Time blocking for ADHD'ers

Time blocking is a time management technique that makes our tasks and our time visible. Here’s why it can be so helpful for those with ADHD and how to implement it.

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Mar 23, 2021

Tiimo member

March 23, 2021
Maaya Hitomi
Maaya is an ADHD coach with a Master's in Psychology. They are the voice behind @StructuredSuccess

Most people with ADHD struggle with some aspect of time management—which includes planning, prioritizing, and estimating the length of tasks. It is the primary reason my clients cite for seeking an ADHD coach in the first place, and these struggles with time management can have some of the most devastating impacts on our career and professional relationships. While no one tool or technique can completely fix our relationship with time, the technique that I’ve personally found the most helpful for supporting the struggles with time management I experience due to my ADHD is time blocking.

What is time blocking?

Time blocking is a time management technique that makes our tasks and our time visible by scheduling upcoming tasks into specific blocks of time and placing those in our calendar. Most of these blocks can be moved to fit our changing energy levels, need for stimulation, and struggles with executive function. The way time blocking makes tasks and time visible, as well as the flexibility that comes from moving the blocks as needed, is what makes the technique such a powerful tool for people with ADHD.

More than that however, time blocking can also support other struggles common to the ADHD experience, including decision paralysis, our troubles transitioning between tasks, and our struggles getting started. In particular, time blocking can:

  • Stop us from overbooking ourselves. Planning specific blocks of time for specific tasks makes how much time we actually have visible to us. Seeing our calendar full of tasks already serves as an added barrier to taking on more. This empowers you to set and maintain boundaries or, as René Brooks might say, Guard your yes.
  • Reduce decision fatigue. Decisions are hard. In particular, deciding what we want or need to do next can feel next to impossible. Having a plan (or at least a default) reduces decision fatigue and provides a clear direction for our energy.
  • Reduce the number of transitions. Transitioning from one task to another takes a lot of time and energy for ADHD’ers (and autistic folks). This is especially true if the tasks we’re transitioning between are wildly different. Grouping like tasks and blocking them into our schedule ahead of time reduces the number of times we need to transition.
  • Encourage us to get started. Having a scheduled time to work on a task (and a scheduled end time) provides just a little added encouragement to get the task started in the first place. While this isn’t a cure-all for initiation woes, this slight push can make the difference between stagnation and progress.
  • Teach time estimation skills. ADHD’ers are more likely to struggle to estimate how long tasks take to complete. This is part of larger issues with time agnosia (or time blindness), but time blocking provides a support. It serves as a visible record of how long we expect tasks to take. By comparing these estimations with how long tasks actually took we can learn to be more accurate in our estimates.

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Okay...but how?

Step 1: Brain Dump.

Since time blocking is the practice of assigning an estimated amount of time to upcoming tasks and events and placing them in a calendar, the first step needs to involve knowing what the upcoming tasks and events are! My favourite way to do this is a brain dump, where I write everything swirling around in my head to be sorted later.

Step 2: Schedule the unmovables

Whether it’s a dead.line at work or your next appointment with your therapist, some things have to happen at a specific time; no question about it. Schedule these unmovables first! When you do, include travel and transition time around the event. If you don’t have a good idea of how much travel or transition time you need, a good guideline is doubling or tripling your estimate.

A note for the future: People who frequently time block often set blocks of time for meetings and appointments to reduce transitions further.

Step 3: Add blocks based on priority.

Using the brain dump (or to-do list) as a guide, assign time for the highest priority tasks. If you’re anything like me, you’re likely to underestimate how long tasks will take, so schedule more time than you think you’ll need… and more time again to transition between this task and the next. Don’t be afraid to schedule these right into the calendar. After all, they can be moved; that’s the point!

Step 4: Group similar tasks.

Struggles with task initiation (and autistic inertia) feed off transitions between tasks. The more we start and stop, the more energy we spend just transitioning between tasks and the harder the tasks seem. Grouping similar tasks together (for example, social tasks with social tasks, or writing tasks with writing tasks) can help us conserve momentum and make tasks easier to start, work on, and finish!



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Common mistakes to avoid

Mistake #1: Making your schedule a prison.

One of the most frequent concerns about time blocking is how rigid the system can seem. Time blocking seems especially rigid if you are used to using your calendar primarily for appointments or other mandatory events. If this sounds like you, time blocking is as much about changing your relationship with calendars as it is about pre-planning your tasks for the next day (or week) into specific blocks of time.

Instead of seeing scheduled blocks as an obligation or commitment, try viewing the blocks as your default decision. If you’re compelled to change tasks, whether by distraction, struggles with getting started, or seeking novelty, you are free to move the blocks to adapt your schedule to your needs. However, unless the associated tasks have been completed (or delegated), the blocks usually can’t be removed in their entirety. This makes the consequences of changing our schedule visible, and this prevents us from procrastinating ourselves into a crisis bigger than we can handle.

Mistake #2: Expecting your future self to be superhuman.

For whatever reason, there is a tendency to imagine that our future selves are superhuman. They can get things done faster than us; they never get tired or need breaks; and they never have any trouble getting started. That will never be true, and it changes the way that we need to block our time.

First, we need to accept that we’re probably going to underestimate how long tasks are going to take us, and multiply our time estimation by a factor of 2, 3, or sometimes 4 times . Over time, the size of this multiplier may reduce as we learn how to make better estimates, but as this struggle with time estimation is a major part of the time agnosia (also known as time blindness) experienced by people with ADHD, it may never go away entirely.

Second, we need to accept that we will always need extra time to transition between one task and the next, and schedule this transition time right into our schedule. While the amount of transition time varies between people and between tasks, a guideline for scheduling transition time is to include 5 minutes of transition time for every 30 minutes of the previous task.

Mistake #3: Only using time blocking.

No matter what anybody says, there’s no solution to the struggles of ADHD that works for everyone, all the time, in all contexts. While time blocking helps me get started on my tasks and helps me avoid overscheduling myself, my ability to procrastinate still knows no bounds and hyperfocus listens to no calendar.

Time blocking alone isn’t going to completely fix your relationship with time, and it can’t be expected to. Combining time blocking with other techniques aimed at other aspects of time management ADHD’ers struggle with, such as the pomodoro technique, timers, or alarms, can help.

Maaya Hitomi is the voice behind Structured Success. Connect with them & get in the conversation on Time Blocking on Twitter!

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