Mastering the Art of Planning
There’s an old saying that goes something like this: In order to master your life, you must master your week. In order to master your week, you must first master your day.
It sounds a bit like something Yoda would say, I’ll give you that, but these are words to live by. If you’re going to put effort into the process of capturing and organizing all of those tasks, then this final step is where it all comes together.
It can’t be stressed enough: planning your day means planning to succeed.
So what does that look like? If you’ve ever wanted to tweak and adjust your day to squeeze the maximum amount of productivity out of it, then this is your lucky day. Pull up a chair, because I’m about to break down my time management system for you. And it all starts with blocks.
Think of everything that happens between waking up and going to sleep as a block. I tend to view my day in 30-minute blocks, but you can cut up your time into whatever makes sense to you. Some of my tasks only take 30 minutes, while others need an hour or longer. You just need to keep it built around a consistent increment of time, that’s all.
It is safe to say, though, that you can take your work day and chop it up into time slots hour by hour: there is an 8:00 AM slot, a 9:00 AM slot, a 10:00 AM slot, etc. You might give one slot two separate tasks (so, 30 minutes each), but everything is still in blocks.
There are also different kinds of blocks. Some are inflexible and immovable, while others are fluid and pliable. For instance, because I work from home, I have the luxury of eating lunch with my family each day. This means that my lunch happens every day from 12:00 PM to 1:00 PM, and that’s not negotiable (my wife works out at CrossFit and can deadliest nearly 200 pounds, so I do what she says). Lunch is one of those inflexible blocks of time.
Other examples would be meetings or phone conferences. If I have a meeting scheduled with a client for Thursday, I will add that as a task to my master list. Why add meetings to my task list? Well, when I’m doing that math to see if I can fit another 1-hour task into a particular day’s schedule, if I forget that I have a meeting that day, I am more liable to overbook my day. So, meetings become tasks in the sense that they take up room on my schedule. Oh, and a meeting would look something like this, by the way:
“60min – MEETING: John Smith @ 2:00 PM”
Other items from my master list are more flexible, though. I can place client work anywhere on my schedule as long as it doesn’t overlap with inflexible items. If I have a 60-minute task, I just need to a day with an hour of free time and put it in there. It’s as easy as that.
My only caveat is that it might be good to observe what kinds of tasks you seem better at during different times of the day. I’ve noticed that I have a much higher success rate of completing logo design work before lunch than I do afterward. Maybe it’s the coffee I have at breakfast or the after-lunch drowsiness that often sneaks up on me. Whatever the reason, I’ve learned to plan accordingly. Hack your body’s rhythm and you’ll thank me.
Know Your Abilities & Limits
Speaking of knowing how your brain works, planning ahead and building a tight, efficient schedule for each day requires having a solid grasp on your skills and abilities. The more times you perform a specific service for your clients, the better idea you have about how long it should take you. The true test, though, is learning to guess at how long something will take when you’ve never done it before. Sometimes you feel it in your gut. Sometimes you just have to guess and make adjustments down the road.
You probably noticed that I build this element into the capture process whenever a new task pops up. When I write down what it is that I need to accomplish, I always begin the task text with a guess at the time involved. Maybe it’s 15 minutes, or 30, or even an hour; whatever the length of time will be, I make sure I’ve written it down when I capture it. This way, when I sit down to map out my day, I can use those lengths of time to help me build a realistic schedule.
One of the biggest places people unknowingly inject friction into their planning process is by biting off more than they can chew. Then they choke and sputter and go to bed way too late and way too stressed. Can you guess whose fault that is? Here’s a hint: it’s not the list’s fault.
When you put too much weight into your backpack and head off for a hike, you’ve just set yourself up for failure. Treat your daily schedule with the same respect you would your body. Don’t overload it, and don’t create a mountain that’s too difficult to climb. Schedule for success, not your frustration.
I’ve learned that between 8:00 AM and 4:00 PM, I have about six hours that I can devote to client work. I would be an idiot if I tried to complete eight 1-hour tasks in one day. That’s a recipe for disappointment.
Nothing is worse than ending your day with unfinished items on your list. Rookies think it’s because they didn’t work hard enough, but in reality it’s because they didn’t plan hard enough. Overbooking yourself is the fastest way to frustration and disappointment. Know your limits and plan accordingly.
Plan for the Non-Project Stuff
I also leave the last 30-minute block of time on each day’s schedule open and unfilled. A work day might officially end at 5:00 PM, but I only ever map out the day through 4:30 PM. Why?
Because something will come up. It always does.
There’s bound to be a last-minute project thrown at me, or an emergency fix that needs to be taken care of. I have a ton of long-time clients who look to me for support. They know I care about their businesses, and that I help out whenever I can. Sometimes there are emergencies (some are actual emergencies, and some are only emergencies in the mind of the client, but I treat them all the same).
Giving my schedule this breathing room allows me to stay on task and meet my expectations for the day, while also allowing me to occasionally be a hero for those clients needing an emergency fix. That gives me one more opportunity to exceed expectations.
If nothing happens and that buffer is unused, it’s not wasted time. I just glance at my list for the next day and start knocking out small tasks from that list until 5:00 PM arrives. Or, I quit early and spend more time with my family. Call it breathing room or slack or Plan B; whatever you call it, that freedom needs to be built into your schedule in order to prevent frustration from creeping in.
Putting Pen to Paper
You might use one particular computer program or another to organize your tasks each day, but when it comes to mapping them out and building a schedule, I always recommend that you do that on paper. I use a notebook that offers up the least amount of structure necessary while still providing enough guidance to aid my personal system (ugh, another sales plug: I use notepads of my own design).
With pen in hand, I literally copy my to-do items for that day from the screen onto the page, working them into the best order and flow. Having them already annotated with time-based contexts helps this go more smoothly. And if there are too many items on the list to fit into the day’s schedule, then I pick the lowest priority items and shift them to the next day in my master list.
Oh, and here’s another difficult pill to swallow: I do all of this the night before, not the morning of. I don’t know about you, but my mornings are crazy. A bunch of new email arrived overnight, my kids want attention and I have coffee to make and drink. I don’t want to start my day needing to find time to plan.
Instead, I do the hard work in the evening, when I still have the mental energy to do it well. I do it every evening, Sunday through Thursday, each and every week. When I get to my desk in the morning, I simply open my notebook and start on the list. It helps me find my daily purpose as quickly as possible.
Added benefit: I go to bed each night fully aware of what needs done and when, so that I don’t waste time the next morning making a decision about where to start. I made that decision the night before; now I just need to put it to action.
You’ve got to trust your system. Emergencies might crop up between building the list and the next morning, but that’s what the buffer time is for. Just plan your day the night before, and then work off that schedule each day.
Mastering the art of planning each day will help you maximize what you can get done. Whatever your own capture and collection system looks like, planning ahead can make all the difference in the world.