Stop Overwhelming, Start Planning

“Planning is bringing the future into the present so that you can do something about it now.” – Alan Lakein

The key to good time management is planning. Without it, our brain feels overloaded and puts us in ‘overwhelmed’ mode making it almost impossible to get difficult work done.

I would suggest you start with this system and tweak it as you go along to figure out what works best for you:

When should you plan?

To be most effective, planning needs to be done daily. Each evening, before you finish work for the day, spend ten minutes doing the following:

1. Review:

Look at your To-Do list. What was completed and what still needs to be done? Your To-Do list should include a section for work and a section for personal tasks. If you’re looking for a great app, I use (and love) ToDoist.

2. Prioritize:

Assess and prioritize each task (low-medium-high, 1-2-3, yellow-orange-red…whatever system works for you). What really needs to get done immediately? What big projects do you need to start making progress on?

3. Estimate:

For each item on your To-Do list, estimate how long you think it will take to complete. Be generous; most things take longer than we expect. At first, your estimations might be off, but over time you will become pretty precise, especially on repeating tasks.

4. Degree of Difficulty:

It is helpful to rank the degree of difficulty for each task. You can create your own scale or simply use 1 to represent easy, 2 for medium, and 3 for hard.

How should you plan?

This is where it all comes together!

6 steps to super-easy planning:

  1. Each evening, look at what needs to get done. Each task should have an estimated time assigned to its well as a degree of difficulty. Update the list for new tasks and adjust the estimated time and degree of difficulty, as needed.
  2. Take out your calendar and be sure to schedule. Fill in meetings (or classes if you’re a student) and other ‘fixed’ variables. Then, look at your list of tasks and decide which need to get done immediately. By prioritizing your to-do list every day, nothing will fall through the cracks or be forgotten. Your calendar is a great tool and will serve as your road map each day.
  3. Include your personal ‘fixed’ items (an exercise class, pick-up basketball Wednesday evenings, etc.)
  4. Consider the times during the day when you are most alert and attentive. Everyone has windows of peak performance. Put simply, it’s the time of day when you find it easiest to focus and get your most difficult work done. Schedule your harder tasks during these times but be sure to allow for regular breaks. If you find yourself tired and sluggish in the late afternoon, be sure to plan easier work to be done during that time.
  5. Allow for regular breaks. Our brains can stay focused for up to 90 minutes. It’s important, especially if you are switching tasks, to let your brain relax and reset. Five minutes will do the trick (but be wary of taking a five-minute social media break; it’s amazing how quickly five minutes turns to fifty!)
  6. The Pomodoro method. This method of time management was created in Italy in the 1980s by Francesco Cirillo. The technique suggests using a timer set for 25 minutes of concentration followed by 5 minutes of relaxation. You can use this as a guide or adjust the 25 to 20 minutes if that’s your optimal working time.

Why should you plan?

Your calendar will serve as your road map each day. Scheduling a specific time to get work done will enable you to get your work done more efficiently and you should find that there is also time to do things you enjoy (dinner with friends, exercise, movies, etc.)

Blocking out time in your calendar for the personal things you enjoy will protect that time so work does not creep in.

Following a system like this helps you sleep better at night knowing what to expect the following day.

That being said, we often wake up to crises that need us to change our plans. Having a plan in place makes you more resilient and flexible in addressing surprises and handling stressful situations.

If you are a student, you can apply the same concepts (substitute classes for meetings, etc.)

This post was written by Sharon Feldman Danzger and first appeared on her blog.

Sharon Feldman Danzger

Sharon Danzger is the founder of Control Chaos and author of ‘Super-Productive: 120 Strategies to Do More and Stress Less‘. Her firm helps clients improve personal productivity and performance through corporate training programs and individualized coaching.