Take Back Your Time with Context Scheduling
Multi-tasking is a focus drain. Boost your productivity with context scheduling, or time blocking.
On August 6, 1991, the day the internet became available to the public, the world changed forever. Less than 30 years later, our lives have been irrevocably transformed. We can now learn, explore, and communicate at all hours of the day. This is both amazing and, as we all know, hazardous to our productivity.
To be clear, the internet isn't life's only distraction. And while productivity has become a huge buzzword in recent years, it's simply a measure of progress: Are you doing what matters most? Are you actively moving toward your goals?
"As our world gets busier and our phones get beepier," author Neil Pasricha writes in Harvard Business Review, "the scarcest resource for all of us is becoming attention and creative output. And if you're not taking time to put something new and beautiful out in the world, then your value is diminishing fast."
Most entrepreneurs relate deeply to this sentiment. Pasricha solved his own productivity challenges by instituting "untouchable days" that shield him from texts, phone calls, meetings, alerts, or appointments of any kind. He says these focused sessions have enabled him to produce his most creative and rewarding work.
I love Pasricha's approach, but it's not always realistic for me. As the founder and CEO of JotForm, I need to weigh in on a variety of daily decisions, from hiring to product roadmaps to financial planning. I suspect other founders feel the same way. Yet, I do believe in the power of focused work, which is also why I recommend context scheduling.
Our collective fight for focus
Entrepreneurs often flaunt their multitasking as a badge of honor. After all, starting a business is a tug-of-war between competing priorities. But while multitasking might feel efficient, research shows that shifting between tasks can slash productivity by up to 40%. Task-switching leaves what Dr. Sophie Leroy calls "attention residue," which means we're still thinking about a previous activity while we start the next one.
Here's where context scheduling can shine. Also called block scheduling or time blocking, it's the practice of allocating large chunks of time to related tasks. For example, you might designate Mondays for meetings and Tuesdays for strategy. There are many different approaches, which we'll get to shortly.
First, here's why it matters. Business is essentially problem-solving. Creating strategies, writing code, developing products, and all the myriad activities that entrepreneurs tackle demand focus and minimal distractions. They're also inherently human tasks that won't easily be replaced by AI, which means your business depends on your ability to go deep.
"Focus is now the lifeblood of this economy," Cal Newport, author of Deep Work: Rules for Success in a Distracted World, explained in a 2017 interview. Entrepreneurs use their minds to launch ideas and create value, so the ability to concentrate is "almost like a superpower."
Context scheduling can also help you to produce higher quality work in less time. Parkinson's Law holds that "work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion," which is why setting time limits can deflate a ballooning task. Other benefits of time blocking? It can help you to battle procrastination, create more realistic time estimates, and devote your full attention to each task and work more thoroughly.
Create your ideal schedule
We all have different rhythms and responsibilities. Personalization is the key to successful time blocking – and it will require some trial and error. Here's how to get started.
Step 1: Assess Your Calendar
Evaluating your current schedule can be surprisingly difficult, because few of us can accurately estimate how much time a task requires. If it feels easier, track how you actually spend your time for a full week. Note each activity – even 10 minutes of email and 15 minutes of social media scrolling between meetings.
Step 2: Look for Patterns
After you've documented a full week, group tasks into categories, like administrative, meetings, creative work, email, or personal time. You can also label tasks based on how you feel while doing them, or how they influence your energy levels on a scale from 1-10. Do whatever makes sense for you.
Step 3: Arrange Your Time Blocks
Experiment with different scheduling patterns. For example, you could set aside Tuesdays for coding or keep mornings free for business development. You might want to divide the day into two blocks or split your week into three different blocks. It all depends on the nature of your work and what you need to accomplish. Ultimately, the goal is to avoid switching mental gears throughout the day, week, and maybe even the month. I realize this isn't easy – especially for entrepreneurs – but it can be incredibly valuable.
Spending a full day on projects you dislike, such as administrative work or meetings, might feel daunting, but blocking them into a single day can make the rest of your week infinitely more productive, and more enjoyable. You're free to tackle all the entrepreneurial challenges that get your blood flowing.
Take charge of your time
Most founders crave freedom. Yet, school, jobs, and social norms condition us to work with a traditional, reactive mindset. Context scheduling is not only a tool to maximize productivity; it's a way to reclaim your time.
In my 14 years at JotForm, I've realized that business growth means doing more of what makes the biggest impact. I don't always succeed, but I try to focus my time and energy where it matters, and I know that busyness is not synonymous with productivity. If you feel the same way, give time blocking a try. Share your experiments in scheduling with colleagues and family members so they understand the changes and can support you.
Finally, don't worry about getting it right immediately. You may need to get under the hood of your calendar and tinker around a bit. Figure out what works for you, then protect your new schedule at all costs.
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