How To Plan Your Day To Maximize Your Time (And Minimize Distractions)

Claire Emerson
Claire Emerson
· 13 min read

Starting your day without a clear purpose is a catalyst for procrastination.

Because rather than simply having to execute an existing plan, you waste time making decisions about what you feel like doing rather than focusing on planned activities.

Without some intentionality behind your daily actions — your priorities, purpose, and any hope of making progress plunge into a pit of distractions that can derail even the best of us.

But instead of wondering if you’re working on the right thing or letting in-the-moment decisions drive your actions — you can take a more proactive approach to plan your day.

The key is to create systems that add structure to how (and when) you work.

By adopting habits, routines, and rituals that maximize your time, minimize distractions, and make follow-through your focus — navigating your tasks and projects becomes a breeze.

The key to planning your day is to plan your week first

If you think about one of your most recent “unproductive” days, you’ll probably find that what made you feel so ineffective was either:

  • you didn’t start the day knowing what to do, or
  • you got caught switching your attention to anything other than what you intended to do.

Surprisingly, making a plan at the start of each day is not the solution to either of these problems.

If you wait until the day of to decide what to do, all the extra decisions you force yourself to make (often on the spot) deplete your energy sources, distract your focus, and cause you to sacrifice time.

The more decisions you have to make in a day, the less effective you are in your decision-making abilities.

This is why what works remarkably better — is to make a plan for your week first. So you can tie your daily actions to the bigger picture of what you want to accomplish. And use that plan as a guide to determine what to do and when.

Working on the right thing at the right time

If you simply sit down to work without any forethought of what you’re going to work on, you’re bound to waste time flip-flopping between tasks. Or make poor decisions based on your mood.

Not to mention, you’ll find it incredibly difficult to start (procrastination preys on the unprepared!)

But if you can make it a ritual to set yourself up for success every week — by setting priorities, defining desirable results, and noting any concerns or roadblocks — you can attack each day with clarity, confidence, and intention.

Purposeful planning facilitates focus

By adding structure to your week, you give yourself clear direction. And a better chance of avoiding “busy work” and getting sidetracked by unimportant interruptions during your most productive hours.

As you train yourself to spend your time, energy, and attention more purposefully, it gets easier to focus on:

  • projects that move the needle (and get you paid)
  • creating space for the recurring tasks that need to get done, and
  • practicing habits and behaviors that help you fight procrastination and stick to the plan.

So let’s take a brief look at what it takes to plan a results-driven week.

And then we’ll get into some of my favorite systems you can use every day — to help you follow through with your intentions.

Make A Plan: Execution is effortless when priorities are clear (and you know what “done” looks like)

Today I want to share a simple template you can follow for mapping out your intentions for the week — so it’s faster and easier to determine what to do each day.

It’s also going to help you avoid making decisions about what to do when you get random pockets of time open up.

But before we get into that process, the first thing you need to do is make space for this ritual in your schedule.

  • Pick a day to do it (I prefer Tuesdays)
  • Add it to your calendar,
  • Create a reminder, and
  • Commit to showing up

The task itself will take less than 20-minutes. And I promise you’ll feel instantly more in control and focused for the week ahead.

Here’s what to do:

Step 1: Start with reflection

Looking back on the week that’s been — to note your wins and what made them happen — is a powerful way to start your week.

It puts you in a positive headspace and helps align your future goals with past progress.

Ask yourself:

  • What went well, and what made it happen? List three things.

Step 2: Determine your must-dos

To pick your priorities, think about the work that will create the most significant opportunity for you. And the tasks that will move the needle on your most notable projects. (Income and revenue-producing tasks are good places to start.)

Ask yourself:

  • What are your three must-dos for the week?

Then, next to each of them, jot down whether they’re priority A, B, or C.

Step 3: Cut “C”

Priority tasks often require prep work. And most people underestimate what that involves.

So while it can be painful to cut things from your list, you need to be realistic about what you can accomplish within your week to get the first two critical tasks done.

By cutting “C,” you narrow your focus and spend your energy shipping the MOST significant tasks first. Including all the groundwork that it can take to get those things done.

I’ve found that two “must-dos” per week (with clearly defined results) is the sweet spot for being able to follow through.

Notably, whatever task “C” is on your list — it can still get done. But you’re not allowed to think about it till “A” and “B” are both complete.

Step 4: Hammer home the “why”

This step is to remind yourself why a specific task is so important, and it can help clarify your thinking and double down on the decision to push forward.

Ask yourself:

  • What makes your top two tasks so important? What is the win? What is the desired result it creates?

Then, next to each desirable outcome, note the consequence of not getting it done. It’s essential to identify the potential loss, so you can focus on executing the win.

Step 5: Turn your imagined tasks into finishable jobs

For each priority, get clear on what the finished product looks like. Then list any prep steps (like tech setup, research, or communication) that need to happen to get to “done.”

