gtd and time blocking

GTD and Time Blocking: Rethinking What Works

August 2, 2021    •   minute read
Should you use GTD or time blocking method? Or can both methods work together and complete each other?

This guide summarizes the two productivity techniques' fundamental principles and further discusses whether you should choose one over the other for optimal productivity.

Specifically, you will learn the following:

  • The GTD Essentials
  • Time Blocking Basics
  • GTD vs. Time Blocking: Which One to Use 
  • The Critical Success Factor

Without further ado, let's dive in. 

GTD Essentials

Getting Things Done is a comprehensive productivity system that busy executives should use to stay on top of their leadership and management roles and responsibilities. There are five steps to implementing the GTD system: 

  1. Capture everything in your inbox
  2. Clarify items in your inbox so that it makes sense to you
  3. Organize your items. If it's actionable, task it. Something that is not actionable but could be needed later on should go into the reference tray. Delete the rest
  4. Review your lists regularly. Daily review keeps you in control of your day and lets you plan the next day. A weekly review enables you to stay on track with your goals.
  5. Engage in tasks based on four criteria: context, time available, energy available, and priority.

Breakdowns of GTD Workflow

GTD Calendar

Notice that the GTD system requires using a calendar. However, David advises that three things go on the GTD calendar:[1]Allen, David. Getting Things Done (p. 43). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

  1. Time-specific actions 
  2. Day-specific actions
  3. Day-specific information

If you have been using the time blocking method for a while, you would think that time-specific actions would include these:

  1. Time-specific tasks 
  2. Purpose- or career-driven priorities

However, they refer to appointments and meetings only, not time-specific tasks nor purpose- and career-driven priorities. 

"Time-Specific Actions This is a fancy name for appointments."[2]Allen, David. Getting Things Done (p. 43). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. —David Allen 

He goes on to write:

No More "Daily To-Do" Lists on the calendar Those three things are what go on the calendar and nothing else! This might be heresy to past-century time-management training, which almost universally taught that the daily to-do list is key.[3]Allen, David. Getting Things Done (p. 44). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

According to the book, there were two reasons why "Daily To-Do Lists" on the calendar do not work. The first reason is that tasks keep coming and constantly shifting, so it is impossible to schedule them with a clear start and finish time. And, the second reason is that if you plan on your calendar unimportant tasks that are not time-bound, you could "dilute the emphasis on the things that truly do" have to get done in the day. 

To summarize, David advises NOT to schedule tasks on your calendar. 

However, a principle he lives by when it comes to calendar usage is this:[4]Allen, David. Getting Things Done (p. 45). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

The way I look at it, the calendar should be sacred territory. —David Allen 

Recommended reading: Getting Things Done Book Summary

The Time Blocking Basics

Time blocking is a time management method where you schedule your day in blocks of time. Each time block has a specific starting and finishing time devoted to a single task such as writing a blog post or a category of tasks such as deep work and planning. 

The method has become so popular these days because Elon Musk might use it. Bill Gates also uses it.[5]Riddell, M. (2016, October 21). Bill Gates: He eats Big Macs for lunch and schedules every minute of his day - meet the man worth $80 billion. The Telegraph. Furthermore, two bestselling books on productivity introduce the time blocking method as a time management tool: The ONE Thing and Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.

The ONE Thing dedicates an entire section, "15. Live for Productivity," to explain how the method works. Knowledge workers should find the following principles in the book helpful to optimize productivity and perform at their best.

The number-one time block to have is time off. 

It comes before everything else. Even your most important work should happen after recreation. 

After you've time blocked your time off, time block your ONE Thing. Yes, you read that right. Your most important work comes second. Why? Because you can't happily sustain success in your professional life if you neglect your personal "re-creation" time. Time block your time off and then make time for your ONE Thing.[6]Keller, Gary. The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results (location 57%). John Murray Press. Kindle Edition.

The author Gary Keller recommends that you block out long weekends and vacations on your calendar. He does not mention time blocking short breaks. While I agree that you should not time block your short breaks during working hours, it is essential to do so regularly. Our willpower is finite. According to The Power of Full Engagement, we should take a break every 90-120 minutes. Similarly, a study found that if you have already worked intensely for 4-5 hours, the chances are that you have already depleted your energy for focused concentration.[7]ricsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100(3), 363.

I find the Pomodoro Technique works wonders to remind us to take regular breaks while working. 

