Creating a Focus Budget

Around a year ago I started to block off time on my calendar to do deep work. At first this was merely a shield preventing colleagues from claiming my time. Over the following months, I found that knowing the amount of time dedicated to focus gave me clarity for daily decisions. Do I really have enough bandwidth to say “yes” to this new project or this status meeting? If I take it on, what will I lose? Can I get back with you today?

Looks like I have lots of time, doesn’t it? It’s deceptive.

Today, I think of this practice as a Focus Budget. Just like a zero-based financial budget, I have a limited resource to invest. I can change my mind and reallocate the resource, but as the clock ticks the time slips away. Being honest with how little focus time I have helps me be a good steward.

I have been trying this iteration of my Focus Budget system for about three months, and I really like it. It helps me juggle my manager/maker schedule by focusing first on what is essential.

On a week by week basis, I identify and commit to three Goals.1 These are the essential tasks that Move the Needle.

Armed with the Essential Three I create my Focus Budget. While filling the gaps in my calendar with focus time, I leave room for lunches and breaks. I use colors to make it easier to see what days are loaded with meetings, and which have hours of precious, uninterrupted focus.

Creating the Focus Budget. Green blocks for good focus, purple for margin/shallow tasks. I do not allow myself to look at Slack or email during Green focus time.

Looking at the essential tasks for the week and the newly made Focus Budget, I estimate how much I’ll be able to accomplish. If I don’t have enough dedicated time I consider dropping commitments that don’t align with the three essential projects. If I am still behind, I consider which of the three can be delegated or dropped for this week. At the beginning of the week there is usually adequate time to make significant progress on all three… if I can protect it.

Giving Every Minute a Job.

I assign the focus blocks a task or project by renaming them, forming a rough plan for the week. I leave margin in the Focus Budget to accommodate last minute interruptions or tasks that I underestimated. This Monday morning commitment to the Essential is crucial to helping me move the needle.

On each morning, I scan the agenda, adjust the plan for that day, and fill the rest of the time by pulling prioritized tasks from my task manager. Because I’ve already budgeted some time to “move the needle”, I can more accurately take on a reasonable workload. I find I finish more and “carry” less unfinished tasks to the next day with this system. As priorities and meetings change, I am constantly reshuffling blocks… sometimes moving work forward to make a deadline, but always realizing that the time has to come from somewhere.

Staying accountable with emojis! 💚

In the afternoon as part of my review ritual, I look back over the time blocks and ask myself if I was intentional and honest with the time. Working from memory and time-tracking data, I mark any wasted time blocks with an emoji. Blocks wasted entirely by distraction get an ❌. Focus blocks invaded by the previous task or meeting get a ⏬. I’ll often put in the notes of the focus block what happened, for my weekly review.

Especially on weeks with a tight schedule, the Focus Budget helps me say no to that which is not Essential. If it’s not part of the three most important things I need to do this week, why am I investing my time in it?

By being visually accountable with the emoji, I can see at a glance the cost of succumbing to the distractions of my phone or “just checking” slack or email. I often only get only ten or less focus hours a week… I can not afford to waste one. I want to be a good steward of my time, and this little system has helped.

This pattern did not spring fully formed from my personal headaches… it borrows heavily from several wiser folk whom I need to credit: the planning out of the day in blocks owes much to David Sparks’ Hyper Scheduling. The idea of tracking how you intended to spend your day (in blocks) compared to how you spent it looks a lot like things I’ve heard Matt Ragland say. Planning in shallow time to relax and unwind comes from Cal Newport’s Deep Work. Planning out your day in bursts of focus and margin is the Pomodoro Technique.

I’d love to hear what you do to protect the big rocks and pursue the most important tasks in your day, reply on the twitter thread if you have input!


  1. I described more about my system for keeping accountable to the essential in my recent post on my bullet journal spread


Changelog
  • 2020-05-10 14:53:17 -0500

    Fix typos... thank you Dad for proofreading!

  • 2020-05-09 17:42:19 -0500

    Add twitter link

  • 2020-05-09 17:35:25 -0500

    New post: Creating a focus budget