Knowing how much you want to get done and by when can help structure and focus your efforts. But how do you know if what you’re aiming for is reasonable and realistic? Realistic goals are achievable, they’re based on what’s practical – within your capabilities and resources – not based on what you wish you could do.
You can begin to see how achievable and realistic your goal is by identifying where you are now in relation to where you want to be. If, for example, you wanted to get 10 new clients in the next year, you’d need to identify the rate at which you’re currently securing new clients. If you want to run a half marathon by April, how far can you run right now? How long until the date of the half marathon? If you want to write a book of 10 short stories in a year, how much do you currently write in any one day or week? And if you want to declutter one room in your home every month, how well have you been able to do that in the past?
Once you’ve identified the gap between where you’re at and where you want to be, you can further identify how realistic and achievable your goal is by breaking it down into steps. Ten new clients, for example, averages out at one new client every five weeks. Is that realistic?
Identify Your Options
Next, think about and identify your options: the different possible ways you could work towards your goal. If, for example, you wanted to write a novel, in order to find the time you might see that you have two options: you could either give up your fulltime job, write in the day, and do a bar job in the evenings and weekends; or you could keep your job, get up early, write for an hour or two before work, and write in the evenings and weekends.
What are the possibilities? Identify all the different means and methods you could use to reach your goal. What skills, strengths, and resources do you have that could help you? Do you need further information, advice or help? Who could help you? There’s more than one way to do things. By identifying a Plan A and a Plan B you can adjust your approach if one strategy isn’t working.
Once you’re clear about what it is you want to get done, have a realistic idea of how much and by when, and have identified your options and which option you’ll take, the next thing to do is to plan how and when you’ll do it.
Write It Down
Start by writing down what there is to do. Whether it’s your work or home life or both, think of everything you’ve got going on in a typical day and week. Write it down. And if it’s one specific project that you want to focus on – decorating or renovating your home, for example, starting your own business or increasing the number of clients you have – write down everything involved in that project or aspect of your life. Don’t worry about writing things down in any order. Just empty your mind of all the things you can think of that you want to do, have to do, and need to do.
Once you’ve got everything written down, you’ve got yourself a ‘to‐do’ list. Unfortunately, though, what often happens is that you get so overwhelmed seeing everything on your list you just don’t know where to start. You feel daunted, disillusioned, and discouraged. Seeing what you ‘should’ get done and ‘ought’ to do, what you didn’t get done, and what you’ve yet to do, only makes you feel like you’re not doing enough. (You are doing enough; you’re just not doing it efficiently!)
Writing a list is a good start. But it’s just one step on the road to getting things done.
Plan And Prioritize
You may have been told this before – but no matter how many times you hear it, it’s still true: you need to plan and prioritize. Planning means clearly identifying how and when you will do each task or step of a task. Prioritizing involves identifying the order for dealing with tasks according to their relative importance.
But although the need to plan and prioritize might be an obvious truth, remember that what’s also true is that, as with all other aspects of being productive, you need to plan and prioritize according to your circumstances, your skills and abilities, and the time, energy, and resources you have.
So, where to start? What to do first? What’s important? What’s not important? What’s a priority? No doubt there are things you don’t want to do but need to do; and things you want to do and need to do. There are probably things you want to do but actually don’t need to do. And there are things you don’t want to do and don’t need to do. Some things are urgent. Some things are important. And some things are urgent and important.
Urgent And Important
US President Dwight D. Eisenhower once said: ‘What’s important is seldom urgent and what’s urgent is seldom important.’ What did he mean by this? Simply that by attending to what’s important, things rarely become urgent. When things become urgent, they also become important; they become urgent and important tasks.
Urgent and important tasks are the things that shout ‘Do it now’! So, often, they’re the things you have to do because you’ve left them to the last minute and there will be consequences if you don’t deal with them immediately. Typically, urgent important tasks are the things with deadlines: essays and reports, job and visa applications, tax returns, passport and insurance renewals. Getting the car serviced or the MOT done and getting dinner on the table.
If you spend too much time on urgent things, it’s like you’re chasing cows instead of building fences; you don’t have much time to spend on the important things, the tasks that really could make a difference and help you avoid the urgent things becoming an issue.
