A History of Time Blocking

While calendars have been around since the Bronze Age,  the appointment calendar for personal use is a more recent innovation. Some believe it was invented by helping professionals such as doctors and lawyers to keep track of their appointments with patients and clients.

While it was first intended as a tool for coordinating meetings, one of the earliest calendars recorded indicates its use for quite a different purpose. Here is a page from a personal calendar published by Benjamin Franklin.

This outline he created to describe his ideal day includes no appointments at all. Instead, it’s a personal plan for the day. The idea that a calendar could be used in this way probably wasn’t invented by him and it’s still in use today by people who practice time blocking. Like Franklin, they believe that making a written plan for the day is superior to the alternatives: having no plan whatsoever, or keeping only a mental plan.

It’s not hard to imagine that each day, Franklin crafted  a schedule that included the ideal elements plus any other matters that had arisen: his tasks, appointments, meetings, events, and reminders. This method of time blocking probably remained unchanged until recently, with the advent of personal digital technology in the 1980’s.

By then, the problems of using paper to schedule everything had become apparent.

As Alan Lakein stated in his 1973 classic, “How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life,”  “the overorganized person…  tends to spend much time considering every possibility, planning every detail… He doesn’t move without first planning the smallest detail.”

He also described the “time nut,” someone who is “overwhelmingly preoccupied with time… always rushing around to meet an impossible schedule.” Finally, he warns against having too much scheduled time: “Rigidity in setting and following demanding schedules without variation creates the feeling of being regimented by the clock, and living your whole life with a constant eye on the clock can be unpleasant.”

Imagine the professionals he observed in his day, struggling with paper calendars to do time blocking. Perhaps that approach worked for those who were trying to manage a small number of tasks. However, at high volumes, they probably looked like the “overorganized time nuts” he describes.

The First Digital Calendars

When the first digital calendars were invented in the mid 1980’s they were not very popular. Time blocking on a laptop was an improvement, but the perfect schedule stuck on a laptop was of little use. Most stuck with their paper DayTimers and Filofaxes – the signs of a serious professional.

Little changed until the advent of the first Personal Digital Assistants (PDA’s) in the mid-1990’s. Now, for the first time, someone could bring his/her digital calendar everywhere. With bulky cables and tricky synchronization, a calendar could be synchronized between a PC and PDA. However, few were disciplined enough to develop the habit of connecting their PC with their PDA every day using slow, unreliable technology.

Perhaps there should have been a steady increase in the number of people using time blocking as this new capability spread. However, this didn’t happen – instead, there was a backlash.

With the publication of David Allen’s Getting Things Done in 2001 came a new rule: don’t use your electronic calendar for anything other than appointments with other people, or events whose dates cannot be changed. Over time, he has changed his thinking, but many of his readers have stuck with his original idea that the calendar is a sacred space which should only be used to track one’s “hard landscape” of commitments that “must” be done at a particular date and time.

Certainly it should not be used as Ben Franklin or Alan Lakein remarked.

It was a simple idea and even though he offered little more than anecdotal evidence in support, it became a mantra. Time blocking was wrong and should not be attempted.

However, even as this battle between opposing philosophies was being fought, extraordinary computing power continued to make its way into people’s lives. Today, the vast majority have replaced their paper tools with digital devices. The sale of  Internet-enabled mobile devices outpaces that of personal computers.

Cloud computing allows us to keep a single source of information in remote service, so that a calendar can be stored in multiple, synchronized locations. Your smartphone is just one screen among many: a point of access, rather than a permanent place of storage.

Also, Artificial Intelligence combined with raw, robotic computing power makes it easier than ever to perform tedious tasks en masse. The intersection of these and other technologies has dramatically expanded the possibilities for the practice of time blocking.

Unfortunately, this new frontier remains just that… an unexplored wilderness. The calendar used by the majority is still just a digital version of the paper appointment calendar. Therefore, they mostly use the same practices Franklin used.

Time blocking remains, for most, a manual affair. They enter most tasks one at a time and drag and drop them to new time slots as needed. When there’s a surprise event or emergency, this simple task turns into a chore which is easier to perform with digital tools, but still a hard, daily slog.

As a result, most people who attempt time blocking don’t meet their original vision. They either quit, or scale back their ambitions.

The New Time Blocking

In the first edition of my book, Perfect Time-Based Productivity, I describe the fact that this widespread failure is only a part of the story. There are a small number of people who have persevered. Some have full-time administrative assistance. But the majority have taught themselves the practices needed to become skillful time blockers regardless of the tool or platform being used.

In 2015, Kevin Kruse‘ book, 15 Secrets Successful People Know About Time Management, shared the results of interview with millionaires, top athletes, high-performing students, and entrepreneurs. Flying in the face of the published advice from Allen and other gurus was his discovery that they were all using time blocking.

At around the same time his book was published, I was introduced to SkedPal. It belongs to a class of apps I have dubbed auto-schedulers. Why? They are built to shuffle and optimize a user’s calendar, reaching in an invisible hand to creae the perfect schedule within a matter of seconds.

It isn’t the first auto-scheduler to be invented, but it has become my app of choice, and I own a tiny share of the company.

During that same year, Google purchased Timeful, another auto-scheduler. The company eventually placed some of its functionality into Google Calendar in the form of Google Goals.

Other apps which perform this unique function can be found here. Together, they have broken through the limitations of time blocking which have existed for centuries: ever since the idea was first conceived.

My Predictions

In the future, I expect auto-schedulers to become ubiquitous. At some point, every digital calendar will offer an “Update Schedule” button, allowing users to bring their calendar of tasks up to date with the click of a button. This capability will reside on all platforms and be fully mobile.

Also, there are a number of variations of time blocking emerging.

1. Total Task Scheduling means putting all your tasks in the schedule, thereby using lots of dummy dates. This is a method I used before the most recent version of auto-schedulers emerged.

2. Total Task Storage means using a single app to store all your tasks and manage your calendar, while cherry-picking which ones deserve a place in your current calendar. Over time, most tasks end up waiting for the right moment to be scheduled. (The latest version of SkedPal encourages/allows this method.)

3. Partial Task Storage with a side calendar means using a task management app to store most of your tasks and a separate disconnected digital calendar to schedule your  activities.

All three methods work, but they each require a different set of practices.

Another changed that’s occurred has to do with due dates. In prior versions of SkedPal, users were forced to assign due dates to each task, regardless of the need to do so.  Now, a task may be stored with either a “fuzzy” due date (such as someday, or next week), without a due date at all, or with its own due date.

This approach is more “natural” – in line with how we actually conceive of due dates in our minds.

Finally, in the past year I performed a head-to-head comparison between existing auto-schedulers. Also, a new full-featured app has entered the space.

These are good developments. The field is growing and the latest thinking and technologies are being incorporated. We will all benefit.