Ask yourself:

  • What does “done” look like?

Then, list out the individual tasks (including prep work like tech setup, research, or communication) that it will take to execute.

At this point, you can also mark down what day you want to allocate each job. And even schedule it into your calendar if that feels helpful.

Step 6: What are your concerns?

Now that you’ve made your priorities explicit and your tasks concrete — note down any concerns you feel and what you can do to combat them (to guarantee more follow-through).

We all struggle with procrastination, so knowing where you’re likely to fall off the focus wagon is a smart strategy for working against your natural tendency to put things off.

Once your excuses are exposed, you can work out how to eliminate them.

Be sure to re-evaluate your priorities

Once you identify the prep steps and break down your big tasks into their individual components, consider whether your priorities are still achievable this week. And adjust your plan and expectations if necessary.

Doing this quick re-evaluation will help you plan your days more effectively as you won’t overfill the hours you have. And you give yourself a better chance of delivering.

Implementation: 10 systems to help you follow through with your plan

Now that you have a plan for your week let’s move on to how to make sure each day you dedicate to doing the work — is as focused and productive as you’d like it to be.

Below we’ve got some helpful tips and tricks for deciding on your priorities, setting rules around your workday, and limiting distractions as much as possible.

1. Pinpoint a priority with a “focus funnel”

You are either consciously saying no to the things that don’t matter, or you are unconsciously saying no to the things that do.

– Rory Vaden

The Focus Funnel is a helpful technique I swiped from the book Procrastinate on Purpose by Rory Vaden.

It’s a tool to help ensure that — as much as possible — you’re always spending time on your next most significant thing.

You can use it if you can’t decide what to do first.

Pick a task on your to-do list (perhaps one you’ve been putting off) and work your way through these four questions:

  • Is this task something I can live without? This stage of the funnel is about elimination and permitting yourself to ignore specific tasks.
  • Can I systematize this task? This stage is about automation and permitting yourself to invest in a system that can help get this done more efficiently.
  • Can someone else perform this task? Here is where you can consider delegation and permitting yourself to be imperfect.
  • Can this wait until later? This is the stage where you can choose (yes, choose) to procrastinate and permit yourself to put something off — until you’re actually ready to do it.

If you get to the end of the funnel and have answered “no” to all of the questions, you have established a priority, and it is the next most significant thing on your list.

Concentrate entirely on that task until you accomplish it. Treat everything else as a distraction.

2. Employ the axis of significance

If urgency is “how soon does this matter?” and importance is “how much does this matter?” — then significance is “how long will this matter?”

If you’re struggling to decide what to do first, opt for the task that will matter most long-term.

For instance, let’s say you’re a service-based business owner and you have the need and vision to free up more of your time.

So you want to add in some automation to alleviate some of the work you do upfront with clients. Now let’s say you have two choices on how to spend your time today:

  1. Create an automated onboarding sequence for all new clients.
  2. Spend time providing excellent service to your latest new client personally.

Both are important. And if you only include the urgency calculation, then it’s likely you would choose option two. And spend some time providing exceptional service personally.

But if you include the significance calculation, you realize that you should give a great deal of consideration to working on your onboarding sequence first — as it will serve you indefinitely.

Doing work for “future you” — today — is how you multiply your time.

3. Pick one key move per day (yes, one!)

While I advocate setting more than one priority for your week, having more than one priority per day is a fast way to lose focus and become indecisive about where to start.

Here’s a little trick I like to use:

Act like every day is like life with a newborn.

In other words, you have a maximum of two hours to get all your work done (mostly during naps). And you need to be able to jump into that work as soon as the kid drifts off into blissful baby sleep.

Realistically, we all have roughly 2-4 hours of deep work in us per day. And the rest of our time is spent on tasks that require less brainpower or a lower grade of effort.

Working on one thing and sticking with it to completion propels your sense of accomplishment and often spurs you to tackle additional tasks.

Finishing things feels good.

But if you set yourself multiple things to finish in one day and come up short — well, I bet you can guess how that makes you feel instead.

4. The life-changing magic of 2-hours of focus

If you approach the first two hours of each day in the same way, consistently — you can make mind-blowing progress.

I’m not talking about your morning routine or what you do when you wake up. This is what you do with yourself when you first sit down to work each day.

The goal is two blissful hours free from interruption.

And it’s your job to create an environment where you’re unreachable. No people, email, social media, texts, or taking phone calls.

This is time you deliberately dedicate to engaging in deep work. And if you can put it on the calendar every single day — you can dramatically increase your output (on the work that matters most.)

Here’s a nifty quote I picked up from Shane Parrish that can help you pick what to prioritize here:

Spend the best hours of your day on the biggest opportunity, not the biggest problem.

5. The 50/20/50 technique

As a writer and productivity consultant, I speak to many different business owners about how they operate.

