Productivity For Photographers: Time Blocking

by Outlaw Photographer James Michael Taylor on February 7, 2016

in This is Life

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“The simple act of putting some basic systems in place made me less ‘busy’ (as in just flailing) and made me way more effective at getting what I wanted out of life.” – Chase Jarvis

Tell me if you’ve ever had a day like this:

“Alright, finally some downtime. I’m going to lay into this project I’ve been putting off for weeks…”

Five minutes later, the boss comes in. Ten minutes later, he leaves, and you’ve got another urgent (if, from your perspective, far less important) problem to deal with.

“Okay. I can do that this afternoon; it’ll be fine. Back to work on the important stuff…”

Five minutes later, your coworker comes in.

“Hey, have you seen the new Star Wars yet? Yeah me neither. What did you do this weekend? Did you watch Doctor Who last night?! Oh my gosh, hurry up and watch it tonight so we can talk about it tomorrow. Do you want me to tell you what happened?”

Then a text message about the kids misbehaving. Then a two-bit client calls and wants to wiggle out of their bill. Then a text message with some lunchtime or after-work errands. Then a Facebook notification or two or ten. Then you’re hungry…

How many days have you started with a passion and a plan, and by day’s end, you’re exhausted and frustrated with not a damn thing to show for it?

Besides a healthy “No,” I’ve found time blocking to be best practice for protecting my productive time.

Why Time Blocking

“Those who make the worst of their time most complain about its shortness.” – La Bruyere

There’s plentiful science out there supporting the value of time blocking.

But practically, you have experienced the effects of losing control of your day: distraction turns to frustration turns to impotence. You know exactly what it feels like to get nothing done.

Depending on your home or office environment, sometimes there’s nothing sweeter than a few uninterrupted hours of quality, focused work. I used to take Wednesdays off and work Sundays because I’d get twice as much done when the office was empty.

It’s all about focus, and the delicious flow state that comes from it.

Time Blocking is how you make that state a regular practice instead of an occasional gift.

Like most of my mentors, I organize my productive life into 90-minute blocks of time. This scientifically and experientially for me is the perfect length of time to get important work done. I kick off these blocks targeting “just 15 minutes,” to overcome intertia. By the time that first timer goes off, I’m usually elbows deep and loving the focus.

Depending on the scope of the work I’m doing, I can stack 90-minute blocks with work on a single, big project, or I can batch a bunch of smaller, like tasks into a 90-minute block. I collect all my phone calls into one batch, all my e-mails into another batch, all my social media into another. The goal is to minimize the number of focus-shifts I have to make during day. Every distraction, every time I go from one medium or device to another, I lose some focus, lose some flow, and have to recover speed. That takes time, and mental energy – I’m leagues more efficient when I don’t have to shift those mental gears.

With purposeful time blocking, I stay in the powerful Important But Not Urgent quadrant. This is where my best work gets done. By setting the intention to work on a certain sets of Next Steps from a specific project, I’m able to skip the decision fatigue and get right to work.

This isn’t easy. You have to say no. You have to turn off the notifications. You have to stay off social media. You have to protect this time, or others will lay claim to it to satisfy their own urgent needs.

Nature abhors a vacuum – so too your spouse, friends, coworkers, boss, Netflix account, and the thousands of marketers vying for your attention.

It’s not their fault – they’re looking out for their own priorities.

Are you looking out for yours?

What gets scheduled gets done, and time blocks are the perfect unit, almost physical in nature, to package the actions you need to take to make your dreams and goals happen. It’s hard to schedule your to-do list; but much easier to schedule a time block, then drag those Next Steps into that time block. Time blocks take the intangible concept of ‘productivity’ and makes it tangible – something you can work with.

How I Practice Time Blocking

“Don’t be fooled by the calendar. There are only as many days in the year as you make use of. One man gets only a week’s value out of a year while another man gets a full year’s value out of a week.” – Charles Richards

