Time blocking for researchers

Eva Lantsoght
2 Sep ’21

If you have an interest in productivity writing, then you may have noticed that time blocking has been receiving a lot of attention lately. Time blocking is being praised as the best solution to battle distraction in our age of relentless email floods and tasks that come in from all sides. There’s even a dedicated analog time blocking planner on the market.

So, what is time blocking?

In its simplest form, time blocking is the opposite of multitasking. Maybe you’ve found yourself one day working on an article. Then, an email pops up, and you check the email. You open the attachment, and start reading half of the attachment. Afterwards, you click to another email, and read the message. You start thinking of what you want to reply, but you don’t get to actually writing the reply. Sounds familiar? Before you know it, you have spend your entire day floating from one thing to the other – and your article sits there, untouched. When you time block, you set aside a certain amount of time to dedicate your thoughts and efforts exclusively to one thing, such as writing your article.

How can we apply time blocking as researchers?

There are several methods you can use here, depending on how you usually plan:

  • If you make lists: Use your list to find out what your priorities for the next day are. Try to limit yourself to maximum three priorities. Set aside blocks of time that are large enough to work on these priorities. Then, work the smaller things that are on your list into the space that is left between the large blocks of concentrated work. You may want to consider processing a lot of small tasks together into a general block of processing to-dos.
  • If you use a daily agenda: If you use a daily agenda that holds your appointments, you can look at the upcoming day. If you already have meetings in your agenda, identify when there is time to work on your priorities for research. Reserve the larger chunks of time in between or before meetings for your research work. Then, fill in the smaller slots of time with the to-dos that need to be done as well.
  • If you work with a weekly template: If you use a weekly template, you can be more conscious with the landscape of the entire week. Some recurring activities, such as lecturing, may happen only two days a week. You may also limit the time you make available for meetings so that you can free up larger chunks of time for research and writing. Then, you can assign the smaller blocks after and in between meetings to the processing of smaller items on your to do list.

How do I use time blocking?

Since I use a weekly template, I have been time blocking for quite a while. Of course, I get distracted every now and then. I also batch tasks and then put aside time slots to process tasks of different categories. The categories that I use are: research, writing, service, admin, contacts & appointments, ACI Avances (for the journal I manage), personal, Adeline, and blog. Tasks in the research and writing categories are often not research and writing activities, but things such as following up with coauthors, or other smaller things. All tasks in my todo lists go into these categories, and these tasks get assigned to days in which I have blocks of time for these categories.

Similarly, I sort all emails into folders with these categories, and address these categories during their assigned time slots over the course of the week. The result is that I manage to free up larger chunks of time to dedicate to research and writing, or other types of work that require more focus, and that I can take care of the smaller items in one go, instead of getting distracted by a never ending influx of emails.

Do you use time blocking? How do you apply the method?

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