Two big-picture concepts that help me plan my days/weeks/months.

I’ve been getting a ton of questions lately about how I manage my calendar and my daily schedule. Usually September and January are the big times to talk about this kind of stuff, so I’m assuming this is a serious pain point for many people. (Am I right?)

The planning stuff does not come naturally to me, but I’ve finally realized that my life goes much, much better when I embrace rhythms and routines. I’ve made a ton of progress in these areas, especially in the last 5 years, and have finally developed strategies that work very well, for me. It hasn’t been easy.

I’ve never been able to follow the typical create-your-daily-schedule advice, which goes like this: write down every single thing you need to do, then drop each activity into a slot on your calendar, in discrete half hour blocks. That approach is perfect for some people, but it makes my brain explode.

This won’t be the only post I write on creating and maintaining a schedule that works for you, so hit me with questions and potential topics to cover in comments, but today I’m sharing two big-picture concepts that help me plan my days/weeks/months: block scheduling and anchor events.

Block scheduling:

Staring at a day planner segmented into half-hour blocks makes me jumpy, but I’ve found freedom and flexibility in scheduling chunks of time in my days and weeks. This looks like 1-4 hour blocks of time devoted to a certain type of activity.

Some examples of my “blocks” right now: writing time (or other mentally taxing work), work-related tasks (email, list-making, planning), family time, and recharging time (reading, walking, creative stuff). When I plan my blocks, I group the mentally-demanding stuff together, and the less-demanding stuff together, and schedule them accordingly in my day.

I’m picky about the times I’ll plan for the mentally demanding stuff: I have to have energy, and I have to have childcare (or sleeping children).

Once the block is in place, I’m flexible about how I use it: during a block set aside for the mentally challenging stuff I might draft a blog post, or outline a bigger project, or even write a long letter to an old friend. If the block is for family time, I won’t know well in advance what we’ll be doing exactly: it might be a family walk, or a bike ride, or playing Uno, or reading a story out loud, or watching Jimmy Fallon clips. It will be together time.

One of those blocks is almost always rest and renewal. This was a big change for me a few years ago, and it makes a huge difference in how our days go. Every afternoon I block out an hour or two during the time when my energy slumps anyway to rest and regroup. These days that might look like reading, working out, (short) phone chats with friends, and a big iced coffee. These things are productive, but that’s not the point.

One more thing about these chunks: unless the babysitter is coming, the times aren’t strictly defined. This loose framework provides structure and flexibility, and it shifts depending on the day. For example, I frequently get together with friends in the afternoons, either by myself or with all the kids, too. I’ve learned that if I have a 2:00 coffee date I just can’t skip over the reading/workout or I’ll go crazy, so I’ll plan for a chunk of time to recharge before or after.

If the forecast says it’s supposed to rain all afternoon, we may move that family bike ride to the morning, during what would normally be a work chunk. I need the structure of a schedule, but since I’m often at home with my four kids, I also need flexibility.

Anchor events and hard stops:

I’ve learned to be deliberate about creating anchor events and hard stops in my days.

The “anchor event” concept come from Laura Vanderkam’s short ebook What the Most Successful People Do on the Weekends. In the book, she suggests planning 5 or so anchor events in your weekend: fun, scheduled activities that provide a structure for your days off. These things happen at a certain place, at a certain time.

Because it’s summer, we have lots of anchor events we’re planning around, and not just on the weekends: summer museum trips, playdates with friends, trips to the park or the zoo or the library. We plan these; we don’t just fit them in, or they might not happen. (Every once in a while we’ll take off on a spontaneous trip somewhere, but more often, if it’s not on the calendar, everyone would rather stay home than venture out in the heat this time of year.)

(Will and I have been talking lately about scheduling more anchor events into our family life, like Sunday adventures, or monthly family dinner dates, but we’re still thinking these through.)

I’m also (trying to) become diligent about protecting the hard stops in my day. At 7:00 a.m., I stop what I’m doing and either get ready to leave home or leave for a run, depending on the day. At noon, we break for lunch. 2 – 4:00 p.m. is my hard stop for mentally demanding work. I get off the computer, no matter what, and the kids have their own rest time to regroup and recharge. At 9:00 p.m., I’m done with the computer for the day. (I’ve been experimenting with making this time 6:00 p.m. but it’s not exactly a “hard stop” yet.)

One more thing about these anchor events and hard stops: they change with the seasons, which I find freeing and frustrating.

