Planning Your Day in Advance

This newsletter was written by Steve Pavlina, sent on December 7, 2009. It’s re-published here for achival purposes, with permission.

A common productivity tip is to plan each day in advance, preferably the night before. But how exactly do you do this? How do you know which items to put on your next day’s to-do list?

If you aren’t careful, self-delusion can creep into your planning process. It’s tempting to put items on your task list that you think you’ll enjoy as opposed to those you really want to see completed and checked off. You may also end up jotting down too many items that seem urgent but which really don’t need to be done at all.

In order to plan each day intelligently, it’s wise to begin at the end. Imagine that it’s already the end of the day you’re aiming to plan. That day is now behind you.

As you look back on your day, you feel fantastic. You know you did your best. You think to yourself, “Wow… what an amazing day this was! I wish every day could be this wonderful.”

You feel great because you completed what you most wanted to get done. You’re now enjoying the afterglow of a day well spent.

If you do this quick exercise, it helps you clarify that each day is an investment. Some activities squander your time while others help you build a better life.

You can extend this process to weekly and monthly planning as well. Project yourself to the end of that time period, and look back with feelings of gratitude. Again, you know you did your best. You feel great about all that you accomplished.

Now as you look back, what do you see? What is it you feel great about? Which items did you check off your task list that left you feeling so satisfied?

Task completion feels good. You know that when you do your best and get a lot done, you feel great at the end of the day. You may feel tired and spent, but that afterglow is unmistakable. Similarly, you know that when you waste a day on trivialities, you don’t feel as good afterwards. You may look back and wonder where the time went and hope that tomorrow will be better. But hope isn’t a very positive feeling; hope is what you’ll find at the border between disappointment and desperation.

Start with the feeling you want to experience at the end of your days, weeks, and months. Get yourself to that place emotionally. Then project that feeling backwards in time and get a sense of the momentum that spawned it. That feeling arises when you’re in a state of flow, steadily completing the tasks that are most important to you.

This process won’t turn you into a workaholic. An unbalanced day will leave you feeling unbalanced afterwards. What you want to aim for is a smooth, flowing, productive day that balances your personal and professional life — the kind of day that will leave you feeling terrific if it becomes your default way of living.

As you project backwards in time, write down the tasks you imagine yourself completing during the day. Don’t think about what you’re doing with your time moment by moment. Simply focus on the miniature milestones. What did you actually get done? Why does that matter to you? How did you feel when you finished?

For example, instead of seeing yourself processing your day’s email, imagine the boost you feel from seeing your inbox empty and closing your email program. Instead of seeing yourself writing a blog post, imagine the feeling you get from clicking “Publish.” What are the milestones throughout your day? Identify those, and you’ll have your to-do list. Your to-do list consists of the action steps you need to take to generate those milestones.

A single day’s task list is usually short, typically 3-7 items. If you have more than 7 items, you’re probably overdoing it. You may be focusing too much on trivialities that seem urgent but which aren’t really important. Significant tasks normally require thought and concentration for extended periods. Those also tend to be the tasks that give you the greatest emotional boost when you finish them.

Focusing on the feelings is a quick way to cut through your mental clutter and get a sense of what really needs to be done right now. At any given time, you may have dozens of eligible tasks vying for your attention, but you obviously can’t do them all at once.

There are multiple successful and unsuccessful versions of each day. Some versions of your day will leave you feeling wonderful afterwards, and some will leave you feeling disappointed. You don’t have to be perfect in making the right choices here. You’ll eventually get to those other important tasks that didn’t make the cut for the next day’s list, and the exact order in which you do them may not be a big deal. The big deal is the habit you establish, the habit of flowing through each day doing what needs to be done and feeling great about your accomplishments.

You’ll probably find that when you apply this process for a few days in a row, your daily, weekly, and monthly tasks lists will become shorter, more focused, and more challenging. You’ll be less likely to put non-essential tasks on your lists because those don’t leave you feeling that you did your best at the end of the day. You’ll start incorporating tasks that truly matter to you, tasks you really want to see completed, so you can enjoy the results of having them done.

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