Now that you’ve crafted your mission statement and have a vision for how to get there, it’s time to turn our attention to the nitty gritty details of how to get started and stay focused. That means working to make every day a stepping stone toward your goal and never having an empty day. Maybe you’re familiar with what I’m talking about. If you’ve ever woken to a day devoid of responsibility and used it up watching Netflix, you know exactly what I mean. Letting rare opportunities like this go to waste is a shame, and it’s also completely avoidable.
Make a Plan!
The best way I’ve found to avoid this pitfall is planning. Without a goal or purpose, it’s easy to let opportunity pass us by. But now that you have a mission statement, you’ve got shit to do! The trick is to impose structure on yourself, especially when there’s nothing you have to do, so that you’re forced to deal with the finite length of the day and take advantage of it while you can.
I recommend planning your day in advance, either at the beginning of the day or the night before. Sit down and literally write your plan for the day on a sticky note, a notebook, an app on your smartphone, or whatever is most convenient for you. Write things you have to do, things you want to do, and things you specifically want to avoid (like Netflix, for example).
Psychologists tell us that if your list is too long, you’re more likely to lose motivation than gain it, so keep your list short and concise. Restrict yourself to just a few major goals, and have just a couple as backup in case your productivity is off the charts for the day! Stick to listing just a few major time sinks that you find yourself wrestling with.
Listing the things you want to avoid is important because being sucked into a time wasting activity without a plan is one of the greatest productivity traps. We’ve all heard (or lived) horror stories about how 5 minutes on Reddit suddenly turned into 3 hours, and it’s dark outside so you can forget about that walk, and the laundry still needs to be done, and that work project is due tomorrow morning. Don’t let this happen to you! Recognize your weaknesses before they sneak up on you!
The Benefits of Planning
This whole exercise will help you organize your thoughts so you’re not left making last minute decisions. I recommend doing it every day. It will help you stay focused throughout the day, and it will help you avoid impulsively turning to activities that waste your time.
Another benefit to planning your day is that you’re forced to work within the framework of a finite, 24-hour day. There just isn’t time in the day to sleep in, go to work, do house chores, pursue a hobby, and waste time on Instagram. If you want to scroll through your Facebook feed, watch TV, or take a nap, you have to make a conscious decision to prioritize those activities over others in your day. With your mission statement in place, you now have tons of important stuff to get done, and you can’t do them if you choose your priorities poorly.
More often than not, we fall into time-wasting activities more out of habit than by choice, and when we make the choice beforehand, we’re much less likely to fall into the trap. That’s not to say that these are always bad choices — rest and recovery are legitimate reasons you might choose to do any of the ‘bad’ things I’ve mentioned — but you should think about why you do the things you do so you can direct your activities, instead of them directing you.
Why Planning Works
Regular planning is essential to sustained long-term success. Psychologists and businesses have known this for a long time. This is why businesses write business plans. Nobody wants to give your business money if you don’t know if, when, or how you’re going to make a profit. The same organizational principles that apply to businesses also apply to your life. Making a written plan will allow you to create concrete goals, evaluate your progress as you go, and make course corrections, if needed.
Our mission statements have already taken care of providing us with long-term goals, and the demands of daily life usually do a good job of filling in the empty spaces. Evaluating your progress as you work toward your goals should be an ongoing process. When you have a plan, this is easy to do. If you’re meeting the timeline that you laid out in your plan, you’re making good progress and you should keep chugging away. If you’re going faster than expected, set a couple more goals for your day, and if you’re running behind schedule, revisit the plan to make it reflect reality and what’s possible. This on-the-spot feedback will keep you focused throughout the day.
Furthermore, nobody writes a plan to fail. When you write your plan, you begin to consider the obstacles and restrictions that limit when and how you can progress toward your goals, and you start to think about how to work around them. Restrictions on your time, location, and resources are the most common obstacles. For example, you can’t walk the dog while you’re getting a haircut, so you’d better plan those at different times. Considering these difficulties ahead of time will help you optimize your daily schedule.
