Guarding Your Time: The Hows and Whys of Time-Blocking

If we’re going to get serious about our writing, then we have to make time for it. If we’re going to make time for it, then we need to guard that writing time diligently.

This is what I mean:

 Recently an acquaintance approached me, inviting me to a weekly mothers’ meeting in which we would discuss various issues of motherhood. Her argument, one that she presented sweetly, is that all mothers need a safe place to vent and get advice. She said that she had chosen Thursday afternoons from 2-4 pm on a weekly basis, at a location that was 20 minutes away from my home, for this event.

I thanked her and said that while it was a good idea, the time of the event wasn’t good for me. I hoped that they all got a lot out of it.

But that’s not exactly what was going through my head. What was going through my head was,”That’s a three-hour commitment! On a Thursday!” Thursdays are my most productive days for my writing. There was no way I was going to give up three hours of my golden writing time for a weekly event. The purpose of accountability and discussion were things that I already had in place on Wednesday nights, so I didn’t need this group at all.

And to be really honest, I’m not a fan of small groups. I usually find situations like this tedious and dull. I had no hope that her group would be an exception. My gentle refusal of her offer was an easy choice to make. I have a boundary and that is to protect that time for writing and family needs. This refusal easy because I had already created a boundary and a purpose for that specific time.

I bring up this example because I don’t think I would have said no so easily in the past. In the past, I would have said yes, adjusting my schedule and my family’s needs for the sake of this event. I would have worried about what this woman would have thought of me if I rejected this idea. I would have been concerned that my definitions of what a good mother looks like would have hinged on this event. I would have said yes for the wrong emotional reasons. And I probably would have gone faithfully. I would not have been able to concentrate because all I would be thinking about was the things at home that weren’t getting done. I would have resented going and giving up three hours (if you include commute time and the inevitable sitting around and talking). Then, to get out of the situation, I would have felt awkward and self-conscious.

In Kevin DeYoung’s book, Crazy Busy, (2013) he said,

“The busyness that’s bad is not the busyness of work, but the busyness that works hard at the wrong things. It’s being busy trying to please people, busy trying to control others, busy trying to do things we haven’t been called to do.”


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And that’s exactly why I could say no to this well-meaning mom so easily. I knew that this was the wrong thing for me. If I said yes, it would be to get others to accept me and it would interfere with what I had already chosen.


Gary Keller says this better in One Thing:

“When you gamble with your time, you may be placing a bet you can’t cover. Even if you’re sure you can win, be careful that you can live with what you lose.”

I knew what I would lose and I wasn’t willing to gamble my precious time.

My objective in this blog post is to take an honest look at where time goes.

If this were a book on managing money, you’d probably be asked to document where every penny goes throughout the month so you can make changes. If this were a book on nutrition and weight loss, you may be asked to document every calorie that you consume so you can recognize bad habits and create new ones. Since this is a time management book, we’re going to do the same thing with the way you spend your time.

In his book What’s Best Next, Matt Perlman compares time to space in a closet.

“What I failed to realize is that time is like space”

He continues, “Imagine that you are organizing your closet. It’s easy to see what you have and compare it with the amount of space available. If you have more stuff than it will fit, you know you will have to get rid of some things or find a different closet for them. Time is just like that, but we often miss this because it’s not visible like the things we put in our closets.

We do see this visual on our calendars. But project lists and action lists don’t represent the quantifiable amount of time they will take. So we don’t easily see when the tasks on our list extend far beyond the time we have.”

This post is all about that: it’s about gaining a realistic perspective on where our time goes, how we can better use it and what boundaries we need to set up to protect it.

If we’re parents, we’ve heard the phrase,”the days are long but the years are short.” These words are usually spoken by sad parents of adult children who have become independent. (This mother has two in college. Please pass the tissues.) It’s a reminder that our years are filled with days, our days with moments. And if we waste our moments, then we’ll have wasted our years.

