time blocking

12 Personal Productivity Tips for Your Year-End Push, Pt. II

This is the second part of a three-part on improving your personal productivity. Read part one here.

From Triage, Prioritizing, Chunking, and Time Blocking


Triage means what it sounds like, and it definitely applies to personal productivity, especially managing time and energy. Here’s what we mean.

In the morning, and then maybe again after lunch, take a look at your to-do list with some fresh eyes. Based on what is happening today (e.g., surprises, your energy level, interruptions, changes in priority, et al.), can you triage your to-do list and identify what actually has to be done today, and what can be moved off till tomorrow or a later date? What is it realistic to do today?

If you start the day and see 12 items on your list, you definitely want to be realistic and say, “I’m not doing 12 items today.” It’s going to be six or it’s going to be three or something manageable.

Now you do the triage and focus on what really needs to be done by you and is doable today. That element is super important because it lets you interrogate the task and say, is this really a “today thing” and why do I think it’s a “today thing?” If it isn’t, move it to tomorrow or the next day or next week, or delegate it to someone else.

Prioritization Pointers.

Let’s continue the thought on the previous tip and face facts. There is no way that you’re going to be able to get all the tasks on your list done on a regular basis or maybe even in a single day. Identifying whatever number of tasks that need to stay on your daily list and in what order is important. After you triage and boil down what needs to be on your list for today, it makes sense to prioritize or rank them.

There are a number of ways to do this—numbering, starring, using colors, and more. Tom has chosen to do it in his task management system and Dennis tends to use his kanban board for this purpose. You want to use what works best for you.

Let’s take a closer look at Tom’s approach. Tom’s task management tool lets him create a separate filter based on the priorities he assigns. He uses a priority 1 to priority 4 method. Priority 1 tasks are the critical stuff that he really needs to get done for clients on a deadline, and for other types of work, things that absolutely have to get done. He limits the number of priority 1 tasks. He doesn’t don’t want to make it more than four or five priority 1 tasks because, otherwise, he’ll just go into overwhelm during the day. Dennis likes to keep this number at three.

Tom then works through the priority categories and is able to sort by category to see only what’s in a given category for the day. Your approach will likely vary, but Tom’s priority 2 criteria is illustrative. These are things that Tom might like to get done if he has time, energy, and focus. Often these are little, but important, things: checking in on a client or having a quick having a one-on-one with someone.

Tom sets up a focus for the day and uses his system to give high visibility to his priority 1 and priority 2 items. Lower priority items are available for him to see, but only if he chooses to look at them. This filtering approach lets him focus on a single day rather than staring at a list of 30 or 40 tasks.

Dennis has implemented a simple, fairly intuitive, prioritizing approach in his second brain project.

Chunking Projects into Tasks.

It is vital to make a clear distinction between projects and tasks. If you find that you have a to-do list of “projects” rather than a list of tasks, the best thing you can do is to break the projects into their component tasks. Dennis likes to call this “chunking.”

Here’s the basic idea. A lot of times you see the same items that never seem to get done on your to-do list. They might never even get started. Their existence on your list does cause a bit of ongoing stress. Examples include getting your oil changed or renewing your license plates, or “write article.” In fact, you find that you don’t do them until the last minute.

In the classic David Allen “getting things done” method, you will find that what you have on your to-do list is not tasks or actions, but “projects.” In simplest terms, projects are something that are a collection of different tasks that each need to be completed. If you can recognize a to-do item that is in fact a project, or a collection of tasks, then chunk it into its individual component tasks and put only those individual tasks on your to-do list. That way you can make a lot of progress on those projects.

Say you want to get an oil change and put it on your to-do list as “get oil change.” If you think about it, your task is not “oil change.” An oil change is a project with components, or sequential tasks. The first step is going to be deciding who to call to set up an appointment. If that specific next step is on your task list, you can knock it out at a given time. Every other step in the project flows in the same fashion.

Putting a big project on your to-do list doesn’t work because it seems like it’s too much to do. Chunk it down into steps and make the steps your tasks. A classic example for us is to put “write book” on our list.

Time Blocking.

You might find that people are claiming parts of your calendar because they see that your calendar shows you as available or the time as open. This can be a big issue with shared calendars where others can put meetings on your calendar. If you want to use a dedicated block of time to work on a task, you might find that someone saw the open spot on your calendar and claimed it with a meeting. What if you want to keep that time for yourself?

The idea behind time blocking is that instead of having all of your tasks split up into your available free slots during your day, you flip things, take control of your calendar, and set up dedicated time slots for each of your tasks, especially the priority 1 tasks. In those time slots, you focus on the activity you blocked out the time for and concentrate on it for that period of time. Once you’re done, you move away.

As an example, you might set a time in the morning to do your email, another time at noon, and a time in the late afternoon. These times become the only times you deal with email.

Time blocking helps you focus on those times and focus on those specific activities for that specific period of time. You don’t get distracted. You will be more productive. You’ll get that stuff done sooner. And you’ll have a lot more peace and quiet to yourself because nobody’s bothering you during those times because you are shown as busy on your calendar.

Dennis uses a similar approach called “power hours” and blocks out 60-minute blocks for intensive focus. The Pomodoro technique is another lightweight version of this that uses 25-minute blocks. The key point is to carve out time on your calendar for yourself.

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