A bunch of things stop us from being at our best. The biggest thing is that our hardwiring tricks us into believing that urgent things are a more beneficial use of our time than the important, but not urgent, stuff.
Believe it or not, the simple act of planning your day can boost motivation, focus and even self-control, way more than just a to-do-list alone. And I don’t just mean logging your meetings in your calendar with reminders and other pop-ups - everyone does that - I mean actually planning how you will spend your time outside of meetings and other formal commitments. Meetings will happen anyway. The time outside of these commitments is the time that will help you get the most out of your day.
Here’s a five minute activity that can make you far more effective every day:
Take your to-do-list (it should have only the three most important things for that day on it….. your Progress Journal forces you to focus on the three things that will make the biggest impact), and allocate those things times during the day to get done.
Make sure you know when your appointments are - those meetings and unavoidable interruptions - and then write into your calendar when those three to-do items are going to get done. You might have a spare couple of hours at your desk from 10am to 12pm. Plan exactly what you are going to do in those two hours.
This has some really important effects on how we process information:
1) It Frees up Short Term Memory
Trying to remember things burns some serious cognitive fuel and compromises our cognition and self control. Now that we have things written down (and only three things), we are in a better position to use our brains for the things that really matter.
But planning your day actually frees up your Short Term Memory even more. For some reason, when we allocate a time to do our tasks, our bodies and brains treat those thing like they are already done, allowing us to forget about them completely.
2) Stops us from making bad decisions (or no decision)
This is a terrific by-product of planning our day. When we have no plan, we spend time and effort making decisions about what to do. We get back to the desk after a meeting and we spend some time deciding what we should work on next. Making decisions uses bandwidth.
These pauses also allow time for procrastination. You might decide to answer a few emails before you do anything, or go to some other habitual behaviour to fill the void. By and large, if we are left to make a decision at any stage during the day, we tend to choose The Easier Thing. Or we avoid and procrastinate.
When we have a clear plan in place, we have already decided what we are going to do, so there’s no decision to be made. Just get back to your desk and work on the next thing that’s allocated from your list.
3) Let’s us know if our list is realistic
If you plan your day well, you should actually get your list completed every single day.
Let’s say that again: you should get your list completed every single day.
Humans thrive on a sense of achievement and progress. In the 21st Century, a small part of that feeling of achievement is getting our tasks completed day to day. Unfortunately, this is not reality for most people. I know people who have never completed their to-do-list. Ever.
In fact, at the end of the day, many people’s lists have gotten longer, not shorter!
You can then begin a new list for tomorrow, rather than pushing over a bunch of stuff from today, or having one massive list that is completely out of control covering the next 12 months.
Several studies have shown that when we have unfinished tasks on a Friday afternoon, we tend to think more about work on the weekend and get poor quality sleep. Those unfinished tasks remain front of mind (even unconsciously) and invade our thoughts over the weekend. We can greatly improve our quality of life on the weekends simply by getting our lists finished by Friday afternoon.
4) Gives us deadlines
If I allocate one hour to get a set of tasks done, I will tend to work at an intensity that helps me achieve that little goal. If I allocate two hours to get the same number of tasks done, then I work at an intensity that helps me achieve that as well. In the two hour condition, chances are I will procrastinate more, get distracted by things that aren’t important and exhibit some sort of avoidance behaviour - just because I have time to do so.
When we plan our day, we set mini-deadlines for things to get done. In essence, we slightly increase stress and time pressure, which gets us more readily into that Performance Zone. Deadlines are good.
A lot of people don’t use the daily planner on the right hand page of the Progress Journal. And this is a mistake. The ten minutes you spend planning your day will pay you back in spades later on. So go ahead and use it. Be a planning ninja. Head over to our instagram feed for some inspiration @progressjournalaus
** Tony Wilson is a Workplace Performance Expert. His insights into performance science and it's application in the workplace will make you re-think the way that you approach leadership, culture change, high performance and productivity. Tony has an MBA and a BSc majoring in physiology and delivers workshops and keynote presentations around the globe.