How to plan your day in just 5 minutes
The 5-minute plan that has helped me tackle lockdown productivity slumps.
I’ll be covering the simple 5-minute technique I’ve been using to plan my day since the beginning of uni. I have found productivity slumps can be very persistent in the lockdown environment, where activities outside the house that would usually help reset the mind become extremely limited.
Where did I find this technique? Just before coming to university, I read Carl Newport’s “How to become a straight-A student”, as I knew there was a smarter way to revise and I wanted to be able to free up time for tasks beyond studying at university. The book has brilliant insights and advice, especially for essay-based assignments, which I have fortunately been able to shun away from in my second year. I will be summarising a tip that has had the largest impact on me: how to plan your day.
As a side note, Carl Newport is an awesome writer and I would highly recommend some of his other books like Deep Work, especially in a world that suffers from some of the negative consequences of social media.
A piece of paper, a pen & ruler is all you need.
Here is how I carry out the daily plans as inspired by Carl Newport’s advice:
- Grab an A4 piece of paper (best to do this the night before).
- Draw a line down the left-hand margin of the page and number the hours of the day (I split the page into 28/2cm which covers 14 hours in total).
- Fill in your pre-commitments, which currently might consist of a couple of Zoom meetings, MS Teams live lectures etc.
- Review the tasks you want to complete e.g. split into degree course, society responsibilities, social commitments and exercise you want to fit in.
- Now pick the one focus for the day – out of all those tasks, pick one that would determine a ‘productive day’ and be specific e.g. completing the multiple-choice practice quiz for Stats topic 5 after revising the content.
- Then fill in rough estimates on which blocks of time you will dedicate to which tasks – start with the prioritised task mentioned in step 5 and go down to the other 2, or max 3 important tasks (can lump small tasks together).
- Finally, I suggest reviewing the day, ensuring you have maintained nothing more conservative than a 3:1 “work: break” ratio.
Throughout the day, whenever you remember something important, or you think up a non-urgent brainchild (most are non-urgent), write it down on the back of the A4 page to review before making tomorrow’s plan.
[Extra-segment] Expanding on the underlined points above.
- Why do this task the night before?
If you’re like me in that thoughts race through your mind while you try to get to sleep, planning just before shutting down can reduce the stress you feel ahead of a workday. Also, bolting the day plan onto your night routine can ensure you plan consistently; James Clear refers to this as ‘habit stacking’ from Atomic Habits, which I couldn’t recommend enough if you haven’t read it yet.
- Why only choose one focus for the day?
Quote from Alexander Graham Bell: “Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.”
Forcing yourself to focus on the most important task of the day is tough, but it is essential if you want to reduce anxiety on whether you’re moving fast enough and avoids procrastinating on less important matters.
As a side note, I’m not against to-do lists, but I do recommend handwriting your ‘open-loop’ tasks each week on a single side of A4 to force yourself to ‘close’ loops when it gets overfilled… it is painful to re-write a massive to-do list.
- Why the 3:1 work ratio?
Some may think 3:1 isn’t high enough, i.e. that we should aim for more break, and some will say it’s way too high, i.e. that we should be working much more in the day. The 3:1 ratio is something that I found works for me (i.e. schedule 3 hours of work and 1 hour of blank space) in terms of building flexibility into the schedule. Studying smart is so much more important than studying hard, especially considering some modules can require a lot of mental horsepower. I find that the 1hr break every 3hrs gets lost through ‘time leakage’ e.g. unexpected events, messages, or having a snack.
Hopefully, this technique will help you in planning your day, but I must emphasise that if you do adopt it, keep open-minded about tweaking it to fit your style of working e.g. going by tasks/milestones rather than hour blocks.