You wake up with that early morning optimism: the confidence that tells you, “Today, you’ve got this!”
But as the day unravels, so does your focus. Suddenly, you’re drowning in to-dos.
In your head, crossing 20 items off your mental to-do list wasn’t going to be an issue. But once you see them written in down and estimate the time it would take to complete each one, it becomes clear that there simply aren’t 37 hours in a day.
Once it’s all laid out before you, common sense (and a sickening feeling of overwhelm) sets in. On the bright side, now you know you must find a better way because your stress level is at its tipping point.
Let’s look into how to use visual planning to turn your day from feeling like the tumultuous North Sea into the tranquil waters of the Caribbean.
What is visual planning?
Visual planning is more than just scribbling tasks down on the scrap piece of paper that you used yesterday as a coaster for your half-finished tea—with no plan and no structure. It's a strategic way of managing projects using visuals to show tasks, timelines, and how different project parts connect.
It's about creating a visual roadmap of your day. You can open your calendar and know that you have a meeting with your team leader at 9 AM, lunch at noon, and two hours blocked off to finish the progress report that’s due by the end of the day. That’s the value of visual planning—it helps you keep it real(istic) and eliminates hustle-induced panic.
Take one glance at your visual plan, and you know exactly where you stand, which tasks to tackle next, and, more importantly, what can wait.
Think of it as a visual narrative of your work—a story told through charts, diagrams, and other visual aids. Some people do just fine when you tell them they have 10 minutes left to finish a task, or they have to be somewhere in an hour. For others, it’s not that simple. Time seems abstract—which, of course, makes it easy to lose track of time.
Because of that, some people thrive on visual schedules. These make it possible to see how long a task should take or how long you have until you need to log on for a meeting. Tasks are positioned in comparison with one another, and the whole of your day. It makes time a more tangible idea.
Does that sound helpful? Here are three common elements of visual planning:
- Graphical elements: Graphics paint a picture of your project using diagrams, charts, and other visual aids that give your brain context to make sense of the project's purpose, format, and connection with your day as a whole.
- Representation of tasks: Visual planning goes beyond simple to-do lists by mapping out the scope of your project. Since tasks are often color-coded and you can mark the level of urgency, you get a clear picture of what needs to be done and when at a glance.
- Dynamic approach: Visual plans evolve in real time and adapt to changes. Your plan is even more fluid when you use easy-to-edit digital planning software that integrates with your tech stack. Often, you can drag and drop tasks into a scheduled time and watch how it changes the flow of your day. No more scrambling to update multiple documents or spreadsheets—your visual plan reflects the current state of play.
Visual planning is for those who need to see it to believe it. It's not just about scratching lines through tasks. It’s about physically seeing your progress and your path forward. It's seeing the big picture.
3 best visual planning formats for managing your project
The saying “out of sight, out of mind” rings true for many folks (especially when ADHD is part of the mix). When it comes to organizing your day and tracking your progress, you need tools that are efficient, intuitive, and—above all—visible.
Gantt Charts, Kanban Boards, and Mind Maps are the top three formats that tick these boxes.
They provide a unique way to visualize your tasks, making it easier to prioritize tasks, identify bottlenecks, and see your achievements at a glance. Let's take a look at each:
1. Gantt Charts
If you often catch yourself in the middle of a task thinking, “Okay, what’s next?” a Gantt chart is a visual timeline that will give you your answer. It shows tasks or activities as horizontal bars. This helps you see what needs to be done, when, and how long each task will take.
As you can see from Notion’s example above, it's a roadmap that makes projects easier to plan and track.
In project management, these timeline-oriented charts are crucial. Maybe you’re in human resources and tasked with employee scheduling. Gantt charts illustrate when training, reviews, or webinars occur and how they align with other key dates like project deadlines or holidays so you can schedule around them.
If there's a scheduling conflict, it stands out on the chart, allowing for swift adjustments to keep everyone on track.
2. Kanban Boards
A Kanban board, like the template above from Trello, is a visual to-do list divided into columns, helping you organize tasks by stages like "To Do," "Pending," and "Done," making it easy to see and manage your work progress in a glance. It's like moving sticky notes on a board to track what's being worked on and what's completed.
Here's where Kanban boards excel—especially for the dynamic workflows used in industries like software development, marketing, and healthcare.
Imagine you're managing the roll-out of a webinar series. With visual planning software, you can drag and drop subtasks (like content creation and tech checks) from the "To Do" column to "In Progress" as you start them and finally to "Completed" once they’re finished.
While the ritual of moving tasks along the board is satisfying, Kanban boards help you visualize tasks, track progress, and ensure a smooth flow from planning to execution.
