Time Blocking and Bullet Journaling

One of the goals that came out of my personal retreat was to be more intentional about how I spend my time by time blocking every day. I’d recently bought The Bullet Journal Method by Ryder Carroll, along with one of the nice Bullet Journal Notebooks, so naturally, I decided to implement this using a bullet journal.

Time Blocking

My time blocking practice evolved out of some of the things Shawn Blanc talks about in The Focus Course, mixing in some ideas from the “Ideal Week” exercise that Mike Schmitz covers in his Personal Retreat Handbook, and some of David Sparks’ posts on scheduling his day (see posts here, here, and here.

The basic idea is to plan out a schedule for each day. This serves a couple of purposes. The main reason I first tried time blocking a couple of years ago is that I don’t have to make as many decisions about what to work on in the moment it lowers the “activation energy” to get started on a task.

Before time blocking I often found myself looking at my long list of tasks in OmniFocus trying to decide what I should work on next. Not only did these decisions take time, they also seemed to draw on the same reservoir of mental energy that’s required to do Deep Work. With time blocking I can make these decisions in advance. All I have to do in the moment is look at my schedule, and I’ll see what I’ve decided that I should be working on.

The other major benefit of time blocking is to help me be more intentional about how I spend my time. I’d been time blocking my workday for most of 2018, but towards the end of the year, I kind of fell off the wagon. I not only found this made me less productive, but I ended up spending a lot of time diddling around on the internet rather than getting stuff done. Often, this is because rather than expend the mental energy to make a decision about what to do I’ll just end up going online instead.

This is not something that’s confined to the workday either. When I was doing my personal retreat one of the things that came to the fore was the amount of leisure time I was spending on “low-quality recreation;” activities that just aren’t that interesting or rewarding but that I end up doing by default. I’d really like to be spending my leisure time on stuff that I find most enjoyable, rather than whatever’s easiest. When I picked time blocking back up after the personal retreat, I decided to do my entire day, every day, rather than just the workday.

While those are the big two, there are other benefits as well. Among them, time blocking helps me maintain a realistic idea of what tasks I can accomplish in a given day. If I’ve got lots of appointments or other obligations, I can (indeed, I’m forced) take that into account during the scheduling process.

For me, the key to making time blocking work is flexibility. I seldom have a day go precisely the way I planned it out. Stuff happens. Sometimes a task takes longer than anticipated. Sometimes something new pops up that needs to be done that day. Sometimes I find I can’t even get started on a task because I’m missing something critical.

When this happens, I just have to “roll with the punches” and adapt. I’ll push another task off until tomorrow, substitute a shorter task for a longer one, or drop something entirely. As David Sparks put it, “A calendar is a soup rather than a puzzle.” Sometimes you have to stir the soup.

That said, more often than not, my actual day is pretty close to the schedule I laid out. Even if I have to adapt, I find that starting with a schedule works better for me than doing everything on the fly.

Bullet Journaling

When I first started time blocking last year, I incorporated a few elements of Bullet Jounrnaling. This time around, inspired by Ryder Carroll’s excellent book, The Bullet Journal Method, I decided to dive deeper into the bullet journal system.

The bullet journal method is a system using pen and paper to track tasks, appointments, and notes. It’s a nice blend of structure and flexibility that’s very adaptable to individual needs. The system is very modular; it’s built around daily, monthly, and yearly logs, collections of notes on particular subjects, and an index to help you find important notes.

While I’m using much more of the bullet journal system than I was in the past, I’m not using it as my primary task management system. OmniFocus is still the source of truth when it comes to what I have to do.

My implementation

I’ve adapted the Bullet Journal Method’s Daily Log format to do my time blocking. I use a two-page spread in the bullet journal notebook with my schedule on the left-hand page and my most important tasks and daily log on the right.

The schedule uses half an hour per line, from 5:30am to 9:30pm. I’ve found that I generally don’t need more than half-hour resolution; I’m not trying to schedule everything down to the minute. Indeed, I’m finding that the fact that I can only easily schedule in half-hour increments is a benefit rather than a drawback since it adds flexibility for breaks, diversions, small tasks that come up, etc. It kind of leads naturally into a pomodoro-like way of working.

As I mentioned earlier, I don’t use the Bullet Journal as my primary task management system. However, I do write the 3-5 most important tasks for the day in my daily log on the right-hand page of the day’s two-page spread. This is not everything I have to do today, just the biggest and/or most critical tasks.

Underneath the list of tasks, I have space to take notes about how the day went. I’d like to turn this into more of a daily journaling practice, but for now, it’s more of a random assortment of notes and events.

Finally, at the end of the day, I’ll use that right-hand page to note down one thing that I accomplished and two things that I’m grateful for. This is a habit that I picked up from The Focus Course, and I’ve been doing it for several years now. I find it’s useful to help me reflect on the positive things that happened during the day, even if that day didn’t seem to go well overall.

I’m using the Bullet Journal’s monthly log for some habit tracking (at the moment mainly noting days that I write and that I’ve time blocked for). However, I’m not getting a whole lot of use out of the yearly log or collections from the Bullet Journal system. Those sorts of things tend to go into my calendar or my notes app, respectively (Fantastical and iA Writer).

Benefits

I’ve been back on the time blocking train for about two months now. It’s definitely helped me be more intentional with my time. I find myself spending less time randomly messing around on the internet and more time doing productive things or high-quality recreational activities. I’ve gotten more done at work and read many more books.

Overall, I think time blocking has been well worth the effort I’ve put into it. Doing it in a bullet journal format is something I’m not entirely sold on. Much as I like the nice Bullet Journal Notebook (and the Retro 51 Tornado pen I’m using to write in it) I’m intrigued by some of the stuff David Sparks and Mike Schmitz have been doing with PDF templates that you can use in GoodNotes on the iPad with the Apple Pencil. That could be an alternative to toting around a paper notebook. For now, though, I’ll stick with paper at least until I fill my current notebook.