Use your planner to plan smarter & track your creative cycles

Published by Nela Dunato on in Productivity, Tips for creatives

Today’s post is a tip to use your calendar or planner in a different way than you might be used to — instead of just looking forward to things that you planned for the future, you can also look back and learn from it.

Companies invest millions of dollars into “big data” research that helps them make decisions that will bring in even more millions, so what can we learn from this example?
That data can be extremely useful when we know what to do with it.

Use your planner to plan smarter & track your creative cycles

Paper or digital planners?

Whatever suits you is fine, as long as you’re not throwing it away.

If you’re already using a calendar app, that’s great. If you’re using a paper planner that you keep around for an entire year, that’s great too.

If you’re using loose papers that you throw away after you use them up, I suggest keeping them for a while, at least a couple of months (ideally, an entire year so you get a whole cycle of your seasons) so that you can get the most information out of it.

There are several useful insights you can get from your used-up planner, as long as you keep it accurate.

Make sure your planner reflects your real, not your ideal life

I was frustrated with any kind of planning because it turned out I was incapable of sticking with a plan. This made me wonder why bother with planning in the first place, if nothing goes the way I planned anyway?

Postponing and moving things around was frustrating for me, because it made me feel like a failure at planning. I especially hated doing this on paper, when I used coloring pencils to color-code my activities. After a while I realized my approach had to be changed.

I realized I had to allow myself wiggle room. I can’t expect from myself to keep to a strict plan for a week. Also, I had to switch to digital planners because I need to be able to change things easily, and not waste so much time on erasing and coloring. I now use Google Calendar on my computer and my phone.

When something comes up, I move things around, and it’s very easy to do that on my computer. I literally just drag and drop this task to another time slot or another day. I accept that the plan will never work out 100% and I’m cool with that!

When things come up and you have to change the plan, you need to actually go and change it, and not ignore it because your plan “failed”. At the end of day, you want to have a more or less accurate representation of your activities so that you can refer to it later.

But why would you want to go back and read this information?

Making your future plans more realistic

Your past behaviors inform you of your future. We don’t normally change overnight, and it’s reasonable to expect that your life will look very similar to your past unless you take some drastic measures. This means that you can make pretty reasonable predictions of what you can expect from yourself if you pay attention to what you actually did in the past.

Research on the human ability to predict the future showed that people are terrible at it. We can’t predict how long something will really take, and actually things in reality take much longer even than our worst “if everything goes wrong” scenarios.

So it’s really important to see how much time something realistically takes.

You might be tracking how much time you’re spending on your tasks and projects. But it’s important to not just track time in hours (which you may be doing so you can charge your clients accordingly), but also to see how many days, weeks or months it took you to complete, so you can set more realistic deadlines in the future.

Just because something takes you 40 hours, it doesn’t mean you can complete it in one work week by working 8 hours a day. Maybe the nature of the work makes it difficult to work on it for 8 hours straight every day, even if you really had all that time. You may not be able to complete it in two weeks, even. Perhaps if you tracked one such project, you realized it actually took you 3 weeks, which is 3 times more than you initially planned.

Pay enough attention to those things and you’ll soon see how you might need to adapt your future plans to be a bit more reasonable.

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking “But I wasn’t very productive back then, and now I really mean business and I’ll work much harder!” — plan for the worst possible scenario, and if you really end up completing it faster than expected, you’ll have some extra hours freed up as a reward for a job well done.

Noticing the patterns

You may notice that on some days of the week your productivity will be far lower than on other days.

I noticed that on Mondays following a weekend filled with social activities or hiking trips I’m dragging like a dead horse, but when I had a weekend for self-care and rest then Mondays are super-productive. That sounds like a very obvious thing, but I only realized that this is something that goes on every single time after I observed my calendar.

Also, after I’ve had a week where I put in a ton of effort toward one project and I was working long hours to launch the project, the following week I will be recovering and I won’t be able to work on anything demanding until Thursday or Friday.

Perhaps you’ll notice some cycles like times when you’re most inspired for a particular type of activity, and times when you’re not so inspired and can only manage boring but easy work. If you realize this is a thing that happens in regular intervals, you can change your future plans so that you don’t end up wasting your peak creative times on chores.