For example: during the winter, I almost always take a walk or go for a run at about 3:00. The sun is high; it’s warm out. That would be torture in July.  I won’t deny that these seasonal changes are hard for me to get used to and it’s easy to fall off track when things change. Knowing it’s tough helps me adapt.

A daily rhythm should help, not hinder, and I appreciate the flexibility to adjust as needed. But it often seems that it’s time to change things up just when things finally start clicking, and it’s easy to fall off track when things change. Just knowing this is tough helps me adapt, but it’s still tricky.

Revolutionize your time management with these two big-picture concepts.

What big-picture concepts help YOU plan your days? When it comes to planning your schedule, what are your pain points?

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    • Pilar says:

      I love your perspective! I am very flexible, which can be a strength. But also a weakness ’cause it keeps me from planning ahead sometimes… I’ve read about planning and being intentional, but it’s just overwhelming sometimes! But the way you explained it, helped me view it differently.

  1. For me, the rule of One Thing and Three Things is important for avoiding the panicked feeling of, “I have to do all the things, but my young child won’t let me get ANYTHING done!!” The basic principle is to focus on just one thing that really has to get done in this period of time and to be open to seeing which two other things I will be able to get done. I use it most for weeknights (between getting home from work and going to bed) but it also works for chunks of time like Sunday between getting home from church and time to cook dinner.

    I do one load of laundry every night.

    My partner and I make time to hang out together after the kids are asleep, at least several times a week–and there are two strategies crucial to making that okay: If my laundry isn’t started yet, I need to put it in the washing machine before we hang out, because otherwise I’ll stand up from a great conversation and say, “But it’s 11:00 and I haven’t even STARTED the laundry yet!!!” and burst into tears, which takes all the fun out of having had the great conversation. Also, if one of us has a task that can be done while talking (like mending clothes), that’s a wise use of time.

  2. Bethann says:

    I’m so glad you’ve started this conversation! I’m using Toggl to identify and understand my days/routines/lack of routines. I appreciate how you “listen” to your own energy levels and build in a daily “down time”. I know for myself that’s something I need too and will look at my time more closely for where it will work for me.

  3. Ellen says:

    Following the comments because I love planning and all conversations related thereto. 🙂

    I really appreciate your concept of ‘chunks’. I’ve tried tracking my time use a few times, but all the little things one does while parenting and working on projects are mind-warping to record. Looking at time with a ‘in these hours I primarily focused on this area’ perspective is freeing.

  4. Elysha says:

    I bought an uncalendar a few months ago. I found that as an INFP I despise scheduling and having commitments, but as someone with goals I am much more productive with things written down. I’m still getting used to my uncalendar, but I have found I like all the free space and the lack of dates and times in it. 😀

  5. This system pretty much sums up how I schedule my freelance work and balance family time. I’ve never been able to put it into words before, but these flexible chunks of time are exactly how I think about my day. Now if I could just be more intentional about scheduling recharging blocks . . .

  6. Katia says:

    Thank you for sharing this with us, Anne! I always appreciate tips for how to plan ahead (and in the present). I work M-F, 8:30-5, so I’m out of the house most of the time. I find that I do need to be strict with myself about scheduling when I’m at home. On weeknights, as soon as dinner is done, I give myself 30 minutes that I dedicate to cleaning up. That way, I don’t have to leave most of the cleaning to the weekend and can dedicate the weekend to family activities. As soon as the cleaning has been taken care of, I prepare the kids for bed, give them baths, read to them, etc. It doesn’t leave me with a lot of time to spend with the kids on weeknights, but we do our best. I find that flexibility is key for me. As an INFP, I feel lost without a schedule, but if my schedule is too strict, I can easily become overwhelmed. So, I try to schedule my days intuitively, following the guidelines that I set for myself, but also following my children’s lead. Time with them is more important than a clean house. Besides, my energy level varies from day to day. Most importantly, I do my best to plan ahead in a flexible way but remind myself to take one day at a time and focus on what is right in front of me, that which requires my full attention in the present moment.

  7. Stacey says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this! I was one of your readers who had asked for advice in this area so I am so appreciative that you took the time to write this post. I am also thrilled because both of these concepts (believe it or not!) are new-ish to me. I seem to go day to day and as a result am just not accomplishing what I know I can. That said, the ‘discreet half hour block’ concept makes my skin crawl. I think though, that I could really get my mind around blocks. A few years ago, I was really good about setting aside one morning a week to go to the library and write. I have to get out of the house to really make this happen- even though my children are in public school full day. I suppose that was a block. I can’t wait to think more about this and see what kind of blocks I can create. I see potential here! Thank you again. And ditto to to the question about what planner you use. I am constantly juggling between a paper calendar and on-line options and just can’t get anything to stick!

