I have been (unsuccessfully) trying to use the Time Blocking technique endorsed by Cal Newport.

Time Blocking is a work productivity technique that involves slicing your day into blocks. These blocks prioritize your most important work for the day. Each block involves deep focus and is basically treated like a meeting for your self.

I love the spirit of this idea but I have found that the execution has been tricky.

Where I stumbled

Initially I turned to a template that I could generate each day in Notion. It was a simple table of 1 hour blocks that looked a little something like this.

Block Task
9 - 10 scope project
10 - 11 scope project continued
11 - 12 review bug list
12 - 1 lunch
1 - 2 deep work on project
2 - 3 deep work on project continued
3 - 4 meetings
4 - 5 email and shutdown

This was fine for a while. Each day I would generate a new template and pencil in my priorities. Unlike a todo list this chart allowed me to think about my priorities through the constraint of time.

In reality it’s easy to lose track of this list during the day. My most common pitfall was getting absorbed in the task and not finishing within the time box. It started to feel even more stressful when I couldn’t keep up with my own schedule.

My next step was to do the same thing in my calendar. This was a little more fluid. I could schedule blocks of varying sizes around meetings. I also received alerts letting me know when I entered a new time block. Unfortunately I couldn’t get an alert telling me when a meeting ends (why is this not a thing?).

How a $39 watch helped me figure it out

In the end the answer to time boxing came from an unexpected vintage piece of digital hardware. The casio digital watch.

In particular I started out with the DW-290. This watch is a 90s throwback made famous in the film Mission Impossible.

Unlike modern smart watches this watch has minimal features. The DW-290 has a single alarm, a countdown timer, an hourly beep and a stop watch. Probably the best feature of all is the lack of connectivity to the internet. There are no notifications or distractions with this watch. Just useful tools that help me to stay focused and on task.

Casio DW-290 Watch

I still make a list of priorities for the day in my calendar. But now I don’t rely on notifications from my calendar. Instead I begin a bock by setting the alarm for the time that the block ends. I also have the hourly beep sound enabled so that I know where I am in the day. Think of this beep as a mileage marker for the day. It’s helpful to know when I am at the top of the hour.

Other times I like to use the countdown timer to block time. It’s helpful to occasionally glance at the countdown timer and know how much time I have left on a task. It’s also incredibly easy to set the timer and this is often my default over using the alarm.

Some work I do requires small chunks of repetitive time boxing. When I review a bug list or need to get caught up on Basecamp messages I like to spend no more than 10 minutes on each item. For these tasks I will set my timer to 10 minutes with the auto repeat function enabled.

Finally, there are times when I want to estimate the time it will take me to complete some work (if that’s possible). If the work consists of some repeatable tasks (like a refactor) then I will reach for the stop watch function. I can set the stop watch to see how long it takes for me to complete a single task. I might even do a few and average the times. This gives me a good approximation of the total time it will take me to complete a project of repeated tasks.

There are no shortage of uses for this watch. The Casio DW-290 has no opinions that get in the way.