Don’t begin the activities of your day until you know exactly what you plan to accomplish. Don’t start your day until you have it planned.
— Jim Rohn, Leading an Inspired Life
Are you crazy busy yet constantly behind on the really important stuff? Help is on the way. Read on.
I have a confession to make, reader. I’ve been a productivity nerd since 2010, but I’ve only been planning out my day for a few months. And I’ve only been doing it the night before for a couple of weeks.
Some productivity nerd, right? (hangs head in shame)
But I’m all-in on night-before planning, and I’m here to tell you it’s the best new habit I’ve picked up in the last year. We’ll get into why, but first let’s talk about the benefits of planning your day in the first place.
Why planning your day makes you more productive
I get it: your day is full. You’re plenty productive, and you really do not have an extra 15 minutes to spend planning. You know what you need to do, and you’ll find time to do it. But trust me: planning your day will give you back those 15 minutes and lower your stress levels, for a couple of reasons.
Reason #1: In any given moment, we tend to gravitate toward the easiest task we’ll let ourselves get away with.
This means the most important stuff rarely gets done until we have no choice but to do it.
- With a plan, “the easiest task we let ourselves get away with” is the one our schedule says we should be doing right now. We feel guilty about deviating from the schedule without a good reason.
- Without a plan, we tend to let ourselves get away with answering email and other low-level tasks instead of attacking the most important things on our list.
As I’ve written before, I struggle to get important-but-not-urgent stuff done. I have a strong tendency to knock out 15 minor tasks and feel pretty pleased with myself instead of getting my hands dirty with one or two crucial tasks. Having a plan for my day helps immeasurably.
Reason #2: Decision fatigue saps our productivity.
Coined by legendary social psychologist Roy Baumeister, the term decision fatigue refers to our tendency to make poor decisions when we’ve made a lot of decisions recently. As Baumeister and his collaborators wrote in a groundbreaking 2005 paper,
[The] process of choosing may itself drain some of the self’s precious resources, thereby leaving the executive function less capable of carrying out its other activities.
The fewer low-level decisions we can make, therefore, the more mental resources we can devote to what’s really important in our workday: you know, actually doing stuff.
So we know there are upsides to planning our day. Why do it the night before?
Why planning the night before is even better
Here’s a simple principle you can use to your advantage: You’ll commit Future You to things Present You won’t do.
In the future, we are strong and courageous. In the moment, we are weak of mind and flabby of will. Flabby, I tell you!
Unless you are a time management ninja, you probably start most mornings a little less rested than you’d hoped and running a few minutes behind. Your thoughts race, flitting among the many things you want to do today. Your mind is not clear.
In the evening, however, your mind is likely to be fairly calm. In planning the next day, you’ve at least got some separation from the tasks you’re scheduling (even if you’re tired or a little buzzed). “Hey,” you think, “this is tomorrow we’re talking about! I’ve got the whole night to recharge. In fact, I think I’ll start by writing that letter of recommendation at 9 AM sharp.”
If you do your planning the next morning, the letter of recommendation is likely to wait another day.
How to try this out (it’s super easy)
This is a simple habit to pick up, and I won’t even ask you to commit to trying it for a week. Just try it once, tonight.
Before you head to bed, sit down with a blank piece of paper and your calendar. Look at your upcoming day and walk through these steps.
- Ask yourself, “What’s the most important thing I could do tomorrow?”
- Ask yourself, “What’s the earliest I could get it done?”
- Ask yourself, “What else must get done tomorrow?”
- Divide your day into 30-minute blocks.1
- Assign a task or group of small tasks to each 30-minute block.
As the day unfolds, things will inevitably come up. Do not panic! Simply re-arrange your schedule. Remember, a schedule is a plan, not a promise. That’s a crucial distinction, so make sure you internalize it. When life messes with your neat, tidy schedule, don’t fret. You weren’t committed to that schedule, it was simply the best plan you had when you made it. Just make a new one for the rest of the day.
Try this tonight. If you’re happy with the results, then commit to trying it for a week. After a week, you’ll be able to decide whether you want to add “night-before planning” to your life.
I hope you will.