    • Anne says:

      Oh, good! I’m so glad this helped, especially because I couldn’t find your question on facebook when I went back to look at it. (Argh!)

      I use a planner pad these days (I have for a few years) but I’m eyeing the passion planner. They’re pretty similar, from what I can tell.

  8. Kristina M. says:

    I HATE planning. Seriously. What I did was “map my daily energy”. My daily energy is something like this:
    6-10 a.m. tons of creative energy for writing, crafting, painting, decorating my house, or making any aesthetic decisions. These early morning hours is when my brain does the most positive and creative thinking.
    Then 10-1 p.m. for me these are about the only times I can be productive doing tasks that I mostly dread. Answer emails, make a budget or meal plan, call people I don’t want to talk to, pay bills, etc.
    The most sluggish part of my day is from 1-4 p.m. this is just not a great time for me. I usually “waste” this time. I will watch t.v., read books, check Facebook, read blogs, take a nap, play piano, or the worst play candy crush. Alternatively I make plans to leave the house at these times since I know I won’t be useful anyways. I’ll meet friends or go shopping.
    4-9 p.m. is an interesting block because I have energy to do things like exercise, was dishes, vacuum, work in the garden but not to do anything too mentally taxing. I also use my evenings to spend time with my husband.
    Does anyone else find they have a best time for getting certain things done? Am I just really weird?

    • M.E. Bond says:

      I think your energy mapping makes a lot of sense. I have a hard time getting up in the morning and also have low energy in the late afternoon, so I try to work around that. I also try to limit my computer time to my kids’ naps and evenings and then of course I need to be disciplined if I want to get work done rather than wasting time online! So I wish I could schedule my day more around my energy levels, but I have to work with my family situation. It’s definitely a work-in-progress.

    • Anne says:

      I definitely have best times for getting certain things done, and it all has to do with mental energy. Love your outline of what that looks like for you.

  9. Alyssa says:

    Do you apply any of this to your home school part of the day? An allotted time window for all of it, or per subject, planned breaks? Do you have a planned time for errands?

    • Anne says:

      Yes, we do. We have anchor events and hard stops. For example, we stop for snack time, whether or not the math is done. I’ve found that it makes a huge difference in everyone’s happiness and concentration levels to preserve breaks.

  10. Anne says:

    This is hard won wisdom!

    Starting and stopping homeschool were pain points with a new baby. I realized it was helpful for me to come to a *full stop* after school was over because I needed the mental break. I was often working on my to-do list instead of resting.

    Now, I am toying with a hard (hard-ish?) start to school because it seems helpful to be done before lunch, and I haven’t always found pushing back lunch to be fruitful. It was so nice to have that flexibility, though, with a baby. At those times, events still happened in the same *order*, but I did not let myself stress over when exactly everything started and stopped. A routine over a schedule, if you will.

    I’ve also toyed with a “no new household tasks around/after dinner” hard stop.

    My current pain point is this natural staying up later during the summer! Argh! I guess I’m not tiring them out enough!!

  11. Hannah says:

    This sounds a lot like how I see my days, too. Anything too constricting and I flop. No plan at all and I flop. Thinking in terms of “chunks” of time is what feels right to this work-from-home, homeschooling mom!

  12. jen says:

    Thanks for this post! I also tend to do well with blocks of time rather than strict scheduling. But as a non working homeschooling mom, my problem seems to be that I don’t have any thing I HAVE to get done by a certain time. After reading Better Than Before, I think this is because I’m an obliger/rebel. I never had a problem getting things done for school or work, but when I’m the only one I’m accountable to I just can’t seem to get motivated. I’d love to hear any thoughts you have on Rubin’s 4 tendencies especially as they relate to homeschooling.

  13. Joslin says:

    I would love to know what kind of planner you use as well. I have been looking at planners now and have even considered designing one of my own but those can be kind of expensive.

  14. Kelty says:

    Oh man, this is very helpful stuff. It’s also good to be reminded that you don’t have to be a natural planner to learn to plan and that planning still helps! I’d love to know how often you plan out your time blocks…daily? weekly? monthly? What does that look like? How much time do you devote to it? What do you do if your time block goes awry or gets interrupted?

