Various advice on productivity and task management and dealing with life in general tells you to use a to-do list to keep track of things that need doing, and a calendar or a schedule to keep track of things you need to do at an exact point in time. Some add a recommendation to block off time needed to actually work on your to-do list in between appointments or fixed-time commitments. And of course, there’s the advice of adopting daily habits for things you want to improve.
So how to keep track of all these things? You might resort to having several apps (like a task manager for your to-do list, a calendar to deal with fixed-time obligations, and habit-tracking apps for the regular things) and rely on notifications and reminders to help you remember it all. You might set up a bullet journal with various trackers and layouts to help you remember it all. But a better way of dealing with this issue is to plan out your day and combine all of the tasks and habits and appointments together in one place.
Your day plan can be paper-based or digital, whichever you prefer. Evernote is a good tool for this, but so is an index card. You have to reserve 5 minutes (or less) to make your plan, whenever you usually do your planning – at the end of the work day, in the evening of the previous day, or in the morning before actually starting your day. If you aren’t doing any planning yet, try to do it the evening before, so you don’t run into any surprises the next morning. You can set it up as a schedule, with time blocks devoted to each activity, or as a list with notes on any fixed-time tasks.
Gather anything that you use to keep track of things, events, schedule, commitments, habits, projects… Use your to-do list, calendar, email inbox, schedules, etc. Go through them and write out everything that you have to do tomorrow and don’t want to forget, from waking up until you go to bed. Think about when you want to do what and how long it might take you. If you want to practice a certain daily habit, write it down. Write your meal plan for the day. Arrange things in the order they’ll probably be done – e.g. morning exercise first, work second, dinner last. If you want to keep the plan minimalistic and uncluttered, skip anything that you’re already doing on autopilot and don’t need to be reminded of. And then go through your day confidently, knowing you just have to go from item to item and check them off. (Except that sometimes actually doing things on your list is a problem in itself, but we’ll deal with that some other time.)
One benefit of this process is that you’ll probably be better prepared, as you’ll uncover things you need to do before actually doing the items on your to-do list – like preparing the books to take to the library the next day, or setting out your workout clothes, or preparing a snack for tomorrow because you noticed you have back-to-back meetings and won’t have time for lunch.
When planning your day, be realistic about what you can do in a single day. (This is my personal downfall every day – I’m too optimistic!) Don’t forget to include transition time – even if you plan on running in the morning, you probably won’t start running immediately after waking up; you need to get out of bed, get dressed, probably get your phone/mp3 player/fitness tracker etc. And leave some extra time to deal with interruptions and surprises during your day.
You can prepare a sort of “template” for your day, containing all the things you want to be doing daily. Each day plan would just add to this basic “template”. Adopting a new habit would simply mean adding a new item in your “template”.
If you don’t like routine, you might bristle at the thought of planning out your days in advance or having a “template” for your days. Of course, there’s no need to map out every second of your day or to follow your plan to the letter. You can include just the basics or change the plan at any point. After all, you’re the master of your life and your days, and you decide how to spend each and every moment of it! Just make sure that you end up spending your time how you wanted to – and any tool which can help us achieve that is worth using.