How to use a planner effectively and get the most important things done

Photo by Bich Tran from Pexels

For a long while, I used many types of planners. The Fox Planner, Happy Planner, Bullet Journal Spreads, and many more.

I always stopped using them. They became cluttered and congested with all the mini-deadlines I had for myself. And, I kept long to-do lists in them. I tried to pack too many things into each planner I tried. 

In reality, I did not know I was using the planners incorrectly. 

A planner is one type of dashboard. It should give you an overview of your main time demands. In particular, two types of calendars help with this: the monthly calendar and the weekly one.

The monthly calendar gives you a quick overview of appointments, events, bill due dates and major deadlines. You plan this once a month and update throughout the month as work and personal commitments change. The monthly calendar dashboard helps you to preview the next 3 months. Most jobs have quarterly reviews and targets to meet and often you have to look ahead to see what is expected of you. 

One word of advice regarding work and personal calendars. Sometimes you may need to keep these separate. However, personal appointments, events, and deadlines should be merged with your work calendar so that you can see all commitments at a glance and resolve any scheduling conflicts.

The weekly planner spread shows you the time commitment on individual days for appointments, events and deadlines only for one week. It acknowledges the ebb and flow of your energy over a week. The weekly spread helps you to acknowledge commitments to work, home and personal relationships.

A weekly calendar with hourly granularity will help you to determine how much space you have to accomplish the things you need and want to do. The weekly view gives a good idea of what you can possibly get done to move your projects further. The weekly calendar can help you to determine how many time blocks you can commit to to get your work done.

Like many people, I have scheduled my tasks into the weekly spread. But when you do this, you’re tempted to transfer 100 tasks from your to-do list onto the weekly spread because you can find 100 20-minute spaces. Your weekly calendar simply becomes a to-do list.

One mistake I have made is having a to-do list comprising of 100 tasks of 20 minutes but having space in a week for 60 tasks outside of meetings. So I ended up scheduling work tasks during personal time. This is a recipe for burnout. I ended up learning my lesson there. If you find yourself in a similar position, I would recommend

either extending the deadline to the next month if you can or if the deadline is not within your control then drop one of your goals for the month. Migrate less critical goals to the goals list for the next month. Give yourself the space and time to focus on the project that must be done in the current month.

Keep the weekly calendar clutter-free with only events and meetings. But do determine for each day what time you have to get your own work done. 

Each day you can transfer the main project work from your Next Action List onto your daily schedule. This brings us to how to use your daily schedule.

Your daily schedule should be your guiding document for any given day. It should tell you the three (3) priority tasks you have to get done that day as well as the commitment times for meetings, events and your block work (uninterrupted time for your own work).

One mistake I see people making is not keeping their daily schedule and next actions list visible. You are going to be distracted by phone calls, urgent emails, visitor drop-ins, children (if you’re working remotely) to name a few. You need your tasks and schedule on hand to get you back on track and quickly. You might want to note what you were in the middle of before allowing the interruption to go further. 

If your work is mostly digital then an appropriate set-up to view your daily schedule as you work  is to have two computer monitors. You can keep your schedule and Next Actions List open on one monitor while your primary work is displayed on another monitor. Or alternatively, if you work with just one monitor, you can keep your schedule and Next Actions List open on your smartphone. Using your smartphone is tricky as you may be distracted by social media and email notifications on your phone. I still have not moved away from paper completely so I print my daily schedule and write my top three tasks on that page. Also, as things come up during the day, I write those on the same page. 

So to summarize, your monthly calendar helps you to see an overview of appointments, meetings and events. Your weekly calendar helps you to plan your work for specific goals, appointments, and meetings. Your daily calendar is to help you keep on track with the day’s main priorities and work.

By simplifying how I use my planner, I have also accepted that what does not get done today goes into the next day, week or month. I have also accepted that my planner is a guide because I’m forgetful and need reminders of the most important work and personal things so that I’m not distracted by other people’s requests for my time. 

A planner is just a tool and you have to develop other skills and attitudes so that your to-do lists do not send you over the edge. For example, genuine emergencies come up and I have learnt to be flexible and flexibility comes with not over scheduling myself down to the last minute. And most of all, I have learnt to say no to certain types of work. But that’s a story for another day. 

I hope this was helpful to you. Leave a comment below.

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