Tell me if this sounds familiar.
It’s 8:00 a.m.
You arrive at the office and notice you have a bunch of emails and voicemails waiting for you.
Great. More fires to put out.
You look at your physical inbox and notice several unfamiliar folders sitting in it. At best, each one represents a new action item you need to address for someone.
At worst, a new project.
Then, just as you’re about to roll up your sleeves and dig in, a coworker drops by. He wants to tell you about his evening. Unfortunately, a 60-second summary isn’t on the agenda. He drones on for 10 minutes.
You look at your watch. It’s already closing in on 9:00 a.m. You haven’t managed to do anything productive and already feel as if you’re losing control of your day.
It’s discouraging, right?
That perfectly describes my daily experience when I was in Corporate America.
Every day started with my being pulled in different directions. And on the days it didn’t let up (which was more often than not), I couldn’t move things forward. I couldn’t get anything done.
I was in reaction mode, responding to the whims and requests of others.
Until I figured out my problem…
I didn’t have a concrete plan for attacking the day. Without such a plan, I was like a tiny sailboat trying to navigate a Category 5 hurricane.
It wasn’t pretty.
You’ve probably gone through the same experience. You know that dismal feeling of losing control of your day.
I have good news. Here’s a simple – and I mean SIMPLE – 5-minute hack that will solve your problem…
Sit down each night and create a plan for the following day.
Simple. And extremely effective.
Maybe you enjoy working from to-do lists. Or maybe you like using time chunks to keep yourself on track.
None of that matters. The important thing is that you have a daily plan in front of you.
Keep reading to learn why.
3 Ways You’ll Benefit From Creating A Daily Plan
When you start each day with a plan, you have an opportunity to leverage several important time management principles.
Let’s take a quick look at three crucial ones.
#1 – You’ll Be Able To Focus
You know how hard it is to get things done when your mind is unfocused.
I certainly do.
When I’m unable to concentrate, I’m more susceptible to distractions. My brain looks for reasons to postpone the task at hand.
When you have a plan to guide your workflow, it’s much easier to focus. You know what needs to be done. And you know the urgency associated with each task.
That’s not to say having a plan makes you immune from distractions. No one is immune. But armed with a concrete plan that lists each task, its priority and deadline, you’ll be less likely to indulge yourself.
#2 – You’ll Know How To Move Forward
How many times have you started working on something and suddenly realized you don’t know how to move forward?
Maybe you need to research how to perform a specific task before actually doing it. Maybe you need to get a key player in your organization to “green-light” something before you can proceed.
Whatever the circumstances, your workflow grinds to a halt.
That’s less likely to happen when you prepare your plan the night before. You’ll notice potential workflow logjams and can take steps – doing research, getting buy-off from your manager, etc. – to streamline the following day’s activity.
#3 – You’ll Work According To Your Energy Levels
Ever heard the term “circadian rhythm?” It’s a fancy way to refer to your body’s clock.
Every 24 hours, your body and mind go through several changes. For example, you’re probably more alert at 10:00 a.m. than you are 10:00 p.m.
That’s not a fluke. It’s your rhythm.
The trick is to identify those times when you’re most acclimated to certain types of activities. That gives you an opportunity to maximize your productivity according to your internal clock.
For example, suppose you’re most alert and creative from 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 noon. If you have a project that requires focus and deep thought, work on it during that period. Postpone checking email, paying bills and doing other mindless activities until later, when your energy levels wane.
When you plan your day’s workflow, you’ll see which tasks require concentration and which can be addressed with less focus. The result? You’ll work more efficiently and get a LOT more done.
Enough dawdling. Let’s dive into actionable advice you can use to create tomorrow’s workflow plan.
7 Quick Tips For Planning Your Day
Keep in mind, what follows are suggestions, not rules. They’re not written in stone. You and I are different, and the things that work for me may not work for you.
Having said that, I urge you to give the following 7 suggestions a try.
Remember, maximizing your productivity isn’t a matter of being a sponge for every tactic and hack you come across. Rather, it’s a matter of testing strategies to see which have the greatest effect on YOUR productivity.
Try the tips below. You won’t be sorry.
