What is Missing from Your Plan for the Day?

Image of magnifying glass looking at six thick blue lines representing text. Three tick circles are to the left, two with check marks and one with an X.

Do you take 15 minutes to plan each and every day? I strongly recommend you do so.

15 minutes is enough time to let you review your calendar and consider your priorities. 15 minutes is enough time to get an overview so that you know what matters most today. 15 minutes is also short enough that you don't lose much focused working time. No matter how busy you are, you can find 15 minutes for this crucial task each day.

Yes, planning the day effectively in 15 minutes takes some skill. You can learn that skill.

If planning takes too long, you probably get confused when you try to set priorities. I recommend you get my Thinking Directions Starter Kit (free) to learn "thinking on paper." This general purpose tactic helps you solve problems faster, make better decisions, and clear up any confusions. It is usually enough to ensure you can plan in 15 minutes. Many other specific tactics can speed up prioritizing, but "thinking on paper" is the place to start.

If you make plans but they aren't as helpful as you'd like, you may be missing a key ingredient of a plan. That's what I discovered recently.

I have been planning my day for years. To plan the day, I would designate blocks of time for different kinds of work, plus prioritize a "to do" list of 3-6 items that I wanted to get done that day. My plan provided a loose structure to help me to get the most important items done. Typically, I got high priority tasks finished, but not necessarily lower priority tasks.

In hindsight, I was making C+ plans. I thought that was the best I could hope for. After all, "no plan survives contact with the enemy." Given that my work is highly creative and somewhat unpredictable, I believed I needed flexibility, and therefore that more detailed planning would not benefit me. I was wrong.

I discovered my error while experimenting with calendaring all tasks. Currently when I plan the day, I don't just decide what I'll do, but when I'll do it, and exactly how much time I will spend doing it. Everything goes on the calendar, not just meetings and social engagements. Creative work, chores, routine administration, downtime. Every waking moment is scheduled.

You may be horrified by the thought of calendaring your life. I was, too. For years I had followed David Allen's advice to put on the calendar only events that must happen at a given time, i.e., meetings, travel, and social events. Not discretionary work. Not chores. Not breaks. Another time I'll explain why I undertook my experiment with calendaring. What matters for this discussion is that I discovered something that can help anyone planning the day.

It turns out, my plans were missing a key ingredient: the reason for the plan.

I thought a plan was just an organized list of tasks. A "to do" list in priority order. A schedule of tasks.

Hah.

That was why I had C+ plans.

A good plan guides your steps to ensure you get done what you wanted to get done, when you intended to get it done. Even if something comes up.

A good plan helps you remember what is important, so you don't throw out the plan at the first sign of trouble. That's why you need to spell out the reason for the plan.

My plans now include a schedule of tasks, plus a blurb that summarizes the plan and the reason for the plan. Here are some examples:

Focus on completing two articles so that I am free to travel Thursday, i.e., the staff can support me while I'm away.

Clear email and miscellaneous tasks as if I were going on a three-month trip, so that I get that absolutist mindset to reduce commitments.

Stop each task on schedule even if I get a late start, because I need to practice setting boundaries on time.

The reason for your plan is your why. Why should you stick to the plan? By answering that question in a short, essentialized way, you make that reason stick in the forefront of your mind all day.

That's important, because the issues are often only in the background as you plan. You consider logistics. You choose a mindset. You devise a strategy. You see the need for a skill. But you may not realize that one of those considerations is the essential issue, the #1 reason for why you are planning the day the way you are. If you don't make it explicit, you lose a lot of the benefit of your plan.

Here are some questions that can help you put those reasons into words:

• Why am I choosing this order instead of another order?
• What will be the benefit to me of following this plan?
• What is most important to remember about my plan?

Making the reason explicit is critical to helping you deal with things that come up. For example...

...on the day I was working on the article, I was surprised at how long it took to write. I made two changes to the plan to help me finish the article, because I saw how critical it was to get it done on time.

...on the day I was trying to get that "absolutist mindset," I achieved three things: I cleared a backlog, I renegotiated my support role with two other people to reduce my responsibilities, and I refrained from offering to do some extra work for someone. I was able to stick to the plan because I looked at everything that day from the perspective of, “How do I reduce my commitments?"

...on the day I attempted to stop each task on schedule, I encountered tremendous emotional conflict. Realizing I needed to understand that conflict in order to develop the skill, I gave myself the freedom to introspect the incident in depth. I had a breakthrough that has made it much easier to stop tasks on schedule ever since.

Knowing the reason for the plan ensured I kept the goal in mind all day. It made all of these days successful, even if I wound up changing the plan to achieve the goal.

Incidentally, giving reasons for the plan is not the primary way to counter temptation and resistance and "I don't feel like it." Obviously, you need to be able to manage your motivation to work according to any plan. Just because you schedule your workout for 6:30 a.m. tomorrow, doesn't mean you will feel like going to the gym when the alarm clock goes off. You need to be able to activate appropriate motivation if you are to walk out the door on time, even though you didn't want to a little while ago. Lack of motivation is a predictable problem, which can be addressed by learning specific skills, which I teach in Do What Matters Most.

Knowing the reason for your plan lets you judge objectively whether to change the plan. It ensures you know the assumptions built into the plan. When something unexpected comes up, you'll be able to judge whether it is relevant or irrelevant to the goal. Does it change your assumptions? Ultimately, is it important or unimportant? If the issue is important, and implies a change in goal or assumptions, it is logical to change your plan. If not, it is illogical, and knowing your reason will reinforce your determination to stick with your original intentions.

Turn your plan into an A+ plan: Take a minute or two to make the reason for your plan explicit. Put the basic plan and the reason for your plan into a grammatical sentence. Give yourself "the words you need for the time when you will need them."*

*Hat Tip to Francisco D'Anconia in Atlas Shrugged.

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