FAQ: Should you fit your work into a defined time block?

Image of cartoonish drawing of a hand holding a stopwatch

Most advice on time management needs qualification. This caveat applies to the oft-heard advice to decide how long you will take for a task and then just do it in that time.

This idea sounds appealing. Consider how much easier your life would be if you could simply allot one hour to clear out the closet or draft a report, and then just do it. You could plan your week in advance, confident that everything would be done on schedule. You'd eliminate the time that gets wasted getting started or dithering over details or tweaking to make it perfect. Your productivity would skyrocket.

Well, like many tactics, I have tried this one and found it to be hit or miss. Yes, sometimes I could decree the time I would use to finish a task and that would lead me to finish quickly. Yes, sometimes this was exactly what I needed to do to make sure I didn't fall into procrastination or perfectionism.

But often, decreeing the time made the task harder. It created demoralizing pressure instead of constructive urgency. This was true even if I had made a reasonable time estimate. For example, if I didn't instantly have momentum on the task, the time limit didn't help me accelerate. Instead, it prompted me to worry about how I could possibly finish the task in the specified time. Or if I ran into new issues in the middle of my time block, the limit didn't help me adjust the plan. Instead, the time limit was more likely to trigger self-critical thoughts such as, "I should have planned more time" or "I shouldn't let myself be distracted by this."

When you decree you will get something done in a time block and then you have trouble, your mind tends to go to the bad things that will happen if you don't stick to it. That's counterproductive. What you need when things go wrong is some support so you can adapt to the facts and find a creative way forward. There is a way to do this when you are trying to finish in a given time. I call it setting value-oriented boundaries.

Setting Value-Oriented Boundaries on Your Time

A value-oriented boundary is a special kind of plan for a time block. It includes not just what you will do during the time, but also additional mental support for finishing in the time. Think of setting up a boundary as an add-on to decreeing what you'll do in how much time. You build a structure around the start and finish to make sure the work stays in the time.

You start the process by making a reasonable decision about what you will do in how much time. Then you need to figure out three more things to create the boundaries:

  • A value-oriented reason for why you want to finish within this time limit
  • A clear statement of what you specifically will avoid doing during this time block
  • A contingency plan for how you will deal with predictable problems that might arise

In other words, when you set a boundary on your time, you don't expect to solve all of the challenges by decreeing you'll finish. Rather, you set up a structure that supports your eventual success regardless of what happens.

The most important of these is a value-oriented reason for why you should do this within the given time. Often this is not how you will first conceive the issue.

For example, suppose you wanted to declutter the closet in one hour because you were sick of the mess, but you didn't want to spend more time on it because you were too busy. In particular, you wanted to go to sleep in one hour, so if you didn't finish, you'd lose sleep. Those are threat-based reasons for the time block. They tell you what bad things will happen if you don't finish in the time.

If you've taken my courses, you know that logically, threats are threats to values; if your reason involves threats, a few more steps of analysis can lead you to the specific values at stake in this situation. The deeper value at stake is not always obvious and it is often idiosyncratic, so it may take a bit of introspection. You need to figure out whether "get rid of mess" really means you want an organized closet or more space or something else.

Depending on which value matters most to you, you would make a different plan. If you wanted organization most, you might set your goal as "do a quick-sort to get everything approximately in place," with the idea that you would use any extra time to make it even better and still get a good night's sleep. You might specifically exclude taking time to decide what to keep or throw away.

On the other hand, if you most wanted more space in the closet, you might make your goal to be to pull as many clothes to give away as you can in one hour to make space and go to sleep on time. In this case, you might specifically exclude taking time to move things around.

Notice that both of these tasks are set up to almost guarantee a decent result. But they also require identifying the single top value at stake. Saying "but I want both" is not compatible with finishing in a time block. It sets you up for conflict within the task and task creep, both of which kill your ability to finish the task in a specific time.

A value-oriented boundary requires identifying and sticking to your priorities. It is not entirely comfortable. As a result, you need a contingency plan to help you follow through. I recommend that your plan include three parts:

1. Start with a warmup

To finish in limited time, you need to get momentum quickly. For that, I suggest you plan a warmup. This could be as simple as reminding yourself of your value-oriented reason for doing this task in this time block. That might be all you need for a closet-clearing task.

However, if you feel some ambivalence about your choice of the top value, you may need to set up an affirmation for it. See this article for some ideas about how to do that rationally. Thinking Labbers, I recommend using the tactic "Positive Reinforcement," which is also in the Thinker's Toolkit.

