In this latest installment of the Productivity blog series we take a closer look at the planning mindset you have to get into if you want to avoid being roped into doing a lot of unimportant tasks – instead of the ones, which truly matter.
An army wouldn’t go to war without a clear plan of how it was going to play out – and it’s the same for a professional football team. They spend time studying their opposition, evaluating their own tactics and take precautionary measures to deal with certain aspects of what they are about to face. At the office, as well, there is likely to be a battle plan in the form of a business strategy, and other supporting “playbooks” to borrow an American term. So why is it that we so often find ourselves from these best laid plans? Sure, there will be cases where we have to drop everything we’re doing to focus on fighting fires (look at the article on the Eisenhower Matrix for more on prioritisation), but this shouldn’t be the norm. In all likelihood, there are two primary reasons why people find themselves running around like headless chickens: 1) That they feel uncomfortable denying a request to get something done (which adds to their workload), or 2) They simply didn’t plan their time properly.
I’m going to leave the first option out and just focus solely on the planning aspect. Why is it that we, as part of an army or a football team, know exactly what we must do and when, but when it comes to being in the office or at home we seem completely incapable of proper planning? The truth is that it takes time, and when we already feel hassled and busy the last thing we have is time. However, by getting into a good habit of spending a little bit of time planning, we’ll end up saving a bucket load of time at the other end and allowing us to spend it on the tasks, which truly matter.
How to Plan
There is nothing scientific about this. It’s just a plain and practical guide to how you could plan to help yourself out on a daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly basis. If you try and stick with this routine for at least a month, it’s very likely to become a healthy habit which you will never let go of again.
Before the end of the workday – or at least before you go to bed in the evening – you should spend 15 minutes planning the next day. Ask yourself what you need to achieve during the next day, block of set times to look at email and deal with phone calls, get an overview of what meetings or other scheduled activities are already planned to try and imagine the flow of the day in advance. If there is available time on your schedule then set this time aside to work on your most important tasks.
By doing all of these things it’s likely to mean that you will get a better night’s sleep and feel more rested and ready to take on the world. This is because uncertainty (which comes from a lack of planning) is one of the primary causes for bad sleep. Before we fall asleep, we’re lying awake and worrying about all of the things we haven’t gotten done yet and all of the new challenges the next day will bring – and our worries increase if we cannot see how we are going to get everything done. Then when we fall asleep, this uncertainty means that we’re unlikely to reach a stage of deep sleep and we are likely to be haunted by the outstanding and coming tasks, either directly or indirectly, in our dreams. By the time we then wake up, we’re completely drained and then the day becomes one long game of “survival” rather than one where we can spend our time effectively reaching our goals and being productive.
Try and make this planning session into part of your routine. Do it at the same time every day, whether at work or at home. People like routines. They minimise uncertainty and alleviate potential stress – and this is also why you should try and schedule as much of your day and week as possible. This is not only true of work, but also in our private lives. The better we can plan our schedules by having certain activities at fixed times (whether they’re weekly team meetings at set times, workouts at the gym, or a Spanish lesson) the more likely we are to not only be there, but to be there in “body and soul” to try and be productive and make the most of our time. You know what it’s like. If you don’t have a fixed routine for when you’re going to do your workout – or have that Spanish lesson – it becomes easy to say that something else got in the way and that then becomes an excuse for not getting things done. The further down this slippery slope you go, the faster that molehill will turn into a mountain to climb. The way out of it is through planning and, as I said at the beginning of this section, it only takes 15 minutes a day.
We all know the feeling… It was a great weekend with friends or family and it’s all winding down. All you feel like on Sunday night is a good meal and a movie (or a good book), but your already dreading going to work on Monday morning because of all of the issues you know the week will bring (and particularly the multitude of ones you don’t even know about yet!)
So what can be done about this? Yet another thing to schedule for. Put aside 45 – 60 minutes on Sunday to plan your week ahead. Use the same techniques as above and look at what you can start scheduling for every single day. Use your time to also talk with your partner and children to align schedules (you really don’t want to miss little Timmy’s school play on Wednesday afternoon) and find out if there are other demands on your time you hadn’t thought about yet. A little planning can go a long way to alleviating that stress of the dreaded and forgotten deal (“so you’re picking up the kids from school today…”). I don’t think you even need to have kids to understand the nuclear bomb this can cause in an argument because the party who had agreed to pick up the little ones is also the one who has scheduled a work meeting/drinks with a mate/a gym session at the same time as well. All of this happens because of bad planning (or because we only plan one side of our lives), but it all comes down to one simple thing. It is unhealthy! It has a detrimental effect on our physical and emotional well-being – and it can lob a hand grenade into a relationship with your partner and/or kids.
Set aside the time every Sunday. Make sure you explain to the family why you’re doing this and tell them that you’re all theirs as soon as you’re done. And then also explain to them that because you’re doing this you’re much less likely to miss anything you’ve agreed to do with them. By involving them in the planning process you’re also helping to build the good habits of others and this can be very valuable for your kids as they grow up. You’re also minimising the risk of arguments with your better half and can ensure that you find the best way to work through the minefield of the week together.
The added bonus? By doing the weekly planning, the daily planning becomes a very pleasant and easy exercise to undertake.
This is for some of the bigger stuff. Big projects at work, holidays or other big and time consuming aspects of what’s happening at home. And, as always, planning is key. Before the start of each month, I recommend that you set aside two to three hours (maybe even across a couple of sessions) to plan for the month ahead. At work you might want to ensure that you start blocking off the time you need to finish that big project looming ahead. At home it might be a question of how to deal with the kids being off school and any outstanding planning that needs to be done. This would also be the time when you start planning for a new project (whether it’s learning Spanish or getting fit). As I wrote in my article about the Elephant Technique, it’s all about taking small bites. This means that you could book in that free introductory training session at the gym and tentatively book in visits on the following Mondays and Thursdays.
This is also when it’s important to look at your key areas and find out where you need to have your focus for the month ahead.
This is the big Kahuna (sorry about all of the Americanisms today…). The one you should be spending (at least some of) your well earned rest time at Christmas one. Over the course of a few days, I recommend that you sit down and review your goals for the year ahead and then look at what can be done planning wise in terms of getting there. Also start planning the year ahead with your family. What is everybody else going to be up to? What would you all like to do for your holidays? By making it into a more fun and involved process it doesn’t feel dreary at all. And the best thing of it all is that by reviewing your goals and visualising what you must do with your time in order to get there will both help you get there and give you a huge motivational boost. Perfect re-fueling of your reserves of self-confidence – and now you can have that extra glass of sherry!
QUICK TIP: Nobody has said that a year needs to follow a calendar year. You could easily decide to start now with your annual planning – no need to wait until Christmas. This probably also means that you can more easily get away with taking the time off from doing family activities.
As always, I hope you’ve enjoyed this article, which will help boost your physical and mental well-being and therefore decrease the risk you going absent from work.