How to Plan Your Day: Taking Control of Your Time (With Examples)

how to plan your day and take control

Here’s a skill that nobody taught you in school or work: how to plan your day.

And so you do the best you can with what you know. You run around trying to complete everything on your to-do list. Your days spin out of control.

So you try to catch up.

You crank up the speed and try to work as fast as you can. So now you’re spinning out of control twice as fast trying to complete all your tasks.

Stop.

Not planning your days is setting yourself for failure.

But making lists of things to do, and trying desperately to finish them isn’t enough. It doesn’t give your days structure or routine. To-do lists don’t help you focus.

You need to bring in an important element: time.

Tasks need to be associated with time. You have to figure out when a task will get done, and how long it’s going to take.

It sounds simple, and it is. But it’s also powerful. Imagine knowing exactly what tasks you will finish today? Add to that, handling emails, errands, a social life, and better health.

Well, that’s what happens when you learn how to plan your day. 

As Stephen Covey writes in “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”:

“The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.”

And to do that, you must implement a daily planning routine.

What is Time Blocking?

plan your day time blocking
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Time blocking is a method of combining task management and your calendar. You create ‘blocks’ of time in your days and give them tasks to focus on. Every task fits into its own time block, without interrupting anything else.

With time blocking, your schedule is completely filled. Work tasks, social events, and rest are all planned and prioritized.

Instead of just working on long lists of tasks, time blocking lets you plan what you are going to achieve in a day. It forces you to figure out how to spend your time.

This is more powerful and way more productive than endless to-do lists.

How?

Because it’s proactive. You take control of tasks, instead of reacting to external demands. It forces prioritization. And it creates organization.

Does it sound intimidating? Well, it’s actually pretty common, and super easy.

How to Plan Your Day Manually: The Notebook Method

The simplest way to get started with time blocking is with the Notebook method.

To get started, the only thing you will need is a Lined Notebook. 

Step 1: Prepare Your Notebook

Open your notebook on a new page and put the date of the day you are scheduling.

Each page should correspond to a single daily plan.

Then on the left, mark every other line with an hour of your workday. This means that all 1-hour blocks have 2 lines of height.

Step 2: Assign Tasks to Every Minute of Your Day

To assign a task to a specific hour, create a block in that interval. Name that block as the task you’ll be working on.

Like this:

How to plan your day One Block

You should schedule everything, including periods to rest and think. Account for every minute of your workday. 

Pro tip: When you need to do a lot of smaller tasks, use a productivity technique called batching. Group the tasks under one time block. This makes your schedule easier to understand.

Step 3: Add Notes to Your Blocks

On the right of each block, leave notes on what exactly you want to do during that time. The more descriptive, the better.

For example:

Instead of only naming a block “Review model”, you should add specific objectives as notes. In this case, it makes sense to divide the review between captions.

Doing this ensures that you do not forget any task. Additionally, breaking down your project into smaller and more manageable tasks will help you to manage your time better.

Manual Daily Plan Example

How to plan your day Full Schedule

How to Plan Your Day Digitally: The Txt File

If you prefer a digital plan, the txt file method is a great alternative. Instead of multiple notebooks, you will plan your days in a single txt file.

To edit a txt file, Windows users have Notepad and Mac users have TextEdit for free. Both are enough for this digital schedule.

The steps to planning your day are very similar to the paper method.

Step 1: Prepare Your Txt File

Once you are ready to plan the next day, open your txt file and put the date at the bottom. 

Then, divide the day into time blocks. Try to keep their size consistent.

As a rule of thumb, use one-hour blocks.

Step 2: Assign Tasks to Every Minute of Your Day

Give a set of tasks to each block. 

For Example:

  • 16:00—Create new database for Marketing Team

Once again, you should not have a period of time unaccounted for. Don’t forget to also add breaks to your schedule.

Step 3: Add Notes to Your Blocks

As in the paper method, you should add information about each task.

It will be much easier to shift around tasks if you know exactly what you want to accomplish.

(Extra Step) Give Context to Your Time Blocks

A great habit to pick up is to add context to each block as you go through your day. 

For example:

When you have a meeting, add the names of the participants and the key takeaways in your schedule.

Like this:

  • 11:00—Team Meeting
    • Participants: Sales Team (except Karla)
    • Problems reaching monthly goals -> Boss is *very* unhappy
    • #idea Find new eCommerce stores with XYZ website

Similarly, take notes of problems with your projects and how you solved them.

For example:

  • 16:00—Create new database for Marketing Team
    • Operation went well except for column Y, which came out unformatted
    • The problem was in the configuration of the new server

Then, using search, you can go through every comment and find exactly what you want in seconds.

Digital Daily Plan Example

Digital Daily Plan Example

When Should You Plan Your Day?

When you plan your workday is also an important question to cover. Going through every project and commitment you have takes time and you cannot rush it.

The easiest way is to develop your planning habits around your routine.

The 3 best times to plan your day are:

  1. End of the workday
  2. At Night
  3. When you arrive at the office

1. End of Your Workday

Your energy is low but you are still in work mode at the end of the workday. This makes it easier to make the switch to planning without losing time. On top of that, you will not need to think about work until the next morning.

The major problem with this timeframe is after-work commitments. It will be difficult to make a good daily plan if you run on a tight schedule after work.

Also, you might need to revise your schedule if something comes up during the evening or the morning.