When you spend time planning and working on important – but not urgent – tasks, you can prevent and eliminate many of the crises and problems that come with the urgent tasks. You’ll feel more in control and therefore be able to be more productive.
So, what’s important? You might have heard of Pareto’s Principle: the 80/20 law. The 80/20 law – the law of the vital few – refers to the observation that most things in life are not distributed evenly. The Pareto Principle can be applied to being productive in a couple of ways. It could be, for example, that 80% of your efforts are only achieving 20% of what you want to get done. Looking at it another way, if you have a list of ten things do, only two of those tasks – 20% – will be important, but you busy yourself instead with the eight least important – the 80% that contributes very little to you getting things done.
Once you’ve identified what’s important – what you want to achieve – look at your to‐do list and decide which tasks help you make progress on meaningful work. Ask yourself: ‘Is this task in the top 20% – what’s important – or in the bottom 80%?’
The American writer Mark Twain suggested that ‘If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.’ The frog is that one thing you have on your to‐do list that you can’t face doing and that you’re most likely to put off. ‘Eating the frog’ means you just do it. The idea is that once the frog is eaten – once the biggest, ugliest, hardest task is done – everything else you plan on doing the rest of the day will be easy.
There’s a couple of reasons why this advice might not be right for you. To begin with, the biggest task might be so daunting and unappealing that the prospect of dealing with it puts you off from doing anything useful at all. You can’t even face a small frog! Perhaps you’d prefer to start your day with some easy things to do. If you’re able to knock off several easy tasks first – one right after another – you may well feel ready to tackle the harder tasks.
Often, the main hurdle is just getting started. What could be called ‘constructive procrastination’ eases this difficulty because working on easy tasks requires less mental or physical commitment than tackling difficult tasks first. So, if for you one of the challenges to productivity is simply getting going, it makes sense to save the difficult tasks for when you’re in more of a groove.
Getting started with the easy stuff, getting some quick wins and feeling good about your progress, means it’s easier to build momentum. In contrast, ‘eating the frog’ – feeling that you ‘should’ start with the difficult tasks that you don’t want to do – means that you set yourself up for a stressful start. Lots of people aren’t at their best at the beginning of the day. Like them, you might need to ease into the workday; do some mundane chores first. If this is you, resolving to do your most difficult tasks first would be a mistake.
The Second World War leader and US President Dwight D. Eisenhower once said that in preparing for battle it’s important to know that: ‘Plans are worthless, but planning is everything’. There’s wisdom in this paradox. To better understand this, we need to see Eisenhower’s comment in full. He says:
‘I tell this story to illustrate the truth of the statement I heard long ago in the Army: Plans are worthless, but planning is everything. There is a very great distinction because when you are planning for an emergency you must start with this one thing: the very definition of “emergency” is that it is unexpected, therefore it is not going to happen the way you are planning.’ Eisenhower is acknowledging that the outcomes of a plan do not reflect how things will eventually unfold.
So why plan at all if plans are worthless? He goes on to say: ‘So, the first thing you do is to take all the plans off the top shelf and throw them out the window and start once more. But if you haven’t been planning you can’t start to work, intelligently at least.’
It’s true; no matter how much you plan, problems, setbacks, difficulties, and challenges happen. You then have to let go of your plans. And plan again. Even when things are urgent, you can still prioritize and plan what needs to be done. Don’t, though, wait until you’re in the middle of the first step to decide what else needs to be done to get things finished on time. Before you do anything, work out what’s important; what tasks will contribute to meeting that deadline.
It’s easier to get straight on to the next step if you have already planned what and how you are going to do it. It allows you to maintain a steady pace and keep the pace going. A step‐by‐step plan allows you to simply work consistently towards what it is you want to achieve; so that at any one point in the hour or the day, you’re clear about what you are going to work on.
Then get started. Focus. Decide what the first thing you need to do is. Then do that one thing. Give it your full attention. Once that one thing is done, go on to the next step. Give that your full attention too. Keep your mind focused on one step at a time. Tell yourself, ‘This is what I’m going to do next’, and then just focus on that one step you’re taking.