3. Mind Maps
As you see in the Miro mind map above, mind maps are visual diagrams that use branches and keywords to show relationships between ideas. The web of topics makes it easier to understand and remember complex subjects by presenting them in a more organized and colorful way. It’s like a mural of your thought process.
Considered the ultimate brainstorming tool by many, a mind map is an easy and fun way to organize ideas.
Let's say you're in charge of a new field service initiative. Starting with the central theme, you create branches for tasks (like team assignments and equipment procurement), timelines (for training and deployment), and resources (human and material needs).
Mind maps break down this complex project into manageable components, allowing you to see the big picture and ensure no aspect is overlooked.
Why is visual planning so effective?
There’s a reason so many classrooms use visual aids like diagrams on whiteboards, weather charts on the wall, and illustrated schedules on easels to guide students through the day’s tasks and help them understand the content. Studies from Arizona State University and the Korean Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry show visual aids enhance understanding, retention, and on-task behaviors.
Visual aids aren’t just for the young or folks with ADHD. Everyone benefits, especially when we're involved in creating the visual plans because it forces us to slow down and reiterate the what, why, and how of what we’re doing. The higher level of thinking we’re doing about our day helps all of the elements stick in our brains similar to the way writing notes by hand helps us remember better. So what makes visual planning continue to be a game-changer into adulthood?
- Improved communication: Visuals transcend language barriers, making it easier for diverse teams to align on visual project goals.
- Cognitive aid: Visual cues help us remember details and milestones.
- Creativity: Mind maps encourage free-form thinking and innovation.
- Team collaboration: Visual plans are common reference points that reduce misunderstandings.
- Timeline visualization: Tools like Gantt charts offer a clear timeline view so you know how long tasks and projects will take.
- Performance tracking: Visual planning makes it easy to track progress and spot delays.
In short, visual planning makes complex info easier to understand, helps teams work together, and makes managing projects more effective.
How to make and use a visual planner
Visual planning starts with a clear goal. Just like solving a maze, it’s easiest when you start from the end. When you know what outcome you’re after, using project management software with visual planning can be the quickest way to see both the immediate and longer-term steps toward that goal. This helps you plan not just for tomorrow but for unexpected crises that might pop up.
Before you can track and plan your project, you have to set up your visual plan format. Here’s how to use a visual planner, from start to finish:
- Outline the goals, tasks, and milestones of your project. Be clear and realistic about what you aim to accomplish.
- Choose the right visual tool that matches your project needs. This could be a Gantt chart for timeline-focused projects, a Kanban board for ongoing workflows, or a mind map for brainstorming sessions.
- Break your project down into manageable tasks, each with a specific goal. Your workload will feel less daunting and more achievable.
- Identify dependencies between your tasks, particularly if you're using a Gantt chart. Knowing which tasks rely on others will help you sequence your work effectively.
- Allocate resources to each task, ensuring everyone has what they need to get the job done.
- Set realistic start and end dates for each task. This will help you keep on track and spot any potential delays early on.
- Fill in your project details in your chosen visual planning tool, creating a clear representation of your project plan.
- Regularly update and monitor your visual planner. Tools like Sunsama make it easy to adjust your timeline as needed.
- Share your visual planner with your team. This ensures everyone is on the same page about the project's status and goals.
- Be ready to adapt your plan if priorities shift or unexpected changes occur. Flexibility is key to managing projects effectively.
- Track task completion and spot potential bottlenecks or areas needing attention.
- Reflect on what worked well and what could be improved for future projects. This will help you continuously improve your process.
Keep in mind customizing your visual planner to your specific needs and using it consistently will result in better organization and communication.
Many digital visual planners—like Sunsama—share full video tutorials to get you started, so you don’t have to learn through trial and error.
Streamline your workflow with visual planning tools
Digital visual planning tools bring calm efficiency to your day. For example, Designstripe co-founder James Daly’s LinkedIn post above shares the tech stack he uses to keep his tasks from falling through the cracks. Digital planning tools like he uses are portable, intuitive, and way easier than creating your own visual aids from scratch.
Scheduling software, like Sunsama, lets you stay on top of planning, coordination, and team members’ tasks in real time. It offers transparency, accountability, and a bird's eye view of the entire project.
Are you and your team sharing information asynchronously? Need to reorganize work to meet objectives on time? Sunsama lets you drag and drop tasks (and emails and Slack messages) straight into your calendar so you can timebox your day for calm efficiency.
Sunsama reviews yesterday’s completed tasks with you, helps you schedule today’s, and helps you estimate and track the time and deadlines of your project so you can approach each day with a sense of calm.
Then, you can glance at the visual plan of your day whenever you need to and breathe easier, knowing that nothing will slip through the cracks. Sign up for a free 14-day Sunsama trial to build a schedule that’s easy to see.