Keep Blocks of Time for Yourself

Mark L. Johnson / August 2018

If you’re feeling burned out, you may be trying to do too much. Specifically, you may be scheduling too much in your day. Over-scheduling leads to a perceived time-crunch and the delay in starting other work.
But, there’s more. How you plot your personal and professional appointments will also have a bigger bearing on your work output. Let’s find out why.

The Effect of Looming Appointments
You know a good schedule is specific. The activity, “meet w/crew,” could be scheduled “after lunch.” But, by making it specific, say, “at 3 p.m.,” you increase the probability of its getting done.
But what if you need to schedule multiple activities during the day?
In reality, you have just two scheduling options: (1) group your appointments and to-dos together, or (2) spread them out over the day. Grouping means you schedule multiple activities back to back, leaving yourself large chunks of unscheduled time. Spreading them out means you schedule multiple activities at irregular intervals, leaving smaller pieces of unscheduled time between activities.
“While these two strategies matter very little for the scheduled activity itself, they have important consequences for unscheduled time,” say Selin Malkoc and Gabriela Tonietto in “Activity Versus Outcome Maximization in Time Management” (May 2018).
In another paper, “When an Hour Feels Shorter: Future Boundary Tasks Alter Consumption by Contracting Time,” published in the Journal of Consumer Research (June 2018), Tonietto, Malkoc and Stephen Nowlis say people will perform fewer tasks and will be less likely to take on extended tasks “during a bounded compared to an unbounded interval of time.”
Put simply, people tend to think they won’t have enough time to start things when they have an appointment to get to. The looming appointment makes the free time seem shorter than it is. Even if you have an hour until your next appointment, the bounded time feels insufficient, like 20 minutes rather than 60. So, you wait to start your next to-do and switch instead to handling something menial, like clearing out some email.
In effect, intermittently filling in your calendar creates the self-imposed conditions that lead to procrastination.

A Calendar that Feels Expansive
The better approach is to schedule activities back to back so that large chunks of time become available. The free time now feels expansive. And this paves the way for more work to get done.

Calendar 1 (gets more done)
1 p.m.: — open —
2 p.m.: — open —
3 p.m.: Meet w/crew
4 p.m.: Prepare labor report
5 p.m.: Conference w/PM

Calendar 2
1 p.m.: Prepare labor report
2 p.m.:  — open —
3 p.m.: Meet w/crew
4 p.m.: — open —
5 p.m.: Conference w/PM

You get more done with Calendar 1 because the two-hour window from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. gives you room to breathe while you work. Most people would start a project or complete some other important segment of work during that time.
Research tells us we should build our work days like this, setting aside large blocks of time. If we have to take meetings or schedule phone calls, then fine. But group such activities together—perhaps at the beginning of the day, or at the end—always slotting one appointment right after another.
“If you have some big tasks, too many scheduled things will affect your productivity,” says Nowlis on “A lot of scheduling is fine for shorter tasks, so find the environment that works for you.”
Yes, packing the day with too much to do can be counterproductive on its own. But, how you pack your day turns out to be the bigger issue. If you must schedule multiple appointments, then group them in the calendar. Don’t let others steal your unscheduled time, which appears to be the most precious time of all.  

Mark L. Johnson is an industry writer and marketing consultant. Reach him at @markjohnsoncomm, and at