Getting Things Done Using Time Blocks

I’m always trying to improve my productivity, my focus, and my organization. I want to worry less and do more.

I’ve firmly adopted a loose GTD system via OmniFocus to manage my important tasks and todos, things like “Label circuit breakers” and “Book travel for New Orleans”. For my development tasks, like “add SMS notifications to monitoring applications”, I use Jira, which not only integrates perfectly with my development environment (Eclipse) but also manages attachments, notes, workflow, estimates, and integration with Subversion/Hudson/etc… I practice Inbox Zero (currently Inbox Two), and *try* to keep my desk clean.

However, there’s a whole category of things I want to do that don’t really fit in there. Things that I should do or at least make progress on, but that don’t really have a schedule or are on-going things that would overwhelm OmniFocus pretty quickly. Things like keeping the house clean, exercising, paying bills/organizing finances and investments, fixing up the house, and so on. I know I should exercise every day, or close to it, but I don’t need a persistent task showing up in OmniFocus that I can never close. Ditto with keeping the house clean. And as a first time home owner, I’ve discovered that there’s an infinite number of tasks that should get done to the house eventually. Anything really important or time critical, such as “replace hot water heater” would go into OmniFocus, but there’s literally a never ending stream of things that should get done at some point, such as “nail up that one piece of cedar siding in the back that slides out of place every month or so” and “re-hang the Iguana Crossing sign on the mailbox post”. I could probably come up with several hundred of this type of task, and writing them down would just be overwhelming. But I still need to work on them.

So I’ve created a simple table which I printed out. Along the top I have the dates of this week. Along the left side I have some meta-tasks with target amounts of time to spend. So my current week’s table looks like this:

Apr 20th Apr 21th Apr 22th Apr 23th Apr 24th Apr 25th Apr 26th
Exercise 30m X
Clean House 30m X (60m)
Work on House 30m X
Write Blog Post 60m X
Finances/Bills 30m
Spark::red 30m X (3h)

When I do something on the list for the minimum time, I put an “X” down. If I end up doing it substantially longer, I mark down roughly how long I spent at it, so I can look at how I spent my time over the week, and also know that I don’t have to feel too guilty if I don’t get to any Spark::red stuff for the next day or two.

There’s a few key points:

  1. If I miss a day (or two) it’s not a huge deal. Nothing here is time sensitive, although I can use these time blocks to work on important tasks that are in OmniFocus if I want. Just in general, these are the things that I should be doing on a regular basis, but a day missed here or there really isn’t a big deal.
  2. Often the things I’ll end up doing aren’t very fun. For instance I scrubbed out a toilet today. So it’s hard to get super motivated about it. However, that’s why I have the 30 minutes blocked out. Short of torture, or watching Heroes (which is the same thing, really…), I figure I can endure 30 minutes of just about anything, so once I’ve done my 30 minutes, I can stop if I want. It doesn’t matter if I’m done or not, I can just stop if I want, happy in the knowledge that I did 30 minutes more than I would have probably done otherwise. This makes it MUCH easier to get going on an unpleasant task. And often, once I’m going, I keep going until the tasks or tasks I had in mind when I started are done, hence my overages today in cleaning and Spark::red work. If 30 minutes is too much or too little for you, go ahead and use 10 minutes or an hour. Find the right balance point for you: short enough you don’t avoid unpleasant tasks, and long enough to actually accomplish things.
  3. While you’re in one of those blocks, you have to FOCUS on what you’re doing. That means no watching TV while you’re working on your blog post, no taking email breaks while you’re cleaning the kitchen, just focus on what you’re doing for 30 minutes, and crank stuff out.
  4. Don’t watch the clock. I use my iPhone as my timer. It is easy to set it for 30 minutes, and just slide it back in my pocket. I’m usually surprised at how quickly it goes off. Also, if I want to push on a bit more, I can give myself another 30 minute countdown with one click.

This is only the first day of the new system, so we’ll see how well it works after week 5, but so far it’s been great. I’ve gotten a ton accomplished today, and felt pretty good about the 30 minute blocks. If you try it or are doing something like it already, let me know!






3 responses to “Getting Things Done Using Time Blocks”

  1. […] on Day Four of Using Time Blocks to Get Things Done and make headway on some of the never-ending things that need doing that can lurk on in the […]

  2. Jesse David Hollington Avatar
    Jesse David Hollington

    Interesting approach. Thanks for sharing.

    Personally, I actually do use OmniFocus itself for those types of things. I have single-action buckets in OF for things like “Household” that aren’t really projects, but just contain a slew of little miscellaneous and generally routine items. Rather than having an item I can’t “check off” I use the recurrence setting and a start date. I don’t generally apply a due date for most of these tasks as there’s seldom an urgency to them, but the start date allows the recurrence to work properly and keep them off my radar for a certain time once the current iteration has been completed.

    In some cases, the task is a fixed amount of work (ie, “take out garbage”), while in other cases it’s effort-driven (ie, spend 15 minutes cleaning up home office). When I finish the task for that particular period, I simply check it off as “done” and it disappears from view until the next start date interval, which might be 24 hours, 2 days, one week, or whatever depending on the nature of the task.

    1. Devon Avatar


      cool, thanks for sharing, that sounds like a good approach as well!

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