Estimated Reading Time: 3 minutes, 40s.
If you’re a regular reader of ALOP, you’ve probably read a post or two where I rail against the idea of five-year career plans. In short, my argument is that planning over a five-year time frame means you’re either not accounting for risk that could lie ahead, or you’re playing it way too safe. (I personally stick with a one year plan.)
Here’s a curious thing I’ve discovered when it comes to planning the future: the shorter the time span, the more important having a plan becomes. Chances are you have no idea where you’ll be in 50 years. Things are almost just as foggy 20 years out. You can plan for five years, but conditions may change so much that your roadmap is no longer relevant.
That’s why I go with one year. You should have some idea of where you’ll be and what you’ll be doing 12 months out. That’s what makes it a realistic amount of time to plan for. I find the Rule of 3, works remarkably well for this—forming three intentions for the year, quarter, month, week, and then yes, for today.
But what about even shorter time frames—like every hour, every few minutes, or even every moment?
Planning is the most important in this near-immediate time frame. We don’t become more productive by setting big goals every year, or every few months. Just look at the effectiveness of New Year’s resolutions: 92% of us fail to keep the resolutions we make. In reality, we become more productive by working toward our goals in a moment-by-moment basis. As author Annie Dillard put it, “how we spend our days is how we spend our lives.”
The problem with minute-by-minute planning is that we have a lot of things competing for our very limited attention. Right now, you’re reading this article—but there are dozens of other things you could be focusing on: nearby people and conversations, apps and websites open in other tabs, daydreams about what you’re going to do this weekend, and so on. The most important decision we can make in a day is to focus on the most productive task in any given moment.
This is easier said than done, of course. But over time, it’s possible to train your mind to focus on what’s important in the moment. Here are a few of my favorite ways to do so:
- Eliminate distractions ahead of time. I can’t overstate this point enough: the single best way to focus better, deeper, and more clearly in the moment is to eliminate every distraction or interruption that will hijack your focus away from what’s important.
- Set an hourly awareness chime. Once you start working, set a timer on your phone for an hour. When it goes off, ask yourself: what am I focusing on? How important is the task I’m working on at this very moment? Does it feed into my long-term goals? What can I do to work more productively and meaningfully?
- Keep your daily intentions nearby. If you’ve adopted a daily intention-setting ritual, like the Rule of 3, keep your list of intentions nearby as you work so you can reflect on whether you’re staying on course. When a new, urgent task or project comes up, reflect on the importance of that new task relative to the intentions you set at the start of the day.
- Keep a distractions or temptations list. Maintain a list of distractions or temptations that come up as you work towards accomplishing your daily intentions. If you’re tempted to refresh Twitter, put that on the list, as well as a comment about what triggered that impulse. If you’re tempted to check your email instead of working on a report, add that to the list, too. Dealing with the distractions and temptations on this list later will help you get back on track in the moment.
- Invest in overcoming procrastination. Procrastination happens when we compromise our intentions. It’s worth investing in strategies to overcome it—like considering the cost of procrastination on your future self. Even though research shows that everyone procrastinates, there are several tactics that help us to combat it. Here’s an article I wrote a while back about 10 ways to do so!
It’s one thing to form goals, but to become more productive, it’s essential you act towards them on a moment-by-moment basis.