Looking ahead, not behind, puts you in control of your day and helps you focus on what’s most important. How often have you screeched to a halt at the end of your day and thought: “What did I actually do today? I was so busy but didn’t cross anything off my list. Tomorrow will be better. It has to be different.”
If you’re like many, you’ve worked in reactive mode not just for days but for years. This is incredibly common among busy people. Your desire to be responsible and responsive undermines your goals and sense of what’s most important. Instead of working on your priorities, you get distracted and caught in a whirlwind of data calls and fire drills.
You also get caught thinking that the solution is to just work more. You look for productivity hacks that will return time to your day, but unfortunately these rarely work. The problem isn’t that you’re not putting in the time. It’s that you’re not protecting a portion of your day for your most important activities.
You’re not going to stop the fire drills that consume your day. Your boss, your team, your customers/constituents/public will always need something more. They’re not going away. They don’t know (or care) about who or what else is demanding your time and attention, so the responsibility for protecting your time is on you.
How can you better manage your day and make progress on your priorities? The key is a simple five-minute ritual. The key is to do it in the evening or right before you leave the office. It involves looking at your calendar for the next day and reviewing your “to do” list. You pick three (only three!) things to get done the next day, planning for where they can fit into your schedule, and making a little promise to yourself to make that happen.
Picking three forces you to prioritize. No doubt, you likely have a list with 40+ things on it, many of which have likely been there for weeks or months— or longer. We’ll talk about list maintenance another time, but for now, just focus on the three things that can be done within the time you have available.
Doing this exercise the night before is essential. If you wait until the morning when the emails start coming in, you’re too late. The wave of new demands has already started and it gets tougher and tougher to get out from under it.
You have to be realistic and assume that everything will take twice as long to complete as you expect or would like. It’s a weird list phenomenon—we all tend to be overly optimistic when it comes to estimating the level of effort required to accomplish something.
You can regain control of your day and reclaim your priorities. By determining your intentions the night before, being realistic, and focusing on just three important items, you up your chances of making progress on what you know is most important.
Robin Camarote is a communications strategy consultant, meeting facilitator, and writer with Wheelhouse Group. She is intent on helping leaders get more done with fewer headaches by outlining clear, creative strategies and solutions that build momentum and buy-in at all organizational levels. She writes about how to increase your positive impact at work. She is the author of a book on organizational behavior entitled, Flock, Getting Leaders to Follow. She lives with her husband and three children in Falls Church, Virginia.