Planning activities: today or never…

I was crawling through my long to-do list (that sadly doesn’t look like the Pink Panther’s):

Source: novaplanet.com

… and I noticed that there are two main categories:

  1. things I do every day/immediately,
  2. things that I postpone.

A handful of activities (luckily for them) fall into a third category of properly planned items, that are to be done regularly (often thanks to a calendar reminder) or at least in the near future and with a good certainty.

I don’t like the prevalence of the first two categories. It basically means I’m not properly planning, so I simply improvise, picking things from the to-do list depending on the current mood/energy level, and leaving all the rest to wait forever, like dogs in a shelter. The only time I plan is actually today. This of course can’t work for any activity that has a longer cycle (cleaning, for example) or lasts more than one day. I manage to do these things too, but more because their urgency makes them finally eligible to be done today, not because I planned them. On the opposite extreme, I have had planning-intensive moments in the past, but I tended to over-fill my schedule and it was simply exhausting.

I would like to find a level of planning that is right for my current energy availability, while allowing me to set goals in the future. A reasonable balance is to plan activities for a few hours of the day (around half of the day is OK) and leave the rest free for improvisation (for example it is a sunny day and I can spend the free hours at the park with a book; or it’s raining and I can do the house cleaning I planned for later). It would also work to leave one day per week completely free. It is also meaningful to coordinate activities with a partner, so that the common free times are planned together. On the longer run, I tend to plan a week ahead in detail (write down all planned activities), two weeks ahead in less detail (intentions, but no fixed dates), and occasionally plan events for a more distant future. I think this somewhat short planning is able to give me positive feedback when I manage to complete my weekly items, and motivate me to continue, and plan more accurately according to my energy stock.

How do you process your to-do list? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

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On managing focus in everyday life

I have been challenged to productively plan my own days since I left my last employee job. It has been hard at the beginning, because I had no experience in integrating sudden inspirations into a structured day program. I had also little conscious feedback about how much to structure the day: meals at fixed times? Timeboxes or do an activity until the planned result is achieved?

After quite a long test phase I settled for a simple planning system, based on a weekly cycle. At the beginning of each week I plan the 4 or 5 goals I want to reach. I pick these goals from a bucket list that I occasionally update. Every day I select maximum 3 activities I want to do and decide a rough outline of the day. I usually don’t put exact times, as I prefer to finish a given activity rather than switch when it is not yet done. If an activity is not completed or not done at all, I shift it to the next available day, or think of which problems are preventing me to complete it.

I find that this loose planning helps me focusing on each activity, because I know that I planned for it, I decided it was important; I can forget other activities and deadlines, because I am confident that each of them has been marked in the planning and will get a dedicated timeslot. It also gives me clear feedback on how productive my week was.

That made me think about the focus of attention of a rider in an obstacle course (it applies in other disciplines and riding moments, but the obstacle course makes it especially clear). The rider has the whole sequence of jumps in mind (that’s my guess!), but not in the immediate focus of attention. Approaching a jump, the focus narrows solely on that obstacle. Right after the obstacle, the attention turns to the next obstacle – and the body faces it too, as a physical message for the horse. Between jumps there are some moments where the focus of attention can embrace a wider part of the jumping course, but they are (should be) usually brief, because the next obstacle approaches fast.

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ABS Horse – from MazetMan on Flickr — I like how rider and horse look straight to the obstacle, even if their bodies are in an unstable, dynamic equilibrium

My difficulty was in finding a good way of planning, that is efficient and not too demanding in terms of time and attention. I felt I was alternatively being the rider, the horse and the instructor. Sometimes I would have loved to be only the rider, or only the horse, but it was never an option (or at least not a good one). I found a lot of inspiration from friends and the wider Internet, who suggested me planning tools, tips and tricks – but the ultimate feedback came from myself. Quite a hard lesson for my obedient side, which prefers to take pride in completing an assigned task, rather than taking responsibility on choosing one task among many.