Little lined notebook flipped open and ready to write on

It seems to me that a good part of life is spent trying to figure out how to best manage yourself.

At least that’s the case for me. Every New Year, publications are full of advice on “how to slow down,” or “how to have a stress-free year.” My sister had a copy of the German Flow laying about when I was visiting. In an article titled “Mein Leben Verlangsamen” (“Slowing Down my Life”) Anne Otto mentioned a Hurry Slowly podcast episode in which Julie Zhou, VP of Product Design at Facebook, talks about how she manages to live a less hectic life despite her high pressure career. First of all, she devised a six-month plan. Each morning she reviews her schedule, visualizes her day and checks whether how she spends her days actually jives with what she wants to achieve long term. What a brilliant approach, I thought, to regularly make the effort to link the everyday with the big goals.

First I wondered, do I need to make a longer-term plan? But I decided that no, I didn’t. I’m not a corporate hotshot like Julie Zhou. In fact, I’ve gone to some pains not to be one. Nevertheless, I have things I want to achieve, ways I want to live my life, and ways I don’t. Like her, I don’t want to feel like life is passing by too quickly, like time is running through my fingers, so

I ended up writing out what I call my Macro List.

On the one hand it contains tangible projects I’d like to accomplish (such as completing two book projects). On the other it lists my priorities (such as spending time with family) because I feel that those are what really drive my life and ultimately my happiness.

My Macro List lives in my Morning Pages book because that’s where I ended up writing it out. I have indexed it with a simple post-it flag for easy reference. Most mornings, when I write out my daily bucket list, I do refer back to my Macro List, to make sure I’m on course.

As with any good idea, I don’t quite know where the idea to write out a daily “bucket” list came from.

It began with the perfect little black notebook I found when my daughter and I were milling about Paperchase on one of our days in London. I had been looking for a small spiral-bound lined notebook to keep my running to-do list. It was supposed to clear my life of the clutter of scribbled-on post-it notes and free my mind of the running to-do list that always clatters about in there!

The envisioned notebook needed to be able to lie flat, on my sofa’s armrest, the dining room table, or the kitchen counter, open to the day’s relevant page. I wanted to be able to easily glance at it throughout the day.

The spiral-bound notebooks I found at the local office supply store in Chicago wouldn’t do. They buckled when you turned one side 360 degrees for it to be open to only one page. I even clipped the barrier on the wire spiral, which only caused the notebook slowly disintegrate.

Finally, at Paperchase I found the perfect notebook for my purpose!

Small, lined, bound in black linen with a rubber band holder, it lies completely flat without losing its form. I immediately bought two, and I should have bought more because I am already worried how I will get resupplied. Writing this, I figured out I can actually order them online and have them shipped from the U.K. without exorbitant shipping fees (thank you, global economy!).

Since returning from our trip, this little black notebook has served me well. Following Julie Zhou’s advice, I now review my Outlook calendar every morning. I am loath to check my email that early, and I resist doing it, but my Outlook calendar harbors all my appointments. And I have to admit that my life is complicated enough that I do occasionally forget appointments. So I check the Outlook calendar and  briefly envision my day as Zhou advises.

Then I open the little black notebook to a new page, write the date, followed by four time buckets:





Then I slot in the appointments (work, doctor’s appointment, physical therapy, hairdresser, lunch with a friend) or obligations (fix dinner, do my exercises, call my mother). I also slot in bigger ticket items like “working on my children’s book” from my Macro List.

While writing it out, I can already tell when I’m stuffing too much into a day.

Something I am always prone to do!

The daily “bucket” list is not a schedule. I absolutely hate planning my day hour by hour.

That feels too constricting to me. The daily “bucket” list is more of an itinerary. While I actually quite often do something in the morning what I wrote down for the afternoon, or vice versa, it helps to assign activities to a bucket because that let’s me see what might actually fit into a day. Having these four buckets lets me see that, you know what? – even though I should start my newsletter today, it’s just not going to happen. There simply isn’t enough space when the entire morning, noon and afternoon will be spent at the office.

This is all part of my ongoing endeavor of learning to pace myself.

Working in small increments is one approach, realizing what’s realistic is another. As part of pacing myself, I also write in “tasks” like “rest” or “take a bath,” or “exercises.” All things that still have to fit in a day, even though they are usually not on the to-do list. I used to wonder why they weren’t getting done. Now I have the pleasure of crossing them off!

Throughout the day, I glance at that bucket list in the notebook.

I always leave it open around my center of activity, either by my spot on the couch where I write, or the dining room table, or the kitchen counter. I love crossing stuff off over the course of the day. And most days, if I planned well and didn’t overstuff the day, I manage to cross off all items.

The daily bucket list keeps me from running down the proverbial rabbit hole.

It’s not that I am particularly scatter brained. Nevertheless, distractions loom large. Quite often, I used to have one thing planned for a day, which was, however, totally at my discretion. Then I’d open the laptop and get going on an unrelated minor to do. Next thing I knew, a bunch of things got done that day, but not the ones I intended. This is where tying daily items back to the macro list comes in.

As initially planned, I also keep a running to-do list in this little black notebook.

It’s just not part of the daily list. Whatever crosses my mind (and my husband’s!) goes on the “to do” list. That way, they have a place to live. They are easily found, and they don’t rattle around our brains as much.

On my daily bucket list, I just slot in “to do list” on a day when there’s actually space. Then I flip back to the to-do list to see which items I could tackle. Slowly, I cross them off. Once the page is filled, and many tasks are crossed out, I start a new one, carrying over whatever wasn’t crossed off.

I’ve been writing out my daily bucket list for a month now, and do feel like I have a much better handle on managing my time.

Not only in terms of what I managed to get done, but also how I feel about it. Less harried, for one; more in control, for another. And most importantly, while my plate is as full as ever, I feel more relaxed about it all. The to-do’s have a place to live. The macro list helps me stay the course, and the daily bucket list keeps it all humming, day by day.

If all this sounds involved, it’s not. It’s a little time investment, a little practice, an experiment, but so far it’s been a fruitful one.