Personally, I prefer to plan my days in this timeframe. I prefer to close all the loops and get everything organized before ending my workday.

Pros

  • Easier transitioning into planning mode
  • Early shutdown from work

Cons

  • Difficult to do with after-work commitments
  • The least adaptable to uncertainty

2. At Night

You need time to construct good daily plans and, for many people, that time is only available at night.

Furthermore, you don’t always have the information to make your schedule at the end of the workday. When this happens, the best strategy is to wait and plan the next day at night.

However, this will push your shutdown into the evening. If you cannot switch off from work easily, this timeframe might not be for you.

Pros

  • No time constraint
  • More information about the next day’s commitments

Cons

  • Delays the shutdown from work
  • Takes time away from family and hobbies

3. When You Arrive at the Office

This timeframe is best for jobs with an uncertain schedule. If you only know your priorities in the mornings, this is the timeframe for you.

For others, this tends to not work as well. It creates an unnecessary expenditure of energy at the beginning of each day.

Additionally, it takes time away from productive hours of your day. And that’s time that you could be using to complete Deep Work.

All-in-all, most people are better off with one of the other timeframes.

Pros

  • The most adaptable to uncertainty

Cons

  • Big energy expenditure at the beginning of the workday
  • Takes time away from productive hours

Why Most People Give Up on Daily Planning (And How to Fix It)

If you are new to daily planning and time blocking, the transition to these methods won’t be easy.

Like any other skill, planning your day takes time to learn.

Here are the most common problems you’ll have when planning your days:

  1. Wrong estimation of the time needed for each task
  2. Uncertain responsibilities disrupt your schedule
  3. Keeping track of the beginning and end of each time blocks

To have success with daily planning, you will have to deal with these problems before they come up

1. Wrong Estimations

How to solve:

  • Buffer time
  • Conditional time blocks

One of the biggest challenges of daily planning is estimating the time for each task. People tend to underestimate the time needed. This leads to unnecessary stress caused by their schedule.

One easy solution is to add extra time to each task—what is called “Buffer” time.

For example:

If you feel that an article will take one hour to write, plan it into a 90-minute block. 

You will probably need some of the extra time to finish the project. If not, take the time to relax or deal with minor problems until your next time block.

Another technique is using “Conditional Blocks”. 

They occupy a time slot like other blocks, but they have a split purpose

For example:

You can plan a regular 1-hour block to write the article and add a 30-minute conditional block afterward. The block will either be for writing or catching up with email. 

You can take the extra time to finish the article if needed. If you finish in less than one hour, you already have a function assigned to the block.

2. Uncertain Responsibilities Disrupt Your Schedule

How to solve: 

  • Take extra blocks to catch up with work that appears
  • Reorganizing the schedule

Uncertainty is guaranteed in most jobs. You cannot foresee everything you need to do on a given day.

But instead of reacting to uncertainty, try scheduling it. Create time blocks to react to problems throughout the day. 

For example:

You know that problems usually occur in the mornings when updating databases. Rather than using those hours for projects, leave them blocked to deal with problems. 

Planning a flexible time gives you more flexibility. If you feel constrained by your daily plans, schedule more reactive time blocks.

The second tactic is to reschedule your day as many times as needed. Whenever a problem comes up that ruins your current schedule, do not enter into autopilot.

Instead, take the next available moment to reschedule the rest of the day. Go over all your tasks and which ones you can drop. Then, fit the remaining tasks into new blocks according to your time constraints.

The goal of daily planning is to focus your efforts on what is important. Rescheduling in the middle of the day makes sure you do not lose sight of this.

3. Keeping Track of the Time

How to Solve:

  • Change your method
  • Simplify your time blocks

Feeling lost during a given day is normal. Like any other habit, following a daily plan takes time to adjust.

But if you lose track of your schedule on a daily basis, you might be doing two things wrong.

First, you chose the wrong method for you

For example:

You might like the txt file method, but you need access to your computer at all times. If that is impossible for you, consider switching to the notebook method.

Likewise, if you forget your notebook at home every day, the digital method might be the answer.

Second, your schedules have too many time blocks

As you add time blocks, it becomes more difficult to follow your daily plan. Instead of creating a block for each small task, try grouping them up into a large block.

For example:

Group up your smaller tasks in a 2-hour Administrative block. Use this time to answer emails, file paperwork, and update spreadsheets.

What Happens at the End of the Day?

You can extract value from your daily plans, even after the workday is complete. Your schedules contain lots of data on how you worked. Take their insights and improve your work routines.

You can start by implementing daily reviews

Do not put away your plan after the day is over. Take 5 extra minutes to look for scheduling mistakes that happened that day.

Look for:

  • Length of time blocks: Were there tasks that needed more time?
  • Schedule flexibility: Did my daily plan constraint me in any way?
  • The number of reschedules: How many times did I need to reschedule?

Keeping track of these will make you aware of planning problems. Take some of the solutions laid out before and improve the following plans.

Additionally, take your daily plans and analyze them in a weekly review

Going over each day of the week is crucial to find out where your time is going.

Use this knowledge to craft weekly goals that better reflect how you work.

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Hi, I'm Dan.

I share ideas on productivity every Monday in my newsletter.

 

Strategies, tips, and hacks to work smarter in a short email.

19k productivity geeks read it. I’d love you to join.

Love your stuff

The only newsletter I subscribe to that I actually look forward to

I read your newsletter every week