Your calendar is for your one thing, too. 

While most people use their calendar for meetings and appointments that others ask them to attend, productive people time block important work. It is an appointment with yourself to do what Gary Keller calls The ONE Thing. 

The ONE Thing is what you must do day after day to make a difference in your career and profession. It could be time-specific. For example, as a writer, your one thing could be submitting a piece of content for review. However, often it is work that you need to practice deliberately and improve over time. If you are a writer, writing is your one thing. The one thing for a salesperson would be generating leads, reaching out to them, and providing ongoing support. 

Deliberate planning is crucial for the time blocking to work. 

Scheduling your day using the time blocking method is time-consuming because it forces you to carefully consider what to do and when to start and be done with it. Some even think about where to perform the task. 

The ONE Thing recommends time blocking 30 minutes for planning. But, it could be more or less depending on several factors such as your planning speed and skill and the number of tasks you have to prioritize. For example, if you are skillful in planning, it will take you less time to plan than those who have first started planning their day. Similarly, there are days when it is challenging to prioritize due to deadlines or equal importance of the tasks at hand, so you will likely spend more time planning than usual, too. 

GTD vs. Time Blocking: Which One Should You Use? 

Short answer: both. 

Here's why. 

Three Reasons Why You Should Use Both the GTD and Time Blocking Method Together

Like everything else, time blocking has its pros and cons, and so does the GTD methodology. Generally, Getting Things Done is a productivity method. Time blocking is a deliberate technique for effective time management. 

While GTD gives you a holistic productivity system, the time blocking method enables you to allocate time for peak performance. 

GTD provides a comprehensive system for effective organization. It equips you well to collect, prioritize and act appropriately. Most busy executives will need GTD to stay on top of all tasks and projects. However, the productivity method falls short in making efforts to dedicate long hours of time blocks to explore the rock bottom of things for untapped or hidden opportunities. As a leader, it is crucial to do both. 

Even if they prefer the manager's schedule or for some reason and cannot afford long hours free from interruptions, someone else on their team should be on the maker's schedule.[8]Graham, P. (2009, July). Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule. Paul Graham. And, this is where the time blocking method, as introduced by The ONE Thing, compliments the GTD system. 

After all, the author David Allen also looks at the calendar as "sacred territory."[9]Allen, David. Getting Things Done (p. 45). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

While GTD lets you prioritize appropriately, the time blocking method tells you when to start and finish it. 

time blocking quote

One of the main reasons why professionals can't get to work on what they are passionate about is that they have too much to do. If they do, they tend to spend too much (or too little) time. And this makes it challenging to stick to the work long enough for the benefits and satisfaction that it has to offer in the long term. 

GTD suggests a four-criteria model for choosing action choices:

  • Context
  • Time available
  • Energy available 
  • Priority

It is time available, not time you carve out. The book argues that it is impossible to plan due to the constant inflow of new stuff and changing priorities and that your calendar should not be for daily to-do lists.[10]Allen, David. Getting Things Done (p. 44). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Of course, daily tasks should not get on your calendar, and that constant new input and shifting tactical priorities present a challenge to plan ahead of time. However, you must deliberately make time for your one thing if you care enough for your career growth. Gary Keller recommends four hours in the morning. But, even 30 minutes count if you time block your one thing regularly. Even two minutes count. 

Consistency makes it more effortless to get in the state of flow. That is how you create a habit, which creates a necessary condition for deliberate practice and expert performance. 

Time blocking harnesses your energy and centers it on your most important work.[11]Allen, David. Getting Things Done (p. 44). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

So, Use GTD to organize and prioritize, but time block your one thing to make sure that what must be done gets done. 

While GTD empowers you to stay on top of your Manager's Schedule, the time blocking method lets you explore the rock bottom for hidden opportunities and expertise building. 

Paul Graham, computer scientist, essayist, serial entrepreneur, venture capitalist, and author, argues that there are two kinds of schedule: manager's schedule and maker's schedule. Most powerful people are on the former while the maker's schedule is for, well, those who make things. They include programmers, writers, teachers, scientists, musicians, and artists. 

GTD is a perfect system for people on the manager's schedule. Makers, who need to be at the bottom of things, benefit more from long, uninterrupted hours, hence the time blocking method. 

Therefore, using the GTD and time blocking method properly allows you to strike a delicate balance between the two types of schedule. 

But how can you use the two methods together? 

