How to plan for a successful day

by Philipp · Jan 21st, 2021

After we learned why planning is crucially important for our success and well-being, I'm going to demonstrate how I do my planning routine. I use DayCaptain as tool, because it has been developed for supporting exactly this kind of process. However, you can adopt this process to any other tool as well (but I promise: you won't get close to being as fast as with DayCaptain).

Warning: when you become mindful of your breaks and how you spend your time, this might conflict with your “I'm a heavy hustler and crunch 14 office hours a day”-attitude. The goal is not anymore to keep you feeling busy while wasting time, but to make the most of your hours.

Weekly planning

Planning the week ahead is the fundamental part of the process. I think of it like this: Cut out seven days of your life and ask yourself the questions: What do I want to spend them on? What should be the focus of my mind for these 112 hours I have available?

Plan your week in advance. Sit down Sunday afternoon, or whenever works best for you, to decide what you will spend your time on.

Once we do this, we have to make a lot of decisions. Especially for me, making decisions is tough. If I decide for one thing - I have to turn down one hundred others. Even though it's obvious to me what I prefer doing, I somewhat like to maintain my freedom and the feeling of flexibility. But I still make decisions on Sundays. Because I learned one thing for myself by going through a lot of suffering: Once I am inside the situation, there is no way of making a single-minded decision of what to do. As described here, it inevitably leads me into a bad emotional state where I waste my time and think bad about me.

While planning, we will realize that it's tough - a lot tougher than we may have thought. In the beginning it feels somewhat like telling lies to ourselves if we schedule a time block for Thursday morning on Sunday evening. From our endless experiences about unresolved New Years resolutions and vague plans we made in the past, we learned for ourselves that we don't follow our plans anyway. But the same way we learned it, we can also learn to trust ourselves again.

I felt like this when I began to make detailed plans for myself. But it got replaced with the feeling of being the owner of my time. That I am the one responsible for how I spend it. I know what works for myself and what doesn't. I rediscovered the faith into myself and that I will respect the plans I made. That is the point where we want to end up. Because it is only then, when we have faith into ourselves that we will obey our plans, that we finally can achieve anything we set us up for. Try it out. Draw a week schedule on a piece of paper and fill the gaps. You will have trouble filling all the time available to you with the tasks you want to accomplish.

Decide the tasks and prioritize

That is the first step of your week planning. Here we decide what we will spend our time on the next seven days. It gives us space and freedom to ask yourself: what would I like to do next week? Gather all the things that you want to accomplish. Find a list of things which you would be proud of, if you finished all of them in this one week. It should reflect all your goals. Also, add the routines that you set for yourself to follow. Like doing sports two times or journal daily. Write down if you want to learn something.

Bring your tasks into the order of importance for your personal achievement. There may be many externally motivated tasks and things that you simply have to do. Become clear of why you are doing each of the tasks. Put first the ones with long-term returns on your personal goals. The top priority task should always be something that serves your intrinsic needs. It could be something that you have been kicking down the road some time, or something that simply helps you to stay on track. For me, for example, it is always to plan the next week.

Assign a time budget.

This is one of the harder things. We might not now how long it will take us to finish a task. Especially, if we don't know where to start. So many things may just go wrong. However, if we feel we cannot make any prediction, it's probably a good idea to become clearer of what we are trying to do. Then we should split the task up into several smaller steps. Usually, we have a rough estimate in mind how long something will take - and from my personal experience it is pretty decent most of the times and terribly wrong some times.

The time budgets give us an idea how much time we spend in the week to achieve our goals. We can see at a glance how much time we spend on valuable things. We tend to delude ourselves if we do not create evidence. We set way to high goals because we over-estimate how much we are capable of doing in one week. Keep in mind, the goal is to make the journey a pleasure. If you put in too many tasks you will end up being disappointed and stressed. Over time, you will develop a feeling of how much you are capable of working.

Become aware of your fixed appointments in the week

Now it's time to find to see how much time is actually already taken from appointments. Once I became aware of how much time is taken by meetings, I developed a strong aversion against accepting them. I realized how they cut my day into small blocks that are mostly not even worth starting something valuable. It's important to know when you have time to do your actual work. Gather all events for next week, and put them into your calendar.