William Powers said this in Hamlet’s BlackBerry (2010) :

Ultimately, human experience is not about what happens to most people, it’s about what happens to each of us, hour by hour and moment by moment.

Rather than using the general as a route to the particular, sometimes we need to take exactly the opposite approach.”


So what does happen to you hour by hour and moment by moment? Do you view your time as a big, broad force that will eventually get you to where you are going? Or do you look at it as a set of small increments that will build on each other to make you productive and effective? (If you are a proponent of writing in ten-minute increments, then you know how small habits can make a big difference.)

Where does our time go? What changes do we need to make?

Our imaginations often run wild with what we think we can accomplish. We could be unrealistic about what we can expect in our time. We really only have 1/3 of a week or so to accomplish our personal goals. It’s critical that the other 2/3 are managed well so that our needs — like our need to exercise, or be with friends, or be creative — are not neglected.

In the name of definition and boundaries, let’s break down your life into five separate categories and write out your goals.

Home Management

Creative Time

Outside Obligations

Social Life


What really happens in each of these five areas in your average week?

You’ll need a spreadsheet for this exercise, one that breaks down the seven-day week into hourly increments. If you’re feeling whimsical, color-code the five areas. And then, as you mark off time spent, have it coordinate with the corresponding part of your life. For example, when you mark off when you sleep, you can make it purple. Your day job is marked green. The time you cook and clean up from dinner is red. The advantage to using colors is you will be able to see at a glance how balanced you are. Not sure if something should be in one color or another? Don’t worry about it. Just choose a color that makes the most sense to you and keep it consistent.

Want more information about goal setting? Christine Hennebury wrote “Knowledge is Power — Things to Know Before You Set A Goal” here.  

I have listed seven exercises below that will help you mark up your calendar.

Take your time with each task. Be honest. If you put yourself to bed at 10, but you don’t actually sleep until 11:30 because you read, then mark them separately.

1. Mark off the time in purple that you sleep. My calendar is marked off from 10 pm to 6 am. Do this accurately for each night. Some nights I stay up later. I sleep a little later on weekends. Mark this. Also, note how many hours you average for sleep. You need at least 7. This is critical, and a lack of sleep could be hindering your productivity. But that’s a subject for another book. Just mark the times that you regularly sleep for now.

2. Mark off the times in purple that you usually eat. I eat breakfast from 6:30 to 7 every morning. Lunch varies. Dinner is 6:00 to 6:45 during the week and varies on the weekends. Mark off in red the time you spend shopping, preparing or cleaning up.

3. Mark off the time in green that you are at your outside-the-home job, including time for your commute. If my husband were doing this, he would mark off from 7 AM to 5:25 PM. He works regular hours, but his commute is a little over an hour. It needs to be marked.

“You can have it all. Just not all at once.” 
― Oprah Winfrey

4. Mark any other outside obligations in green next. These are the regular evening events, religious services, book clubs, etc. Make sure that you include the commute too. If you find it helpful, you could print out four calendars, one for each week of the average month. This will allow you to identify monthly activities. For example, if I go to Book Club the second Wednesday of every month, this takes time. It needs to be listed.

5. Is there anything else that you do on a regular basis that needs to be marked? Do that now. This could be doctor’s appointments, meetings, my weekly Twitter chat. Anything.

6. Do you see any glaring gaps that are unaccounted for? Say, 7 to 10 pm most weeknights? Be honest with yourself about how you spend that time. It is possible that you get caught up with family needs? You may do something different every night or you might fritter away the time. Is there a way that these gaps can be better managed or earmarked for one of your five areas?

Now it’s time to ask the hard questions:

  • Which of the five areas need changing?
  • What areas need to be bumped up higher on the priority list? (Like getting more sleep, for example.)
  • What areas do you need to cut way back on? (Like reducing your entertainment activity. Netflix is great, but for every episode of The Gilmore Girls you watch, that’s another 42 minutes that you’re not writing or sleeping.)