#1 – Review Your Plan Before Getting To Work
You created your workflow plan for tomorrow. You know what needs to be done and which items are your highest priorities.
You’re on top of things.
Most people put their plans and to-do lists away until they arrive at the office (or at school, if you’re a student). They open them up when they get to their desks, expecting to hit the ground running.
But it’s not that easy. Your brain doesn’t work that way. Unless you’re taking a psycho-stimulant like Adderall, it needs time to warm up.
Review your workflow plan before you arrive at the office. Give your brain time to mull over your tasks and priorities. Let it simmer during your commute. By the time you get to your desk, it will have worked out the most efficient way to tackle your to-do list.
#2 – Prioritize Each Task According To Your Goals
If you’re like me, you start the day with a huge list of tasks you want to tackle. Additional items get added to the list as the day progresses.
You’re not crazy enough to think you’ll get everything done. You just want to get enough of the right things done to show progress.
In order to do that, you must PRIORITIZE. You need to assign a value to each task, something that reflects its importance.
The assigned values should be based on the extent to which each task moves you closer toward accomplishing your day’s goals.
Those that will move you much closer receive a high value – for example, an “A” or “1.” Those that are likely to have minimal impact receive lower values, such as “C” or “3.”
At first, you might assume you can keep track of each task’s priority in your head. But that expectation is a mirage. Your memory isn’t that good. It’s fallible. So why take the chance that you’ll miss something?
Bottom line: assign a priority value to each task on tomorrow’s plan. Use letters – A, B and C – or numbers – 1, 2 and 3.
It doesn’t matter which scheme you choose. Just be consistent.
#3 – Let People Know They Shouldn’t Interrupt You
If you work from home and live by yourself, this tip will be easy to put into effect. You’re isolated and can control your environment.
It’s an entirely different story if you’re married with children. Likewise if you work in an office and maintain an open-door policy.
Unless you lay down a few ground rules, expect the interruptions to come fast and furious. The problem is, each interruption will break your concentration and derail your workflow. And each time that happens, you’ll need 10 to 15 minutes to regain your momentum!
That’s true even if you’re working from a plan.
Here’s what to do:
First, sit down with the people who are most likely to interrupt you during the day. That may be your spouse, your kids, a roommate or your coworkers.
Second, explain what you’re trying to accomplish. If you need to complete an urgent report, let them know it’s a high priority.
Third, set aside time to respond to them. For example, let’s say you need to keep your nose to the grindstone from 8:00 a.m. to 12:00 noon. Tell the people around you that you’ll be unavailable between those hours, but let them know you’d love to connect with them between 12:00 noon and 1:00 p.m.
Most people will understand that you value your time and value them. You’re not choosing between the two. You’re just trying to manage a full schedule.
#4 – Make A Note Of Things You Need To Complete Each Task
I touched on this point above.
There will invariably be items on your to-do list that require input from others. An example is a report that needs data from your company’s accounting department. You can’t finish the report unless you get the data.
Some items will need approval from other people. For example, you might need your boss to approve a vendor’s bid before you hire that vendor.
Here’s what to do…
Immediately after you create tomorrow’s plan, review each task on it. Think about what you’ll need in order to finish and cross them off your list.
Then, set aside extra time tomorrow to “jump-start” those items.
For example, if you need approval from your boss before giving a prospective vendor the green light, make that item the first thing you tackle in the morning. Work on other tasks while you wait for your boss to respond.
Essentially, be proactive.
There’s nothing more frustrating than having to wait for other people before you can move forward with your day. Use this tip to avoid that headache.
#5 – Designate A Time And Location For Each Major Task
Studies show that we’re more likely to perform a planned activity if we specify a time and place for it.
For example, suppose you need to follow up with a difficult client regarding a past due invoice. You’re dreading making the call, and have put it off for several days. You’ve carried it forward on your to-do list day after day after day.
Here’s how to make sure it gets done tomorrow:
Assign a time and a location for making the call. For example, commit to calling the client at 11:15 a.m. from the conference room on the third floor of your workplace.
Write those details down on your to-do list. At 11:15 a.m. tomorrow, you’ll find it easier to pick up the phone and dial.
