Time-blocking my way through #postdoclife – part I

You might have heard about time blocking (or time chunking) by now. If not, this is the short Wikipedia definition of it:

Timeblocking or time blocking (also known as time chunking) is a productivity technique for personal time management where a period of time—typically a day or week—is divided into smaller segments or blocks for specific tasks or to-dos. It integrates the function of a calendar with that of a to-do list. It is a kind of scheduling.
When done properly, timeblocking can help eliminate distractions and discourage unproductive multitasking.

In this post, I will talk about my way to finally try time blocking and what I discovered to be the pros and cons (for me) of it. In part II, I will show you my planning routine and how I manage my time with all the different labels that make my calendar a colourful place of effectiveness (or at least… I try that my calendar stays a tool where my effectiveness is visible).

Working as a research assistant at a university always has its ups and downs. Still, one thing is for sure: there are distractions everywhere – students, colleagues, your boss knocking on your door, some with problems to solve, some with new tasks for you to do, some with a cup of coffee for you because they need advice or help with their research or just someone to listen because the lives of PhD students and postdocs are full of stress and sometimes you need a community to push through.

My calendar view is getting more crowded the longer I live this postdoc life. And, even if I am saying “no” to lots of things now, and even though I am far better at managing my time – especially me-time to decompress and rest – it’s getting more and more work. New projects arise, and “old” ones are finally finished or already in the publication pipeline.  Then I stumbled across several youtube videos and vlogs on time blocking for grad students or researchers. I decided to try this way of planning.

I have listened to Cal Newport’s “Deep Work” and found it very useful – to line out my days, my work week, my projects, my free time, and my private time. I dived into my Google calendar and rebuilt my structure of planning my days. I decided on lots of categories – well, lots of categories for someone doing lots of different things. I have my normal working schedule, which is 20h per week for University. Then I have some writing projects to finish, which I have been actually dragging with me for a long time now… (read about my struggle in my post on Academic New Year’s Blues). I need my free time, where I am doing my physical exercises – mostly yoga, bouldering or jogging.

I also have some private things – mostly connected to my family and my loved ones, meaning holidays, birthdays, travelling home, etc. When living abroad and needing about 8h by train to get to our home town, you need three things: a good planning system, enough things to read, and noise-cancelling headphones. As a postdoc in archaeology, there is no such thing as not enough to read. The curse of staying at the top of the current literature is a vivid struggle and also needs a sufficient planning system – one to two hours per day reading papers and books for my research field is a must (I wrote a post about reading in research and some strategies for it here). I plan my train travels and calculate the papers I can read and process in this amount of time. On the train, I will not get interrupted by colleagues or students, without WiFi, there are no distractions like e-mails chirping in all the time (yes, I switch off the WiFi, and sometimes the WiFi is not working at all, so… perfect 😉 ). I bought a new reading device – an Onyx BOOX NoteAir 2 – and I love it. I read and annotate my papers, I synchronize them with my Zotero and Obsidian vault and I process them by rewriting my notes and summarising the papers, using also tags to connect them to certain topics. In case you are interested in this workflow (which is still in its test phase because I am still trying out new things), I have planned a post about it. Reading and writing now seem easier to me. And the time chunks that I blocked for this kind of research activities, work out well.

Pros on time blocking

There are several pro things on time chunking aka time blocking that I have discovered for me and my way of working.

  • It helps me plan ahead and schedule important tasks which need deep work sessions next to “shallow work”, which are mostly administrative things I need to do in my job.
  • I combine time blocking with my Toggl App (in case you are interested, have a look here; I am using the free version) and thus remain in charge of my life and my time; I can also use the statistics to re-evaluate planning time chunks for the next project, especially the next writing project (because I am still underestimating or overestimating the time needed for certain tasks).
  • When suddenly a new task or a very work-intensive project is coming up, I can just look in my calendar, and see all the blocked time entries and it is so much easier to decline the new task or work out a time plan fitting into my schedule – but, to be honest, I use time blocking as a way to practice saying “no”.
  • I can now fit more things into less time. Because I reduce distractions, I am able to do a lot more. I am currently not only dealing with my postdoc life and my job at my university, but I am also trying to accomplish some online training (e.g., I am currently working on my photography skills), working on my leftover projects and still finding the time to do things with my friends and family, having enough time to sit at home, watching movies and reading books (for fun – thanks to ArchaeoBookClub. If interested, have a look here).

Cons on time blocking

But of course, there are some things that are not working out that well with time blocking.

  • I am a perfectionist, so I am sometimes really hard on myself when I am not meeting my goals set for the day. This is one thing, I have to work on. I learned that on some days, I can work about 10h without being stressed out or exhausted the next day. But on these days, I have a mixture of projects, I work on – mixed with my free time things, like physical exercises or taking a walk (or cleaning my apartment). Other days are a total mess with only 6 to 8h of work, but that’s it. And there are those days when I am really drowning with brain-foggy tiredness. Then my goal is to get through with the most important stuff to do on this day and I will re-schedule everything else because I need to rest. There is nothing good happening when I try to work being exhausted.
  • Things happening all the time: over- or underestimating how much time I need to accomplish certain tasks. Mostly I tend to underestimate how much time it takes to come up with proper images for articles and papers. Or how much time my teaching prep actually needs – you might think, I would have gotten better in planning my teaching, but… yeah, did I mention this perfectionist thing…?
  • Sometimes I miss flexibility in my day because of one thing I learned about my job: Sometimes everything bursts into flames and chaos, no matter if there is good or bad time management involved. And sometimes this means a lot of struggle for me to redesign my planned work chunks.

These lists are not complete – maybe I will do an update on this post when I worked with the time blocking for a longer amount of time. But for now, it is the planning method that helps me getting on with my postdoc main and side quests, so – I will ride this wave as long as it is useful to me.

Let me know your experiences with time blocking – your good and bad ones! What is your planning routine and how do you try to move all your projects forward?
Have a lovely start into May! 🙂


Cite this blog post
Astrid Schmölzer (2023, May 1). Time-blocking my way through #postdoclife – part I. Epigrammetry. Retrieved March 4, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/og8a

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