How Much Should You Plan Your Day?

Let’s go, today’s a new day. You have lot’s of things to do, like always…

How much should you plan your day to make sure you get it all done, while also making sure you don’t get suffocated by the plan?

If you plan too much, the structure of the day’s plan feels suffocating. The tension that builds as you get to the end of one block of scheduled time gets really intense and you experience the day as waves of intense peaks and valleys as a result.

If you don’t do at least some planning, stress starts to build as you constantly fight back the fear that you may not get all the things done that you need, or actually maybe want or maybe think you need, to get done today.

As a result of the latter, you start constantly rolling the checklist through you mind, even though you might even write it out each morning, to get it out of your head. A rolling current of thought begins to run through your mind comparing what you think needs to get done against how much time is left in the day.

Up until recently, I came up with a very structured plan for each day to battle this conflict internal, that seemed to work for a while. The plan was a dialed-back version of a super-structured plan for each day that I initially used that, over time, proved to become crushing in its structure.

However, one way that putting the super-structure in place did help was that by setting the super-structure of the day, I was able to silence the running current of thought that flowed through my mind each evening and kept going the next morning, about what the upcoming day’s schedule should look like. This current of thought would run through my mind, under, through, above and in-between everything else I was doing, until I entered a schedule into my calendar app on my Macbook. At least setting the consistent super-structure for the day muted this thinking, since I knew more or less what each day was supposed to look like in advance.

Alright though, that didn’t work, since the super-structure started to feel extremely restrictive and the stress and tension began to build to unhealthy levels as a result of trying to exist within this super-structure. So what now? Try and work through a less structured day. OK, I’ll try that.

The approach of using a less structured day has seemed to work for the past few weeks. Not a bad start. Is it sustainable? I don’t know. Today I found a familiar and unpleasant current of thoughts building again. Am I going to get done everything that I think I need to get done today, without adding explicit, multi-colored blocks of time to the calendar app on my Macbook? At first I didn’t know.

If I don’t add the structure to the calendar, I was afraid I would keep replaying the nagging narrative in the back of my mind, comparing what I’ve gotten done so far against how much time is left in the day? I don’t know that, either. Will I find the balance between the two so that the day is a success from the perspective of not just getting done what I think needs to get done but also from the perspective of getting done what I think needs to get done without unhealthy levels of stress and tension building as a result?

Since I initially wrote this post, I’ve found a system that seems to strike the right balance between structure and flexibility. The key to the system is setting out a limited number of goals each day, writing them down, and focusing on getting that set of goals completed.

To put this system into practice, I recommend creating two lists. The first list can be titled “Work”, for your work/job related responsibilities, and the second “Personal”, for the day-to-day things you need to do to run you life. Each morning, think about the three things in each category that, if you accomplished them that day, you’d feel satisfied that you accomplished what you set out do do that day.

Get to work on one item from one of your lists, hopefully before you even check email or social networks for the first time of the day. Keep coming back to the lists as the pace of the day and its distractions increase and you’ll begin to realize how much the lists, which may have seemed overly simplistic earlier in the day, now help you focus.

Check-off each task when you complete it and when you complete all the tasks in your list, consider the day done. If you complete your lists earlier than you’d normally end your work day and you have the flexibility to do so, resist the temptation to think about what else you can do that day, since you’ve already made the day a success, take a step back, and appreciate the fact that you’re making your life easier and better.