If it’s difficult to plan these things ahead, you can allow some unscheduled time so that you can just dive into things you’re most inspired to do at the moment.

Optimize your workflow

This goes hand in hand with noticing the patterns. You may notice you lose a lot of time at certain times of day if you do a certain activity. In my case, starting my day with reading e-mail ended up with hours of time wasted on the internet, that’s why I usually don’t read my e-mail before noon.

Starting with another activity may lead to a productive day. In my case, painting or writing puts me into a very productive mood, and on days where the first thing I do is work on my art or write a blog post or work on my ebook, I tend to do the most of my client work as well (even though you might think one excludes the other, it’s not the case).

Examine how you could batch your tasks together in a way that maximizes your productivity and experiment with different combinations and see how it turns out.

Bonus points: color code your calendar

Google Calendar doesn’t have “labels” like Gmail does, but it can store many different “calendars”. I use these calendars the same way I would use labels.

Each calendar corresponds to a specific category of activity, and has a special color. For example some of my categories are My projects (purple), Work (red), Health (green), Life management (gray), Meetings (dark green), Relationships (light blue), Events (orange), Seminars & workshops (dark blue), Deadlines (yellow) etc.

Because my calendar is color-coded, I can see at a glance how much time I spent each week on certain type of activities. Some of my weeks are predominantly red, some are predominantly purple, and I make sure there is a healthy mix of green & light blue on it as well.

Back to the patterns now, you might notice how a decrease in leisure and healthy activities affects your productivity in the following weeks.

Review your planner regularly

All this information is a waste if you don’t actually use it. That’s why it’s important to allow some time to reflect back on your past activities and see what really went on.

This is useful whenever you have to make an estimate for some future activity — just look up a similar project from your past and see how that went.

You can also refer to your past weeks when you’re doing your weekly or monthly planning.

If you take some time to pause and reflect, I’m sure you’ll get a lot of valuable insights you will use to your benefit in the future.


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5 responses to “Use your planner to plan smarter & track your creative cycles”

  1. Wonderful tips and strategies, Nela! How exactly do you break down these calendars (i.e., what goes into which category?) and what is an example of how you leave the wiggle room? I can see you posted a small screenshot but I think it would be very helpful if you walked us through one of your weeks with screenshots and real examples.

  2. This is such a great idea! I’ve never thought about tracking my past activity in the calendar. It will take a lot of discipline to make sure everything is accurate, but I think I’ll give it a try :)

  3. @Laura, thank you!
    I’ll try to describe it in short… I have a lot of categories! :)
    There is a “default” calendar that has no name (in Google calendar it’s the one named after your e-mail address) and I used to put in everything under that.
    Now when I categorize, I put in all client projects into “Work”, and all my passion projects, regardless of their money-making potential into “My projects”.
    The “Life management” is basically chores & errands like lunch, cleaning, shopping, paperwork etc.
    The “Health” category covers my morning routine (something I’ll write about in a separate post), exercise, meditation, massage appointments, healing work, trekking trips etc.
    “Seminars & workshops” covers all educational type events, while “Events” covers fun activities like concerts, festivals, exhibition opening receptions etc.
    I have a label “Deadlines” that are essentially all deadlines to important client projects, submission deadlines or any kind of external deadlines.
    “Meetings” are all group or individual meetings related to work or projects, including masterminds.
    “Relationships” is “just for fun” socializing with my friends and family (ok so family is sometimes not as fun, but you know what I mean! :)).
    “Holidays” marks public holidays in my country.
    I don’t know if I forgot something, I have a few odd labels here and there that are very specialized, but the ones I outlined cover more than 95% of my logged time so I hope this gives you a good idea of how I go about it!

    @Amy thanks, glad you think so! Yeah at first it may take a bit of adjusting, but after a while you just get used to it and it becomes normal to slide things around :)

  4. Funny you should be talking about this now, I just started doing this a couple of weeks ago. I was only going to track for a month so thanks for the tip to keep tracking for longer…that’s a great idea! X

  5. Donna, I love when synchronicities like this happen :) I’m so glad you like the idea, and I hope you’ll get a lot out of this practice!

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