Time-Block Planner: 2 weeks in
After 2 weeks of using Cal Newport’s Time-Block Planner on a daily basis here are my impressions.
To cut to the chase, it’s a mixed bag. I like the principles behind the planner but the execution leaves something to be desired. That’s why I’m giving this first edition 3 stars but am optimistic that future iterations will be better. I had wanted to like this planner more based on Cal’s books and his excellent podcast.
Time-Block Planner: Positives
As I say, I like the ethos and principles that have driven Cal Newport to create the Time-Block Planner. His Deep Work book and subsequent podcast outline a practical framework and set of tactics for being more intentional in our work. Dedicating blocks of time to working at a deep and focused level are essential for our knowledge work to be of value. As technology takes over many of the tasks traditionally done by humans, deep work will become even more important for many workers who wish to remain relevant.
The Time-Block Planner provides an analogue space for us to mark out these times in our daily schedules. Although a very simple process, it is effective. By writing down at the beginning of the day what we are going to do we make a commitment to those activities. This commitment helps provide a defense against the time wasting distractions of news sites, social media and constant email checking.
The core of this planner are the daily pages – 2 pages for each day. The right page is for the schedule, the left for tasks and ideas that pop up during the day. On the top of the left page is a box for “Daily Metrics”. You can put what you want in here. I have found it useful to track my daily weight (blurred out to protect my dignity), my steps and what I found most and least energizing. Obviously, these need to be filled in at the end of the day. I’m not sure where I got the least and most energizing idea from but it has been a useful way of reflecting on where I feel I have done my most satisfying work. As with being more intentional in our activities, this helps with thinking about where we might want to develop our professional activities.
There is also a “Stutdown Complete” tickbox. This is one of Cal’s personal routines: when he ticks that he knows his work-related tasks for the day are done and he can relax into focusing on his personal and family priorities. This may sound rather trivial but I like it. Saying to ourselves that our jobs are done gives a sense of release and marks a demarcation between our work and private lives.
The right page should be carved into blocks of 30 minute multiples. If something changes along the day then the second and third columns can be used to reschedule activities – as happened to my 11am-12pm block. The far right of the page can be used to break down some of the blocks. I find this useful for the admin/email blocks where specific but short tasks need to be completed.
A weekly “Week Ahead” section allows for some forward-planning of priorities and activities.
Time-Block Planner: Negatives
My criticisms are more about the execution of this planner:
- I find it bulkier than it needs to be. When I first received the planner I was impressed by its heft. However, that has become more of a negative over the 2 weeks. While it sits on my desk its weight and size are fine. However, when I need to take it with me on a trip this can be a bit of an annoyance. It weighs 690 grammes (1.5 pounds), getting on for twice the weight of a standard Moleskine A5 notebook;
- There is no attached ribbon to mark the most recent day. As this is a daily planner, the omission is rather odd. It feels like the publishers, Penguin, were in book rather than planner/diary mode;
- There is no holder for a pen. As this is designed to be written in on a daily basis, a pen holder would be useful;
- It only has 3 months worth of pages. With a price of around £16 ($20), having to buy 4 editions a year starts to add up. I know that being more focused and productive could justify that expense but it still feels a bit steep.
- It does not fold flat very easily, The binding does not feel right for a daily planner that needs to be used and written in every day. It feels more like a book that is designed to be read rather than written in.
Time-Block Planner: Suggestions
I’ll be interested to see how successful this planner is and if it remains in print for long in its current form. My suggestions for improvments to any future editions are:
- smaller footprint, thinner paper to reduce weight;
- integrated marker ribbon and pen holder;
- diary-type binding to allow planner to fold flat when open;
- reduce page count by condensing each day to a single side rather than 2 pages. Perhaps remove the tasks and ideas sections so the planner is focused on daily blocks. I use ToDoIst for my tasks so do not feel the need to write them down as well ( I have only done so in the photo to illustrate how it is intended to be used). I realise many people do not use digital task managers so this may be more of a personal preference.
Time-Block Planner: Final Thoughts
I will stick with using the planner for the moment but have a feeling I won’t be buying another when it is full after 3 months. However, the principle of daily time-blocking will continue to be a daily activity. I am making good progress with carving out time for the deep work of reading, thinking and writing and time-blocking is a core part of that. I will experiment with other ways of doing this and report back on what works.