How do you plan your day? Do you scribble a list of errands on the back of an old receipt, or meticulously plot your daily, weekly, and monthly schedule vis a vis your annual goals? Do you use a notebook or a personal digital assistant? Or (like many of us) have you tried nearly every time management tool in the world and still feel like your life is spiraling out of control?
There’s a reason why it’s called a personal planner—you need to find a system that works for you. Here are some tips on maximizing your planner, your way.
Step 1: Evaluate your existing time management system.
Look at the planner you have now. Which sections do you use the most? Which sections do you use the least? Do you often run out of space for the things you need to write down? Or, do you have trouble finding the information you need, forget appointments, or feel overwhelmed when you see everything you need to do?
Does the planner structure work for the type of schedule you keep? For example, most planners are designed for very regimented tasks, thanks to the hourly breakdown of the day. But what about multi-tasking, or more erratic work hours—a typical problem for home-based entrepreneurs or working moms.
Step 2: Write down what works and what doesn’t.
Divide a piece of paper into two columns. In the first column, write down the features that really help you organize your day. For example: ‘I like that it had blank pages to write down important points from meetings.’ Or, ‘I liked having a space for important numbers, so I can find important contact information without having to go through my Rolodex.’ On the second column, write down the problems with the planner systems you’ve tried: ‘Project chart is too small’ or ‘There’s not enough space for tasks I do on weekends.’
Step 3: Observe your work style and personality.
What is your regular day like, and what tasks do you typically have to complete? Does your schedule vary a lot from day to day? Do you have a lot of out-of-office appointments and need space for appointments or notes on clients? Does your work consist of one long-term project that you need to complete over several weeks, or smaller projects that you juggle simultaneously? What will help you keep track of that?
‘I want charts to help me plot the details of a long-term project.’ Or, ‘I want separate columns for my work errands and my family errands.’ Or, ‘I need a priority system.’ Or, “I need a clear action plan so I can stop procrastinating.”
Be honest, too, about your own needs and quirks. ‘I feel frazzled if I see too many things on one page’ or ‘I’m forgetful and need to take notes constantly.’
Step 4: Shop for a planner that fits your needs.
If you constantly lack space, you may need a bigger notebook. If you want to take down notes but feel overwhelmed if you see a messy page, look for one that has a notepad (or attach one with a bull clip to one of the covers. If you don’t like the way the project charts are organized, print your own—it will take just a few minutes to make enough for a year. However, so you don’t lose any loose sheets, you may want to use a ring binder type planner so you can insert whatever charts you make.
Step 5: Include a way of tracking all the details.
It’s important for your planner to have everything you need. It’s counterproductive if you look at different notebooks to consolidate your schedule or look for information—you’ll just waste time searching for what you need or overbook your day because you forgot about an appointment you wrote down somewhere else.
Plus, time management systems need to incorporate all the little errands (helping a child study for an exam, birthdays and family events, going to your doctor for your annual checkup) so you have a realistic idea of your schedule.
Step 6: Practice an ‘at-a-glance’ rule.
Even if you write everything down, if the data is buried or illegible, it’s useless. You need to understand your notes at a glance. Some people use a column that divides different types of tasks or follow a color coding system with highlighters or colored markers. Also create a personal priority system, with symbols like asterisks or arrows for very crucial tasks.
Step 7: Be realistic.
Allot enough time to complete a task, and be prepared to bump off low-priority tasks to another day in case something unexpected happens. It’s best to assess your task list at the end of each day, and then make notes about what to do the next day or immediately delegate or cancel what you know you can’t accomplish. Your planner then becomes a true way of managing both your time and your workload.