Planning Your Year, Part 1: How to Plan a Productive Day

This is the second in a series of posts about planning. If you need a little persuasion to start planning, read 5 Reasons to Plan for the New Year.

When I teach about planning, I usually start with the big picture: what you want to accomplish in the upcoming year: goals aspirations, dreams. In the workforce, this equates to projects, tasks and training. I show how you can work backwards to plan your months, your weeks, and then, finally, your days—because when you have the overall plan, daily planning is a cinch.

We’ll get there in this series, but I wanted to give you some practical steps that you can implement immediately.

For today, we’ll need to know about your schedule, the big projects you’re working on, and the smaller tasks that need to be accomplished in the short term, like writing a report or filing a mountain of paperwork.

Having a Productive Day is Hard

We all start the day with the best of intentions: to get things done. But how many mornings have you walked into the office, turned on the computer, and told yourself you were going to check email before starting on your projects, and then…boom! it’s several hours later and you haven’t accomplished anything?

Sometimes, there’s an emergency at work that needs attention now. Usually, it’s the deluge of tiny tasks—answering a quick email, signing a document, checking phone messages—that get in the way of accomplishing goals. You need to re-focus your work habits.

So what’s the process?

Review Your Daily Schedule

First, review your schedule at the beginning of every day. You’ll be reminded of meetings and appointments (“fixed tasks”) that you must attend, and see how much free time you have to work on your projects and other tasks. Identify these time gaps between your fixed obligations to estimate how much time you have left over to work on your important projects.

Identify Your Top Tasks

Stephen Covey—famous educator and author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People—refers to these large goals or projects as big rocks (while every other task that begs for your time is a pebble. Unfortunately, there are so many more of those…). Covey illustrates how these little tasks prevent you from accomplishing your goals in this short, archival YouTube clip from 1994.

In a nutshell, Covey explains tiny tasks can keep you busy all day, all week—all year long—taking your time, energy and momentum away from larger goals. Keep working on the small tasks, and you’ll accomplish very little.

So, to be more productive, identify the top three-to-five tasks you need to accomplish today. These tasks should relate to big projects you’re working on, have an upcoming deadline, or carry some other weight or importance. Make a note of how long it will take to complete each task. Choose only enough tasks that you have time for in your current day.

Schedule Your Top Tasks

Once you’ve identified your top tasks—and how long you think each will take—set appointments on your calendar for yourself to complete those tasks. This is especially powerful if you work in an environment where everyone in the office can see your schedule. If you’ve blocked-off the hours, co-workers won’t be tempted to schedule unnecessary meetings on your calendar (and you can stay in control of your time).

Remember to block some time in your day to check email, do any filing, and organize tomorrow’s workday, as well.


Now that you have a plan, take action: attend to your meetings and obligations—those fixed tasks that can’t be moved—and work on the selected projects and tasks during their allotted time.

Interruptions are inevitable. Your supervisor may need something right now. Take care of it. But if co-workers stop by with requests, put off anything not urgent by explaining that you’re working on your own projects. Jot down their request and tell them you’ll get back to them in the morning. Then, get back to the task at hand.

Review at the End of Each Day

By the end of your workday, you should have made some progress on your most important tasks and goals.

Did you complete all of what you intended to get done? Why, or why not?

Think about how you can improve your daily planning for the next time: Were your completion estimates off? Schedule more time in the future. Were there too many interruptions? Close your office door or turn off email.

Make tiny adjustments each day and you’ll become more and more productive!

Next Time…

Next time, we’ll talk about the big picture of yearly planning, quarterly planning and weekly planning (all of which inform your daily planning), and start plotting out your roadmap for the new year. It will be helpful to gather some supplies: a month-by-month calendar for the new year, as well as: the list of projects you’ll be working on, your list of “fixed obligations” that you’ll need to work around (standing meetings, company retreats, planned vacations, birthdays, etc.), and some basic office supplies to take notes and organize.

Kelly Harmon is a GovLoop Featured Contributor. By day, she is the Webmaster of the National Agricultural Library, where she spends her time analyzing web statistics, supporting the various NAL web sites, and writing the occasional article for Tellus Magazine, produced by the Agricultural Research Service, USDA. By night, she is an award-winning journalist and author, and a member of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America and the Horror Writers Association. She’s a bit of a word-nerd, and relies on her planner to keep life sane. You can read her posts here.

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