How to Effectively Use Your Planner
Failing to plan is planning to fail
Arguably, the most powerful tool in a college student’s arsenal, besides the course syllabus, is the planner. As mentioned in the article The Power of a Planner, college life can be hectic and a student’s day can be clustered with exams, classes, papers, club activities, and social events.
It’s too much effort to try and recall everything through memory alone and yet students consistently attempt to memorize all of their assignments and tasks day by day.
Why make your life more difficult when you could make things easier? This is where the planner comes in. The ability to write down your tasks will allow you to easily manage your daily activities. Better management of your tasks will ultimately lead to more productivity. With higher productivity you can do more in the day, allowing you to get the most value out of your time.
Tell me, doesn’t having more time and less stress sound like a good deal? Of course it does!
However, through personal experience and conversations that I’ve had, it has occurred to me that simply knowing to use a planner isn’t enough. One must also learn how to use their planner effectively. This is what I aim to do with this article. With that being said, below are 10 rules I’ve developed on how to effectively use a planner. These rules can be implemented immediately and will absolutely make your life much easier and reduce your overall stress. Let’s get into it!
List Every Task Your Need to Complete
This is where it all begins. Before you put a pen to your planner you need to ask yourself the question: What do I need to do this week?
Now, you might think this is common sense but I don’t think people actively sit down and think about everything they want to get done in a week. When I say everything, I mean
This includes personal goals, assignments, time for fun, and maybe even side projects. From what I’ve seen, people tend to wing it more often, which in my experience, leads to diminished results and an overall decrease in productivity.
My recommendation: On a separate piece of paper, list everything that’s due/needs to be done within a week.
If you have tests, quizzes, and assignments due during the week, list them all out along with their due dates. If you have events you need to go to, list those too as well as their dates. Personally, I would suggest using the first week of class to write out every assignment and due date provided in your syllabi. Then, as time goes on, eliminate and add tasks as necessary. As a bonus, list them in order of their priority (the date when they’re due).
Sort out your Rocks
Now that you have everything listed and presented in front of you, it’s time to sort your rocks. What do I mean by this? Well, imagine you have a jar. Your objective is to completely fill this jar with water, big rocks, small rocks, and sand. Nothing can be left over and the jar isn’t allowed to spill over.
Now, if you were to do this in an incorrect order (perhaps the sand first, then the water, and then the small rocks) you’d soon discover that there isn’t enough space for everything. Why? Well, that’s because you didn’t sort your rocks properly—you didn’t prioritize your tasks effectively for them to fit in the best possible order.
The same rules apply for scheduling out your day.
You need to define what endeavors are the most important and accomplish them. In aforementioned metaphor with the jar and rocks, the most efficient way to fit everything would be to put in the big rocks first, then the small rocks, followed by the sand, and finally the water.
This same principle applies to your tasks.
Put in your big rocks first!
(If you’d like to understand more about this principle of sorting your rocks, I highly recommend you download a copy of my Ebook: Better Than Gold).
Whatever assignments are most important—the items you hopefully prioritized on your list—should be completed as soon as possible. If you have a test, quiz, or assignment coming up, prioritize your day to complete these tasks as soon as possible. Once all of the important things are sorted out and prioritized, it’s time to move on to the next step.
Begin with the Bed
Personally, I believe that when planning out your day, it’s important to start with the time you wake up and the time you fall asleep. This will make the next few steps much easier. Why should you start with the times that you wake up and go to bed? As I mentioned in the article The Effects of All-Nighters, it’s extremely vital for college students (and people in general for that matter) to get a quality sleep in order for the brain to effectively recall and process information.
With that being said, planning out when you go to bed and when you wake up is arguably the most important thing to note. Take some time to plan out when you’ll wake up, how long you’ll sleep, and when you go to bed. From there, you can take the next step and fill in the gaps.
Don’t plan your bedtimes after everything else. My belief is that if you attempt to fill in your day and end with your bedtime and wake up time, you may end up cutting your sleep time too short. That won’t help you too much in the long run.