#6 – Review Your Daily Progress To Identify Persistent Obstacles
Having a daily plan and using it to guide your workflow doesn’t guarantee your day will move forward smoothly. You’re going to confront hurdles.
Some of them will be self-inflicted. For example, if you’re accustomed to connecting with friends on social media, you might succumb to the temptation to “check in” when you should be working. (I’ll cover some simple strategies you can use to deal with such distractions in an upcoming post, so stay tuned.)
A single interruption, even one that lasts mere seconds, will disrupt your momentum and set you back 15 minutes or more. Checking in on Facebook multiple times throughout the day can seriously derail your productivity.
Some of the obstacles you’ll confront will be imposed upon you by your environment. For example, your coworker might drop by and ask, “Hey, you got a second?” Or you might receive a call from a client.
Those too are interruptions that can knock your workflow off its tracks.
Here’s what you need to do:
At the end of each day, spend a few minutes recalling the hurdles you faced while trying to get things done. Make a note of how often you confronted them.
Did you receive phone calls from clients? How many?
Did your coworkers drop by unannounced to chat? How often?
Did friends and family members text you with non-urgent items?
Did you abandon your work to find out what your friends were posting on Facebook? How many times?
Performing an end-of-the-day review will help you to uncover ongoing roadblocks in your workflow. Once you identify the most common ones, you can take steps toward removing them.
For example, you may need to train yourself to let phone calls go to voicemail.
You might need to ask coworkers to schedule time to chat (ideally, when you’re taking a break).
You may need to control your social media habit.
You probably already have a vague idea of the obstacles preventing you from getting things done. But formally reviewing your day and noting how often those obstacles surface will reveal how large an impact they’re having on you.
They might be the gremlins preventing you from accomplishing your long-term goals.
#7 – Be Realistic
If you use to-do lists – and you definitely should be – the ones you’re creating for yourself are probably too ambitious.
Don’t worry. You’re in good company. Most of us are overly-optimistic about how much we can get done during the course of an 8-hour day. Our to-do lists might start with only a few high-priority items, but quickly grow to include dozens of tasks.
Here’s the problem…
When we fail to finish the tasks on our list, we’re left with a feeling of disappointment. It’s subtle, but it’s there. And it has an effect on our motivation to work.
Worse, the feeling never leaves.
Unfinished tasks are typically carried forward to the next day. That means tomorrow’s to-do list is going to be overly-ambitious by default.
And on it goes, day after day. The cycle of disappointment becomes perpetual. It builds, leading to frustration with our continued inability to meet the unrealistic expectations we’ve placed on ourselves.
How can you fix that problem? By doing these two simple things.
First, take a look at the workflow plan you’ve created for tomorrow. Review each task and think about how much time it will take to finish.
If you think a task will take 30 minutes, set aside 45 minutes for it. Pad your estimates.
If you finish early, you’ll have extra time to work on the other items on your list. On the other hand, if you end up needing the full 45 minutes to complete the task, you won’t fall behind on your workflow schedule.
Second, limit the number of items on your list. Keep it under 10. Select 2 or 3 high-priority tasks to work on. The low number will prevent you from feeling overwhelmed.
Fill out the rest of your to-do list with lower-priority items. If possible, choose those that are related so they can be batched together – for example, emails and phone calls you need to return. Batching items will allow you to address them in one sitting (e.g. 25 minutes if you’re using the Pomodoro Technique).
There’s definitely an art to creating effective to-do lists. We’ve covered the basics here and will do a deeper dive into the subject down the road.
Bottom line: be realistic with your daily plan. If you’re going to err, do so on the conservative side.
If you start each workday with a concrete plan of action and review your progress at the end of each day, you can skyrocket your productivity. I’ve seen the results – in myself and others.
This hack is simple and easy to implement. It may even seem intuitive to you. And the best part? It only takes a few minutes.
But if you’re like most people, you’re not using it.
If you’re currently approaching each day without a plan, you’re letting a lot of time slip through your fingers. I can almost guarantee it.
Try the approach I’ve outlined in this article. Do it today. It will radically change how you work and help you to get a lot more done!
By the way, if you’re not currently on my mailing list, now’s the time to join. Most of the productivity hacks I share never make it to the blog. I share them with the folks on my list.
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