Add routines that you would like to follow

If you have non-negotiable routines that you want to follow, put them into your calendar first. They are boundaries for the time blocks for your tasks. Additionally, they probably put you into a predictable emotional state. They can serve you as emotional neutralizer to even your day out. If you have a bad morning, feeling unproductive and restless, after, say, you do your meditation and have a walk at lunch-time, you probably get back to the usual state after that routine. Once we start to write things down and reflect on our days, we get to know ourselves and identify our behaviors. Over time, we learn what works of ourselves. We then leverage that knowledge about ourselves to make well though-through plans that take advantage of our emotional state.

Schedule your building blocks.

After entering all fixed blocks there's usually not so much time left. If we hadn't made this plan, we would still delude ourselves thinking we had 16 hours a day to work. In practice, it usually comes down to a handful of hours of concentrated, uninterrupted work. These are the hours we should embrace and be careful about.

I assign these blocks as follows:

Do something that adds the most value as first thing in the morning.

In the morning, even before the first meeting or breakfast I try to do something towards my personal goals. In the morning, I am full of energy and optimism. My brain's fresh and the main memory is empty. Nothing's bothering me. I am free. So it's the best time to make progress towards my goal. Try it! Use at least one hour for something super-hard that you want to solve. Do it every day, and review the progress you make. Give it one month and watch out not to be overwhelmed by the results.

Schedule time for uninterrupted work.

As we see from our week skeleton we actually do not have too much time to get our work done. When we schedule our tasks in the week, we should make sure we spend them as concentrated as possible. We want to use our limited hours as efficient as possible to make the most progress. Therefore, I call these blocks deep work blocks, where I leave my phone in silent mode and email program off. I isolate myself with the task and avoid any distraction. I actually prohibit distractions. I want to work on my task and therefore need my brain to focus for some time.

Know your energy level

You should account for your recreational time the same way you do for your tasks. If you want to read the news or go for a walk. If you want to chat with colleagues or be on social media, you should account for this. We are not machines and need our breaks. I believe it's better to account for them instead of neglecting them and be on Insta while you planned to work on your tasks. That will happen only if your didn't schedule your brake because you will feel tired if you ask too much of yourself.

Have an End-of-Day routine

Set a specific time when you will end your day. Set an alarm to pull you out of your task. This is the deadline for your working day. It will help you to make sure you follow your plan. That's so important, because only if you fail to follow your plan, you will actually experience the feeling of stress and not having enough time to do all the things you want to do.

By setting the alarm as your absolute deadline for the day you make sure you do not neglect your other plans. See it as a final barrier which keeps you from falling into stress mode. It's your insurance against being one of the guys running around saying “I don't have time.”

You can combine your end-of-day deadline with a daily routine. For example, use it for planning your next day or do some journaling. You could ask yourself questions like:

Journaling will help you to get to know you better. Once you start asking yourself how your day went, you inevitably pay attention to it. Even if you do not review your entries later, you learn what works for you and what doesn't.

On making realistic plans and getting to know ourselves.

In the beginning it's extremely tough to make reasonable and feasible plans. We tend to overestimate what we can achieve in one week. If you think of yourself: “I'm a hustler. I crunch 12 hours in the office every day. So, let's plan each day for 12 hours.” you will have a hell of a day. You will feel like falling behind your schedule and that you are extremely unproductive. I encourage you to try it out. But keep in mind that you are extremely likely to fail. Having the subjective feeling of being busy for 12 hours and working concentrated for 12 hours diverge extremely. We should aim to learn for ourselves how much we can achieve in a day without falling into the state of stress. If you never get to learn your capacity, you probably either lower your goals, or end up being stressed by your work for the rest of your life.

If you start to make realistic plans, on the other hand, you gain the ability to estimate the amount of work you can do in a week. You take the time to do all the things you want to do without any feeling of stress. You know exactly what the week will bring and what you will be up to. You can blindly follow the plan because you have the peace of mind that you have made the decisions yourself last week and had a much clearer view on the things.

As I stated before: you can indeed do your planning with any other tool as well. But I included for you below a demonstration how fast you can do it with DayCaptain. The time limiting factor will be your thinking and decision-making, not the interaction with the tool. That's what we have built it for. We believe that you can gain full control over your time in a handful of minutes each day.