As a screenwriter who works at home, I’m used to having large, shapeless blocks of time. Now that the coronavirus has many people unexpectedly working from home, I wanted to share a tool that’s helped me stay productive.
It’s a pre-printed sheet of 8.5×11-inch paper folded in quarters. I call it my Daily Plan. You can download the template as a PDF, or customize it in Pages, Word or Google Docs.
I print these up a dozen at a time and leave a stack by my phone charger. Each morning as I drink my coffee, I take one and fill it out.
Since the lockdown began, one of the things that’s honestly most helpful is writing the day of the week at the top of the sheet. Often the only way I can tell it’s Monday versus Saturday is by looking.
Below that is a list of blank lines and checkboxes, a classic to-do list. Here I put the tasks I want to get done, referring to the previous day’s sheet to carry over anything that’s still relevant.
What’s important is that this isn’t just for the must-dos, but also the want-to-dos. For example, playing Animal Crossing. It’s not a reward for getting other things accomplished; it’s its own thing worth putting on the list by itself.
There are a few items printed at the bottom of the list for tasks I do every day. For example, I have a 1,251-day streak going in Duolingo French, and no virus is going to break that. My 2020 goal was to learn how to draw, so that’s another daily task pre-printed on the sheet.
Do I actually draw it every day? No. But it’s on the list as a reminder that drawing practice is something I could and probably should do.
The pre-printed lines are also useful for recurring but non-daily tasks. My dog Lambert needs his teeth brushed every other day, so I scratch the line out if it happened yesterday.
The back of the Daily Plan is my schedule. Pre-pandemic, this was section full of meetings and school events. Yes, these were already in the calendar app on my phone, but marking them down on paper helped me recognize where I had free time to get work done.
My schedule now is basically just zoom calls and hangout sessions with friends. At least I don’t have to budget travel time to get from place to place.
The Daily Plan folds open like a book. Inside, I have an overflow list of tasks, along with a section for notes. For example, how many decks of Writer Emergency Pack we have at the warehouse, or the name of a book I want to order.
I use a proper notebook or the Notes app on my phone for stuff I need to refer back to, but the Notes section is a great place to jot down things that are only relevant today.
The Daily Plan also has a peek page, a list of all the projects I’m working on — both official stuff and fun things. It’s printed on the back of the sheet, which ends up underneath the to-do list. As I sit down with my morning coffee, I’ll look through this list to consider whether there’s anything related to those projects that could be done today.
Where this all came from
The idea of a daily to-do list is probably as old as paper and writing.
At its heart, my Daily Plan shares a lot with David Allen’s classic Getting Things Done system, in that it describes work in terms of projects and “next actions.” I’ve used GTD at various times in various ways, both in handwritten notebooks and with apps like Things and OmniFocus.
While GTD works great for many people, I’ve found it inevitably devolves into lists of things I never get done, and eventually stop looking at.
What’s helpful about the Daily Plan is that it’s new each day. I have control over it because I only add the things I want to add. In this way, it more closely resembles David Seah’s Emergent Task Planner. ETP is a little narrowly focused for my taste, and I’ve never found micro-scheduling to work for me.
The most direct inspiration for the Daily Plan came from a habit I’ve gotten into whenever I take a long international flight and find myself with 10 to 14 hours to fill. This unstructured free time used to spike my anxiety. What should I do? Should I read the book I brought? Should I play that puzzle game on my iPad? Should I do Headspace? Which movies should I watch on the seat-back screen?
Beginning last year, I decided to make a Flight Plan before the wheels leave the runway. Once I’m in my seat, I pull out a sheet of paper and list the in-flight movies I want to watch, the things I want to read, and the games I want to play. It takes ten minutes and is honestly transformative. I used to dread long flights. Now I see them as a chance to watch and read and learn. I’ve taken this amorphous blob of time and given it purpose.
The Daily Plan is basically my Flight Plan for ordinary life.
I started using it in January, well before the pandemic. While it’s useful in normal times, it’s proved indispensable in this current age of nameless days when the boundaries between work and home life are blurred. It provides a sense of structure and control.
So if you want to give it a shot, you can download the template as a PDF, or customize it in Pages, Word or Google Docs.
Customize however you like, adding the items you want to do every day, and listing your projects on the peek page. (If your printer can’t handle two-sided printing, just print the first page. You can flip the paper and print it again, or just not worry about it.)
Hit me up on Twitter if you find the Daily Plan useful, or come across innovations you want to share.