George Halachev
Feb 6, 2017 · 5 min read
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So why make a daily plan in the first place?

  • You will be more in control of your day.
  • You will get more done.
  • You will be more efficient with your time.
  • You will have more peace of mind.

Or at least that’s what productivity experts tell you.

Most of the time, however, it doesn’t work out that way. Most of the time we make daily plans and it’s a total clusterfuck. None of the tasks on your list get done and there are a bunch of new ones that popped out of nowhere.

That used to happen to me all the time when I tried to make a plan. After a while, I just gave up and thought that planning is pointless since things never happen as planned anyway.

However, it’s not that planning doesn’t work. I just didn’t know how to do it.

Planning is a Skill

The first wrong assumption that I had is that planning doesn’t require any learning. I thought it was just about writing down your tasks and prioritizing them.

That is certainly the first step, yes, but the process doesn’t end there. At least if you want the planning to be useful.

The main skill that we have to learn when planning a day is estimation or prediction. We’re essentially trying to set a bunch of goals and trying to predict how our day is going to pan out. How much time and effort the tasks are going to take. That requires some practice and learning to be able to do accurately.

Here are a few tips that I’ve picked up over the years that help me get better at estimation and make plans that actually work.

Time Your Tasks

A great way to start improving your prediction skill is timing your tasks. When you start planning your day just put a simple time estimate next to each task. For example:

  • Get to Inbox zero (60 mins)
  • Write a blog post (120 mins)
  • Lunch (60 mins)
  • Nap (30 mins)
  • Do my laundry (30 mins)

Keep it simple. We don’t want this to get tedious. After timing all your tasks, you can quickly add them up and see what the total is. The total in the example above is 5 hours.

The first time I did this for my daily plan the total was 24 hours. 24 hours worth of tasks that I somehow thought I was going to get done in a 8 hour work day. It was a huge overestimation.

So writing everything down and timing it brings you one step closer to reality.

Break Tasks into Smaller Steps

Another huge problem is that we usually underestimate how much time an individual task takes. Our brain just ignores all the little details and complications that come with a task and comes up with a very unrealistic deadline.

For example, I have a task to go pick up my new driver’s license from the DMV. Off the top of my head, that task is going to take about 30–40 minutes.

But if I try to break that into smaller pieces it might look something like this:

  • Go to my car (5 mins)
  • Defrost it, since it’s winter (5 mins)
  • Drive to the DMV (20 mins)
  • Stuck in traffic (10 mins)
  • Find a place to park (5 mins)
  • Wait in line at the DMV (10 mins)
  • Drive back home (20 mins)

So after breaking it up, I think a more realistic estimate would be 75 minutes. Almost double of what I thought it was going to be initially.

The more you break down a task into smaller pieces, the easier it’s going to be to predict the total time.

Of course, you don’t have to write down all these little details into your to-do list. That’s just going to make it tedious to manage and very cluttered. You can do the break down on a separate piece of paper or file that you trash after you’re done.

Plan for the Unexpected

Another mistake that we often do is thinking that we’ll have a 100% of our work day at our disposal. If we have a 8 hour work day, we tend to plan for 8 hours worth of tasks. As if nothing unexpected is going to happen.

That’s rarely the case, though. There are always new tasks and complications that come with every day. Especially if you have a boss and he’s the one who gives you more tasks.

Your unexpected time depends on the type of work you do and how much control of your schedule you have. It might be 30 minutes or 5 hours. Since it’s unexpected, it’s not going to be very accurate anyway, so you might as well pick an average time for every day. Your plans will be more accurate with the average unexpected time than planning for 100% availability.

Plan for the Downtime

Another way to be more accurate is to figure out what your effective working time is. That means you have to subtract all the activities that you do during the day that aren’t work related. For example:

  • Lunch (60 mins)
  • Talking on the phone (30 mins)
  • Taking breaks (40 mins)
  • Going to the bathroom (20 mins)
  • Commute (60 mins)

A good way to figure out your effective working time is to use a tool like Toggl to track your work for a few days.

When I first started tracking my time with Toggl I was shocked that I had less than 4 hours of effective work in a 8 hour work day. No wonder my daily schedules never worked.

Practice, practice, practice.

Even with all these exercises, sometimes you will be way off. By default, we humans are not very good at predicting time. So don’t worry if you suck at it in the beginning.

Something that you thought was going to take 5 minutes might take 2 hours. That’s fine. You’re just practicing. The more you do it, the better you’ll get at it.

The more of these exercises you do the more you’ll develop your estimation skill. After doing it for a while you’ll start developing an intuition about it. Even without writing anything down you’ll intuitively know that it’s a very unrealistic plan because you’ve seen it fail before hundreds of times.

When you’re new at this, it’s safe to say that you can double any time prediction that you make for a task. You’ll probably be closer to reality that way.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

George Halachev

Written by

Online coach and blogger focusing on productivity and building better habits.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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