Planning Basics: Daily Planning

A photo by Aaron Burden.

We need to plan well because we need to be ready to change the plan.

We can’t map out the whole day. We need to be flexible and responsive. We need to get the most important things done.


Last week I shared my recipe for a successful day. The last ingredient was “time to plan” and I ended with key to planning effectively:

Only organize and plan the most important things in your life. Let the rest organize themselves.

To do this we need to quickly sort our high priority tasks from the rest. I find I need to do this every day because so many things come my way over the course of the day. I dump the physical stuff in a pile and write down the thoughts, requests from others, and ideas on a white-board.

I learned much from Getting Things Done, but the advice to handle every paper once has really tripped me up. I’ve discovered I make better decisions about less important things when I have a few day’s or week’s perspective. Plus, it’s easier to batch process less important things at one time.

The Quick Daily Sort

I quickly sort everything into one of three piles: high priority, mid-priority, and lower priority. When planning for tomorrow, only the high priority stuff gets my attention.

It helps to think of tasks in terms of their positive and negative consequences. What kind of positive impact would I see if I complete this? What might be the unwanted consequences I don’t do this?

This perspective helps me get rid of things like coupons for shoes that expire soon. Really, if I don’t act then nothing bad happens. My time is better spent on something else.

The lovely thing about this system is that it self-eliminates many tasks that aren’t that important. At some point I’ll go through the “lower-consequences” pile and toss half because they are no longer relevant (like that shoe offer).

I feel no guilt because I know I’ve been working on what really matters and I realize that these little things that I thought I cared about, I don’t actually care about at all.

(It helps me to know I’ll be doing a quick sort on the mid-priority tasks every week so nothing will slip through the cracks, but weekly planning is another post!)

Plan your day the night before

Weekly and monthly planning are hugely beneficial, but to keep sane, daily planning is all that’s necessary.

Each night after the kids are in bed I do my quick daily sort of all incoming bits and pieces I might want to do something about.

After that I have a clean white-board, a clear desk, and a small pile of high-priority items.  It feels great!

Next I look at my previously scheduled commitments, like my calendar, and sketch the day out.

Now I further sort my “high-priority” times until I have a maximum of three top-priority tasks. I’ll do these tasks in my “time to work” slot I discussed in my last post. These are high-impact tasks that usually aren’t urgent but are very important.

Next I pick a five to ten “up next” tasks that would be good to if and when I have time throughout the day.

All I see on my schedule are my appointments, my top-three tasks and my next 5-10.  The other stuff is on separate lists I’ll look at in the evening when I plan again.  I don’t like to be overwhelmed with a never-ending to-do list!

Most of our days as parents are unpredictable. We must be ready to go with the flow and deal with emergencies. I leave lots of breathing room in our schedule so I can still be a happy camper when the unexpected happens.

Knowing I completed my top priority tasks gives me a sense of accomplishment for the whole day. No matter what happens after that at least I moved forward a bit!

Sometimes I do have a little extra time and can get to my “next 5-10” tasks. Most days I’m surprised by how much work I can get in as opportunity and inspiration present themselves.

Some days are still horrible, like today. I couldn’t get this post written in my working time. I tried to finish in the mid-morning break. I ditched the 1,200 word monster and tried again while my husband fed the kids for lunch, and now I’m trying again after I sent the kids out of the house because they “lost the privilege” of being inside.

Still, because I’d set myself up so well due to last night’s planning, I was able to finish up the preparations for our new homeschool routine and we got most of it done today.

One thing going wrong doesn’t have to mess up the whole day if we’re properly prepared!

Rest is number one on my list of ingredients for a successful day, but planning is worth staying up a little later for.  Sadly, it still takes me 30 minutes or more, but It’s worth every moment ten times over.

If I don’t know what’s on my plate it does no good to run around trying to eat things faster.

The less time I have to plan the more important it is to plan. No one can afford to spend time on what doesn’t really matter in the end!

There is SO much more to planning, but I’ve struggled long enough trying to formulate the basics. Let me know where you’re struggling and I can share more details.

See the other posts in this series: how I keep sane, weekly planning, and E-mail.

10 thoughts on “Planning Basics: Daily Planning”

  1. I no longer have small children but my days are unpredictable for other reasons. I appreciate you spelling out your keys to sanity: priorities, planning, and the peace that comes from being able to say “well done” and “good enough.”

    I also rely on your Gretchen Rubin quote from last week. From her I have learned to schedule tasks in segments, completely contrary to my craving for a block of time to complete the whole task! But I’m more likely to get it done if I plan to do part of it now, another part later today, and finish it tomorrow. It’s much more satisfying to cross off 3 mini-tasks, rather than be upset that it was so daunting I never got to it at all. And, if I leave the task set up for the next step (change my clothes, thread the needle, or start the Word document) then I am more likely to utilize that next opening in my day.