Instead, make it a non-negotiable to get about 7-8 hours of sleep every night and plan those times out first. Also, as an added bonus, make the wake-up and sleep time the same each night so your body can adapt to the routine, which will allow you to sleep faster.
Fill in the Gaps
So, at this point you have a sleeping schedule all figured out and you’ve made a list of what’s immediately important. Now that those are settled, it’s time to fill in the gaps of your day and add everything else that’s important.
Of course, to have an effective planner, start with your courses.
Next, schedule your breaks and what you will do. For example, if you have class at 11:15 am and have a break from 12:05 pm until 4:00 pm then you should have that in your planner and determine what you will do within that 4-hour time span.
Will you study for an upcoming test? Will you eat, and if so, how long? Do you plan on just relaxing and possibly watching a tv show or maybe reading? Remember, start with your priorities and then work your way down to the smaller rocks.
Wash, Rinse, Repeat
Once you have your first day all planned out it’s important to repeat the steps above over and over until using your planner effectively becomes a habit. If you haven’t read it yet, check out my previous article The Power of Habit which details why habits are so important and how they can greatly benefit you in both college and in life as a whole.
There are numerous studies that detail and analyze how long it takes to form a habit. Honestly, the numbers are all over the place with some studies indicating that it only takes 21 days while others suggest it takes over 100 days.
Personally, I believe it takes about 3 months (depending on the individual). So, keeping that time span in mind, try to set a goal and follow it through for that duration of time—in this case, try to use your planner for 3 months.
If you discover that your productivity has increased in that span, then you know it’s working and you can simply improve how you plan your day. If it’s just not catching on after that period of time, perhaps a planner doesn’t work well for you.
Yes, I did just say that. I do believe that for a few people utilizing a planner just won’t produce the highest level of productivity. Now, while I do think most students could benefit from one, there are always outliers that might function poorly with too much structure. If this is you, try to find that sweet spot of structure and winging it.
My main suggestion is to give it a good effort in order to determine if that’s truly you. Don’t simply give it a day or so and decide it won’t work. Actually follow through for a bit. I say this because for everyone, breaking a habit won’t be simple so your body will naturally push against it.
Don’t Just List Tasks
This is a serious pitfall that I’ve seen too many students do. Never ever under any circumstances should you simply list items and consider it a complete schedule for your day. Doing so is basically giving up on the semester and willingly accepting an F from each professor.
Why’s simply listing a problem?
Well, for one, giving yourself a time limit provides urgency. The urgency comes in the form of the Zeigarnik effect and Parkinson’s Law. I mention these concepts in my book Better Than Gold (which you should absolutely download for free on my website by the way) but I’ll summarize for you. The Zeigarnik effect is the sensation one feels if there’s a task left incomplete. Parkinson’s Law states that a task will expand and contract in duration based on how long you allow yourself to take.
What does that mean for you?
This means that you should set a closer deadline (a micro-deadline, if you will). Doing so will give you a definitive goal that you can plan for rather than winging it, which is essentially what you do otherwise by merely listing a task.
Try it yourself next time! Instead of merely listing chemistry homework, set a block of time (perhaps an hour or so) in your planner to complete the assignment. However, be realistic!
Now, you might wonder how long a task will take and how you could plan for that. That’s an excellent thought to have and directly leads to my next point.
Actively Revise; Learn How Long Your Daily Tasks Take
This is the step where you quickly learn to adapt and remold your schedule. When you first try to use your planner you’ll likely be unsure of how long some tasks will take. For example, if you have homework, a paper to write by tomorrow, and you want to study for a test that takes place 7 days from today (because you’re a great, proactive student) you can’t really predict how long each task will take, right? Fair enough.
But here’s my one-word response to that thought: Overestimate. And once you get a sense of how long you take for a task or assignment, readjust and actively revise your planner accordingly. If you think your paper will take you 1-hour, try and give yourself 2 hours initially. Once you start working you’ll quickly figure out if writing papers or whatever it is you need to do is a lengthy process for you or a breeze. From there, you simply adjust.
