The Complete Guide to Planning Your Day
Most of us understand the value of planning and preparation. A sports match without a game plan means fumbling on the field. A big event without all the details in place leads to chaos.
We set goals on the order of seasons and years, but it’s what we do each day — the habits we adopt, the tasks we complete, and the things we prioritize — that compound over time into success or failure. A few aimless days each month can help us reset and find balance. But when our days without intention exceed our days with purpose, we end up missing our goals and wondering where all the time went.
The best defense against hectic yet unproductive days is a good offense in the form of a daily planning ritual. This article will walk you through how to plan your days for calmer, more focused productivity that brings you closer to your goals. While planning your day should only take 10-15 minutes, the underlying strategies to meaningfully craft a day with intention are worth exploring in full.
Make regular planning a habit
James Clear, the best-selling author of Atomic Habits, thinks motivation is overrated: “Stop waiting for motivation or inspiration to strike you and set a schedule for your habits”. Motivation flows from action, not the other way around.
That’s why having a daily planning ritual is so important. Some mornings we feel motivated to seize the day and create a to-do list that reflects our big ambitions. But those days are the exception. We need to get things done even when we wake up tired and disengaged, wanting to return to bed or longing for Friday at 5 PM. Those are the days it’s most important to approach the day with a plan.
Start by setting an alarm for your daily planning session at the same time every day — either during a work shutdown ritual or first thing in the morning. To make building the habit easier, bundle your new daily planning session with an existing habit like drinking your morning coffee or listening to music.
Bundle a daily planning session with an existing habit.
Use a to-do list app like Todoist to set a recurring task to plan your day.
Habits are easier to build when we see the results of our dedication right away. Luckily, planning your day is a habit that pays off immediately. You’ll feel more organized, focused, and motivated with a plan for the hours ahead. Over time, planning your day will become second-nature.
Keep your daily planning habit going on the weekends, even if you’re aiming for a laid back day. Add errands, a movie, or dinner dates to your daily to-do list on a Saturday or Sunday to make real space on your schedule for relaxation, leisure, and side projects.
Map out your perfect daily schedule according to your personal “productivity curve”
The reason most successful people dedicate their first hours of the day to meaningful work is because that’s when their energy levels are highest. However, with a little bit of work, you can use that same approach to match the rest of your daily schedule template to your energy levels.
We all go through ebbs and flows of energy throughout the day thanks to something called our Circadian Rhythm. This is an internal clock that sends our mind and body through moments of alertness and sleepiness.
1. Experiment with your Circadian Rhythm
After waking up and breaking out of our sleep inertia our energy levels start to naturally rise. By around 10 am we’ve hit our peak concentration levels that ride out until a natural post-lunch energy dip between 1-3 pm.
2. Use your personal productivity data to map out your “Productivity Curve”
After gathering a bit of data, your RescueTime dashboard will show you what apps, tools, websites, and projects you spend time on, when you’re being productive (or distracted), as well as trends in your activities, and more.
For our use case, the productivity trends over a week report will show when you’re most likely to be productive vs. distracted on any given day. This is under Reports > Productivity > Time of Day.
Use “time blocking” to switch from being reactive to in control of your time
This isn’t the same as the daily schedule of The Overscheduler who fills their days with other people’s priorities. Instead, this is a template of when you’re most suited to do certain types of work.
This daily schedule template is like a skeleton on which you build your week. And if you match it to your daily productivity curve, you know you’re being as productive as possible with your time.
“There are scheduled times during which I can be fully immersed in email and for the rest of the day I’m forcing myself to ignore it. Most of all, there are scheduled blocks of time where my wifi will be off.”
“So many people have big goals for the future. I think it’s better to know what your perfect day looks like. Then you can ask yourself with each opportunity and choice: Is this getting me closer or further away?”
Structure Your Day
Early birds get things done most effectively before lunchtime, while night owls tend to get their creative burst of energy in the evenings. Think about when you work best, and group your tasks into the time of day that makes the most sense for when you will best complete them.
- Mornings: Mornings are often about getting out the door, which can be its challenge. Group all your early tasks here, like feeding and walking pets, unloading the first load of dishes for the day, and putting dinner in the slow cooker. Once the morning rush is over, reserve the mornings for the tasks that require the most critical thinking and troubleshooting. There’s a common saying, “Eat the frog,” which refers to getting the task that you want to do least done first thing in the day, so it’s not looming over you.
- Midday: This is a tricky time of day because your energy levels—and perhaps the caffeine from your morning coffee—have likely dissipated. However, this means you might be primed to do the boring, routine stuff that doesn’t take a lot of brainpower. Use this time for tasks like answering emails, setting appointments, and running errands. If you are based at home during the day, use this time for routine cleaning, like emptying the dishwasher and loading it back up, scrubbing the bathrooms.
- Evening: Evenings work best when they’re set aside for planning and preparation for the next day. Layout your clothes, pack lunches, and declutter the rooms where items tend to pile up, like the kitchen. If you follow the weekly organizing routine, you’ll be picking up one room a day for 15 to 20 minutes.
Test Drive Your New Routine
Take your new routine for a test drive for 30 days. How does it feel? Did you schedule your tasks at activities at times that make sense? Do you need to adjust things? Tweak anything that is not working on a case-by-case basis, and then assess after 30 days to see how your new routine is working for you.
Creating a daily routine seems daunting at first, but you will soon reap the rewards when your productivity soars, morning meltdowns are reduced, and you find you actually have pockets of free time throughout the day or week. Even better? Nothing is written in stone so if your daily routine doesn’t work perfectly at first, simply make some tweaks until you find the ideal schedule.