When I tell people I break my day into 3 three hour blocks of work or study they typically look at me like I'm insane and that it isn't possible to stay focused and productive for that long without getting distracted or being inefficient. I've been blocking out my diary into 3-hour blocks for a long time to help me stay productive and efficient so let's look at why and how I time block.
Why I Use 3 Hour Time Blocks
Whether I'm working on a project, writing a blog article or studying for an exam I'm lazer focused on achieving a goal. This might be to do a set number of practise questions, complete a blog post or whatever, but as I have a purpose and am very goal-oriented I'm always motivated to get the task done as efficiently as possible. This is because from years of studying and working as a surgeon and entrepreneur I know that hitting goals gives me a sense of achievement and missing goals or putting things off makes me feel bad. I also know that even if I'm a bit tired and don't want to get started at studying once I get into that flow state I don't want to leave it. Getting started and sitting down to work or study is often the hardest part and I know that once I've overcome this initial hurdle I don't want to get distracted and I want to get things done. So to minimize procrastination rather than taking breaks where getting up from my desk might result in me having to then get back into that flow state I work in blocks of three-hours straight. Why three hours? Well for me this focus time has been built up over the years and allows me to split my day into blocks of time I can block out in my diary. If I'm doing any kind of deep work or studying for an exam I'll usually get up and get to my desk at 7am. I'll then get down to work and work from 7-10am then 12-3pm then 4-7pm. This way I only need to get into that flow state three times and to be honest those second and third times are much easier as I want to get back to work and get things finished. While I used to use the pomodoro method I actually found that the frequency of breaks inevitably meant that I'd spend longer than 5-minutes chilling out and then find it difficult to get back into that studying zone. Just check out some of my study with me videos where I'm so focused and in the zone that I forget to turn over the hour-glass timer to signal the pomodoro breaks for folks who do study that way.
3-hour blocks also work really when I don't have a full day to work and study. If I need to do something like a talk, team meeting or podcast or something in the afternoon I know that I've got a solid three hours done in the morning. Equally this schedule means that I'm done working by 7pm and I can socialise, relax and get into my sleep wind-down routine to ensure I get enough rest, that what I've been working on or learning consolidates while I sleep and so I'm fresh for the following morning. Having three block also allows me to get in exercise, lunch and have two solid breaks to ensure I'm not burning myself out across a week or month of deep work.
So why blocks of time? Well time-blocking is a well-known productivity hack discussed at length by Cal Newport in his book Deep Work and it's also used by Elon Musk. I'll show you later in the video just how I time block out my work and study sessions but for me the why is because it allows me to set boundaries and protected time when I'll be working, when my phone and notifications are off and I'll let my team or anyone trying to get hold of me know that I shouldn't be disturbed so I can be productive and get things done. Time blocking is also awesome as it uses Parkinson's Law to give you artificial deadlines to complete your goals in and you can track how many hours you'll be working each week.
Now all this being said this is just the method that works best for me on a normal day and sometimes I might work or study for say four hours if I'm really in a flow state or just do two hours if I'm tight for time and you can play with the time length yourself but I'd highly recommend blocking out the time so that you have a set time to be sat down at your desk working where notifications and distractions are minimised and you can be as productive and focused on working as possible.
How I Use 3 Hour Time Blocks
In this section I'm going to focus on a few key things that I do that keep me focused to explain how I use 3 hour time blocks to productively study or work uninterrupted. I'm going to break this part of the video down into 4 key steps which you can adopt right now to keep you focused and productive when studying.
1. Time Block Your Calendar or Diary
Tip number one is to plan out your study sessions and add them to your calendar or diary. I use Apple iCal but you could use google calendar or any calendar tool or diary planner. I will block out periods of time at the same time each day usually at the start of the week. This helps to build a habit as I know what time I need to start and I know that I'll aim to finish around 7pm in the evening and then I have some chill time. I'll then usually go a step further and I will plan out what I am going to work on or study the night before and I'll put this down in my diary or in iCal. This means that when I wake up the following day I immediately know what I'm working on or studying and I know what time I'll be starting. This also holds me accountable. I chose 7am to start as I find that getting straight up out of bed and heading to my desk reduces any procrastination. In the past I have also mixed things up and gone to the gym or for a walk before heading to my desk and you should definitely play with time blocks to find out what works best for you.