A Three-Step Guide to GTD-Time Blocking for Peak Productivity

Overall, GTD should be for the manager's schedule; and the time blocking method for the maker's schedule. I believe that even busy business executives can benefit from the latter. How much time you can allocate might matter, but the point is this: it is crucial to make time consistently to explore hidden opportunities. 

Excellence is a mindset, not an endpoint. It cannot be short-tracked, but it can be fostered by programs and institutions that encourage its underlying fundamentals to become lifelong habits.[12]Dhaliwal, Gurpreet MD Clinical Excellence, Academic Medicine: November 2012 - Volume 87 - Issue 11 - p 1473 doi: 10.1097/ACM.0b013e31826d68d9

With that in mind, let's explore the three-step guide to GTD-Time Blocking for peak productivity.

Step 1: Embrace the GTD workflow. 

Unless you were fortunate enough to operate entirely on the maker's schedule, a better choice would be to embrace the GTD workflow. Learn the ins and outs of it. Deliberately practice it and progressively improve your skills until you can implement the workflow effortlessly to do the following:

  1. Capture everything in your inbox
  2. Clarify items in your inbox so that it makes sense to you
  3. Organize your items. If it's actionable, task it. Something that is not actionable but could be needed later on should go into the reference tray. Delete the rest
  4. Review your lists regularly. Daily review keeps you in control of your day and lets you plan the next day. A weekly review enables you to stay on track with your goals.
  5. Engage in tasks based on four criteria: context, time available, energy available, and priority.

Step 2: Master the GTD's priority frameworks to time block the right action choices

The GTD methodology introduces a comprehensive framework for approaching action choices, called the "Next Actions" framework. There are three models for prioritizing your work and deciding what to do.

The four-criteria model for choosing actions in the moment 
  • Context
  • Time available
  • Energy available 
  • Priority
The three-fold model for evaluating daily work
  • Doing pre-defined work
  • Doing work as it shows up
  • Defining your work
The six-level model for reviewing your work
  • Horizon 5: Life
  • Horizon 4: Long term visions
  • Horizon 3: One- to two-year goals
  • Horizon 2: Areas of focus and accountability
  • Horizon 1: Current projects
  • Ground: Current actions

Read the book, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress Free Productivity, to learn in-depth about GTD's Next Actions framework.

Step 3: Use the time blocking method to take back control of your time

Only these four should get on to your calendar:

  1. The ONE thing that matters most for your career and profession
  2. Vacations 
  3. Planning and review
  4. Appointments and meetings 

If you first create a self-care and exercise habit, you can also use the time blocking method to keep the chain, create momentums, and maintain the habit long enough for it to stick. 

That way, GTD will let you build a state-of-the-art system to organize and prioritize your work. When you no longer need to store tasks and projects in your head, it is easier to engage fully in what you do. The time blocking method further strengthens your ability to attain the flow state and perform at your best. 

Critical Success Factor: Mastery

This is what people say when they give up: "GTD is too complicated to implement." "Time blocking is not realistic. In today's busy world, it is impossible to plan in advance." 

But if you ask them to explain how both methods work, they would barely scratch the surface. 

Why do I know this? 

That person was me. I learned the Getting Things Done methodology back in 2009 and tried putting it to use only to quit a few weeks later. Then, my quest to be productive continued. I went on to read widely about the topic but failed to master none of them. Time blocking did not work because it was just impossible to plan in advance. (Note: I tried to time block every 15 minutes of the day, which created a lot of stress.)

Until I learned of deliberate practice and expert performance did I have a second thought. Revisiting the two methods years later and deliberately practicing them was a life-changing decision. 

I can explore the rock bottom of things and improve my learning and productivity skills. Staying on top of things is an area I am improving, but that does not negatively affect me as much as it used to be. My head is clear, and my focus intense and less effortful, knowing that the GTD system takes care of my other tasks and stuff while working deeply. 

Over to You

If my story resonates, here's what I can tell you:

Mastery of both productivity methods is a critical factor determining your success (and failure) in reaping the long-lasting benefits they can yield for your career and personal growth. 

Give yourself an extended period to learn and deliberately practice the GTD and time blocking method. If you want, you can refer to my guide from time to time, especially for the Three-Step Guide to GTD-Time Blocking for Peak Productivity. 

That's it. 

Thank you for taking the time to the end of this guide. Please consider sharing it with your friends and networks if you find it helpful.



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