Try time blocking to create balance between what you want – and need – to do
When we moved across the world to Japan for my husband’s work, I felt adrift the first few weeks, figuring out how to be a first-time stay-at-home parent without the structure of a paying job and daycare to organize my day.
I wanted to explore my new country, but pesky errands kept getting in the way. Some days I wanted to wander through Tokyo’s museums, but my two-year-old son begged to go to the local park. When I wanted to write, he wanted to play. I was trying to parent, learn a new language, run errands, write, work out, and travel. It felt like a constant struggle to fit everything I wanted and needed into our lives.
The old refrain ‘there aren’t enough hours in the day’ kept running through my mind, with one obvious flaw – it wasn’t true for us. We had nothing but time; our hours were entirely unstructured.
I just wasn’t using them wisely.
Then I remembered a productivity ‘hack’ that had revolutionized the way I’d structured my previously busy days managing a public relations team and juggling multiple clients: time blocking.
The concept is simple. Organize your life by scheduling it.
Look at every aspect of your life – the things you must do, and those you want to do – and then look at your calendar. If it’s important to you, schedule it in. The key is to schedule similar things into the same block of time.
In a corporate setting, I batched necessary tasks, such as responding to emails and returning phone calls, all together. Batching those tasks together on my calendar – blocking my time – helped free up time to focus on higher priority projects and goals. Time tracking software like Toggl estimate time blocking can boost productivity by 150%, and the system worked wonders for my career.
I had a hunch time-blocking might also change the way I parented, so I gave it a shot.
Set Personal Priorities
My life list – be a present parent and enjoy this one-on-one time with my son, travel and explore, study Japanese, write, work out – kept conflicting with the errands and work necessary to run a household. In looking at my calendar and our habits, I decided to block my time in a way that would maximize those priorities and minimize the things that were necessary, yet not my most enjoyable.
Deciding what you need most is important. If you need time to read the news in order to be happy every day, write it into the calendar. If you need an hour of bikram yoga twice a week, write it into the calendar. If you need regular happy hours or lunch dates with friends, write those time blocks into your calendar on an ongoing basis and be zealous about protecting that time. If you need a couple hours on the couch watching Netflix, plan for that too.
Plan How You’ll Parent
Envision the kind of parent you want to be, the kinds of things you want to teach your children, and the activities you’d like to do with them.
I wanted my son to have time to play instead of constantly being rushed along from errand to errand. I wanted time to bake cookies together, to teach him to ride a bike, to color.
Take your family’s needs and wants into consideration too. My toddler desperately wanted to spend most of his days playing baseball. I vowed to make time for what he needed (even if his naps happened in a stroller on-the-go) and also to find a peewee baseball team to join.
Break Everything Out into Steps
If you want to spend more time on sewing projects, write in weekly or bi-weekly time to visit fabric stores, browse patterns, and to actually sew. If you are working to foster your children’s love of reading, pencil in visits to the library, ample time for bedtime stories, or plan to read the same books separately and then discuss them together.
With an entirely new country to explore, I devoted quite a bit of post-bedtime reading to Japan travel guides, creating an extensive bucket list, and mapping locations to visit. To give my son his beloved baseball time, I found a local team for him to join, invested in a T-ball set for our backyard, played catch with him often, and made plans to see a few games at the Yokohama stadium.
By breaking down the steps that go into each project, you ensure you’re scheduling in a realistic amount of time. No matter how I wish it were different, I can’t accomplish grocery shopping in only 20 minutes. Even with a well-written list and recipe ideas, it takes me 45 minutes to shop with kids. Knowing that made it easier to plan my weeks.
Write Out Your Schedule
Laura Vanderkam, the author of 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, advocates keeping a detailed record of your days in order to find innovative ways to prioritize and allocate your time.
I went with a far more general approach.
I looked at my calendar and my priorities and started sketching out an ideal day. Mondays and Wednesdays my son attended pre-school. Those mornings became sacred writing time, and how we spent our afternoons were entirely his choice. Tuesdays were errands: grocery store, post office, dry cleaners. Thursdays were for exploration: shrines, museums, festivals, new cities. Fridays were left open for adventure or naps or lunch dates with friends.
Once your draft schedule is written, look at the week and the month. Have you scheduled time for everything you need to do, and everything you want to? If you are working toward a goal, have you scheduled recurring time to accomplish steps toward it?
Not every activity needs to happen every day, or even every week. Writing for a few hours only twice a week gave me much-needed momentum toward completing my projects. Exploring Tokyo at least once during the week (and more on weekends as a family) helped me feel as though I was making the most of living in an amazing country.
Some activities you might need to only do once or twice a month. The question only you can answer is this: Is the schedule you’ve written out one that will make you – and your family – happy with how you’ve spent your time?
Once my highest priorities were mapped out and scheduled into my calendar, I was able to see where I could add in additional things to help move me toward accomplishing my goals. I found a Japanese language teacher who could meet on Tuesday afternoons and let me bring my son to play with her children. I was able to add time at the gym most afternoons, where my son played happily in the children’s play area until I was finished.
The beauty of time blocking is you control your calendar, and your time. Even small, incremental shifts in how you spend that time can deliver enormous results.
At the end of a few weeks with our new ‘schedule,’ my days were more productive, and happier. I was able to stay more fully present with my son, because I wasn’t thinking about all the other things that must be done – there was time for it all. I wasn’t frustrated at a lack of time to write; whatever didn’t get accomplished on a Wednesday would get done the next Monday. If we ran out of milk on a Friday, we’d drink juice instead until Tuesday’s grocery day came around, instead of running to the store every few days as things ran out.
We’ve since added a daughter to our family and moved to Washington, D.C., so our schedule has undergone several seismic changes. With each change, we readjust until we find a rhythm that makes all of us happiest… even if life always includes a day for my dreaded errands.
Kate Lewis is an American writer exploring parenting, travel, and life. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, POPSugar, and SavvyTokyo. Find her on Twitter @katehasthoughts and follow her family's adventures at www.thesoutherner.me.