The best thing about the future is that it comes one day at a time
– Abraham Lincoln
Modern life calls on our time in more ways than ever before. Ten years ago, the first iPhone was just a year old. Fifteen years ago, there was no Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. Twenty-five years ago, the internet was only a place for geeks and the military. We are always connected, wherever we are.
With all these distractions it is very easy to spend a whole day, answering emails, phone calls and text messages, updating social media, and checking news and blogs online. Have you had days where you think, “What have I achieved today?”
If you don’t have a plan of action for the day, what are you going to do?
Most people without a plan will find that they spend time jumping from one task to the next. Fighting the next fire, being unproductively reactive rather than productively proactive.
Having a to-do list for the day helps you to focus on what you need to get done. It means that nothing gets missed and that the most critical tasks are tackled in order of priority.
Write down your list. It can be on a post-it note, the back of an envelope, a whiteboard or workflow management platform. It doesn’t matter how you do it, so long as you do. Writing it down, makes a commitment, especially in a system where others can see it. This added accountability will help you stick to your plan.
Make your list at the end of the day ready for the next day. That way you don’t spend your prime productivity time writing lists, and you are equipped straight away to tackle your first job.
Simplify and Prioritise
Simplify your list, so it isn’t an exhaustive backlog of everything you can think of that you need or would like to get done at some point. Keep it to a manageable number of jobs that you think you can reasonably get done in the time you have available.
Order your list in terms of priority, with the most significant or most laborious task to be tackled in your most productive work period. Also include some quick wins, if you can, so, that you get that buzz on completion.
Split large tasks down so that no jobs go over multiple days. It is demoralising to keep seeing the same work on your to-do list, day after day. When you break it down into sub-tasks, then you can see progress, which keeps you positive, as you tick off those tasks.
Having all your work written out in front of you also helps with delegation. When you can’t see the forest for the trees, doing each task as it comes to your mind, then you are less likely to understand how tasks fit into another’s workstream better than your own.
With some workflow management systems, you can also see other’s workloads, and assign work accordingly. It is also possible to assign tasks automatically, based on other criteria such as skills, geographic location, and availability.
Finish your list
Finish your list, if you can. The goal should be to complete your list, in the time you have available. Don’t keep going and going with ever diminishing returns on your effort. At the same time, don’t give up to do something easy instead. If you don’t finish, then it should be because there was too much to do, not because you got distracted. If something new comes along during the day, then unless it is genuinely urgent (and most things are not) then stick to your plan.
Review your list
Review your list, see what went well, and what did not go to plan. If you have many jobs left on your list at the end of the day, then you probably made a list that was too long in the first place. If you finish by lunchtime and spend the rest of the day on social media, then it is likely you are too easy on yourself. Getting a list that both pushes you, but is achievable, is something that will come with practice, so, don’t be disheartened if you don’t get it right on the first few occasions.
If you have incomplete tasks, you can easily transfer them to the next day’s list. Making sure that you don’t miss anything because you forgot that you needed to do something. With some workflow management systems, you can even set rules to warn you if tasks are going off-track, with a traffic light system, and automated notifications.
There are other benefits of making a daily plan other than keeping you on track to complete the work you need to do to meet your longer-term goals.
The act of writing your tasks down requires you to think through everything you need to do in a structured fashion. Evidence shows that when you write notes down, you filter the unnecessary, leaving the vital information, this is true for producing your plan for tomorrow. The fact that you have to think about a task, also means you are more likely to remember the details.
Writing it out also makes it easier to connect tasks that may benefit from a combined approach to tackling them. Making these beneficial associations is far less likely if you don’t have the tasks clearly set out in front of you.
Getting used to making daily plans not only helps to remain productive, on a day to day basis, but it also gives you a record of work completed over time. This data can then be analysed to provide you with insight into your productivity. With a workflow management system, you can easily derive further information, and track key performance indicators.
A Good Night’s Sleep
Another, not immediately apparent, benefit of writing your daily to-do list, is a better night’s sleep. A recent study found that those that had committed a plan of their work for the next day were less stressed and went on to have a better night’s sleep than those with similar workloads. Those subjects with a plan for tomorrow fell asleep nine minutes faster than those without, and the more detailed the plan, the quicker they were to drop off.
A study showed that tasks that we are yet to complete, distract us, but the act of writing them down in a plan to get them done can free us of the anxiety.
In an earlier study, by Bluma Zeigarnik, it was found that the brain remembers pressing tasks better than things we have already done. The study witnessed that waiting staff could only remember orders before they have been served, after this it was like they had been erased from their memory, making room for the next order. So, having a list will help you to remember what you have, as well as, what you are about to, achieve.
Bottom line – plan for tomorrow and stick to it.
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