Why People Who Use Time Blocking are Never “Free”

“Do you have some free time?”

If you have ever asked this question of someone who is a driven, high-achiever you may have received a quizzical look. Their blank look isn’t a sign of overthinking.

They just happen to be one of a group of individuals who simply don’t understand the question. They think about their time usage so differently that the question doesn’t make sense.

Strangely, it probably all started in the past, when they accepted the notion that there will never, ever be enough time to do everything. In other words, they embraced the fact that there will always be a negative gap between the following:

– the total sum of all the tasks they would like to complete (measured in hours) 


– the total number of hours they have available each week.

Of course, like everyone else, they only have 168 hours per week. This number represents a hard limit to the tasks they can complete, measured in hours. At the same time, when they add up all their commitments, the total amounts to far more hours.

Their quizzical response says: “I have way more commitments than I have time. I don’t understand what you mean by free time.”

Unfortunately, most people view this condition as a bad problem to be solved. They respond to the imbalance by trying to cut down the volume of their commitments. They believe that they should have “free time” in their calendar and in their lives.

However, high achievers who use Time Blocking don’t think this way. If you happen to be one, you may know there are two parts of your brain at work which operate very differently which take away the need for free time.

One region is responsible for creating tasks. It responds to a 24–7 array of triggers by adding new tasks, even in your sleep. It wants to be free to create fresh commitments whenever the need or desire arises.

But there’s another corner of your brain which is assigned the job of making sense of the tasks the first part created. It understands that there are real constraints and must choose between tasks using different criteria to answer the continual question: “What should I work on in the next instant, later this week, six months from now, and by the end of the year?”

It realizes that a decision to work on a task is (by definition) a choice to set aside hundreds of others which are unfinished. Furthermore, to prevent the chosen task from becoming swamped by the weight of all the others during its execution, you need to manage them all effectively (bar none). If you don’t, you’ll be consumed by the nagging distraction of the Zeigarnik Effect. In essence, your subconscious mind pings you when it believes you cannot be trusted to govern all your incomplete commitments.

One reason you time block is to ward off the Zeigarnik Effect. However, early success with the technique leads to adding in more tasks. Eventually, you end up with more than 168 hours of tasks to put in your calendar, putting you in a negative balance.

The average person takes a different approach to avoid the Zeigarnik Effect. They simply don’t create as many tasks (or commitments) and therefore have a nice, positive gap between commitments and time. They aren’t trying to accomplish as much, and therefore rarely run out of time.

Once you add so many tasks that you lack time to complete then and must resort to time blocking, it’s hard to go back. Instead, you must go forward and use different practices and new tools.

What People Who Time Block Really Do

Veterans in the use of the technique report that they see their time in big resource chunks, such as sets of 168 hours. They treat every hour as if it were precious. They make a conscious decision to spend each one to accomplish a particular goal.

For example, they may begin by setting aside time to sleep. While most people view this as a respite that requires little attention, those who have a negative gap tend to think hard about the role of the activity. They may consider it to be time to replenish themselves, which is too important to be left to chance.

They also realize that they need space in the day to recover their focus and energy: time blocking their calendar for mind wandering, a nap or to shake off the after-effects of a hard meeting.

In addition, they know that tightly scheduled days rarely go according to plan. Their calendar includes time slots which are placeholders for unplanned interruptions. This may even cover “requests for free time from other people.”

So before the week has started, someone who time blocks has already thought about these eventualities and accommodated them. Those who are more experienced put together a time blocking template for their weekly use, such as the one below. It serves as their starting point.

Notice that the template has times for meals, exercise and daily planning. If it were mine, it would also include time to take a coffee nap each day!

To the non time blocker, this may look like the beginning of insanity. However, to the person who is keen to allocate time efficiently, it’s a tool to accomplish their goals.

In effect, they are making a statement to themselves and to the world: I am taking care of myself first, before anything else intrudes. It’s a bit like putting on your mask in an airplane emergency before that of another.

By the time each week’s appointments and tasks are added in, the calendar becomes full. There is no “free time.” In fact the time blocking apps are built with the end-point in mind, especially those with auto-scheduling features.

But what if you decide not to enter each task in your weekly schedule in such a time blocking app? Isn’t the effect the same?

Apart from the burden of maintaining a mental calendar with numerous moving parts, consider what takes place when you are under pressure. Imagine that, in the middle of a meeting, your boss asks “Do you have the free time to work on this new activity next week?”

All eyes are on you as you search your mental schedule. With a few seconds to respond and the weight of expectations on your shoulders, you are far more likely to make a mistake: a blind sacrifice of your “free” time.

The sad truth is that if your manager likes your work, there are more requests like this coming your way. She’ll continue to ask if you keep on saying “Yes”. While there are some supervisors who sense that you are over-promising, most will simply hold you to account and not care too much about the personal costs of your mistake.

By contrast, pulling out a fully time blocked calendar allows you to offer a fact-based answer.

The obvious conclusion is that being conscious and explicit about your schedule beats being unconscious and implicit. It leads to clearer decision-making, especially if you consider yourself to be a high-performer who pushes hard for results.

The challenge here is to think in totals: all of your commitments versus all of your limited time.  This includes those tasks which aren’t work related, and those which are required for self-care.

Your calendar is the best tool to connect the two. Just give yourself the freedom to use it in a way others may not understand.

Their version of “free time” isn’t a reality in your world in which every single new commitment doesn’t take up time that is sitting there waiting around to be assigned. Instead, it means making a difficult trade-off that has practical consequences.