2. Be A Minimalist
Tip number two is to focus on only one task when you are working or studying. If you try to do too much or you are worried about not having enough time to get all the studying or work done in your time blocks you'll likely get a bit anxious and this can be distracting and lead you to lose focus. If you are studying set yourself a realistic goal such as doing a certain number of active recall questions in a time block or if you are writing something like a blog set a word goal that is achievable. Goals shouldn't stress you out and the work shouldn't feel overwhelming. If it does ask yourself whether you are prioritising properly and if you are studying try focusing on the high yield or hardest topics first. Equally keep your desk set-up minimalist and tidy so that when you sit down you can open your laptop or switch on your computer and immediately get to it. I will typically have a very tidy desk set out the night before just like in my study with me videos and then when I open my laptop I'll sit down and get to it going directly to the study materials or word document that I'm working on.
3. Employ Self Care To Reduce Distractions
Tip number three is to not give yourself a reason to get up and move away from your desk. Before I start work at 7:00 a.m I've already made myself a green tea, grabbed some porridge and some snacks for the first time block and everything is tidy from the night before. I'll then put on some lo-fi music to make the environment as relaxing and chilled as possible as there is evidence that lo-fi and classical music helps reduce anxiety and keeps you focused when you are trying to get work done. If I'm away from my office I'll put on some noise cancelling headphones so that I can get into a flow state as quickly as possible.
Keeping hydrated is really important when studying and so I'll always have a water bottle filled and next to my desk. All of these things are to reduce distractions. If I'm suddenly feeling thirsty or hungry the temptation is to go to the kitchen and then maybe I'll check my phone or chat to someone or just get distracted. If I have the basics next to my desk and close to hand the chance of needing to move are way smaller. Another self-care tip that isn't often mentioned is making sure that you have a comfy chair and that your chair and desk and computer are set to the correct height. If you are slumped or sat in an uncomfortable position you can develop back or neck pain or crap and while this won't kill you it will distract you and isn't healthy in the long term so make sure you are comfy in general wherever you are studying from which also applies to the temperature for anyone who has ever worked or studied in either a very warm or very cold library it can make things pretty inhospitable.
Sleep and exercise are also vital. As mentioned sleep is when our memories consolidate and poor sleep can lead to poor concentration and loss of focus despite your best efforts. That's why for me I'll always try to switch off my racing mind and stop working at 7pm and then chill to ensure I get a good nights sleep. For me hitting the gym and practising mindfulness during my extended break sessions are the two most important things that keep me focused and stress free. I'll typically hit the gym around 10am and will get in a mindfulness session either in the afternoon or at the end of the day to keep me sharp and energised.
4. Turn Off Notifications and Focus
Tip number four for staying focused is pretty obvious but is always worth mentioning and that is to switch off your notifications on literally everything. Apple's Focus allows you to customise do not disturb mode across all your Apple devices and is a great way to automate when you want to take calls and when you need to fully concentrate. Alternatively just ditch your phone or try some apps like Forest that reward you for focused periods of work. Notifications are everywhere and I'll make sure that slack, email, chrome, instagram and even my door bell system are all muted during time blocked periods of deep work. If like me and you get slightly anxious about not immediately replying to an email set 1-2 times during the day outside of your time blocking when you will check your emails and most importantly stay away from social media unless you're literally watching this video or my TikTok or Instagram to learn about how to learn and be productive in which case we'll let it slide :)
5. Reflect and Rewards
Tip number 5 is to build up the time you study and work for by just acknowledging if you do get distracted, don't panic and then get back to work. Like mindfulness no-one is perfect and your mind might wander or you might get distracted despite your best efforts. If you do focus on overcoming that initial hurdle of getting started and try and get back into a flow state. You can also reflect at the end of the day or the end of a time block and note down whether you got distracted and whether you were struggling to focus for the whole period of time. You can then play around with the times and breaks to find what works best for you. I usually make my time blocks a game and challenge myself to get as much work done in the three hour blocks as possible against the goals I've set myself. Importantly whether I have hit those goals or not I'll reward myself just for showing up and getting into that flow state. My rewards as mentioned are usually going to the gym or grabbing food with friends or a quick Pokemon or Zelda session but do whatever you enjoy doing to reward yourself at the end of the time blocks.
6. BONUS TIP: Tweak Your Mindset
A quick bonus sixth tip for those of you who are uber productivity and study gurus. If you are already time blocking or maybe you are deep into a revision period and you feel like you might be burning out or are just fed up with a prolonged run of work I tend to start each day with a quick check in to see how I'm feeling and to reset my mind and remind myself why I am working or studying. Having a greater purpose will help keep you stay motivated even when it gets tough and whether that motivation is just to pass an exam remember that you are sitting that exam to go on to bigger and better things such as being a doctor or nurse. Switching up your mindset from I have to do this work or I need to revise to "I get to study" or "I'm excited to work on this project" gets you into a positive, winning mindset. I will even force myself to do this even if I don't fully believe it and I'm super tired as it gets me back on track and helps me hit those goals and stay productive and lazer focused and enables me to work or study for three hours straight without breaks.