Contrary to what my consistently enormous to-do lists suggest, I’m not one to overschedule my days. Unless life has fully sucked me into a whirlwind of appointments, social commitments, meetings, and deadlines, I find comprehensive time-blocking does not do me any favours – unless I’ve totally overcommitted myself, which has been known to happen every now and then. When it does, Google calendar and timeblocking are my best friends.
I do, however, like a good ol’ plan – and I like to keep track of my plans so that I can follow up. Having dedicated spaces and set (if flexible) systems for planning out my days, weeks, and months allow me to free up valuable brain memory by putting my plans and to-dos on paper, both virtual and material, and stay on track with my goals for work, creative ventures, and personal growth. Incredible.
It also means I don’t have to try and wrangle my brain into creating a plan out of nothing every morning, which, you know, my it’s-seven-o’clock-in-the-morning-and-I-haven’t-had-a-lot-of-coffee-yet brain appreciates.
I have two planning spaces I’ve been using consistently: my bullet journal, and Notion. Notion serves as my brain-dump space – it’s so incredibly easy to organize your to-dos in Notion! – and my re-usable lists space (think: Sunday reset list, my cleaning lists, my grocery staples list). My bullet journal holds my monthly, weekly, and daily commitments, as well as weekly plans and daily to-dos. These two seem to really do it for me – they’re my sweet spot. I get the ease of digital, re-usable lists and organization capabilities of Notion, and the right-in-front-of-me-so-I-can’t-possibly-forget-about-it quality that I love (and need!) with my bullet journal.
bird’s eye view: the monthly system
My bird’s eye view doesn’t tend to get any bigger than a month at a time. A year-long plan – not to mention those five- or ten-year monoliths – are beyond me, currently. We’ll get there eventually. Probably. (Reminder: no one person’s systems or plans are one-size-fits-all, and that’s okay. Play around! Experiment. See what actually works for you.)
My monthly system starts about a week before a new month starts, and it only impacts my bullet journal – Notion is a weekly, more task-related tool, while my bullet journal does the heavy lifting for goal-setting.
I only have two specific monthly pages that I create in my bullet journal every month:
- A monthly calendar spread. This calendar is where I write in birthdays, meetings, and social commitments. I make my weekly spreads one week at a time, so if I know something is happening later in the month, it goes in the monthly calendar so I don’t lose track. It’s also where I write down my monthly goals, which are usually related to creative endeavours (hello, novel-writing!), and my monthly to-dos. Monthly to-dos are the “big” reminders: the podcast episode that needs to be recorded by the 15th for release on the 31st, the proposal that needs to get finished in time for that deadline. It’s not the place for little, actionable steps.
- A work-schedule-specific calendar. This is a new addition to my bullet journal since starting to work from home and, oh, boy, do I appreciate it. I have a certain amount of hours to do each week for different projects, but they vary based on the work each week. I write down how many need to get done for each project for the month in total below the calendar, and the calendar itself – which holds my self-created work schedule – gets filled out week-by-week so I can adjust as necessary for lighter or heavier work weeks. This page is where I put any work goals for the month, so I can see them every week when I refer to my schedule and when I plan the following week.
connect the dots: the weekly system
My weekly system is essentially the crux of my planning system: without it, I’d be a lost little soul. It combines my big goals and to-dos to the actionable steps required to achieve them, and involves follow-up and evaluation. Basically, my weekly system keeps track of everything that’s ongoing without requiring my brain to do all of the juggling work.
Every Sunday I do a “Sunday reset” a la muchelleb on YouTube. The Sunday reset is when I sort out what’s happening in the coming week and what needs to get done, follow-up on what didn’t get finished the week before, and re-evaluate if some of my to-dos are being procrastinated because I haven’t given myself actionable steps to follow.
I follow my re-usable ‘Sunday reset’ list on Notion, but the relevant planning steps look something like the following:
- Set up a weekly spread. My weekly spreads include seven columns (they allow room for to-do lists, notes, meeting reminders, and meal planning), a “three goals” list, a “notes” box, and a running grocery list.
- Brain dump. I throw every to-do that’s bouncing around my brain for the week into a Notion to-do list. It doesn’t need to be clean or pretty or organized – I come back around to that later (and thank goodness, or the state of those lists would paralyze even the most caffeinated me with overwhelm). The point of this step is to dump out everything that’s nagging at you to be done.
