Sooner or later, the college student finds herself face-to-face with the terrifying realization that she needs to actually plan her day – every day.
If this revelation has not dawned upon you, then this, dear reader, is your wake-up call.
Here are my three rules for successful daily planning.
Rule 1: Keep It Simple…
As daunting as it may seem, planning your day doesn’t have to be a long, drawn-out, or complex process. In fact, you really only need two tools:
- 1. a portable planner that has 8 or so lines to write in for every day and a monthly overview calendar
- 2. A small notebook, ream of loose-leaf paper, whatever – anything that will be easy to transport throughout the day. This is what you’ll be writing your daily schedule on.
The process I use is adapted from the book How to Become a Straight-A Student by Cal Newport – I highly recommend it. I think the time management advice he provides is the most valuable part of the whole book. He also provides tips for the best way to take notes and study for exams, so check it out.
Newport’s method calls for a “calendar” and a notebook. He says that the calendar can be anything from a Google Calendar to a big, artful thing you hang on your wall. I recommend using a portable planner because you can pull it out to write down important dates/events that you think about throughout the day. This isn’t always possible with a phone, and besides, it’s much faster to write than type. (If you write in pencil, you can also quickly make changes.) For simplicity, I’ll call the planner a calendar.
The basic process is as follows:
- 1. At the beginning of the semester (ideally), write down all the due dates of big assignments, big dances/banquets/class events, etc. in your calendar – basically, all of the dates that you know are more or less set in stone. (Still, write with pencil.) Then, count back one week for each of these big events and write a reminder for them. (Trust me.)
- 2. As the days pass, be sure to be continuously writing down the things you need to remember and tasks you want to accomplish in your calendar. Write them down as soon as you think about them.
- 3. On the Sunday of each week, look all the events you already have written down, and look at all of your syllabi to figure out the assignments for the upcoming week. Plan tentatively which days you will work on which assignments.
- 4. Each day, either in the morning or before bed, plan the upcoming day by writing down the exact times that you will accomplish each of the to-dos listed in your calendar for that day (and for that day only). Write down this schedule in the mini-notebook or a sheet of loose-leaf paper.
- 5. Refer to the list throughout the day.
And that’s it! The beauty of this method is that it’s quick, easy, and can be easily restarted at any time if you begin to fall off the bandwagon with it. All you have to do is start writing things down in your calendar and daily loose-leaf. This method also teaches time-management as you practice it – it forces you to think carefully about how much time a task should be taking you.
I like to plan my schedule in the evenings, right before bed. I remember learning in psychology class that our minds continue to learn skills as we sleep, rehearsing them over and over. Also recall this verse from Psalm 16: “I will praise the Lord, who counsels me; even at night my heart instructs me” (verse 7). So I like to think that as I sleep, I’m continuing to hone my schedule, figuring out ways to be more and more efficient when I wake up the next day. I often find that when I wake up the next day, I don’t even need to refer to the schedule – I just automatically remember what I’m supposed to be doing.
For my daily schedules, I like to do a little extra to keep me extra focused for the day. I use the daily schedule from the HelloMornings challenges, which you can access by subscribing to their weekly newsletters here. (Note: this ministry was created by ladies for ladies, but I see no reason why gentlemen could not also benefit from the daily challenge of waking up early for devotions, making healthy choices, and organizing their time!)
I really like the worksheet’s Plan Time section, because it makes me take extra steps to focus on being productive. First, the “Things to Do” category allows me to write down all the to-dos on my calendar, plus all the little things that come up in day-to-day life. Most helpful, though, is the “Most Important Tasks” category, which allows me to identify the three things that need to get done at all costs, in the event that my schedule gets derailed by something like an emergency club meeting or an impromptu telenovela viewing marathon…ahem. Not that I’ve ever done anything like that.
Anyway, you can easily replicate this model in your notebook, or head over to HelloMornings and check out the complete version of their challenge for yourself. (They also have an extended notebook/planner system.) It’s really up to you.
The key thing to remember with this method is: once you are done with the tasks for the day, you are DONE FOR THE DAY. Fin. Finito. Show’s over, folks. You don’t have to spend the rest of your day worrying about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself (Matthew 16:34).
Rule 2: …But Be Specific
For this system to truly capture everything you need to do, the to-dos you write in your calendar should be as specific as possible. Yes, even if whatever you’re scheduling seems obvious to you at the time – “How could I possibly forget my p-set if it’s due every week?” “That job is too important to me to miss the application deadline.” Actually, you’d be surprised at how much can slip your mind when you’re super busy.
So when I say “specific,” here is exactly what I mean. Don’t schedule that you have to “do homework” for a long block of time. Instead, schedule something like “Read 2 chapters of Beloved” for 30 minutes or “Begin Chem p-set” for an hour. Even this last one is a little vague, but only because you’re not sure how long it will take you, but you don’t expect to finish it all within the hour.
For all appointments, write the time and place in your calendar, even if it’s a club meeting that meets in the same place each time. If the location gets changed, striking out the location and putting in a new one will help you remember the change.
Here are some more examples of specific things to schedule that you might forget otherwise:
- – the smaller steps required to complete longer assignments (“Scan pages from primary sources”; “Write body paragraph #2”)
- – reminders to send in applications
- – reminders to submit an essay via internet
- – chores like laundry
- – going to the post office to pick up a package
- – things you’ve been meaning to do, especially introspective or recreational activities (“Pray about study abroad programs”; “Brainstorm marketing plans for my ingenious startup idea”; “Practice piano scales for 15 minutes”)
- – I actually schedule email sessions in order to schedule appointments I want to make. It seems a little circular, I know, but I’ve found that this is the only way to ensure I will actually get a meal with that friend I haven’t seen for a whole semester. (For example, I might write “Email Jamie” in my planner for the next day as soon as I remember I haven’t seen her in a while.)
By writing down absolutely everything you need to do, you decrease your overall stress level. Keeping a careful calendar frees up your brain from trying to remember a million little things to do.
Rule 3: …And Be Willing to Adapt
I’ll be honest – sometimes, your schedule will fail miserably. In college life, things come up – emergency club meetings pop up; you get roped into a random, long conversation with a friend you haven’t seen in a while; a friend asks you to tag along on a trip to the bookstore and you can’t resist; someone’s going to the Chinese market to pick up groceries for the meal they’re going to cook this weekend, and you’ve never been to a Chinese market. (Also you want to get on their good side by helping them so you can get an extra big helping.) Other times, you just didn’t plan for things taking as long as they do. And sometimes, you just sleep in instead of getting up like you’re supposed to. (But I’m sure these are rare occasions. *wink*)
To all of this I say…
DON’T. GIVE. UP.
And don’t despair! Scheduling your time gets easier with practice. And, I actually sort of lied in the first paragraph of this section – no day is ever really a failure. If you keep up with managing your time, minor or even major setbacks won’t send your world crashing down around you. I find that even when my schedule doesn’t go according to plan, I still end up getting a lot more done than I do on the days where I don’t write out a plan. The goal is not 100% completion 100% of the time…well, maybe in an ideal world it is. But that’s a rather unrealistic goal that leaves us sure to disappoint ourselves. Repeated disappointments lead to discouragement, and then it really gets tough to accomplish anything.
So all we can really do is take it one day at a time, one hour at a time.