And one of my favorite systems to share with people is the 50/20/50 technique that Ed Gandia (B2BLauncher) shared with me. Here’s what he had to say:

The 50/20/50 technique is something I learned from the brilliant marketing consultant Dean Jackson. It’s similar to the Pomodoro technique, but I like it better than Pomodoro.
You work on a specific project for 50 minutes without disruptions or distractions (no social media, no email, etc.). When the timer goes off, you take a 20-minute break. Yes, a full 20 minutes. Then you do another 50-minute session on that same project.
Each 50/20/50 is a two-hour session.
Then I’ll take a 30-minute break and launch another 50/20/50, usually on another project. I’ll get more done in those two, 2-hour sessions than most people get done in a full day. It’s scary how well it works!

6. The Blank Page: A dedicated place for brain confetti

The one interruption I can never seem to eliminate is my brain.

And given I’m a sucker for analog systems —  when Rob Hatch (author of Attention) shared his blank page technique with me, it was awe-inspiring.

As you know, one of the hard things about focusing your attention is dealing with the thoughts that tend to lead you down rabbit holes.

But you can combat this by placing a simple piece of blank paper and a pen next to you during your deep work periods. And noting down everything that pops into your head during this time.

Having a quick, easy way to capture those thoughts eliminates the broader impact of the interruption of your focus. The key is to write it now and address it after your two hours are up.

Rob notes that: It’s rare that you will come across a thought that can’t be addressed later or requires your immediate attention.

7. Atomic tasks: Breaking down your jobs into bite-sized chunks

Recently, I had a student in one of my coworking sessions come to me with a problem about a specific task she was procrastinating with.

As it turned out, that one task she was trying to tackle was not really one task at all — it was essentially a mini-project.

Instead of breaking the job down into smaller pieces, she popped one broad ticket on her Kanban board, which read: “Put together a VOC package for a customer.”

Yet, that one ticket actually involved:

  1. Drafting and finalizing survey questions
  2. Getting feedback on the questions
  3. Creating the survey in a survey tool
  4. Writing an email for her client to send to customers.
  5. Sending that final product for her client to review

She was mistakenly trying to get all these tasks done in one go (no wonder she was procrastinating.)

Once I asked her to break up that one ticket into single elements, she was able to:

  • clearly see what to work on first,
  • build momentum by finishing the smaller individual pieces of her process, and
  • get a better sense of how long these tasks will take in the future.

Breaking your tasks down seems like simple advice we all hear, yet so many people I know avoid taking it! They still don’t chunk down their colossal jobs-to-be-done into doable portions.

And making that mistake makes them prone to procrastination.

8. Plan your day the night before

Despite having your weekly plan outlined, we can still run into trouble when we leave the decision of what to work on each day — to the last minute.

This is why mapping your intentions the night before can be a game-changer for your ability to execute.

Following through with an existing plan is much easier to do than creating one off the cuff. So leave the heavy lifting of laying out your to-do list (for the next day) to “night-before” you.

This way, “morning-you” has fewer decisions to make and minimal obstacles to overcome.

9. Schedule the important stuff

Trying to remember every recurring task in your life is ridiculously draining.

So I recommend scheduling everything in your calendar that is important (including self-care).

I schedule the following things:

  • Production of my weekly newsletter Flourish
  • Coworking sessions with my membership
  • Office hours with my students
  • My daily walks
  • Meditation (I even have a reminder to take “one mindful breath”)
  • Exercise (I use an app called FitOn)
  • Fortnightly online grocery shopping (we all gotta eat!)

Simple systems like calendar alerts alleviate the need to remember tasks (let the robots take care of that!). Anytime you can reduce that mental load, you free up that energy for taking more action.

10. Get rid of the to-do list and try something different

Most people I know plan their day using a to-do list. Whether it’s in an app or a notebook — it’s how they hope to stay organized and on track

But I hate to-do lists.

And maybe (secretly) you do too.

This is why I want to introduce you to Personal Kanban — a visual, tactile, and in-your-face task management system. That keeps essential tasks at the top of your mind while at the same time showcasing your progress.

Here’s what my “to-do list” looks like:

It’s worth trying out if you haven’t found a system that works for you (yet).

Execution is everything

Ideas are cheap. Execution is expensive. The ability to execute separates people, not the ability to come up with ideas.

— Shane Parrish

Whether self-imposed or unavoidable due to your responsibilities as a parent, boss, or colleague — distractions drain time and energy from your primary goal; doing what you intended to do.

But by using purposeful systems and building time-protecting boundaries around your most important work, you give yourself a greater chance of focusing your attention exactly where you need it to be.

With some structure to how you plan your day (and your week), and of course, some practice — you can gain superhuman abilities to squeeze staggering levels of productivity out of every hour available to you.

And hopefully, you can use today’s tips and templates to make better decisions about what to work and when.