  • I say no. I practice Essentialism. I give my schedule the respect and protection it deserves; this is the work that changes my life. I turn off notifications (for me, I just turn off wifi on my phone or laptop). I stay off social media. I get to work on actionable Next Steps that will put wins on the board.
  • I manage expectations, both my own and of those around me. I try to be ambitious but realistic with what I expect to get done in 90 minutes. I stay focused and let that positive deadline pressure keep me on task, away from goose chases and rabbit holes. I don’t respond to texts (my friends know if I don’t respond quickly, it’s nothing personal; I’m in the midst). If I’m working from home, I let the wife and kids know I’m going “on air.”
  • I can’t emphasize enough the power of unplugging during your productive time. I used to think I was above this advice. I thought it silly that I had to turn off notifications or turn off wifi to get work done. “I’m not a child, I can do better than that.” Nieveté. It’s just too easy. We are curious and social creatures by nature, and that buzz on the phone or ding on the laptop are immediate distractions, no matter how subtle the sound. Seeing the difference in my productivity (and stress), I now spend far more time ‘unplugged’ than plugged-in.
  • I used to fight ‘scheduling’ with a fervent passion. I righteously protected my free spirit, my creativity, my spontaneity, my muse. “I’m a creative so that I don’t have to adhere to a schedule!” I look back now, amazed and disappointed at how little creating I did with all that precious freedom. I didn’t understand how the human brain thrives; not on unlimited freedom, but on focus. Decision fatigue exhausts our brains, and our willpower. Happening upon a free moment then waiting for the muse to inspire is a beautiful idea, an addiction I indulged for years. Slowly, baby step by baby step, I learned and tested and experienced a better way. Purposeful preparation (scheduling, kaizen, focus, and next steps / baby steps) has empowered me to get work done instead of stacking up excuses.
  • Google Calendar is the killer app in my productivity toolbox. Beyond simple scheduling, it enables me to systematize my productivity. Weekly reviews Sunday nights; morning routines; evening routines; work days and play days. I schedule time blocks, and what Next Actions I’ll take in them. My calendar is my roadmap: it shows the path I’m taking to climb the mountain of success. How powerful it is to start each week, and each day, seeing exactly how awesome and productive I’m going to be.

Do This, Not That

“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.” – Stephen King

When I started practicing Time Blocking:

  • I stopped leaving my progress to chance and whim, and I started claiming agency over my time and life (the major theme of this entire productivity series).
  • I stopped dipping in and out of my most important, creative work at the mercy of my mood, and I started getting more done in less time.
  • I stopped giving myself excuse after excuse for all the things I didn’t get done, and I started scheduling my work and holding myself acccountable to my goals and dreams.
  • I stopped pretending that chaos enables creative freedom, and started recognizing and taking advantage of the patterns, rhythms, and candences of my mind and creativity.
  • I stopped being overwhelmed by the enormity of the ‘ugly frogs’ on my to-do list, and started actually executing the projects I knew would move the needle with my art, business and life.
  • I stopped beating myself up and feeling bad about everything I never got done, and started feeling good about doing hard work that showed tangible progress worth celebrating – over and over again.

Chase Jarvis has us all dead to rights:

“Busy” isn’t success. Busy is a lack of priority.

Time blocking makes productivity structural. Do you brush your teeth every morning and night? Do you make it to work five days a week with regularity? Structure, built from habit, makes these important choices easy. Time blocking provides the structure upon which you can build the habits of success, of getting important work done on your art, business, and dreams.

Think it’ll kill your creative muse?

Test it for 30 days.

Every Sunday night, go through your calendar for the coming week and schedule 90 minute blocks of productivity where you can. Pull over from your to-do list what you want to get done within those blocks.

Test time blocking for a month, and then reevaluate:

  • Are you getting more important work done?
  • Do you feel more or less creative?
  • What wins have you put on the board because of this practice?

The muse will come. Give him or her the space they need to thrive.

“He who every morning plans the transactions of that day and follows that plan carries a thread that will guide him through the labyrinth of the most busy life.” ― Victor Hugo

This is Part 7 of my series: 9 practices to increase your productivity as a professional photographer

Read more here:

1. Essentialism
2. Evening Routine
3. Morning Routine
4. Mindfulness
5. Five Minutes
6. Kaizen
7. Time Blocking
8. What Gets Scheduled Gets Done
9. Imperfect Action

Like this series? Subscribe at the top-right of any page of this site to get all of my best stories and ideas in your Inbox.

Next Steps

  • STEP ONE:Take the first step. Block 90 minutes on your calendar, and commit to it. If you don’t know what to do with that time, don’t worry about it – just block the time for now. Baby steps. Just blocking 90 minutes on your calendar of solid, unterrupted, uninterruptable (turn off those notifications, and manage expectations) time to focus on your art and business is going to be a revelation for you.
  • BRAINSTORM SESSION: We all dream of having time. Time to do work we love, time to focus on our passions, time to breathe and enjoy margin in our lives. If a genie popped out of a bottle and gifted you with five blocks of 90 minutes a week for the rest of your life… What would you do with those 90 minutes? The only rules: 1) You have to take tangible actions toward your goals and dreams in those blocks of time, 2) You have to plan those actions in baby steps of no more than 15-20 minutes, and 3) You have to unplug and stay on-task. Make a list of what you’d get done with those first five 90-minute blocks this week, down to the baby steps you’d take during each. File this away in your Brainstorms folder (after scheduling those first five time blocks on your calendar!).
  • SUBSCRIBE TODAY: It’s my calling to help you earn your first $5,000 to $50,000 as a part time professional photographer. Don’t miss out on my best stories and ideas: subscribe to my e-mail newsletter today at the top-right of any page of this site.
  • DO THIS NOW: What’s the biggest challenge holding you back today? E-mail me your answer (yes, right now!), and let’s make a breakthrough.

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