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How to Use a Day Plan Without Wanting to Stab Your Eyes Out

If you’re a creative type like me — or if you simply have a soul — at some point in your life the thought of day plans and organizers has made you want to hurt someone. (Unless you’re the natural organizational and planner geek, then kudos to you. You can skip this article). I know, because I’ve been there. Creating and following a day plan is something I still struggle with. In fact, that’s why I’m writing about a day plan right now. I can’t even begin to fathom trying to follow a weekly plan. I’m just not at that level yet.

Anyway, we’re here to figure out how to follow a plan without inducing violent thoughts and suicidal tendencies.

So the purpose of a day plan is to get more done, right? It’s supposed to help you get things done, while reducing the stress of procrastination. You know that. But you can’t get past the feeling that following a plan is putting a noose around your neck and suffocating your spontaneity.

We know the purpose of the day plan, but how do we get past all those negative associations and dissenting feelings? It took me a long time to realize that a plan isn’t necessarily set in stone. It’s not a rigid quota of tasks that I must do. If I don’t complete them all, I’m not a failure. It’s a guideline to aim for, not a dictating oppressor. Misunderstanding this caused a lot of initial resistance for me.

When I plan my day, I inevitably don’t complete everything I wanted to. I end up feeling like I failed and start resenting the plan again. It’s the plan’s fault, damnit! “#$% conformity, #$%@ the plan!” I say.

Being the control freak I am, it’s hard for me to let go and realize that if I don’t finish everything, it’s okay. So I tell my planner I didn’t mean what I said and beg for forgiveness. It’s a love-hate relationship. I realize the point of planning is having more time to do the things you actually want to do. (This is the second biggest love-hate element of our relationship, I have a hard time harmonizing productivity and happiness.) So I schedule time for the little things I enjoy; like 30 minutes of blog reading I call “research.”

The problem is that I underestimate how much time it will take to get things done. I don’t take into account unavoidable interruptions and distractions. ADD is hard.

So what do I do when I end up spending more time than I anticipated on a particular project? Yeah, you guessed it. I take out my “fun time” and sacrifice it for the sake of productivity. What happens? I end up resenting my day plan even more. I curse her rigidness, but secretly worship her illustrious productivity allure. Damnit woman, why must you torture me like this!

As you can see, there are a few problems I and many other spontaneous-minded people face with trying to follow a plan. But does it have to be like this? Can’t we just work it out?

So here’s what I’ve learned. Hopefully this can help you follow a day plan without wanting to hurt someone:

1. It’s just a plan, seriously. Your plan isn’t meant to be an untouchable finality. It’s meant to help you, not control you. Realize that if you don’t finish everything on your list, it’s okay. It’s going to be all right. I promise.

2. Prioritize ruthlessly. While dreaming up your award winning plan — which will ensure your world domination — think about what’s really most important. If you could only accomplish 2 things today, what would they be? What about 1 thing? At the end of your day, what would make you the happiest knowing that you finished? Put that first in your day. Your day isn’t finished until you complete that 1 thing. Everything else is secondary and must be sacrificed at any cost.

3. Be realistic. I know you want to organize your entire stamp collection, clear out your inbox, and write your master thesis “How ergonomic staple removers will change your life”, but let’s be realistic. Rome wasn’t built in a day and your amazing new tape dispenser business won’t be either. The best way to ensure that you don’t end up hating your plan is to underestimate. If you think something will take an hour, give yourself an hour and a half. Remember, ADD is hard.

4. Don’t sacrifice your free-time. Don’t sacrifice that ten minutes you allotted to pick your nose and disengage from the cubicle machine. The purpose of your plan is to help you improve your life, not make it worse.

If you’re trying to liberate your life, you need a plan. But you don’t need to sacrifice your sanity. Remember: You work your plan, your plan doesn’t work you.

Jonathan is the author of Illuminated Mind – The less boring side of personal development. You can subscribe to his here, or get more from him on twitter.

  • http://shanelyang.com/blogs/articles/ Shanel Yang

    The best productivity and organization tips are in Brian Tracey’s “Eat that Frog!” which I summarized at http://shanelyang.com/2008/06/02/eat-that-frog/ If you follow them, you won’t have to strangle anybody or anything (your dayplanner); good habits develop naturally! ; )

  • http://writerdad.com Writer Dad

    “Your plan isn’t meant to be an untouchable finality. It’s meant to help you, not control you. Realize that if you don’t finish everything on your list, it’s okay. It’s going to be all right. I promise.”

    This is just so true. I used to get really hard on myself when I couldn’t finish my list in a given day. Unforgiving really. Once I stopped, I went to bed earlier, and my productivity actually increased.

