EF 1.5 – Using your planner

Marshmallows don’t taste good unless you eat them. Aspirin doesn’t fix your headache unless you take it. And your planner won’t make a difference unless you look at it.

This is where the rule → routine → habit concept comes in. At first, the rule is that you look at your planner (on your phone, on a computer, on paper) around breakfast, lunch, and dinner. (This carries the bonus of pairing the new rule with something you already do, which is an excellent way to reinforce a habit.) After you do this for a while, it’s a routine, and after a while longer, it becomes a habit.

Incidentally, this is part of why it’s so important to write “free time” if you don’t have anything scheduled and to write “no homework” if you don’t have homework (instead of leaving it blank). If you leave your planner blank when you don’t have anything scheduled or assigned, you’ll quickly fall into the habit of not looking at it regularly, which means you might miss the homework you do have. And if you only look at your planner when there’s something there, then you require yourself to remember what’s in your planner before even reading it–and then what’s the point?

TL;DR – look at your planner.

There are three main steps in the process of using your planner to get tasks done. The first step is prioritization, figuring out what tasks are most important and urgent. The second step is scheduling, figuring out how much time you have. And the third step is chunking, breaking down the more complex tasks so that they feel more manageable.

This process is not a linear one. For instance, you might prioritize, schedule, and then realize that you don’t have as much time as you expected, so you have to go back and prioritize again. This post covers the basics, and the example I use is a vastly oversimplified one. Usually, I’m much more granular in my approach to scheduling. Once you learn the basics, you can start to adapt these techniques to meet your needs/strengths/limitations.

Step 1: Figure out what you need to do.

Here’s my to-do list for this week, which could reasonably be described as a hot mess.

  • Academic/work
    • Finish Anthro reading
    • Turn in draft of English paper
    • Russian homework
    • Work on internship applications
    • Review Russian flashcards
    • Start next Anthro reading
    • Extra credit English assignment
  • Social
    • Finish birthday card for R.
    • Go to Russian club meeting
  • Hobbies
    • Finish short story
    • Configure Tumblr queue
    • Finish 1984
    • Update blog
    • Watch primary debate
  • Chores
    • Laundry + vacuuming
    • Reorganize desk
    • Reorganize closet

Step 2: Prioritize.

As my father frequently reminds me, “‘Need’ is a funny word.” To determine need, I take into account two factors: importance and urgency. I use the following matrix to visualize this process. The scale of this matrix is variable – urgency could be defined as over a day, a week, a month, or even a year. I find it helpful to write the tasks down, but you can start to think it through in your head once you get used to using the matrix. Sort of like how when you start learning arithmetic with two-digit numbers, you write down every step, but eventually, you can do it in your head.

Without further ado, here’s the matrix:

urgentnot urgent
importantFinish Anthro reading
English paper
Russian homework
Work on internship applications

Finish birthday card for R.
Review Russian flashcards (daily)
Start next Anthro reading

Finish short story
Laundry + vacuuming
not importantExtra credit English assignment
Go to Russian club meeting
Watch primary debate
Update blog
Configure Tumblr queue
Finish 1984

Reorganize closet
Reorganize desk
This was from back when I used Tumblr.

Now, I can rearrange this into my need, want, and not-to-do lists. The not-to-do list is especially important because there are always super cool and interesting and exciting and valuable projects that I can’t do. I just don’t have the time for it. The not-to-do list is a concrete reminder that I can’t accomplish everything, and that’s okay.

NEED to doWANT to doNOT to do
English paper
Finish Anthro reading
Russian homework
Work on internship applications
Review Russian flashcards daily

Laundry + vacuuming
Start next Anthro reading
Finish short story
Configure Tumblr queue
Finish 1984

Reorganize closet
Go to Russian club meeting
Update blog
Finish birthday card for R.
Watch primary debate
Extra credit English assignment
Reorganize desk

Step 3: Figure out how much time it will take.

A huge part of executive functioning is understanding time. People with poor EF tend to grossly over- or underestimate how long tasks will take, making it difficult to get anything done. Over the past year, I’ve gotten markedly better at estimating how long things will take. It’s a skill, and practice makes progress. I also find it helpful to go back to my initial planning after I’ve completed everything. I write down the difference between how long I thought something would take and how long I thought it took so that I can increase the accuracy of my future predictions.

NEED to doWANT to do
English paper4 hr??Start next Anthro reading1 hr
Finish Anthro reading1 hrFinish short story3 hr
Russian homework4 hrConfigure Tumblr queue1 hr
Work on internship applications3 hrFinish 19842 hr
Review Russian flashcards daily7 hrReorganize closet1.5 hr
Laundry + vacuuming2 hrGo to Russian club meeting2 hr
Update blog1.5 hr
Finish birthday card for R.1 hr

See the question marks next to “English paper?” I’m not quite sure how long that’s going to take. For the purposes of this post–explaining basic time management techniques–I’ll give it a rough estimate and hope things work out. If you’re interested in learning a better way to figure out how long the paper will take – and how it will fit into my week’s schedule – head on over to the next post.

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