    We’ve got a time block for our morning routine – 8-10 for breakfast, getting dressed, personal chores + helping with house chores, ending with a netflix show episode as incentive. Its the most productive and easy part of our day now that it’s a habit. This helps me consider how we might apply this to other blocks of our day as well. Thanks for helping me connect those dots!

  15. Claire says:

    As a morning person, I love the idea of a hard stop at 7 AM. No matter what you have to stop and move on. I’m curious what time you get up though. In the winter I was doing well at 5:45, and with the summertime I’m getting up at 6:30. My early morning writing/computer time can drag on to 9AM! (My three year old says nothing because she will happily watch TV as long as I will let her)

  16. I will definitely have to read Laura Vanderkam’s book on weekends. I really enjoyed 168 Hours and would be interested to see what else she has to say on the subject. Since I work outside of the home, my schedule looks quite different. I leave my house by 6:45 each morning and don’t get back until 4-4:30. I am also an INFJ who loves planning, so I find that scheduling in time chunks very helpful.

  17. I also tend to schedule in chunks as well, and I’ve found it helpful. I have an Erin Condren Life Planner that works well for this purpose (and it also allows me to keep to do lists so that I can squeeze certain things in as time is available). I’m always interested in how others manage their time so thanks for sharing!

  18. I have heard from a lot of “Ps” (vs. my “J”) that block scheduling is the way to go. You decide that between 9-11 you work on getting new business. You don’t know exactly what the spirit will move you to work on during that time, but it will be something related to landing new business. Do that enough and a business will grow, even without a strict schedule. As you may imagine, I don’t mind a schedule, though I actually don’t schedule things too tightly. It’s one of the upsides of self-employment.

    • Anne says:

      That doesn’t surprise me at all about the P vs J. I’m glad to hear I’m in good company. When I was writing this I wondered what all the Js would think of my loosey-goosey approach. 🙂

  19. Heidi says:

    I love the concept of scheduling in blocks! I have four small boys at home (aged 7, 5, 3, and 6 months), and am homeschooling the two oldest this year. For the past eight months or so I’ve scheduled very little and as a result we hardly leave the house and have accomplished little other than just plodding along with schoolwork. I feel like I have no time for the projects I want to work on, and we don’t do outings as much as we should because I never want to leave home if I don’t have to. I’d also be interested to hear what planner you use!

  20. I’ve been planning for December this week. Really truly thinking through what I want it to be like. I know, it sounds super strange – either I’m crazy or hyper-scheduler and now until 2016 is mapped. Nope, neither of those.

    I am not a good “to-do” lister but I’m embracing that I am a good thinker. And when my mind wants to tackle December and plan some important priorities now so that when the calendar eventually turns to winter I’m not paralyzed in the mode of “constantly overwhelmed.”

    I use a large desk sized calendar to pencil in major events all year. When it’s time to fill in the anchors – that’s where it goes. Also writing a single word priority next to the month helps be see the year in balance.

    I’m hoping to finish a resource I’m writing for help with calendar keeping and planning (it will not be a planner itself) so I’m bookmarking this post for reference! Great advice.

    • Anne says:

      I don’t think that sounds crazy! Will and I like to do some big picture crazy talk every once in a while, talking about what we want for our family in the next six months, year, five years, and it’s amazing how much impact that long-term stuff has on the day-to-day.

      • Also, the Bullet Journal is a great alternative to “planners.” I don’t follow all the indexing rules, but I’m on my 4th Sketch pad (I also don’t like to have lined paper. I think I have boundary issues. 🙂 ) And I love the system!

  21. Hi,Anne!
    I just found your website, and I really like what you have to offer.
    This post resonates with me because I hate being scheduled every minute. The blocks of time work well for me because they give me a sandbox of time to play/work in. I need the flexibility that the chunks of time offer as opposed to a calendar with times that read 2:02 PM, 6:37 pm, etc. When a schedule is that tight, it sets me up for failure, and that defeats the purpose of setting up a schedule?
    I look forward to reading more from you. Thank you so much!

  22. I love my planner pad. I so agree with time blocking. When we try to manage every moment we often micro-manage and restrict ourselves. Not only that, but we leave little “white space” and that confines. I love the fluidity of weekly planning, have a game plan, but not being restricted. I want to be able to take advantage of those God moments that can arise-be it a sunrise, a call, a friend in need, a child home sick…. Love the post!

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