If the said task is easy, shorten the time it takes you in the planner and fills in the next 30 mins-1 hour accordingly. If the task took longer than expected then next time you know to give yourself perhaps an additional 30 mins-1 hour and omit something less important if need be.
It’s simple on paper but fairly difficult to apply and takes practice, but learning how to do this will definitely help you to understand your skillsets and allow you to keep track of how your time is spent.
Abide by the 3 8s
This is a rule I made up but I think is extremely important. When planning out your day, I think it’s healthy and wise to abide by the rule of thumb that I coin the 3 8s which basically mean 8 hours of your day should be dedicated to sleep, personal enjoyment, and productivity/work. My belief is that this creates the perfect balance that will allow you to repeat the process each day. Allow me to extrapolate.
Spend 8 hours sleeping because more or less, that’s the optimal amount of sleep that a human adult requires. This will keep your brain performing correctly and allow you to process and retain information efficiently—a necessity if productivity is the goal.
8 hours of personal enjoyment (partying, reading, video games, tv, etc) will allow you to relax and maintain potential social connections as well as preserve your mental health. You need to spend time having fun or else you’ll inevitably burn yourself out and lose all productivity (which I’ve done numerous times while first trying to become more productive).
Finally, you need to dedicate 8 hours to the grind i.e. working. These 8 hours need to go towards any form of work that pushes you towards a concrete goal such as passing an exam, maybe assembling a team for your organization, etc.
Now, do you need to spend exactly 8 hours on each one? No, of course not. If you only need 6 hours of sleep then, by all means, take 9 hours to be productive and the other remaining 9 to have fun. Or perhaps you’d like to make it 7 hours for sleep, 9 hours for fun, and 8 hours for productivity. Fine!
The point is that you want some cohesion between the 3 categories. If you have too much fun all day every day then you won’t be productive. And as previously mentioned, if you try to be too productive all day then you’ll end up burning yourself out or getting diminished results.
Stick to it
Super important! Maybe the most important one. What’s the purpose of a planner if you don’t actually follow the plan? It’s that straightforward. Once you write down how you’d like your day to go, go execute! Do your best to get everything done. However, remember this key rule: you won’t always get everything done.
Plan for failure
While I do think you should try to do everything in your planner when it’s scheduled, I’m also a realist. I have a concept I refer to as the life variable. The life variable is essentially any event or phenomenon that cannot be predicted or accurately planned for. As the saying goes, shit happens. Sometimes it’s bad shit and sometimes it’s good shit.
Maybe you planned on walking to the library to study for an hour but it rains so you can’t walk or your car breaks down without warning. Or maybe you wanted to get started on a paper but you ran into an old friend that you haven’t seen in a year and he/she invited you to grab lunch for a little.
Stuff happens and that’s completely okay.
First of all, if your rocks are sorted properly then your day will be productive regardless. But the main reason why I emphasize the life variable is because I know, firsthand, that it can be frustrating to plan a productive day and feel like you’ve been shorted. Don’t get discouraged. Even if the day is 51% productive that’s a huge win and something to be enthusiastic about. You’re still moving forward.
Personally, I don’t think any human can be 100% productive 100% of the time. Inevitably something will happen due to the life variable. Overall, simply shoot to achieve everything you planned for but expect to not complete everything.
When I use my planner, I like to sort out and divide my day into 1-hour blocks. Believe it or not, when you focus, there are a lot of things that can be done in a single hour. Now, some might use 30-minute chunks or less but I wouldn’t recommend anything more than an hour.
My belief is that giving blocks of anything higher than an hour would kind of work against you due to Parkinson’s Law (you’ll take more time than necessary and end up being less productive as a result). Also, I’d suggest picking a time either early in the morning or the night to schedule your day. This will give you time to actually visualize the day and how you’ll go about accomplishing your endeavors. Overall, experiment. Try out different ways to schedule and see what works best for you. Hopefully these tips serve you well.
Stay positive and stay productive!