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, trust me on this. If I was asked to boil down all of the success I encounter in my work and personal life into two or three key rules, this would be one of them: 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.
Everything that happens between waking up and going to sleep is a block. I tend to view my day in 30-minute blocks, but you can cut up the time into whatever works for you. Some tasks take 30 minutes while others need 120 minutes. You just need to keep it consistent.
There are also different kinds of blocks. Some are inflexible or immovable, while others are fluid and pliable. For instance, because I work from home, I have the luxury of eating with my family each day for lunch. This means that my lunch happens every day from 12PM to 1PM, and that’s not negotiable. Lunch is an inflexible block of time. Other examples would be meetings or phone conferences.
Client work, however, is very fluid. Sometimes a project task can take 30 minutes, other times two hours. And most of the time I can place client work anywhere on my schedule as long as it doesn’t overlap with inflexible items.
Know Your Abilities & Limits
Planning ahead, and building a tight, efficient schedule for your day requires having a solid grasp of your skills and ability. If you have a specific type of project that you do often, chances are that you have an accurate understanding of how long that task will take. The true test, though, is learning to guess at how long something will take you when you’ve never done it before.
I build this element into the capture process whenever a new task comes across my desk. When I write down what it is that I need to accomplish, I always add a context to the task that tells me how long I think it will take. Maybe it’s 15 minutes, or 30, or even an hour; whatever the length of time will be, I make sure it is marked down ahead of time. 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.
Nothing is worse that ending your day with unfinished items on your list. Rookies think it’s because they didn’t work hard enough, but the reality is that when this happens it’s because you didn’t plan hard enough. Over-booking yourself is the fastest way to frustration and disappointment. Known your limits, and plan accordingly.
Plan for the Non-Project Stuff
Need to make a phone call tomorrow? Plan that into your schedule so that it doesn’t throw off your timeline. Maybe you have a meeting with a client across town at a coffee shop. Make sure you allow for travel time, not just the meeting time; a 30-minute meeting that is 15-minutes across town should take a 60-minute block on your schedule, not 30. It sounds simple, I know. But believe me, it’s a rookie mistake that throws way too many people off their game.
I also plan an hour less than I have to work with each day. My work day is done by 5pm, but I only ever map out my day up to 4pm. Why? Because something will come up. It always does. And if by some rare chance I do finish my work by 4, I will glance at my list for tomorrow and start knocking out small tasks from that list until 5pm arrives. That freedom needs to be built into your schedule.
Putting Pen to Paper
I use OmniFocus to capture and organize my tasks each day, but when it comes to mapping them out and building a schedule, I 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. And with pen in hand I literally copy my OmniFocus items for that day onto the page, working them into the best order and flow. Having them already in time-based blocks helps this work more smoothly.
I also do 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 over night, my kids want attention and I have coffee to make and drink. I don’t want to start my day off needing to find time to plan. Instead, when I finally get to my desk I simple open my notebook and start on the detailed list.
This helps me find my daily purpose as quickly as possible. Going to bed each night I am fully aware of what needs done, and when, so that I don’t waste time the next day making a decision about where to start. I made that decision the night before. Now I just need to put it to action.
Everyone has a system for getting things done, and each is like a fingerprint, unique and personal. But every good system has a few common elements. Master the art of planning each day, and you will maximize what you can get done, while removing the frustration that comes with not accomplishing everything you set out to achieve. However your own system works, thoughtfully planning ahead on paper can make all the difference in the world.