Systems & Tips

My Favorite Productivity Trick: Six Reasons for a Detailed Daily Plan

I have a pretty detailed and very particular plan for my workdays. I schedule things down to the minute in a way that would make even type-A people think I was a little uptight.

But I think that it’s one of my best “tricks” for being productive.

My Procedure

At the end of each workday, I sit down to plan out the next one. I take a look at what I’ve got in my tickler file and my calendar. I remind myself of my high priority tasks (which I’ve determined in a weekly review).

With these in mind, I plan out how I’ll be spending each and every minute of my next workday. I may say that I’ll be spending 55 minutes on a task, taking a 5 minute break, and then working on another task. Sometimes I specify that I’ll work on a task for a certain time period; other times I schedule to work on a task until completion (and estimate how long it will take).

I schedule every detail of the workday: working, meals, coffee breaks, Email, reading, etc.

And here’s a major part of making this effective: As I work, I keep up with every minute of the day to see how I’m sticking to my plan.

Let me remind you that I believe each individual has a unique set of situations and strengths, so what works for me may not work for you. But take a look at these six reasons why I use this approach and see if there’s any wisdom that you could apply to your own personal style.

1. Daily Planning Ensures You Schedule in Priorities.

One crucial aspect of effective time stewardship is actively scheduling in things that are important – specifically things that are important but not urgent (what Stephen Covey, author of First Things First calls Quadrant II activities). These activities are easy to overlook in favor of more urgent or easier activities – but actually taking the time to do them is often the difference between those who get by and those who get things done.

Weekly planning models are also good for scheduling your priorities. But the detail of the daily plan offers you the clearest perspective to ask yourself if you’re really making time for the things that are important.

2. Daily Planning Forces Your Schedule to be Realistic.

A detailed daily plan makes you flesh out your schedule into a form that’s about as close to reality as you can get. You start penciling in the hours and minutes, factoring in everything from your most important task to lunch breaks and checking Email. You also have to face reality and build in some margin just to allow for the messiness of life.

It’s easy to convince myself that I can do two months of work in only one month. It’s harder to tell myself that tomorrow I can do 16 hours of work in only 8 hours.

3. Daily Planning Gives You the Tools to Make Decisions in the Here and Now.

I don’t think I’ve ever followed my plan exactly – and I’m OK with that. Former President and General Dwight Eisenhower said it best: “Plans are nothing; planning is everything.”

It’s not the schedule itself that’s valuable. The real benefit is the thinking, evaluating, and prioritizing that I had to do to come up with the schedule. That thought process puts me in a better situation to deal with my day when life happens and I have to veer off-road from my plan.

I’ve already considered what’s important and what’s not, what’s time sensitive and what’s not, what can be postponed and what can’t. I’m in a better position to shoot from the hip.

4. Tracking Your Daily Plan Changes Your Behavior.

As I mentioned earlier, an important part of my daily planning is keeping track during the day of how I’m spending every minute – and comparing that to my planned schedule.

There are several software programs out there that will automatically track how you spend your time on the computer. I’m not a fan of these, and I would highly recommend manual entry for keeping up with your time usage. First, these automatic programs can only track computer usage (not working outdoors, for instance) and they can’t tell whether you’re typing productively or just clickity-clacking the keyboard for an hour out of frustration.

But the main reason I recommend manual data entry is that the act of recording your time usage actually affects how you use your time.

There have been a few psychological studies about this, and I can see it played out in my own experience. Every time you write down what you’ve been doing, there’s a small sense of accountability and mental reward/punishment for your actions. It’s inspires you and convicts you to do your best.

It also reveals your schedule shortcomings in the middle of the day – when you have the most time to correct, compensate, and end the day well.

5. Evaluating Your Daily Plan Leads to Improvement and Revisions

At the end of every day, you can look back over your time-tracking report and compare this with your planned schedule. Evaluate where you fell short (or where you did better than expected).

This allows you to look for things that are working and for opportunities for improvement. If you see the same problem arising day after day, then the process of daily planning constantly waves a big red flag in your face reminding you where change needs to happen.

If something crazy happens in your day and you don’t get your high priority tasks accomplished, then you can make sure to hit those activities hard when planning the next few days. Or if you really nail a task and get done earlier than expected, you can capitalize on that success. Rather than fiddling around not knowing what to do, you can immediately schedule in some other high value activity.

6. Regular Evaluation Helps You Better Estimate Your Time Needs

Over time, I can begin to get a good grasp on how long things will take. Breaks, meals, checking Email, reading blog posts in my RSS reader – you can get pretty refined at figuring out how long these routine tasks take.

Most other aspects of my life are not routine – like most of us, I’m constantly tackling new situations and activities. But getting a clear picture of some activities makes me better at realistically estimating the time requirements for new tasks.

This Daily Plan and Review goes hand in hand with a more detailed Weekly Plan and Review – perhaps I’ll write about that in the future.

What do you do for planning?

Do you think that daily planning works for you?

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