How to Organize Your Day
After coming up with the things you want to get done for the day, the next step is assembling them into a reasonable timeline for yourself. You’ve already started thinking about the obstacles that you’ll have to deal with, but choosing what to do first and prioritizing your responsibilities is a challenge in itself.
Urgency Versus Importance
The usual way of thinking about prioritization is to start by distinguishing between urgency and importance. An urgent activity needs to be done right now, and an important activity needs to be done. Any given task will fall somewhere on each of these independent scales. Planning your day in advance won’t help you too much with urgent activities because the time for planning them has already passed. On the other hand, activities that aren’t urgent are far enough in the future that smart planning now can prevent them from ever becoming urgent.
We’re only going to talk specifically about important activities because… you know, they’re important. Unimportant activities can be either urgent, like some phone calls and emails, or non-urgent, like watching Netflix and gossiping. In either case, they’re distractions that add little to no value to our lives, and it’s best to avoid them when you’re trying to be productive.
When you’re prioritizing your day, what you really care about is getting through the important activities. The first activities you should consider are the urgent, important ones. Approaching deadlines and picking up your child from school fall into this category. Put them on the schedule and make time to get them done. There’s not a lot that planning can do for you here except to keep the task on your mind.
The next cluster of activities to deal with are the important activities that are not urgent. Some examples include exercising, strengthening our relationships, and, coincidentally, planning. The problem with these tasks is that they tend to fall by the wayside when we’re faced with unimportant urgent matters, and without proper planning, we’ll fall into non-urgent, unimportant distractions instead of working on them. However, this also means that good planning makes these important tasks part of your daily schedule. As a general rule, you should fill as much of your free time as possible with these activities.
Stick to a Morning/Evening Routine
The best way to prioritize important, non-urgent activities is to make them a regular part of your schedule. Activities like exercise and strengthening your social relationships are so important that you should make it a point to do them every day. I’ve already made this point about planning, but it applies equally well to other activities as well. I like to do most of my important, non-urgent activities first thing in the morning. After showering in the morning, I have a cup of coffee, read for 30 minutes to an hour, write for 30 minutes to an hour, then have breakfast with my wife. Exercising, on the other hand, is usually an evening activity for me, and I give it priority over almost everything else.
I especially recommend having an early morning routine. Doing important activities in the morning works very well for early risers, like me, but it can also be a good way to motivate yourself if you already want to start getting up earlier. I’ve found that almost every item on my mission statement is important but not urgent. If your mission statement inspires you, you may find that pursuing those grand goals gives you a reason to get up one or two hours earlier.
Not Quite There Yet?
All of this is great for motivated people who want to get organized, but what if you’re coming from an unmotivated place? What if you’re in a rut or you’re feeling depressed? Having lived with people who suffer from depression, I can appreciate how difficult it is to get started from this mental place. My advice is to start small.
A while back, a Redditor going by the handle u/ryans01 wrote a comment about how he thinks about self-improvement which addressed the difficulty of getting started. His advice: pick just one thing, no matter how small, and do it. Resolve to make every day a “nonzero” day. The idea here is that when you start from a mental perspective that seems inescapable, where you feel trapped, you shouldn’t expect to immediately become a productivity superstar. Your goal should be to consistently do at least one thing that breaks that pattern, and build from there. He gave a lot of good advice about self improvement that goes well beyond getting started as well.
Regardless of where you are on your journey, if you’re looking for some good motivation and techniques for self improvement, I highly recommend checking out u/ryans01’s original comment. His is the top comment on the linked post.
Let’s recap. Over the last two blog posts, we’ve written our personal mission statements to guide us to accomplish all of the great things we want to get done, and we’ve learned how to plan and structure our day to be productive from morning to night. These two tools alone are enough to put us well beyond the productivity level of the average person. But having a written plan won’t accomplish anything on its own!
Productivity means making measurable progress toward your goals! Whether it’s a paper, a painting, or greater knowledge of a topic, you should be closer to accomplishing your goals at the end of a productive day. Future posts here will be about adopting the mentality of a high achiever and using our plans to move the dial!