  • http://theonelastthing.com Alexia

    I’ve had my struggle with planners over the years — thinking I should have one, but the existing systems never really fit the way I thought. I spent a fortune on Franklin Covey. Finally I kludged one together based on how I think and work, but then… … I found Planner Pad (http://plannerpads.com – ignore clunky web site). Good stuff. I still was able to customize it the way I wanted it, but it’s a really good system that works well for right and left-brained types. And it’s cheap, so not much of a risky investment.

    A nice companion is this book: The Renaissance Soul (http://www.amazon.com/Renaissance-Soul-Design-People-Passions/dp/0767920880/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1220021952&sr=8-1 )

  • http://www.melissathinksoutloud.com Melissa

    “If you could only accomplish 2 things today, what would they be? What about 1 thing?”

    Absolutely love that point. It’s like Steven Covey’s habit, “first things first”. Not everything is a priority and we need to sort out the things we would like to accomplish from the things we must.

    I happen to be on vacation this week and I had wanted to clean out my closets. I’m wondering if perhaps Jimmy Hoffa might be in my front hall. I live in New Jersey so it is possible, LOL. Anyway, this is a vacation and the number one priority is my time with my family so it looks like the closets might not get done. Oh well.

    I try to rate my daily tasks based on how I will feel on my deathbed. Will I be lying there wishing I had cleaned out the damned closets or will I be wishing for more time with my little girl. Pretty easy choice ;-)

    • http://exold.com/ David Pickett

      I use a similar technique to control my purchases while shopping (similar, that is, to the “what if you could only do one thing?” technique). I look at the collection of items I’ve vetted for various attributes like unnecessary duplication, gadget lust, and likely-to-rot-before-use-ness, and ask myself “What out of these would I buy if I only had X$?” (where ‘X’ varies depending on the situation). This often helps screen out a few more things I can do without for the time being. (I actually have an entire arsenal of Not Buying Stuff techniques, about which I’ll post on my own blog at some point….)

  • http://www.selfimprovementsguide.com/time SelfImprovementsGuide.com

    I always have at the very least
    10 things to do on my ‘to do” list

    I get about 7 out of 10 done

    I am getting better though
    with some new tips that i picked up at

    Time Management Tips

  • http://www.cindysense.com Overcoming Lifes Obstacles

    It’s not a big deal if you don’t get everything done – just add them to the next day. Isn’t that what prioritization is all about?

    For each 1 thing you accomplish, your 1 step closer to achieving your ultimate goal.

  • http://www.e-motivate.com EMotivate

    Really great points. I had some similar problems with “day planners”. Thankfully, I did not gouge my eyes out.

    Initially, I saw all those times and appointment slots on the prepared planner form and thought “I guess I’ll schedule everything”. So I did.

    i didn’t get anything done. Life was too fluid. Great for scheduling meetings or remembering that I had to take the kid to Cub Scouts. Not great for planning what I needed to do for my writing, my websites, my myriad of other projects.

    So I just used daily to-do list. That didn’t really work that great either, because everytime I turned a page I lost things.

    After reading “Get Things Done”, I ended up settling on running to-do lists that I update once a week or so. I look at everything as a “project”…my planning takes place on project sheets, including a lists of all actions needed. Then a cull each one and place the next open item from each on on a list, maybe 2 items if one is likely to move quick.

    It helped me a lot, and I went from a big ol day planner to little notebook I carried. These days, I have that on a smartphone…but the notebook was just as effective (but everyone looked at me funny when I tried to make phone calls with it).

  • http://www.varsityblah.com/about Eugene (Editor, Varsity Blah)

    I’ve found that the best way to manage my time (and my stress) has been to focus on things that really matter. It’s about knowing what I absolutely have to do and what can either be postponed, delegated, or done away with altogether. It’s about knowing what to take seriously and what to let slide. It’s about taking care of the big things so the little ones take care of themselves and the really little ones don’t bother me at all.

    Why do anything else? Why be one of those people who knows more about Hollywood’s hottest couple than they do about their own family and friends? Why be one of those people who spends hours and hours watching the latest reality show but never has time to take a walk or read a book? Those things aren’t important, so why not spend time focusing on the things that are?

    (From Work in Progress)

  • http://effortlessabundance.com Effortless Abundance

    The whole idea of a day plan does sound like a nightmare to me. It’s the very epitome of that puritanical work ethic which I so despise.

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  • http://www.levnow.com/blog Tabs

    I take my endless to do list, endless because I write everything in one notebook, and then pick 3 to ten things to do each day. I am now going to implement time lines for getting things done so I don’t spend 8 hours in my 12-hour day organizing my paper clips. It can happen :D

    Great post,

    -Tabs

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