If you don’t control your schedule, your schedule will control you.
As we enter our third year in a pandemic, chronic stress rules the day. Widespread uncertainty makes it hard for us to concentrate. Lack of focus makes everything take longer, and so we work more but accomplish less. Fortunately, there are more effective strategies for coping with anxiety and exhaustion than trying to convince ourselves we know what is coming.
Ironically, one of those strategies is planning. Don’t get me wrong; I do think the plans we make today are often useless tomorrow. But even though our plans might turn out to be unworkable, the planning process is indispensable. Planning creates context and provides a structure for our daily activities. It gives us a solid foundation on which to adapt to a new and unplanned future.
Here’s how to make a plan that will help you find more focus, flow, and productivity in the coming year.
Step 1: Let your priorities lead
When the future is uncertain, we need our priorities to be blazingly obvious to us all the time. Otherwise, we spin our wheels on tasks that might be priorities for others but not for us, or that might be easy to do but not that important. Without clear priorities, we often become overwhelmed by all there is to do. To avoid that, we need to decide on our top priorities and then spend 95% of our time doing only those activities, saying “no” to everything else as much as possible.
Spending 95% of our time on our top priorities leaves only about five hours a week for other things—the other 5%, the things that aren’t real priorities, but often need to be done. Most days, my 5% time is mostly spent answering emails and doing administrative work that is unrelated to my highest priorities.
Step 2: Create structure for yourself
One important key to both productivity and stability in this crazy age is to create structure for yourself. If you’re working from home but missing your office (or even your commute), you might be missing the structure that the workplace used to provide: a clear start and end to the workday, built-in breaks, time to socialize. If the daily routine you’ve fallen into during the pandemic isn’t working for you, create one that does.
Design your “ideal day.” Begin by designing your ideal day (you can use this free template). All the habits I’m trying to start or keep repeat daily on my schedule: reading, exercising, meditating, tidying up—even measuring my habits. Some of my routine tasks occur only once a week, but they automatically repeat on my schedule, as well. (For example, every Friday after lunch I do some bookkeeping, and so that is already in my planner template.)
Before I set up my ideal day, I was constantly negotiating with myself about when I’d do the things I needed to do. Should I do my daily planning before or after breakfast? Should I shower at lunch to break up the day? Before the pandemic, I probably never would have considered these things—I had existing routines that worked. Now, though, the possibilities are endless.
Making decisions, even little bitty ones, taxes the part of our brain that we need to focus, and uses up the energy we need for more important things. And these days, focus and energy are often in short supply. Better to decide once.
Even if your work is less flexible and a large part of your day is already spoken for, it can still help to create clear morning and bedtime routines. Try to build activities into your schedule that tend to go undone unless you explicitly make time for them, like exercise and a pause to unwind.
Pre-deciding when we will do routine tasks also helps us establish new habits and shortens our to-do list. For years, I had repetitive tasks like “clean out email,” and “plan meals for the week” as recurring to-dos. This needlessly lengthened my task list, adding to my sense of overwhelm. Now, because I know when I will do these recurring tasks, I don’t need to write them down or nag myself to get them done.
Step 3: Use time-blocking and task-batching
I do keep online calendars and task lists, but I prefer to plan out each day on paper each morning. That may seem redundant, but it helps me see clearly what my priorities for the day are, and it gives me the structure that I need to keep myself focused on them.
When you’re planning a particular day, start by adding meetings and appointments to your schedule. This will help you see how much time you have for projects and tasks. Next, block off time for your highest-priority tasks. This is a time management technique called time-blocking.
Next, designate time on your calendar for smaller types of tasks. What I call “action items” are tasks that take about 20 minutes each; if I have an open hour, I know I can knock three of these off my list. “Quick tasks” take five minutes or so; if I’ve got a half hour, I can do about five. Grouping similar tasks in this way is called “task-batching,” and it creates additional efficiencies.
Have you ever woken up worrying about an unfinished project, an email you forgot to send, or a meeting you didn’t have a chance to schedule? Lingering to-do items drain our energy and interrupt our focus (and, sometimes, our sleep). It turns out, we just need to tell our brains when we will do what we need to do so they don’t nag us.
Researchers used to think that this low-level worrying about unfinished tasks was our unconscious mind trying to get things done by reminding us of what we still needed to do. The belief was that the reminders—or distracting thoughts and worries—would persist until the task was complete.
But research suggests that simply making a plan to deal with an unfinished task makes a huge difference in our ability to focus. It’s not so much about knowing what needs to be done as it is about deciding when to do it. When we don’t know when or how we will finish the things on our task lists, our thoughts will typically wander from our current task to our undone tasks; this is called the “Zeigarnik effect.” As it turns out, our unconscious mind isn’t necessarily nagging us to do that undone task right now, but rather to make a plan for when we will get it done.
To handle this, you can either schedule a task on your calendar or designate it as an action item or a quick task. This is all, it seems, that our brain needs to let something go.
When we don’t have a structure, blazingly obvious priorities, and a plan, distractions inevitably take over. Other people (and email) dictate our to-do lists. So instead of keeping a neverending to-do list of things you really (really!) hope to accomplish in a given day or week, this simple system can help you start each day with a concrete plan for what you’ll work on and when.
You don’t have to constantly make choices about what to concentrate on: Just follow your schedule.