Finding Meaning through Daily Planning

Experience Design

Want to know a secret to bringing a deep sense of intention and meaning into your every day? I’ll tell you in one word: planning.

Before you roll your eyes and dismiss the topic, hear me out. I promise this runs deeper than the one-size-fits-all time-management solutions the internet world so adamantly preaches. And besides, this isn’t really about managing time anyway, it’s about managing expectations.

Our sense of satisfaction with anything is determined by whether it falls above, at, or below our expectations. While there are several factors that lead to this final result of expectation-making or -missing, there is one that we can control: our expectations themselves. Expectation-setting can be an intentional decision, and it’s made fairly straightforward through the process of planning.

Lead Out with the Why

My days rarely (if ever) look exactly the way I plan them to be. The same goes for my vacations, my semesters, my goals, hopes, and dreams. Whether I put in five minutes or five hours to planning something in my life, it will most likely go wildly not according to plan. I expect that many of you have had similar experiences at one point or another. So why, then, bother with planning in the first place?

I suppose that depends on what you hope to get out of planning. I recently posed this question on my Instagram feed, and many of you shared beautiful responses. You expressed the hope to achieve feelings such as peace of mind, relief from the worry of forgetting about something, comfort in knowing that goals can be achieved, and a feeling of accomplishment. These answers reach beyond the surface of to-do lists, and start to tap into the emotional component that compels us to plan in the first place. They show us that planning can offer peace, relief, comfort, and that it can help us to accomplish more.

When I plan, there are three things that I hope to achieve: (1) minimize decision fatigue, (2) set realistic expectations, and (3) choose meaningful priorities. I’ll go into more detail for each of these below.

Minimize decision fatigue. When I find myself presented with a perfectly uninterrupted block of time, I have a tendency waste at least half of it away debating with myself over which productive thing I should do first. Not because I don’t want to do those things, but because it takes a lot of mental energy to pull my brain out of the observing and responding (AKA: toddler mom) mode and put it into a deep, forward-thinking mode.

There are many instances throughout the day that require this switch, and I find that my day runs much smoother if I can lump that decision-making together. That way, I minimize the code-switching (or the mindset changes) that I have to do throughout the day. Of course, we can’t anticipate every moment that will require a deep-thinking mindset, but each of us has recurring situations that are worth identifying and planning for. For me, the decisions that are most draining are what to do during nap time and what to eat for dinner. Since I know this about myself, I make the effort to decide that ahead of time.

Set realistic expectations. Before I lay out the specifics of my day, I always have lofty ideals of what I want to accomplish in the hours between wake and sleep. When I take the time to make an hourly plan, I am forced to recognize how much space each task or activity will take up, and how much I can realistically fit into that block of time. Time is a limited resource, and it is much more natural to adjust for that fact beforehand than it is after.

This is also true with regards to emotion. By creating a time when I can objectively consider what I can and can’t accomplish in a given time period, I’m not surprised and disappointed by that fact at the end of the day when I’m already worn out. It is much easier for me to separate my perception of my worth from my accomplishments when I set realistic expectations beforehand.

Choose meaningful priorities. This concept is a little more fluid for me. While I do establish priorities by deciding what tasks I schedule in, I think the deepest value in planning priorities is that it prepares me to adjust as I live out the day. Regardless of how closely I follow my plan, the very existence of that plan empowers me with choice. In any given moment, I can choose to do what I had planned, or I can choose to adjust according to the needs of the moment.

What I love most about this is that it makes my choice feel tangible—I can see it, feel it. Sometimes I feel like I’m being tossed around by the circumstances life throws at me, but when I plan I can be proud of myself for sticking to the plan, or I can be proud of myself for prioritizing something more important in the moment. Either way, I can more effectively roll with the punches, and I get to celebrate those intentional choices.

Note that none of these three things are about controlling the way the day pans out. Rather, my process of planning is about giving my brain a time to think objectively about the tasks at hand before I’m thrust into the emotionality of living it.

My Favorite Planning Systems

I am a wife, mother, grad student, and teacher. There’s a lot of juggling that comes with all of those hats, and for me it’s crucial to organize my responsibilities effectively. But even in the seasons when I don’t have as much going on (ex. this summer, when I was neither taking classes nor teaching), I find that intentional planning brings a rich sense of meaning and purpose into my life.

The effectiveness of my planning has much more to do with the mindset that I described above than it does with the planning system that I use, but I do quite enjoy what I’ve come up with most recently so I’ll share it here as well.

Bullet Journal

I have been using Bullet Journaling for over a year now, and I love it. You can watch an introductory video here, but I’ve heavily modified their system to fit my planning needs. I am not an artist by any means, and mine don’t look like the beautiful Bullet Journals you’ll find on Pinterest, but that’s not my purpose. I love this model for the flexibility that’s built in. It’s allowed me to quickly go through several iterations as I work out what I need from a planner, and I love that I can fine tune it as I go.

The way I use my bullet journal now is much different than it was when I began, and I view that as its greatest strength. For a long time, I used on a weekly spread with two main functions: a daily to-do list and a section for daily gratitude. That worked great for the season that I was in. However, I recently made the shift to include a section for hourly planning every day, and I am surprised by how much I love it. I resisted hourly planning for years (long story), but I’m discovering that it’s the hourly planning that brings meaning into my planning efforts and, in turn, into my daily life.

If you are interested in the specifics of how I set up my Bullet Journal, join me on Instagram stories today. I’ll be sharing more about more about what has and hasn’t worked for me as I’ve experimented with different concepts along the way.

Best Self Journal

Another planning system that I can highly recommend is the Best Self Journal. (You can watch an introductory video here.) This is what my husband uses, and it’s the only planner that’s tempted me to abandon my Bullet Journal. If the idea of Bullet Journaling doesn’t light your soul on fire, it’s totally worth checking this company out. They’ve built a highly personal and flexible system that gives structure to your goals and self-improvement efforts. I still prefer the flexibility of my Bullet Journal, but this is as close as you can get to it without having to write everything out yourself.

Make it Yours

Let’s be real: my planning system isn’t going to work for all of you. Probably not even most of you. I share because I appreciate hearing how other people approach planning—it inspires me, and helps me to further develop my own approach. My planning system is composed of little elements that I’ve picked up from a variety of sources. So this is your official invitation to take or leave whatever component you like. Create something that’s all your own and use it every day.

So whatever daily planning looks like for you, make an effort to understand the strengths and limitations of planning as it applies to your life circumstances. Use it accordingly, adjust as necessary. The true power of planning comes in making it yours along the way.

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