Matt Perman also writes in What’s Best Next:

 “When most people think of productivity, they think of efficiency — getting more things done faster. While efficiency is important, it is secondary.

More important than efficiency is effectiveness — getting the right things done.

Efficiency doesn’t matter if you are doing the wrong things in the first place.” 

With the help of this spreadsheet, you can actually see what is getting done and what isn’t.

Are you effective with the time that you do have?

Your time is going to be used up whether you spend it productively or not. You will use those unaccounted-for blocks for something — maybe it will be playing video games, or scouring Pinterest, or submitting to the whims of the people around you. If you are a 10-Minute Novelist, then perhaps you’ve already looked for small chunks of time in which to write and you’re in the habit of making the most of the time you do have.

Do you use scheduling tools in the best possible way?

One of the more interesting discoveries in my research is how several of the time management gurus I read all advocated time-blocking. This is a common-sense strategy of assigning certain tasks to certain times during the day or week. You probably already do this with your sleep schedule, your meals, and your commute. Why can’t you do this with other things in your life?

In Effective Time Management for Dummies, author Dirk Zellar said,

“I’ve discovered no better system for managing time on a daily, weekly, monthly, yearly, and lifelong basis.

I’ve seen miracle-level transformations in the lives of my clients — successes measured in income, health, relationships, personal growth, spiritual transformation, and wisdom.”

Time-blocking creates definition. By sectioning off time for a task, you are creating a container for it. I’ve found that when I have time containers, I speed up, knowing that the timer will ding soon and I need something to show for my time blocked. I’ve also found that I have to make a choice when that timer goes off. I have to decide: will I be panicked at the thought of leaving something undone? Or will I rest and walk away from the peace knowing that this task will get its turn again.

Gary Keller, the author of One Thing, agrees:


“Most people think there’s never enough time to be successful, but there is when you block it.

Time blocking is a very results-oriented way of viewing and using time.

It’s a way of making sure that what has to be done gets done.

Time-blocking harnesses your energy and centers it on your most important work.

It’s productivity’s greatest power tool.”

The more I use the time-blocking method, the more secure I am in my decisions.

I am less anxious. I view my day and my week as a series of blocks and the tasks in them will get done in time. Now I understand that if I freak out over the undone or the worry I won’t have enough time, then I may make an impulsive decision — I may steal time from one block to give it to whatever is making me anxious. Often this backfires. Outside of pressing deadlines and taking my kids to their jobs, most of my tasks can reside safely in their blocks. If I have organized the people in my life to help out with household tasks and if I’ve chosen to keep my emotions in check, I can be at peace.

Our days are precious. The people in our lives are priceless.

Our dreams deserve attention.

Let’s not waste one more minute on the trivial and unimportant.

This entry was a selection from my book: When The Timer Dings: Organizing Your Life To Make The Most of 10 Minute Increments. Click here to order. 

I am a fiction writing and time management coach. I help time crunched novelists strengthen their craft, manage their time and gain confidence so they can find readers for their stories.

Katharine Grubb is a homeschooling mother of five, a novelist, a baker of bread, a comedian wannabe, a former running coward and the author of Write A Novel In 10 Minutes A Day. Besides pursuing her own fiction and nonfiction writing dreams, she also leads 10 Minute Novelists on Facebook, an international group for time-crunched writers that focuses on tips, encouragement and community. 

Katharine Grubb is an author, poet, homeschooling mother, camping enthusiast, bread-baker, and believer in working in small increments of time. She leads 10 Minute Novelists, an international Facebook group of time-crunched writers. She lives with her family in Massachusetts.

One Comment

  • Lee

    I’m starting the project of seeing where my time goes this week. I’ve printed out a spreadsheet to see just what I do and when. My goal is to narrow down to only those things that give meaning to my life and see if I can stop those that simply suck up time.