My days used to be a mix of trying not to miss that next meeting, getting lost in the stack of new emails, all while trying not to be overwhelmed with coming up with new ideas for various projects on time.
However, after I implemented a simple daily system for managing time and energy, my mental energy dramatically improved - resulting in greater freedom for creative work.
Having a system in place for keeping track of priorities throughout each day is vital. Without such a system, it’s easy to lose track of important details and feel overwhelmed. Legendary record producer Rick Rubin says it best:
"The more you reduce your daily life-maintenance tasks, the greater bandwidth available for creative decisions."
- Rick Rubin, The Creative Act: A Way of Being
In this article I’d like to share my process for planning out my day, so that you can implement your own system that gives you more control over your time – ultimately creating more freedom and enjoyment in your work.
- Get a bird's eye view of your week
- Understand what is important
- Make a list for the day
- Order items in your list
- Apply time limits
- Adjust and rearrange as needed
Let’s dive in!
Step 1: Get a bird's eye view of your week
It’s important to first know what’s on your plate each week. This means taking a few moments at the beginning of a work week to look at your calendar and see what kind of meetings, events, and due dates are happening. A central hub for keeping track of projects (like Trello) is a great way to see all your priorities at a glance. Getting this bird's eye view of your week helps you determine what is important.
Step 2: Understand what is important
You need to understand what is important in order to plan out your day. I evaluate tasks through three main categories: important and urgent, important but not urgent, and finally not important/not urgent.
Having a clear view on what your priorities are for the week will help you know what kinds of tasks to focus on today. I've often found that while some tasks seem urgent at the moment, I may need to allocate more time for a more important deadline happening later in the week. Without taking the time to look ahead each week, it's easy to get distracted with small tasks and lose sight of bigger picture what's needed for a project.
Step 3: Make a list for the day
The next step is to make a list of everything you need to work on in the day. I like to include any meetings or calls on this list, so that I’m accounting for as much of the day as possible.
You can use paper, a Google doc, or anything else you are comfortable with. I like to use the mac app Reminders. I add each task/project as it’s own reminder on a single list. The important thing is that this list is easy to update, and something you can see and have access to throughout the day.
Step 4: Order items in your list
Now that you have a comprehensive list of all that you need to accomplish, it’s time to order everything.
I like to order the most urgent and important items to be first on the list. Working around any meetings, I place the least important items at the bottom of the list.
Tip: Optimize for your energy levels
In addition to keeping in mind importance and urgency, I try to keep in mind how much energy each task is going to require. I usually have the most energy at the start of my day, so it makes sense to place the most important items first so I can take on those challenges when I feel my best. I usually have a slump in energy in the afternoon, so that's when I dedicate time to tasks that don’t require much mental energy, such as emails or organizing files.
Step 5: Apply time limits
Allotting a specific amount of time for each item on your list makes this process effective. Using the Reminders app, I apply a time to each item, spacing out the day in either 15 mins, 30 mins, or 1 - 2 hours, depending on what might be needed for each task. This helps ensure a productive day and allows consistent reminders throughout the day to keep me on track.
The benefit of applying times to each item is that you can see beforehand whether or not you might need more time for a project than you think, or if something is at risk of not getting done in time.
I like to think of this as scheduling an appointment for each task. As we tend to fill time according to what is allowed, assigning a specific timeframe keeps things moving and on track. I often find I can move unimportant items to the next day if I find I need extend time on a certain task.
Step 6: Adjust and rearrange as needed
The point of this system is that it helps to keep you focused on the task at hand throughout the day. There will be times where new tasks pop up that may require a quick shuffle of priorities. Other times, an interruption may happen. It’s good to build in some margin to account for some of these changes that will no doubt occur.
Some days may be completely full, others may be more open to bring in proactive type work. Some tasks may pop up on the full days that may be an “emergency” requiring moving items of lesser importance to another day. Other times these interruptions may be focused on later, as they are less important than the other tasks you’ve already committed to tackling.
Whether you use this same routine, or come up with one that is unique to your situation, I hope you are inspired to take your creative process to the next level.
Implementing a daily planning process of your own will help you reduce stress, take control of your workload and allow mental space for you to do your best work.