my simple system for creating powerful daily plans

Creating the perfect daily planning system has been an obsession of mine for years.  

I’m a  scatterbrained person by nature and I need an external place to dump information. This has been vital since starting university. After being a guinea pig for countless systems, I have finally worked out how to write the most effective to-do list possible.

But what's wrong with a standard to-do list? Well, it doesn't work for me. I don't just use to-do list for academic or work-related things- I use it for everything.

So, I decided to overhaul my simple bullet journal and create something new. Here’s what my prior spreads looked like during August:

Ah, how I miss the summer when I could spend all day at the gym, reading, writing and meditating.

This sort of spread is fine for a small number of daily tasks, just not for a larger number.

It then evolved into this because I needed a full page for each day upon starting university. However, I soon ran into problems due to the lack of any sort of hierarchy. Most days, I would work through them in the order they were written. Important things started to get missed.

I know what you're thinking- is this even in English? My plans get quite messy as a month progresses.

Bullet journals are an excellent system for a few reasons:

  • Uncompleted tasks can be moved forward.

  • The index makes it easy to find specific pages.

  • It’s satisfying in a visual sense system which can make it more motivating.

There are some downsides, though:

  • People often get bogged down with decorating pages.  It’s easy to forget what the main purpose of these journals actually is- helping you to get shit done.

  • Tasks tend to be entered in the order you think of them, so there is no hierarchy based on importance. This makes it easy to only work on the lowest impact bullets and to keep shuffling the tougher ones forward. Ticking off items feels productive, even when they are insignificant things which don’t need doing straight away, like polishing shoes or buying turmeric. Meanwhile, the important stuff, like writing an essay, gets ignored.

  • It’s tricky to know how much space to use for each day. Too little, and there’s no room for extra tasks. Too much and you may feel obliged to fill the space with tiny tasks or end up spending a fortune on notebooks.

  • It's possible to end up ticking off tasks for the sake of it. Let's say, I schedule in a task a few days in advance. Then I come to that page and realize I no longer actually need to do it. But it's in my bullet journal! I can't just leave a glaring, unticked task! So I do it anyway, wasting time and energy on something pointless.

  • Devotees tend to insist that bullet journals are the only REAL planning system. They then turn away from tools which can be useful in conjunction, such as Habitica and Google Calendar.

The main criteria for the new design were:

  • Being able to move tasks forward if they weren’t completed.

  • A way of grading tasks by importance.

  • Some kind of brain dump component for recording small tasks.

  • Plenty of space for each day.

  • The potential to integrate it with my calendar.

  • No pointless extra pages (such as habit trackers or monthly overviews.)

Here’s what I came up with:

Note: this is obviously how it looks before being filled in. The bullet points here are some of my basic reoccurring tasks. I usually end up with 3-9 items in each square.

Simple, yet effective.

For this, I use a Moleskine Cahier notebook in the medium size. It's a sturdy and lightweight with room for at least 2 months' worth of planning. It's also cheaper than most planners. Each two-page spread is roughly the size of a sheet of A4 paper. The downside is that I end up carrying around completed notebooks as they have so much useful information in them. To counteract this, I have brought a one year Moleskine notebook which I will be using from January. This has a higher initial cost but will work out as cheaper over the course of the year. The main issues will be if it is sturdy enough to survive a year of being carried around with me everywhere. I use my Lamy pen for planning- it's the best pen I have ever encountered and makes my handwriting nicer. 

It combines two other popular planning techniques with the bullet journal.

The first of these is the ‘rule of three' which I learned about from Chris Bailey’s book, The Productivity Project.

This involves outlining three main objectives for each day and focusing on them first. At the top of each page are three lines to write these, ensuring I can refer to them throughout the day and stay on task.

The other key part is four squares which fill up most of the page, labeled:

  • Important and urgent - anything time bound and with positive consequences if completed, and negative if ignored. E.g. Assignments, blog post deadlines, lectures, seminars and medical appointments.

  • Important but not urgent - anything with positive consequences if completed, and negative if ignored, but which is not time-bound.  E.g. Calling a friend/family member, going to the gym, and extra vocabulary revision.

  • Urgent but not important - anything time bound but without any huge immediate consequences if not performed. E.g. Supplementary required reading for my course, collecting parcels from the receptionist and Instagram posts.

  • Neither important nor urgent - anything which is not timebound and does not have major consequences if completed or not. E.g. Checking a particular site, spending some time answering questions on Quora, DIY projects, and personal research.

I'm not sure quite where I first read about this idea (do let me know who to credit if you have any ideas.) It is effective for me because I can work through the squares in order. As long as everything in the first square is completed each day, the universe will not implode. When I'm short of time, I can ignore the fourth square. Those of minimal importance can keep on shuffling forwards until I have spare time or drop them. The final square is a  to dump thoughts, ideas, and possibilities.

Here's how I set it up each month:

  • On around the 27th of the month, I draw out the pages for the following month. This takes about an hour to do, though I'm getting faster at it. After this is done, I add to it whenever necessary. I like to go to the library for this part of the process, especially as that means I can borrow a ruler (which I don't own.)

  • Once the basic parts are set up, I add definite reoccurring tasks in the appropriate boxes. This includes blog post deadlines, lectures, seminars etc. These are all in my Google Calendar which ensures nothing gets missed.

  • Next, I put in maintenance items (also stored in my calendar) in two weekly batches. One is for keeping my room in order; hoovering, tending to plants etc. The other is for self-related stuff;  doing a face mask, brushing my hair (yes, I brush my hair once a week) etc.

So far, this is proving to be a fantastic system. I'm not necessarily doing more since using it, I am just working in a more mindful and meaningful way. It seems to reduce decision fatigue throughout the day. I'll probably post an update about how it goes, as well as adding pictures of spreads to this post.