    1. Yes, learning how to break task down into steps is crucial for success!

      I can well imagine that little kids aren’t the only interruptions in life, so the habits we’re learning now will pay off for the rest of life!

  2. It seems this method is not too dissimilar from the bullet journal (although I think my bullet journal methodology also includes some GTD).

    WHEN I use it (notice the capital letters there), I do a brain dump of everything I can think of, pick higher priority tasks for a monthly list, and from there the highest priority tasks get put on the next day’s list. Each night, I review and move the next high priority items to the list.

    My problem is (and I think your mother can tell this by my fits and starts in Duolingo) is lack of consistency. I’ll have a great day, check things off my list, and then at the end of the day settle down to read a book, or watch a show and forget all about planning for the next day!

    One final note: “…I’m trying again after I sent the kids out of the house because they “lost the privilege” of being inside.” Ha! You sound like my mom. I can remember her locking us outside telling us we needed to go play. I am sure it was so she could get a few well deserved moments to herself!

    Have a great day!

    1. Yes, I use a combination of things I learned from GTD and the bullet journal and others. Your systems sounds similar to mine, you just need a good trigger to remember to plan the night before. Maybe a tea or the promise of time to read after you’ve planned.

  3. I’ve been pondering this line:

    We need to plan well because we need to be ready to change the plan.

    for the last two days, and it is so, so, so TRUE. It is so much easier to modify a plan (or even abandon it altogether) for spontaneity, then to have no plan at all. With no plan, I feel constantly paralyzed because I DON’T KNOW what I’m supposed to be doing, and therefore cannot determine if the spontaneous opportunity is worth the disruption of the plan!!! Oh, this was such a kick in the pants to get me back to my MOM style to-do list, which worked really well for me. THANK YOU!

    I also love the idea of losing the privilege to be inside. That is so awesome. LOL.

    1. Yes, I hate that feeling of not knowing. Of course, we can’t know or control everything . . . but we do want to be ready to make good decisions.

      Maybe losing the privilege of being inside isn’t a bad idea, but it was said in anger, so it wasn’t the hot a parenting move this time . . .

  4. You have much wisdom here, but for now I’ll just agree with Monica. I’ve tried the Three Things List the last two days, and each has been blown away. The first, by a spontaneous trip to EPCOT, and the second by a task not on the lists of most of you: hurricane preparation.

    But thanks to the list, on the first day I completed one, nearly finished another, and at least made some progress on the third, knowing that none of that would likely have happened without the short list. Had it been longer, or non-existent, I’d have given in to the “I’m exhausted, I deserve a break” mentality when we returned home from the park.

    And today? We’ll see. I have to give hurricane prep the highest priority, but hope to squeeze the others in as well.

    1. This is one reason why I like doing my high-impact tasks early in the morning – children and storms and interruptions and life haven’t had the chance to attack me yet. 😉

      I wonder what would happened if you planned only an hour or 1 1/2 hours of important work in the morning then planned the rest of the day more like a regular job. Of course I do lots of work during the day with the kids and you have your daily work, too. But if you forced yourself to ask which task would give you the biggest return that you could complete in that first hour of work, then did it to completion . . . I’m curious if you’d feel differently about the interruptions that normal life throws at you every day!

  5. Still working on this. Monday I set myself three tasks. I began with the one I thought would give the biggest return at the moment. The next thing I knew, the day was over….

    Tuesday I kept the same list, once again starting with the task I really wanted to get done. Once again, the day was suddenly over.

    Today I’ve finally admitted that Task A is not as simple as I had thought it would be. I’m taking a day off, and working on Tasks B & C, which have now become critical.

    Lesson learned: When it becomes obvious that one task is taking too much time, restructure. Admit that it’s not going to get done in a timely manner, and transfer it to the list of projects that get a little bit of attention on a regular basis. Only put things on your daily list that really can get done in less than a day!

    1. I like your lesson learned. Clearly the apple does not fall far for the tree. It is hard work to keep a project from taking far too much time. Baby steps! You’re right, life must go on and you shouldn’t put everything on hold for one thing (most of the time).

      One exercise could be to plan just one most important task that can be completed in one hour. You can pick a bigger project, just define a smaller slice of it that you think you can do in an hour. Then, do it first thing in the morning (before comics, before checking email, before breakfast if you’re that type). Then don’t stop to talk or pee or say good morning or take a break or anything until you are DONE. If you have to reduce your vision of how wonderfully you want it done then so be it, but it must be done before you stop.

      After that you can plan your day however you like. The key is to practice planning your most important bite and then actually swallowing it and not just chewing it and spitting it out for later. lol

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