Sunday, January 23, 2022

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Planning and Productivity Part #1: Align your actions with your values

January is the time of year when many people open a new planner. We are all seduced by the creak of the binding, the gleaming smooth pages, and week after week of potential.

The goal of using any type of planner is to reduce overall stress and to align your actions with your values. The crux of effective planning is to focus on what’s important, get rid of what’s unimportant, and to develop the ability to tell the difference.

Want to get rid of that feeling of wondering where the day went? Use a planner.

Feel like your brain is great at generating ideas and terrible at follow through? Use a planner.

Want to create more time for creativity, family, or passion projects? Use a planner.

Daily planners break the cycle of losing sight of what’s important because what’s urgent is in right up your face all day.

I’ve been a fan of planners and productivity since the ’90s.

Now, before you chalk up the idea of “productivity” to a colonizer mindset, let me say again that the purpose of a planner is to align your actions with your values. Planners these days reflect all sorts of mindsets and values:

• Inspiration, goals, habit builders and trackers

• Reflection and self-improvement

• Time and energy management

• Native American wisdom, ethics and character

• Dreams, gratitude, and the Law of Attraction

The list goes on and on. The important thing is to find a planner that works for you so you maintain momentum throughout the year. We will explore different planner systems in “Part #2: Planners I Have Known and Loved, from Paper to Kanban.”

Here are some productivity ideas that work no matter what planner you use.

Brain Dump

Grab a pen and paper. Set a timer for 5-15 minutes. Write down every To Do that comes into your mind, big or small.

Using a pen and paper engages a different part of your brain than typing. It activates conceptual thinking and moves you out of reacting and into responding. 

Force yourself to keep making the list until your brain is empty. Only then can you perceive what’s important long-term and for today.

Eat a Frog First

All planning systems start with the same idea: “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” So said Mark Twain. The idea is to do the hardest thing on your list first.

Getting it done sets the tone for the rest of the day and short-circuits the part of the brain that loves procrastination.

Urgent vs. Important

The tension of Urgent vs. Important is captured in the Eisenhower Matrix and the 4DX framework. Essentially, the matrix forces you to prioritize your To Do list by sorting tasks into four quadrants.

A focus on what must be done today is the number one way to slice through a rapidly firing and overwhelmed brain.

After you Brain Dump, select candidates for today and sort them into quadrants on a piece of paper.

1. Do First

What’s the hardest, most important thing that must be done today? (Eat the frog, see?)

2. Schedule

What’s important, but not urgent? Schedule time to work on activities likely to be overlooked in favor of the urgent. (See Deep Work, below.)

3. Delegate

Do not devote time to urgent, less important things. Delegate them. Keep focused on what only you can do.

4. Don’t Do

Cut out non-urgent and non-important activities and time wasters, like social media. Be gently honest with yourself at the end of the day about how you spent your time. It will give you a boost next time you are tempted by distraction.

Deep Work

Cal Newport defined the phrase “deep work” in his book “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.” He says, “Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task.” It provides a sense of true fulfillment that comes from craftsmanship.

The basic idea is that fewer and fewer people are capable of sustained deep, creative work in the twenty-first century. In order to develop the skill, it’s essential to carve out time free from distraction. Turn off your phone. Schedule specific time to work on email every day and don’t check it the rest of the time.

Have a specific place set aside for deep work, a place that focuses your mind and spirit. Writer Isabelle Allende separates herself in her attic office and burns sage when she’s writing. “I spend ten, twelve hours a day alone in a room writing. I don’t talk to anybody. I don’t answer the telephone,” she says.


Use timeboxing, a concept borrowed from software development, to create a dedicated container for deep work.

Set an amount of time per task and stick to it. However much you get done, it’s enough. Resist the temptation to allow tasks to fill up hours and hours or for Parkinson’s Law to take over: Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.

Timeboxing forces you to begin; brings what’s most important into focus; and creates an ending even if you’re not ready. It frees you from perfectionism and over-thinking, which means you have mental energy in reserve.

“With a timeboxing approach, you can avoid late delivery, low quality, and over-doing and over-processing tasks. As you know, time flies, and with timeboxing you can have really good control over it, making sure that it doesn’t fly away uncontrollably,” says management coach Blaz Kos.

Let It Go

This advice comes from yours truly, learned through thirty years of work. Let it go.

Let go of your work and bless it as it moves into the world. Don’t hang onto it thinking you can make it better. You probably can, but it’s more important to share as soon as possible.

The product you deliver is never the end of the process, it’s the beginning; whether it’s an email, a piece of code, an article, a latte, or a freshly-mowed lawn. Declare it done. It’s tough to let go, but doing so inevitably provides an opportunity for improvement next time.

Get a coach and a group

For me, a great surprise of the massive mind shift of pandemic was to discover the power of a group of like-minded people. Mastermind groups have been proven since the 1920s to raise the impact of everyone in the group.

There are coaches and groups out there for everything from budgeting to decluttering, focus, productivity, entrepreneurship, weight loss, parenting, etc. I learned a lot about productivity and hacking a neuro-atypical brain from a productivity coach.

Stay tuned for “Part #3: From Masterminds to Mother’s Groups, Start Anew Every Day.”

Practice Gratitude

If you only take away one thing from this column, let it be this: Find a weekly gratitude group!

In the group I attend, women speak their happiness and gratitude for the week past; and then speak their intentions for the coming week in the past tense. “It’s next Friday and I am so happy and grateful that four hundred people, or better, benefited from the article on productivity.”

The past tense pulls the action into being and the phrase “or better” leaves it open for an even better result.

Next week: Planning and Productivity Part #2: Planners I Have Known and Loved, from Paper to Kanban


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