Time blocking/setting & Parkinson's law


Real sense of control over things that need to get done.


In the previous post, I talked about the Todoist tool and how I use it to manage my todos. It’s a pretty powerful tool that comes packed with a diversity of features.

In this article, I want to talk about a different topic, but I will be referring a lot to my todo list. I want to highlight that when I do so in this article, I won’t necessarily be pointing to Todoist, but rather to the concept of a todo list in general.

I will talk about how I find todo lists to be just half of the story to getting things done, and what they lack according to my personal experience and humble opinion. As always, this doesn’t have to apply to everyone, but I’m sharing this in case someone might be interested in this perspective.


One of the beneficial aspects of using a todo list is getting things out of your head so you don’t spend much of your time holding on to them in your short term memory and hence stay distracted from whatever activity you’re supposed to be engaged in at a certain moment.

However, I have found myself to be distracted still even after dumping my head onto a todo list. Originally I’d be distracted by the thought of “what do I need to do?”, but afterwards I’d be distracted by “well, now that I know what to do, when will I do them?”.

This is pretty tricky, because at first I would simply think that scheduling the todos would somewhat solve the issue. I would think, it doesn’t have to be strict scheduling. I could totally label them as “next”, or “this week”, and I’d leave the scheduling for later. The main point was to make the things that I would work on next stand out and be easily retrievable.

Prioritization would also help. I can later visit the short list of prioritized things and work off of it first. Later, I would go to the less priority todos, and so on. This is generally a good heuristic.

But… maybe not for me.


Most of the time, my todo list would contain vague items (to an extent). For example, I would have a todo item that goes like “Rust” (which is a programming langauge that I want to learn more about), or “Blog post: __”, among others.

Over time, these todos are what I started referring to as “daunting” tasks. Things that I’m most likely to put off.

What really annoyed me is that, there could be days where I have plenty of time to start any of these tasks, but I just never do. I just lay in bed instead thinking about when I can finish them. Procrastination would kick in and I’d eventually not get anything done on such days.


One piece of advice that we’ve probably all heard is to “just start”. It’s just stupidly simple, yet seemingly unachievable still.

In all fairness, this advice is pretty solid. If you reflect on the times you “just started”, you will notice that it was really effective. At least in my experience it was. When you set out to do something for a couple of minutes that might generally take hours, you will most likely get the ball rolling and won’t be able to stop, hence eventually spending those hours and getting the thing done. This is also usually referred to as the “flow” state. It’s a glorious feeling.

But in reality, however, I still find some tasks hard to start. Even if I schedule them for certain days, or give them specific priorities. When the time comes, I don’t always find it easy to simply just start and let it flow.

Break it down

Another piece of advice that also works is to break things down into manageable pieces. Most of the time we do this naturally. It’s more often than not obvious what tiny pieces can make up a big task and so we end up tackling the task from that angle. But other times, it’s just not as intuitive. I found that in such cases I always end up over-planning or over-breaking things (if that’s even a word).

Tight on time

I’m sure it’s not just me, but I usually leave things till the very last moment before I finally get them done. When someone asks me why I do that, I just simply blame it on my procrastinating nature. It’s unexplainable. It’s just, I procrastinate.

Parkinson’s Law

Cyril Northcote Parkinson, however, has a great way of putting it:

“work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”

What this entails is that, if you have, for example, an entire day to do something that would take 5 minutes, you will do it in the last 5 minutes of that day. Pretty much what we all do indeed.

This is, in fact, not a bad thing. It’s just a way our brains/bodies save energy. It’s a way to be efficient if that makes sense. It’s actually smart. It’s just the self-sabotaging nature that we all tend to have that speaks when we give ourselves a hard time about putting things off.

I hope that’s not it

But what if I don’t want this default behaviour? I find it harder to tame my self-sabotaging self than to try to be more productive, so I was still up to try more ways.

Time blocking

Not sure if that’s human nature or something we got accustomed to, but I think we have a tendency to stick to schedules.

