You probably already know that planning your day is one of the most important productivity habits you can develop.

But you are unsure how a day plan could possibly work for you. No two days are the same in your life and you never know what’s going to come up!

Perhaps you have even tried to plan out your day in advance. But it just left you frustrated when the plan fell apart within the first few hours. And trying to adhere to the plan made you feel super stressed.

I hear you!

But good news: Daily planning comes in many shapes and sizes. And I firmly believe that the perfect day plan is out there for everyone.  It’s just a matter of finding the type of day plan that works for you.

How to plan your days when each day is unpredictable and different.

A day plan does not have to be a day routine

First off, a common misconception about day plans is that they need to be the same or similar from one day to the next. Almost like a daily routine.

While there are certainly benefits to routines in general, they don’t have to span your entire day. You can have a morning routine for example, and then have something different going on every day after that.

If your days are unpredictable and different, don’t fixate on trying to create a daily routine. It’s OK to have each day be unique. And we can still make an awesome day plan for each one.

The golden rules for day planning

one day at a time, the night before

It is best to plan your day the night before and only ever plan out a day in detail one day at a time. There is no point in planning out your days for an entire week in advance if you don’t even know what is going to happen tomorrow.

Planning one day ahead of time allows you to have the freshest information about what is going on: what is currently urgent and important and what is on your agenda tomorrow (e.g. meetings, fixed commitments).

The day plan that won’t work for you

tasks on a calendar

When you think of a day plan, you might picture something like this:

scheduling tasks into a calendar
Scheduling tasks into a calendar… not the best idea for unpredictable days

This is the “tasks on a calendar” approach. This day schedule details exactly when you need to start and finish a task. And in this particular example every minute of the day is planned out.

While this approach can work well for some people (very few people in my experience), it is definitely not going to work well for you if your days are unpredictable.

Sure you can always delete or move things around when something else comes up… But the problem with adjusting your day plan during the day is that each little adjustment feels a bit like a failure. And that is an open invitation for feelings of frustration and defeat to creep in.

Plus, moving things around on a calendar is very tedious to do, don’t you think? I mean, the whole point of a plan is to have something we can follow without much thinking. Constantly having to adjust it kind of defeats that purpose.

The flexibility attribute

How flexible is your day plan?

Each day plan has a certain level of flexibility. And the “tasks on a calendar” approach is on the lower end of the flexibility spectrum.

Even if we build in unscheduled time, each task is tightly coupled to a timeline. And that reduces the choice you have in deciding when a good time is to do a task on the fly.

As a general rule, the more unpredictable your days and the more interruptions and spontaneous tasks show up during your day, the more flexible your day planning method needs to be.

Your day plan should look more like this

The daily to-do list

most flexible day plan - daily todo list
The most flexible day plan – daily to-do list

On the other end of the flexibility spectrum we have the daily to-do list. The most flexible day plan there is.

A to-do list for your day IS a day plan. It’s an intention of what you are going to do (the very definition of the word “plan”) and it has a time frame attached to it when you intend to do it (today!).

The daily to-do list gives you maximum flexibility: You can do the tasks in any order, at any time and when something else comes up you can easily add it to your list without  having to adjust anything.

Of course, if you put so many tasks on your to-do list that you can barely finish it all in a day, you will also experience frustration when new tasks pop up throughout the day. Generally, the smaller your to-do list the more flexible it is. So definitely keep your daily to-do list on the shorter side to allow for spontaneous work and interruptions to fit in.

Finding your flexibility sweet spot

adjust, adjust, adjust

But maximum flexibility isn’t always the right answer. There is a downside to too much flexibility.

A plan is supposed to help us focus on execution during the day, not wrangling with questions of what to do. We already answered those questions during planning!

But with a flexible day plan we are often confronted again with having to make lots of decisions about what to do next. And during a busy and stressful day, those decisions just add to our overwhelm making us less productive.

There are also specific benefits that come with a less flexible approach to day planning.

For example, the more specific our intention to do something is (aka what time and where) the more likely we are to do it and not procrastinate. We lose part of that benefit when we don’t have a specific time attached to a task.

And finally, putting tasks on a schedule helps you to be more mindful about how long each task takes, which reduces the risk of putting way too much on your plate for a day.

So what if we want to have it all? Flexibility plus all the benefits of a more rigid plan. Is it possible?

Absolutely! The key is to find your flexibility sweet spot: just enough flexibility so you don’t have to change plans throughout the day but not so much that you lose all the benefits of having a structured plan.

The way you find that sweet spot is to start somewhere and then make small adjustments to increase or decrease flexibility.

Since you know you need a lot of flexibility, start with the daily to-do list. You can then experiment with adding a bit more rigidity and structure.

You might also want to make use of some special to-do list techniques that provide the same benefits that a “tasks on a calendar” approach would. For example, you can assign a time estimate to each task to make sure you are not planning too much for your day.

Adding more structure to your daily to-do list

lowering flexibility

Here are a few ideas on how to add a bit more structure to your daily list. 

  • Only assign a specific start time to a few tasks you are likely to procrastinate. Set a reminder on your phone or computer for those tasks.
  • Sort your list based on priorities and work your way down from the top. No skipping!
  • Section your to-do list into large time blocks and sort your tasks roughly into these time blocks: try morning, afternoon and evening for example.
  • Mark your to-do list items with a priority markers (A, B, C) and add something that signals urgency (eg. !) to any items that MUST get done today. Use these to make quicker decisions what to do next throughout your day.

If you implement some of these strategies, your to-do list for the day might look something like this:

daily todo list techniques
Adding a few t0-do list techniques to make a daily to-do list more structured
If your days are unpredictable you need a day plan with a lot of flexibility built in. A daily to-do list is the most flexible type of day plan. But too much flexibility has downsides, so you can experiment with adding a bit more structure into your daily to-do list with the following ideas:
How to make your daily to-do list more structured
  • Only add a specific start time to one or two tasks you are likely to procrastinate
  • Sort your list in the order you need to do the tasks, then just start from the top
  • Use priority and urgency markers to know what can wait if necessary and what can’t
  • Break your daily to-do list into large time segments (e.g. morning, afternoon and evening)
General Day Planning Tips
  • Only plan your next day in detail to ensure you have the freshest information
  • Plan your day the night before
  • Add time estimates to your tasks to make sure you don’t over-schedule your day.
  • The more interruptions and spontaneous tasks you have throughout the day, the shorter your to-do list should be
Share in the comments

Are your days unpredictable? Are you currently making any type of day plan?

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  • Anne
    Posted August 17, 2019 12:27 AM
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    Wow! I have been binge-reading planning-your-day and productivity tips for the past half hour and I think this article is the one I most resonate with. Thank you!!!

    • Christina Willner
      Posted August 22, 2019 5:16 PM
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      Oh so glad to hear that the post resonated with you! 🙂

  • Dr. Frank Buck
    Posted September 11, 2019 2:39 PM
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    Having been in the productivity space for a long time, I see the pendulum swing back and forth. Lately, I have seen the pendulum swing to the “put everything on your calendar”/”time block” philosophy. I love the diagram of what our calendar starts to look like when you actually do that. Your calendar is a mess…not to mention whatever doesn’t get done has to be manually moved.

    Your suggestion to plan each day the night before is right on the money. If a person truly plans the tasks for the next day in a logical order…and then hits the ground running the next morning what was planned, the day gets off to a great start.

    • Christina Willner
      Posted September 11, 2019 3:03 PM
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      Thank you so much for your insights, Frank! That is very interesting to hear how there are definite productivity trends and that it is currently about putting things on the calendar. 🙂

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