If you don’t plan your time, someone else will help you waste it.
Planning your time enables you to live more by design, making sure that the important things get covered every day. Not planning means that you will likely live more reactively—getting distracted and interrupted, fragmenting your attention across many (apparently) urgent tasks, and feeling more tired at the end of the day. Planning doesn’t mean that everything will happen “as planned”, but it does skew reality in your favor.
Some of our daily schedules—like our morning and night routines—are fixed. The rest of the day varies and is more flexible. To plan your flexible time effectively, dedicate a few minutes each day to decide what your priorities are, how to keep them as priorities, and what can smooth out your day.
In the self-disciplined life, your aspirations are your constant; they are your daily priorities. But there will likely be other priorities that vary from day to day, and you need to decide how they rank.
Here are three questions that can help clarify the priorities for the day:
- How will I advance my aspirations today?
- What are the three most important tasks to complete today?
- What task, if completed, will most contribute to my wellbeing?
Choose to do, every day, at least one task that will advance each of your aspirations. It could be something small—like 10 minutes of reading, making a phone call, or choosing to eat salad and skip dessert.
For deciding your most important tasks, I offer two frameworks.
Stephen Covey, in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, classifies activities into four quadrants based on urgency and importance. Here is my reading of it:
Applying this classification daily may give you clarity. Your priorities almost always come from the “Important” row.
Another framework is the 80/20 rule, or Pareto’s Principle: 80% of the results come from 20% of the effort. Of your activities today, which 20% will give the most results? Apply this principle in all areas—work, relationships, hobbies, and even spirituality—to find out what to prioritize each day.
The third question, about tasks that benefit your wellbeing, is key for mindful self-discipline. A given task may not seem as important or as urgent as others, but if it occupies your mind, dividing your focus and causing you to worry, then prioritizing it might be a good idea. With these things out of the way, you will be able to be more whole-hearted, present and focused on what matters more.
After you decide what you need to prioritize, it’s time to consider how you will do it. Here are the questions you can use for this purpose:
- What can I skip, postpone, or delegate, to focus on my priorities?
- What distractions and interruptions are likely to happen, and how will I deal with them?
- How can I ensure that my priority tasks get done?
Deciding what will not get done lightens any feeling of overwhelm and frees up headspace to focus on your priorities.
Anticipating challenges and solutions prepares you for when “life happens”. What if a 30-minute task ends up taking two hours? What if you are late to work? What if you feel unmotivated? What if somebody asks for your help? What if somebody doesn’t do their part? What if you get distracted or interrupted? Knowing in advance how to respond to these contingencies relieves pressure in the moment and allows you to handle them better.
You might want to try: telling people you’ll be unavailable during certain times; putting your phone in airplane mode; allocating more time to a particular activity; arriving at work earlier. You might also need to do the hardest things earlier in the day, when more mental energy is available.
Ensuring your priorities get done is about budgeting time to the important activities, making sure all areas of your life get due attention, and then respecting the time slots you budgeted. Maybe you budget one hour for email and admin tasks; once that hour is done, you move on—even if emails still await. Your calendar and alarm clocks are your best friends here. Set them and respect their notifications.
My night routine includes the priority of two hours of quality time with my wife and daughter; and it includes getting to sleep on time (to protect my precious morning routine). If we start a two-hour movie halfway into our time together, then either we pause it at the end of the time period (to continue it tomorrow), or they finish watching it without me—because I’m aware of my time slots, and strive to protect them.
Smoothing Out the Day
Is stress booked into your day? If so, find a way to remove it.
Look for a clash of schedules. If you have overlapping meetings, inadequate time allocations for tasks, or more tasks listed than can humanly be done, you are expecting too much from yourself. Or you have underestimated the tasks—risking frustration. Try to simplify.
Reschedule appointments, delegate tasks, postpone things, or let them go if they’re not worth the effort, in the light of your priorities.
Schedule breaks and down time. Plan for rest, pause, and self-care. If you struggle with that because you want to make the most of every minute (welcome to the club!), then slow down by scheduling 10-20% more time than you think each task will demand. If you get a minute of down time, you don’t need to make productive use of it—it’s okay to just be. To just breathe. To just do nothing. Slowing down is part of Mindful Self-Discipline—it keeps your mind clear, replenishes willpower and awareness, and helps you focus on what matters most.
Remove friction from your activities by streamlining processes. This means investing time today on things that will help you save time tomorrow. Remove friction or clutter from the things you do often.
This could be: finding and migrating to a better calendar app that can simplify scheduling and avoid conflicts; setting up online bill payments that can make payment quicker; finding better running shoes, or a better meditation cushion, so that your running and meditation are more pleasant and effective; cleaning your office so you focus better; changing where you eat so that it takes less effort or decision-making; etc.
One of the main external aspects of self-discipline is time management—and this all starts with daily planning, so you live more by design than by default. In Mindful Self-Discipline, this means going through these three points every morning: deciding priorities, keeping priorities, and smoothening your day.