In addition, sometimes you will need a task-specific warmup and it's best to figure that out in advance. For example, if you are planning to draft a report in a two-hour window, you will almost certainly need to refresh your recollection of the material to go in the report. It's better to think about this in advance or else you may stare at a blank page. If you work on a project across days, you will always need to begin with a warmup.

Think of the warmup as the starting gun for the task. It is what ensures you get a good jump on it. It helps prevent wasting time at the beginning of the time block.

2. Plan to defuse pressure

When you set a time limit, you may start to feel deadline pressure. This is an objective problem. You feel pressure because you are shutting down conflicting thoughts or feelings. But these thoughts and feelings are often leads to critical information about how the task is going. Thoughts such as "this is taking too long" or "this isn't going to work" do need to be examined. They may be leads to information critical to success. If you don't listen to them, you don't find problems until it's too late, and you miss the chance to take an alternate path to the goal.

Pressuring yourself just makes the experience unpleasant and more likely to fail.

On the other hand, checking out every thought and feeling that occurs to you guaranatees you will be distracted. That too is an objective problem for finishing in the time block. That's one reason I recommend you specifically decide what you won't be doing during this time block. When you know in advance that you're just pulling out clothes to give away, not organizing, you can hear an idea for organizing and remind yourself, "That's not my priority right now."

Part of maintaining a value orientation is that you maintain an openness to hearing all thoughts and feelings. They are all hearable, though not all are worth following up. Those that are off topic can be deferred. You don't reject them; you just put them aside until a later time.

Here's how this plays out when I use boundaries to keep my writing in its allotted time: If I have any doubts about the topic or if I feel resistance to starting, I pause to introspect the feelings and deal with any problems. But if I notice I'm thinking about a conversation with a family member or a hypothetical situation in the future, I see that's off topic, and give myself a value-oriented reason for thinking about it later. For example, I might say to myself, "I'll think about the family situation later when I can give it my full attention. Right now I want to work on my writing because..." and I'll remind myself of the reasons for sticking to this time period. Deferring an issue for value-oriented reasons is much, much better than suppressing it. When you say, "No! I can't think about that!" you are implying that the thought is unimportant or a problem. But you won't actually know that until you think about it. You just don't need to do that now.

3. Decide how you'll handle task-specific predictable problems

Difficulty starting and time pressure are two challenges you will have anytime you try to work in a time block. But your task may have other predictable problems. To stay within your time limits, you need to figure out in advance how you're going to adjust if things don't go quite how you intended. You need to make contingency plans that will handle foreseeable problems.

For example, if you're clearing the closet, a predictable problem is that you might get only halfway through in the time available, even though you thought you could do it all. There's a real risk it will go slower than you think. To mitigate that risk, you can deliberately choose to work in sections, so that whenever you run out of time, you'll have some sections completed. Hopefully you'll finish them all, but even if you don't, you'll be at a good stopping point.

Figuring out how to build in contingencies sometimes takes a little creativity. But if you stay focused on the real value to you, then that will guide you in how to plan for contingencies. For example, if you're working on a report, you might write the executive summary bullet points first. That may be all that most people read — so getting it done would be most of the value. (Note to Thinking Labbers: there is much on how to do this in the classes on planned evolution in the Thinking Lab.)

A contingency plan doesn't have to be elaborate. It just needs to set you up to know what's important when things go wrong. Something as simple as a 3 point plan can do this for you.

When to Set Boundaries or Work in Time Blocks

So what is the answer to the question? Should you fit your work in a defined time block?

If you can tell yourself to "just do" some task in a defined time, by all means do so.

If you try to do that and get bogged down in conflict and pressure, you can still work in a defined time block if you are willing to invest the extra time to put in boundaries as I describe above. With this method, you can call on deep, meaningful values to help you keep your priorities clear and generate a positive sense of urgency to finish. But all of this takes time. I find that building in boundaries requires 30-40 minutes of overhead for a three-hour writing block.

Boundaries are worth the investment if you have a good enough reason for working in delimited time. In my case, I am working on writing in time blocks so that I can become totally objective about how much prose I can produce on a regular schedule while also keeping up with other work for the business. It's part of an initiative that is getting a substantial amount of effort from me. But if I didn't have this reason, it likely wouldn't be worth the effort to use boundaries to ensure the work fit into specific time blocks.

The bottom line? Work in time blocks if it's very easy or very important. But always do it with a value-orientation, not by applying pressure.

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