Cal Newport's Deep Work Time Blocking Method

Cal Newport is a professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University, New York Times bestselling author and a highly productive individual. In his book, Deep Work, he explains his key to daily productivity: schedule out every minute of your day. This may sound extreme, but he argues it’s the best way to keep yourself focused on “deep work” and fight off the temptation to engage in shallow tasks (like email and social media). And it’s easier than you think. He calls it “Time Blocking” and here’s his method.

Time Blocking Steps

1. Every morning before work,
grab a lined sheet of paper and, on the left side of the page, write the hours of the day on every other line (just the hours you typically work: 8am-5pm say). Thus, each line represents 30 minutes of work.

2. Divide the hours of the day into blocks and assign activities to the blocks. For example, you might block out 9am to 11am to write a blog post. So you draw a box on the page from 9am to 11am and write “blog post” in the box. Do this for the rest of your time in the day.

3. To keep things clean, the minimum time block should be 30 minutes. So for small tasks, batch them into a “task block” - just draw a line to the right side of the page where you list the tasks you’ll accomplish in that block.

That’s it. When you’re done, every minute of your day should be blocked. As Cal says, “You have, in effect, given every minute of your day a job. Now as you go through your day, use this schedule to guide you.”

Some Caveats...

You probably have some objections at this point. But first read these caveats:

1. Not every block needs to be a work task!
Make sure to make blocks for lunch or relaxation breaks. In Deep Work, Cal argues extensively for the need to give our brains a rest.

2. Your schedule will likely break at some point every day
Either because your time estimates were off, or you were interrupted with some new urgent tasks. This is to be expected. But don’t throw away your schedule, just take a few minutes when you can to re-evaluate your priorities and redraw your schedule (either on another page, or cross out the old schedule and write next to it). “Your goal is not to stick to a given schedule at all costs; it’s instead to maintain a thoughtful say in what you’re doing with your time going forward.”

3. Don't be too rigid
A common concern is that following a rigid schedule will keep you from being able to follow creative ideas or great opportunities when they strike. The solution is simple: if something more important comes up--like following a creative inspiration--then it’s fine to ignore the schedule until it is played out. At which time, simply re-build your schedule for the remaining time in your day. The schedule is not meant to be a prison, but it is meant to protect you from the creep of less important--but more enticing--tasks stealing time from your important work.

Tactics to keep your schedule intact

Be conservative with your time estimates
At first, you will very likely underestimate the time your tasks take. By overestimating, you are less likely to break your schedule.

Use “overflow conditional” blocks

That is, if you’re not sure how long a task will take, follow it with an overflow block that has a non-urgent task. If you complete that first task on time, then do the non-urgent task, but if not, you can use-up that overflow block to finish up your first task and save the non-urgent task for another time (or day).

Have multiple “task blocks” in the day

which you can use to catch-up on unexpected tasks that may arise. Perhaps end each day with a block to catch unfinished things.

Incidentally, the Action Plan Pad and Week Dominator are well suited to Cal Newport’s time blocking method. They give you a more structured template than a simple lined sheet of paper to block out your day. Download a free PDF version of the Action Plan Pad here.

Newport concludes: “It’s natural to resist this idea [to schedule every minute of your day], as it’s undoubtedly easier to continue to allow the twin forces of internal whim and external requests to drive your schedule. But you must overcome this distrust of structure if you want to approach your true potential as someone who creates things that matter.”

His book, Deep Work, is full of helpful insights pulled from well respected studies on human psychology and other experts of productivity. If you want to improve your capacity for "deep work," you should give this one a read (or at least a skim).

1 comment

  • Eric Payne

    Sounds similar to Allen’s ‘Getting Things Done’ and Covey’s ‘First Things First’. Thanks for the reminder.

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