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“[T]he secret to your success can be found in your daily agenda.” John C. Maxwell

Every day, Benjamin Franklin woke up, took a “cold air bath” (but that’s a story for another day), and asked his morning question: “What good shall I do this day?” He committed his plan to writing and, at the end of the day, he concluded by recording the answer to his evening question: “What good have I done today?”

End history lesson. Begin leadership lesson: effective daily planning empowers you to make time for your priorities and reach your goals. It enables you to ask “What good shall I do this day” and “What good have I done today” - and achieve productive, satisfying answers.

Ambushed By Murky Plans and Vague Goals

In HBR, leadership expert Peter Bregman writes:

Yesterday started with the best of intentions. I walked into my office in the morning with a vague sense of what I wanted to accomplish. Then I sat down, turned on my computer, and checked my email. Two hours later, after fighting several fires, solving other people’s problems, and dealing with whatever happened to be thrown at me through my computer and phone, I could hardly remember what I had set out to accomplish when I first turned on my computer. I’d been ambushed.

It’s a story to which all busy leaders can relate. It is also very much a cautionary tale: if leaders spend the bulk of their time being one-man/woman fire brigades, they cannot focus on value-add activities. And if they cannot prioritize high-level work, they cannot drive their companies forward. It’s that simple. Equally simple is the solution: daily planning.

Failing to Plan…

…is planning to fail. We’ve all heard it; and most of us, like Bregman, still fall victim to schedule “ambushes.” How do you avoid the trap before you fall into it?

Stop! Step Away from Your Computer

Few inventions have revolutionized the world of work more thoroughly than the computer; while it has enabled tremendous gains in productivity; it is also a hotbed for distraction. The temptation – which comes from every social media, website, and entertainment corner of the Internet – is hard to resist.

You can’t give in if you don’t turn it on. When you arrive at work, use a piece of paper (itself a revolutionary workplace tool!) and create a plan for the day. What good shall you do this day? Start with a broad view by looking at your calendar and listing the activities and tasks you have on the schedule.

Plan and Prioritize

Most of us are far too ambitious when planning our to-do lists: we can’t get everything done. At this point, narrow it down:

  1. What can I reasonably accomplish? You’re only human; how much can you really get done – and done well – in a day?
  2. Which tasks are “A” activities and which are “B”? That is, what must be done today, and what can be put off until tomorrow or next week? Further prioritize, by putting your A's and B’s in order of importance. If you complete your A's, move on to the B’s.
  3. Estimate how much time you will need for A and B activities. Be sure to include a “buffer,” or time to allow for inevitable interruptions or a margin of error if you miscalculate the time it takes to complete a task.
  4. Consider a “C” category. What can you push off your plate completely (whether because it’s unimportant or because you can easily delegate)? If you choose to hand off the task, write down the name of the delegate.
  5. Don’t forget your personal life. The boundaries between work and life are increasingly blurred; just as we take work home, we take home to work. You might have to go to the doctor or leave early to see your kid’s Little League game. In the evening, you may have to go out for a business dinner or function. It happens. Plan for it. Write your work-related tasks at the top of the page, and your personal activities at the bottom.

Tips to Make It Work

To ensure planning helps you conquer your day with fewer ambushes and more accomplishments:

  • Make it a habit. Make a daily plan every day for at least two weeks. At the end of that period, determine if you have been able to achieve more during your days – and with less stress.

  • Use one central planner. Instead of relying on a planner, Google Calendar, Evernote, and an avalanche of Post-it notes, record all of your to-dos in one place. It can be a notebook. A calendar. An app. It doesn’t matter as long as it provides you with a central location for all of your tasks.

    Alexandra Weiss, partner at New York firm CA Creative, says, “Not only will it save time to only have to check one calendar but it will also help ensure that you are not double booking or missing any meetings.”

  • Review your progress at the end of the day. What did you accomplish? Did anything ambush your plans? Did you stick with your priorities and get the results you needed? How can you use what you learned today to become more productive tomorrow? What good did you do today?

Daily planning is like working out. A personal trainer can develop an optimal plan that’ll help you see short-term gains immediately as you work towards your long-term health goals. But it won’t do a bit of good unless you haul yourself off the couch and lace up your sneakers. Likewise, these tips will only work if you put them to work. Do that – and you can see your to-do list actually get close to done on most days.


Larry Hart

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