When you wake up in the morning, what do you want from a well-planned day?
Speaking for myself, I want a road map that I could walk with my eyes half-closed. Having a clear plan that diminishes my need to make decisions in the moment — especially before I’ve had my first cup of coffee — leaves more creative capacity for the workday ahead.
Planning day-of versus in advance
Depending on your planning style, you may enjoy planning a few days (even a week or more) out in advance. But, sometimes I find myself at my desk on Monday morning without a plan at all. Regardless of your planning style, this how-to guide can be applied at any time and to any amount of days to help you reduce decision making and confusion, organize your project trajectories and one-off tasks, and get more done with less stress every single day.
Leaving room for life
Before we dive into the step-by-step process, let me impress upon you the importance of leaving room for life. Typically, when our schedule is derailed, it’s because of something fairly insignificant or a small impact of time that shifts an otherwise beautifully balanced plan. That could be a random installment of construction on a major road, your phone dying while on a conference call, or your boss needing something last-minute that throws off another project timeline.
Built into these steps are tips for leaving room for life and how doing so will create more time for productivity overall.
Step 1: Outline your time commitments
Give yourself time not only to complete these commitments, but to prepare for them, arrive fresh and focused, and "complete" them. Completing may be writing a list of follow-ups or next steps. You may need to immediately speak to another person or complete an additional action. Anticipate the requirements of fully completing these commitments so they don’t leave crumbs over the rest of your day.
Step 2: Calculate how much time you have left and keep that number handy
If you’re doing this inside of your Ink+Volt planner or in a notebook, write the remaining time number and circle it for reference. On some days, you’ll realize that you’ve scheduled enough meetings to stamp out any available project time. And on other days, you may find yourself with a bit of excess left for personal projects. By getting a birds’ eye view of how much time you actually have, a bit of creative math can ensure you’re making the most of each day.
Step 3: Outline your top 3 priorities for the day
Instead of tasks, consider these as milestones to be accomplished. Some may only require one activity, others may be a series of steps or actions that result in the completion of a project or task. Regardless, declare the three things that — if these are complete — you have won the day. These priorities are the guidelines of what the rest of your day will be made of, so choose priorities that are rooted in your values, your big goals, and in your committed responsibilities.
Step 4: List the tasks that you need to complete in order to accomplish your priorities. Include their time constraints as part of their ‘line item’
You may realize that you have a bit more on your plate than you can actually complete. And, that’s totally okay. Better to know now than to continue completing your days wondering, “What did I actually complete?” and complaining, “There just isn’t enough time in the day.” Knowing how much time each task will take empowers you to fit them in where you can, move your schedule as needed to make space, and to prioritize the tasks that will help you complete your priorities.
Step 5: Build your calendar in-between your protected times
Protected times are: waking up and completing your morning routine, preparing and eating meals, traveling from place-to-place, dinner with your family, bedtime. These are times that are not infringed upon for the sake of your health (and sanity).
With your time commitments and scheduled appointments built into your calendar, and your protected times outlined, you can pencil-in tasks like filling in the blanks. You can input errands in near appointments in the same neighborhood and compile home tasks during a large stretch of downtime without the need to go anywhere else.
Make sure you don’t skimp on your protected time, and that you give yourself room for life around the start and end of those times. You may hit traffic taking your kids to school. You may need to go to another grocery store for items on your meal plan. By making time, you’re decreasing the stress of rush if something gets in the way of your carefully crafted schedule.
Step 6: List the remaining one-off tasks that are nagging you with their time constraints and deadlines, if applicable
These are those pesky one-off tasks that range in simplicity from updating your billing address on a credit card to renewing your registration at the DMV. It’s returning those shoes that don’t fit to the store or going by the post office to mail your Mother’s Day card. They’re tasks that must be done, but are typically a time-suck as they’re not a facet of your normal rhythm.
How much time do you have in your day to complete any of these tasks? None? Fifteen minutes? Two hours?
As you build your days, you can pencil in these one-off tasks where and when they fit. Building enough days in advance allows you to wrangle an overwhelming task list and see the long-game of its completion.
Keep this list handy, in your planner or on a notepad on your countertop, and update it on a weekly to bi-weekly basis. By planning your days in advance and making time for these one-off tasks, you no longer have to dread the never-ending to-do list. You’ll be an accomplishment machine.
What tools can I use to manage all of this information?
Planning days in advance is a creative process which is why we at Ink+Volt love to plan on paper. We use our Signature Series planner to establish our goals, review our progress, and build our weeks. Then, you can input your time-bound commitments — and even your time-blocked chunks dedicated to tasks and projects — into your Today Organizer Pad.
The Today Organizer features hourly time blocks to manage your schedule, a task checklist to organize your important to-dos, and a "tomorrow" section for future tasks. And of course it's important to stay hydrated while you're being so productive, which is why this pad includes a water intake tracker too.
Another alternative could be to input your commitments, time-blocks, and project due dates into your digital calendar. Using your digital calendar affords you the luxury of reminders, locations and notes attached to events, and a visual representation of your schedule.
Pro tip: Be sure you're actually adding your “protected time” into your calendar so you have a visual representation of how much time you actually have in-between the most important times of the day.
How many days should I build in advance?
This is entirely up to you, but with some practice, you’ll likely find a sweet spot that works with your lifestyle. Start with just one day and see how you like it. Employ the steps on a Sunday and see how your Monday goes. If you like it, build a couple days in advance the next week. For some, just a few days at a time is possible due to an unpredictable schedule or a very strict expectation of performance. For others, planning two weeks — especially when going on a trip, working on a big project, or planning an event — is a huge value-add to the overall experience.
Can I build days non-sequentially? As in, build my Monday and Friday but leave my middays free-wheeling?
Short answer: YES! This is great idea, especially if you have a wacky schedule or if some of your days are distinctly different than others. If you have school on certain days each week, completely absolving your ability to focus on anything else, plan your non-school days in advance. You can prioritize tasks, housework, homework, and personal time (hello: fun) while knowing exactly how much time you have to invest in each of those categories.
What if I don’t have any committed time constraints?
Even if you don’t have any specific time-bound responsibilities, you still have protected time. When do you sleep, eat, journal, bathe, or practice your hobbies? Do you work out, walk your dog, or have a favorite show you don’t want to miss? These bits of protected time are the reasons why we work so hard… so give yourself space to enjoy them. You may find that implementing a more time-bound structure into the completion of tasks and pursuit of goals helps you maximize your capacity and accomplish more than you ever dreamed.
Start small with this step-by-step process of planning your days in advance. Try one day, then a couple, and find your rhythm. Then, reap the benefits of a fully written road map ready for you to accomplish.