When we were kids, we had school timetables. In the work life, we have meetings that are scheduled to start and end at certain times. The same can work for personal matters (with a good amount of balance, of course).

If you know how much time something might take, and if you have plenty of time on a certain day, try setting out to do it as early as you can by “blocking” some time in your calendar the day before. When we envision our day to the very fine details of when exactly we will do certain things, a big load is taken off of us. Instead of going through the day actively (and subconsciously) planning, you have it already planned ahead so your focus is much sharper. The less distractions, the better.

…and Time setting?

In my own eyes they’re different but they’re complimentary. Time blocking is the act of allocating the time to do some things. But what about actually the act of deciding how much time something would take? I refer to that as time setting.

What I started doing recently is that I started avoiding as much as I could simply just adding things to my todo list. What I would do instead is to take a couple of seconds to deliberately think and estimate how much time that task would take, and write it down next to it (another tip is to assign a label to it so you can see later all of the tasks for example that you’ve estimated to take 30 minutes, and so on).

I find this exercise to be extremely helpful even if it’s not something that I’m adding to my list and simply something that popped up and that I need to get over with. It’s like setting a time cap for the things you set out to do.


The reason why I find this helpful is because it adds a realistic dimension to my list of things. I talked earlier about how daunting some tasks appear to be, and I figured that it’s most likely because of the vague state they’re in. When I don’t actively estimate how much time something might take me, I tend to default to thinking it would take me infinte time. I’m not joking.

Another thing thing is that it also helps avoid overallocating tasks on a certain day. When you know how much time some tasks would take, and you start blocking time for them, you would easily start seeing if some tasks don’t fit on that day. When you end up deferring such tasks for later, you worry less about postponing because in this case the motive is that you were trying to defy reality, and not procrastinate.


I would look at my list, and say pick the “Rust” task. In a matter of milliseconds, my brain would do what is referred to as “snap judgements”, and imagine what the task would be like given the information that is presented (or in this case, the lack of them thereof).

I would then automatically imagine the process of learning a new language, diving deeper into it, doing some hands-on practice with it, and whatnot. Normally, this would take months, years even. It’s unsurprising that I would find this daunting and put it off until, well, never.

Taking a couple of seconds to put an estimate, on the other hand, would bring the thought process to my conscious brain rather than leaving it to my snappy subconscious. When I deliberately think about how much time this particular task would take, I would naturally start thinking realistically that I would need at least 10-30 minutes in the beginning to look for resources. And that would be enough as a start. This way, It was more easily broken down, and it became easier to start. It’s no longer daunting.

Time setting - cont’d

As I was saying earlier, I try to assign estimates as much as I can. If I add something quickly to my list and don’t happen to have ample time to think about it, I make sure to revisit it that day or later and assign an estimate to it.

The logical order for this then becomes, I first set times for my tasks, and then block times for them in my calendar. This is how both work for me in tandem.

Time as a resource

The way I look at it is that thinking about time as the first-class factor to getting things done makes some good sense.

Time is indeed the resource we pay for doing things. It’s no wonder we say we “spend time”.

I find that when we don’t think about time deliberately, we automtically default to thinking about complexity, which is most likely what makes us hate anything we need to do. Complexity is real, but time will pass by anyway whether you engage in the complex activity or not. Priority, energy levels, and the likes, are also good decisive factors. But they will be rendered unnecessary if you don’t have the time.

Parting thoughts

Creating todo lists gives us a sense of confidence and comfort, but I realized after some time that it’s somewhat a fake feeling. It gives room for complacency to kick in, and managing todos blindly is rather serving procrastination than productivity.

Time setting and blocking give a more realistic sense because they help effectively trade the finite resource we have that is time.

Most importantly, the goal is to have balance. We don’t need to be productive all the time, and we should always make way for relaxing and staring at ceilings. This is only intended for the times when we aren’t prodctive when we really should be, and not for staying busy the entire time.