It’s Monday morning. You get to the office early, grab a cup of coffee, sit down at your desk and power up your computer. You’re feeling great because today’s a new day, and you’re determined to make it productive. You have visions of catching up on your unanswered emails, impressing your boss during an important brainstorming meeting, and finishing a report you’ve been putting off for weeks. But as soon as you log into your computer, your productive plan starts to fall apart.
You spend most of your morning trying to empty your inbox, but new emails flood in quicker than you can get them out. After lunch, you’re diverted by a coworker who needs help, leaving you no time to prepare for your brainstorming meeting. And although you stayed late to finish your already overdue report, it’s still not done. By the time you leave the office, you’re mentally exhausted and you feel defeated by the day.
This is the struggle in the modern workplace. We start out energized and ready to tackle our most important projects and tasks, but end up spending most of our mental energy managing distractions, interruptions and unexpected demands on our time. The number of things we’re expected to think about exceeds the amount of brain power we have to effectively handle it all.
So what can we do?
In short, plan and prioritize your day before you do anything else.
We can optimize our mental energy and improve our day-to-day productivity at work by protecting the first 30 minutes of our day for planning and prioritizing what needs to get done. Why? Because of all the things our brains do, planning and prioritizing suck up more energy than any others. This is because planning and prioritizing involves every cognitive function—understanding new ideas, making decisions, remembering results and avoiding distractions all at once. It’s like the decathlon of mental tasks.
It’s easy to forget that we don’t get much hard-thinking time in a day. We have a limited bucket of mental resources for activities like decision-making and impulse control. It’s like lifting weights. When we make one difficult decision, the next one is even more difficult.
A common solution, “try harder,” rarely works. An article in the Harvard Business Review titled Your Brain at Work outlines how this struggle plays out in the modern workplace:
“E-mails, meetings, texts, tweets, phone calls, news—the unstructured, continuous, fractured nature of modern work is a tremendous burden on the control network and consumes a huge amount of the brain’s energy. The resulting mental fatigue takes its toll in the form of mistakes, shallow thinking, and impaired self-regulation. When overwhelmed, the control network loses the proverbial reins, and our behavior is driven by immediate, situational cues instead of shaped with our priorities in mind. We go on autopilot, and our brains fall back to simply responding to whatever is in front of us, regardless of its importance.”
This is why having a plan for the day is so important. If we don’t plan our day before it gets started, it’s easy to let the little things (e-mails, meetings, texts, tweets, phone calls, news) take over and eat up all our energy. To prevent this from happening, we need a roadmap we can turn to when we get lost in the little things. We need a plan of our priorities to remind us of the bigger picture and to help us get back on track. This is why spending the first 30 minutes of our day deciding what we need to do, in order of priority, can save a lot of energy and effort and help us focus on the right things throughout the day.
The method you use to plan and prioritize your day depends on your personal preference. There’s no right or wrong way and it doesn’t much matter how you do it, only that you stick with it. There are many strategies and tools that can help you create the roadmap for your day. Here are some of those strategies and tools to get you started.
- Physical Planners — My current favorite is the beautiful and trendy Productivity Planner. You can also create your own using a blank journal or by printing one of the many free online templates to fill out every day.
- Index Cards — A stack of good old-fashioned index cards will also do. The benefit of this method is it’s perfect pocket size, making it easy to carry around and keep with you all day for quick reference.
- Mobile and Desktop Apps — If you travel a lot or are always on the go, you may want to keep it digital so you can access it from anywhere. Apps like Wunderlist allow you to create and access your daily task list across all major devices and will always keep it in sync for you.
- Online Calendar — You can stay simple by utilizing your existing online calendar, whether it’s Google, Outlook or Office365, to block off time for your tasks by adding them as meetings with yourself during the day. This has the added benefit of protecting your time from those sneaky last-minute meeting invites.
- Desktop Calendar — If your day-to-day is spent mostly at your desk, a desktop calendar may be the way to go.
Whichever method you choose, the most important thing is that every day, before you do anything else, you take time to prioritize what needs to get done. If you want to be your productive best throughout the day, do this heavy lifting thinking first thing in the morning.
What are your tips to plan and prioritize the day?