, 2020 and add the following:

{{[[TODO]]}} Publish blog post on time blocking [[December 12th, 2020]]

This task will be linked to both the day it was created (December 1st) and the day it is due (December 12). This is basically a tag, but it also means that when I open up Roam on December 12 that I’ll see this task linked to on my Daily Notes page.

The trick is to make sure that everything eventually gets tagged with a date, which is why I have a separate query that I use to show me all the tasks that are unscheduled so I can make sure that I follow through and schedule them appropriately (more info in the Roam + GTD article if you’re interested how to set that up.)

My Time Blocking Process

With Roam Research functioning as The Brain, it’s easy to create my time blocked plan and transfer over the big tasks to The List in my fancy notebook (see my hybrid system post for more details on the gear):

  1. I pick out which fancy pen I want to use today and create my timeline in my notebook.
  2. If I have any meetings on my calendar, I transfer those to the notebook.
  3. I open up Roam Research and transfer the tasks that show up in the Daily Notes page to the notebook.
  4. I slot those tasks in on my timeline.
  5. I fill in the rest of the time around them until every hour has a job.

If this looks simple, it’s because it is. But the only reason this routine can be so simple is that I consistently put things into Roam and tag them with the appropriate day. Roam Research is doing all of the heavy lifting for me — I just need to look at the tasks that it gives me and pick the ones I want to work on. If there’s more than five, I’ll pick the five that are most important to me and whatever I don’t get to I’ll reschedule during my shutdown routine at the end of my work day.

Time Blocking Tips

Here’s a couple other tips to help make time blocking more effective:

  1. Use blocks at least 1 hour in length. By using at least one hour time blocks, you will naturally build in a buffer, giving you some margin in case things get off track. You can have blocks that are more than an hour, just don’t use anything less than an hour when time blocking your day.
  2. Don’t try to do too much. This is why we recommend that you limit the number of tasks you try to get done at 3-5. Pick just a couple of things and plan those. If you get through your whole list, great! You can always go back to your task manager at that point and pick a few more. Just make sure that you set yourself up for success by not trying to bite off more than you can chew.
  3. Schedule your distractions. If you have trouble avoiding infinity pools like social media or email, put them on your time blocked plan and don’t touch them until then. By putting it on your time blocked schedule, you increase the likelihood of being able to revisit the temptation to go check those things because you know when it’s going to happen. This allows your brain to relax and focus on the task at hand, freeing you up to do deep focused work.

If you want to learn more about time blocking, check out our simplified time management course.

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