Calendar Blocking 101
If you're unfamiliar with calendar blocking, it's basically a way of managing your tasks, events and lifestyle through a calendar. It's also probably one of the most common methods of task management. The thing is though, as much as you will see calendars a big part of someone's work day, this may not be the same for students.
Architecture students may have their own academic calendars where they attend lectures or in our cases, studio, but they don't take full advantage of this time-based way of working. Full disclaimer; up until a year ago, I was not into the whole calendar blocking situation. In fact, I used to think that it would limit my time, diminish my creativity and just feel very strict.
Obviously, that isn't the purpose of calendar blocking. In fact, if done in a simple and managable way, it can be incredibly effective. I feel that calendar blocking is way more advanced and complex than regular time blocking.
Many of us who want to feel 'productive' will opt for something easy like a Pomodoro Timer - a 25 minute chunk of deep work followed by a small break, usually 5-10 minutes. But this spontaneous form of time blocking can still cause procrastination, lead to endless hours of working if left unchecked and might even work just a couple of times till you get bored of it.
The reason why I recommend Notion to people looking for a better and smarter way of managing their side hustles, passion projects and even general life is because it is an all-in-one tool. The impact of the reduced friction is game-changing when we're talking about time management and interconnectivity.
Unfortunately, I find Notion's calendar feature more of an aesthetic option for its incredible databases and therefore doesn't really bode well in terms of interconnectivity. Instead, I use Google Calendar. Here are my top 5 reasons:
- It's free
- It connects with almost everything (automatic = easy)
- Shared calendars are awesome
- You can access your GCal from anywhere
- It is simple, yet customisable
When you're using the Google ecosystem i.e. Docs, Sheets, Forms and many more, it allows for documents and files to be synced and accessed through a single place. This might seem like a very standard feature but it is actually impressingly effective. If you are the kind of person that has to have more than one calendar because that is what the company or organisation uses, and therefore is kept separate, I would try looking into apps that can consolidate that information in one place yet keep it distinct.
Google Calendar's app can do this just as well as the native calendar applications that come with your phone so the decision then turns to ease of access and UI preference. The problem I was having with the calendar app on my iPhone was that all the information seemed to pile up and merge into a huge list of things. In contrast, Google has a fun and colourful way of organising your calendar.
So it does come down to preference, but if you can, I would strongly recommend sticking to just one. Faffing around with multiple calendars gets messy, quick!
📆 Calendar Blocking
So at this point, you've chosen your weapon and are ready to master it. How do you calendar block exactly? Here is the strategy I use, but it changes from time to time depending on what's going on in my life and what I learn from the stuff that is or isn't working in my routine. Key word: routine.
First, I've got several calendars that act as labels or groups, but the only handy feature in my opinion is the fact that sometimes you can turn them off or even create separate shared calendars. I've colour coded mine by following the tutorial linked below - it's really simple to do and if you're a whizz with Hex codes, I recommend creating your perfect palette over on Coolors.
Secondly, I've created calendars based on different areas in my life that I would like to differentiate. Take the 'Meetings' one for example. This just makes it a lot easier to categorise and share with different people so that wew can schedule time in for meetings. It's slightly different to 'Planning' which often involves recurring events I've set up as 1 hour blocks. This means it is a fixed part of my calendar.
Calendar Blocking Your Routine
Instead of trying to come up with the most perfect calendar from the get-go, start thinking about activities that are already a part of your routine. Add in any classes, or times when you go to the gym, do your weekly shop or even when you do something mundane like laundry. Fleshing out parts of your existing routine will ensure that when you actually start to calendar block, you're not overcompensating. This avoids that rushed feeling or a state of despair if you don't manage to complete your day.
Once you've added in your current routine - remember this can change, nothing is set in stone - take a step back and understand that this is how much you're handling at the moment. If you're a student, make sure to add in any classes or studio time you've got as well. If you really wanted to break those chunks down further you could also do that.
Here's a short Instagram Live I did to show you how I calendar block:
Tasks vs Areas
If you're planning to use Google Calendar as your main task management system, you can skip this bit. But, if you're still open to trying something new, let me tell you about the way I calendar block.
Instead of blocking off time according to specific tasks (yes, I know I've previously told you to be extremely specific when it comes to tasks), I like to block off chunks of time to different 'areas'. This is basically going one step further from your calendar type. So if I were to block a 1 hour chunk in the calendar 'Blogging', I'd simply write 'Write blog post' or 'Edit' or even 'Repurpose'.
I generally try and stick to less than 5 words so as to not overcomplicate it. What does this do? It keeps things slightly open-ended and gives my actual to-do app to step in and take over. I'll usually have specific things I need to do for blogging, whether it's finishing off a blog post or fixing the SEO which is all listed neatly in my to-do app of choice, Todoist.
I don't actually need my calendar to tell me what exactly to work on and in how much time. This will inevitably lead you to feeling rushed or disappointed in yourself if you don't manage to tick it off, and you most likely will not have accounted for it so it could be more difficult to try and add back in later on.
So in that period of time, what I choose to work on will simply start and stop at those times - there is no pressure on having it completed, that's what my to-do list is for. You to-do list should be set up in a way that lets you see priorities of tasks, and be manageable enough that you can complete it in a reasonable amount of time.
💨 Breathing Room
If you take anything from this article its that you really have to account for breathing room when calendar blocking. The most unexpected things can happen at times and it can alter the way you've planned your day ahead. Being flexible is all about thinking ahead and being smart. This obviously won't work as well when other people are involved and finding a time together is already a struggle. But thinking about what your priorities are and doing them before you're supposed to will also avoid that last-minute pressure.
When adding chunks of time, I like to think about what I'd actually be doing before and after that activity. For example, a little after lunch, my favourite thing to do is just take an hour for myself - watch a movie, do some cleaning, talk to a friend. So as a rule, I don't plan anything after my general lunch time. Of course, on days where I need to get somethig out or if I'm on a deep work streak, this might change and it might not have been blocked beforehand (which is also okay!).
Another rule is that I try not to schedule things 30 minutes before or after another block. This includes meetings and events too. Maybe on one occasion the environment is kinda busy and loud around me and I need to take my laptop elsewhere, make sure the WiFi is working and double check I've connected my bluetooth headphones - all this takes time. If I was working on something till the last minute and then realised I had all this to do, it would've eaten into that meeting time.
Another final advice - gaps are good!!
I know there's this internal voice telling you that you need to have this amazing, full, calendar to make it look like you're constantly busy or hustling but in all honesty, this is where the magic happens. The unexpected doesn't always need to be negative. I use my calendar gaps to give myself some self-care or take the opportunity to go for a walk.
How often should I calendar block?
Keeping routine in mind, I like to block my calendar on Sunday evenings, because I usually try not to do too much on a Sunday anyway so I have a little mental clarity which lets me plan the week ahead without feeling frazzled. It's really up to you how far in advance you want to calendar block, either by setting up recurring blocks or manually taking out the time to do this. I would say 2 weeks as a maximum is good enough.
The problem with planning too far ahead in advance is that, again, things change constantly. Unexpected activities might come up and ruin the 'plan' you've already got in place.
💡 The Last Block
Although this method of calendar blocking can seem like a lot, it's really part of a bigger system that will help you set core habits in place to work more effectively as a student or professional.
And if you scrolled to the bottom of this page to look for a shorter summary, here's a few tips that might help:
- Start with a brain dump and note down everything in a list.
- Prioritize tasks
- Start small, begin with a week and then move on to a month
- review your progress, recognize what's working for you and what can be changed
- use time tracking if needed