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Daily Planning: The Simple but Essential Habit

A brand new day is an exciting thing. It’s a blank-slate of 1440 minutes during which you can do so many things. But how do you ensure that your day lives up to those great expectations? I’ve found through deliberate, and not-so-deliberate, trial and error that one key to getting the most out of a day is to plan ahead.[1]

If I take the time to plan out the day, I know, from experience, that it will more often than not be a good one. Barring any unexpected emergencies, past experience tells me that I will accomplish the tasks I set out to do. And a day in which I do the tasks I’ve set for myself is extremely satisfying.

But, if I fail to plan out the day, experience has shown that I will drift from one thing to another. I am anchorless. I find myself reacting to external influences and internal whims. With no expectations for the day, I have no way to measure whether it was good or productive. Without intentionality, I am powerless and at the mercy of circumstance. I myself wondering in the evening: “What the hell did I do? Where did the time go?” This is not a good feeling.

Here are some key approaches to daily planning that I find helpful:

1. Identify and write down your 3 most important tasks or activities

This is simple but easy to overlook, overthink or do completely wrong.

The first key is that you need to limit the number of tasks for the day. A massive to-do list will overwhelm you. Furthermore, a massive to-do list doesn’t provide any kind of priority.

The second key is that these should be “important” tasks. Forget the huge list of to-do’s. Identify the important actions. What is an important task? An important task is one that will support your long-term goals, projects or values. If I’m authoring a book, an important task might be writing a new chapter. If family is an important value for me, visiting a sick relative at the hospital might be an important activity as well.

Importance will vary from person to person, the key is that you determine what is meaningful to you.

Lastly, you will want to make sure that your activities are manageable. One way I make sure activities are manageable is to set time limits for each task. Over time you will learn what daily tasks are possible and which ones are not. The goal of the exercise is not to overwhelm you but to empower you to accomplish what you want to. If you find yourself unable to complete your daily tasks, consider breaking those tasks into smaller chunks. Alternatively if you find yourself finishing your tasks in half an hour, consider setting more ambitious daily goals.

2. Daily planning happens BEFORE the day begins

You want your daily plan to happen before the day begins.

If I’m making a plan for Tuesday, I will spend time on the preceding Monday afternoon to determine what needs to be done. I don’t need to spend a lot of time to come up with a decent plan. 15 minutes is usually enough. The key is that I carve out a recurring block of time for this task.

When I perform this task a day ahead, it gives me time to refine the plan. For instance, my spouse might alert me to some obligation that I had completely forgotten about. Or, I might reconsider the priority of certain items on my plan. The extra time also allows me to better sequence my planned activities which is another important aspect of tackling your daily plan.

Then on Tuesday, first thing in the morning, I will once more review and revise the plan (briefly if necessary) and reconfirm for myself that this is what I will be accomplishing today. This is helpful because it confirms what I’m committed and that the plan is solid (because it’s been vetted for half a day).

3. Reflect and Improve

Lastly, after the day is done and I begin planning for the next day, I will take a few minutes to review what I have accomplished. Did I accomplish what I set out to do? Am I satisfied with how things went? If not, what went wrong? What are things that I can do to improve my planning going forward?

Reflection is critical. It gives you and opportunity to pat yourself on the back if things went well or to critique yourself and look for ways to do things better if things went wrong. I’ll be honest, my daily reflections often result in both. Some things go well and I allow myself to appreciate those things but I almost always find areas for improvement. I don’t beat myself up over failures or short-comings. I prefer to look at these as opportunities to get better tomorrow.

Whether daily planning is effective for your life is something you must discover on your own. If you find yourself looking back at the past year wondering if you have been sleepwalking through life or questioning the lack of progress you have made, you might want to consider the habit of making a daily plan. It’s a simple but powerful habit.

[1] Planning is an enormous topic so it’s not my goal here to discuss it comprehensively in one short article. But for those who are new to the notion of planning be it long-term or short-term, kickstarting your planning habit one day at a time can be a great way to seize control of your life.

Notes: The ideas contained in this article have been influenced by the works of many writers and thinkers on these subjects. In particular I wanted to call out the following for ideas and for further reading if you’re looking for more in-depth treatments of daily planning:
▪ Lakein, Alan. How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life. Gower, 1993
▪ Selk, Jason. Organize Tomorrow Today: 8 Ways to Retrain Your Mind to Optimize Performance at Work and in Life. Da Capo, 2016.

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