Imagine you had to drive to a place about 250 miles away, with several stops in between. Would you check the fuel level, pack a few supplies, and consult a map, or simply get in the car and go? Most people would probably make at least a few preparations for such a car trip, but we think differently when it comes to planning for a regular day. All too often, we mechanically follow a routine (“I’ve always done it that way”) without thinking ahead. That approach has big drawbacks, as moving through the day without a plan makes it difficult to stay on track, and to-do lists keep growing longer. As discussed in a previous blog post, time-consuming fads don’t automatically make your day better, but thinking ahead or “habitual forecasting” can have a significant effect on productivity.
“Some of us […] envision the conversations we’re going to have with more specificity, and imagine what we are going to do later that day in greater detail. As a result, we’re better at choosing where to focus and what to ignore,” writes Charles Duhigg in Smarter Faster Better.
Much like preparing for a physical journey, forecasting involves making a road map with specific destination points and important landmarks for the day or week ahead. Visualizing a map doesn’t mean everything should be rigidly planned or that there is no room for unexpected events or new opportunities. On the contrary, a useful itinerary allows for getting back on track after scenic detours. Here are some thoughts about visualizing your workday:
Any format works
Whether in your mind, scribbled on a notepad, or detailed in a mind-mapping app, task itineraries can be useful in any format, even if your work involves sitting at the same desk all day. Thinking about how and when you will achieve a goal adds the necessary planning details and establishes concrete milestones. For example, instead of vaguely telling yourself to “start exercising,” you can decide to go for a walk at lunchtime. Specific planning details might then include bringing a pair of walking shoes and figuring out how far you can walk in the available time.
Look further ahead for priorities
All too often, we get caught up in tasks and chores that appear necessary, but are not particularly relevant for the long term. In contrast to a linear to-do list, mapping or forecasting takes a look at true priorities and their long-term relevance. What is the most important thing you want to accomplish, even if the workday gets off track? Where would you like to be a year from now and which activities will help you get there? Adding a time marker for reaching a milestone can make your mapping more specific: “I will have the first draft ready by 11:00 today” is easier to achieve than a memo to yourself to “write a blog post.”
Getting back on track
As an added benefit, focusing on priorities helps to anticipate problems (road blocks, interruptions, lack of motivation, or mental blocks) and lets you define alternative approaches to handling them. Having a mental map for the day also provides quick reorientation after distractions and interruptions. For example, if a work task takes longer than planned or you have to deal with unexpected technical issues, the day’s forecasting makes it easier to decide which activities must take precedence in the remaining work hours.
Visualizing priorities for the upcoming day is a helpful practice for greater productivity, particularly when we keep in mind that life is not all about work. No matter where your forecast leads you, make sure it includes time on the beach.
How do you establish priorities?
Share your best advice here!