- Check the monthly calendar. What’s coming up this week? I add meetings, birthdays, and commitments to my weekly spread. I add any to-dos that these prompt me to think of to my brain dump list.
- Look at the previous week. What do I need to follow up on? What didn’t get finished last week? I add the unfinished to-dos and anything else this step prompted to my brain dump list.
- Check in with anything being ignored. Sometimes I’m procrastinating because my tasks are too vague. I take a look at these and see if I can break them into more actionable steps.
- Look at the week after next. Is there anything coming up that I need to look into this week? Is there anything that I need to start prepping for now? I add to the brain dump list accordingly.
- Organize those to-dos. I have separate lists in Notion that I drag my to-dos into in order to organize them – when I’m feeling ambitous, I also arrange them in order of priority. These lists include: work, life admin, cleaning, errands, groceries, the living hours, and writing.
These organized to-do lists are what I refer to when I’m making my daily to-do lists – having them pre-made and pre-organized make my daily structuring a breeze. I also use these lists to figure out my weekly goals: what have I been ignoring that I’d like to focus on this week? I limit my weekly goals to three, but they can be of any size: “go for a walk,” says one; “write 12,000 words,” says another.
Once I know what I’m handling in terms of tasks, commitments, and deadlines, I adjust accordingly and create my work schedule for that week in my monthly work-schedule-specific calendar.
a flexible full steam ahead: the daily system
I have tried, many a time, to plan what I’m going to do on which particular day in advance of a week. My brain feels very pleased with itself the day of – it likes a good planning session – and the next morning it immediately rebels, furious that I’ve tried to tell it what to do. You can imagine my frustration with myself. Life would be better if I listened to my inner planner.
My solution? The running to-do lists decsribed above. I can look at them in the morning, idenitfy the priority tasks, and plan my day around them. Anything that doesn’t get done will roll over to the next day, where I’ll add a couple more tasks – and so on and so forth. I appreciate the flexibility of these running to-do lists; it means that on a given day, if inspiration strikes, I can move non-time-sensitive to-dos to the next day and spend the rest of my day drafting a novel chapter. I can go for a long bike ride, pick up a paint brush. I avoid unnecessary deadlines, and I trust myself to do what needs to be done without the anxiety of being sure I’m in a willful state of ignorance, or that I’m forgetting too many things to count.
My plan-of-attack for figuring out each day changes, well, pretty much daily – but the rough outline is this:
- Look at my work-schedule-specific calendar. How many hours am I supposed to do for each project today? Add tasks that suit the amount of time I have (with an extra one or two, just to be ambitious) to my bullet journal.
- Look for meetings, plans, commitments. Meetings often require a bit of prep time or follow up. I add those to my to-dos. Social commitments require time for transportation. If I have plans for the day, do I have everything I need? (As a totally-has-never-happened-to-me-before example, doublecheck that you have the kind of flour you need for making that pasta with your partner.) Adjust to-do lists accordingly.
- Check in with my plan for the living hours. Do I need to take photos? Draft a post? Do some brainstorming about content? Add those, too.
- Check emails. See if more tasks need to be added to my running to-do lists, or if anything time-sensitive has come up.
- Flexible full steam ahead. Sit yourself down with a large cup of your caffeinated beverage of choice and do the work, you newly-organized soul, you.
And that, my friends, is how I keep my life sorted. Aside from the fact that it helps me stay organized and refrain from falling behind or losing track of important tasks, these systems also promote self-awareness: I can check in with my goals every week without it feeling like a massive process – goals can be daunting, and that’s okay, but integrating a low-stakes check-in with yourself (are those still your goals? are there other things you want to focus on?) makes them a useful way to touch base with yourself and the direction you’re moving in. I can also see how I’m spending my time: am I feeling bogged down by a particular to-do list? Why? Am I making time for the things that I want to be spending time on, that matter to me and bring me the most joy? Am I leaving time to just be, without guilt or shame for doing so?
Systems like these can take a good whack of effort to discover and to put in place, and chances are good they’re going to continue evolving, but I find that they offer a sense of peace and stability and mindfulness that is rooted in their flexibility: I feel, ultimately, that I am living my life with room to play and love and grow.
Wishing you an early morning sunrise with a cup of steaming tea and softly creaking floors,