If I lost my memory and could only remember ONE productivity technique from the many learned over the years, then do you know which I’d choose?
Out of the thousands of pounds invested in the last few years and the dozens of time management books I’ve experimented with, the practice of pre-planning is undoubtedly what separates me and my top clients from the rest.
But here’s the thing. Even though pre-planning is so simple, most people fail to even plan their days.
We often just work on auto-pilot, by habit. And most of these habits are not necessarily helpful.
LIVE YOUR LIFE ON OFFENCE, NOT DEFENCE
In the UK there’s a saying that ‘the best form of defence is attack’.
A useful metaphor is to see our days as battles. We are fighting Shaytan, fighting our nufus, fighting distraction and fighting time-wasting.
Indeed, Imam Shafi’i famously taught us that ‘Time is a sword; if you don’t cut it, it will cut you.’ Here again we have an image of battle.
Pre-planning is our weapon to win this battle. Just as any general of an army must plan how they will defeat their enemy on the battlefield, we must plan our days if we wish to stand a chance for winning our daily battles.
When you don’t plan, you are on the defensive and are completely vulnerable to all the ‘weapons of mass-distraction’ that will be thrust at you every hour and minute.
When you don’t plan, you become a victim to events and circumstances.
When you don’t plan, other people’s priorities will overtake your priorities.
Simply put: when you don’t plan, you fail.
PICTURE OF A BAD WORK DAY
You crawl out of bed after the third snooze, realize you’ve got 5 mins for Fajr and rush frantically to pray. Having woken up late, you only have 20 mins to get dressed, make breakfast and sprint to the car. But ‘Oh NO!!’ You forgot that it’s your turn to feed the kids and change their nappies!
After begging your irate spouse to help – and wasting 10 mins looking for socks – you manage to get out after 40 mins and wind up in traffic. You’re very late for work.
One hour later you’re finally at your desk after a 10 minute telling off from the boss. You’re so stressed you decide to start with a cup of coffee and check your emails. Ooh Aunty Zulaikha has had a baby – let’s see the photos.
30 mins later and your phone has started ringing. Different clients on minor projects take up your time for the next hour. What was it you were supposed to be doing today?
11am and you are dying for your ‘elevenses’ of compulsory coffee and a donut to help ‘energize’ you with a sugar rush. Unfortunately, your colleague started chatting to you in the kitchen and her offloading of problems just deflated you.
11.30 now. You remember the Big Project that you were meant to write a report upon. I’ll get to it after I install this new software. I feel so down I need to dosomething brainless for a while.
12.00 and the stupid software is not working. You go on forums to try and work it out. Even after lunch it take you another hour before you fix the crazy problem.
After the team meetings, debrief and more urgent calls, it’s 4.30pm when you remember that the report is due tomorrow. Tomorrow! I haven’t even started! The whole day has gone and I’ve done nothing!
You are so stressed with this realization you bang your head on the desk. There’s no point starting now. I’ll just have to cram it at home.
When you return home, you’re so dejected and overwhelmed you can barely smile when your kids leap on you as you enter home. I can’t relax – I need to pull an all-nighter now.
Your spouse and kids feel neglected as you rush to your study after wolfing down your dinner. Finally, you can get some work done.
The next morning, you don’t even hear the alarm clock. You’ve slept through Fajr and you suddenly jolt awake. You realize, with a sinking feeling in your gut, that you’ve got 10 minutes to get to work…
A GREAT DAY AT WORK
I hope the above didn’t sound too familiar. Now picture this…
You wake comfortably for a peaceful and calming Salat ul-Fajr. Your clothes are all ready from the night before. Spouse has the kids today as agreed over the weekend. After a nutritious breakfast, you leave punctually, making dhikr whilst you drive.
At work, before you even open your Inbox, you make your plan. You carefully think over the priorities this week and make a target for the day. The report for the Big Project is due tomorrow so you must block off a good few hours.
10-12 no-one disturbs me, you decide. After dealing with your email and a few minor calls, you close all your windows other than the Word doc where you will type your report. For the next 2 hours you diligently work on your report.
By 12 you’re a little tired after that deep work – but you feel over the moon. You finished the report! You’re so happy, you decide to take a 10 minute brisk walk to a café further down the road so you can get some exercise in.
After your return – and you pray a focussed Zuhr salah – you meet a troubled colleague in the kitchen. She offloads her problems to you. Since your endorphins are high from the walk, and your mind clear after the salah and productive morning, you are able to give her brilliant advice. You both walk back to your desks feeling better than before you met.
With the whole afternoon stretching ahead, you check your to-do list and quickly get through your tasks in priority order. After the mammoth job in the morning, this is a piece of cake.
One task, involving a software download, causes you problems. After 20 mins unsuccessfully trying to figure it out, you drop a message to the tech team and know you can come back to it in a few days.
The time 4-5 you have scheduled for batch email processing. It is so satisfying being in control of your Inbox instead of it being in control of you.
By the time you leave, you actually are on a high given how much you’ve got done.
You return home to embrace your lovely kids and have plenty of energy to play with them and spend quality time with the whole family.
A wonderful day at work and home, Alhamdulillah.
TWO SIMPLE TAKE-HOME TIPS
The discerning reader will realize that there are dozens of productivity principles at play in the two scenarios above. We could discuss routines, nutrition, exercise, prioritizing and delegation to mention a few. (Feel free to reply with your take-away points which you noticed.)
I hope the illustrations showed you how there are so many factors to success at work, and that they directly impact quality of life at home. Can you see how a lousy day at work can lead to a lousy time at home?
However, the focus of this article is pre-planning. Did you notice that in the Great Day – amongst many other subtle good habits – our protagonist started his workday by planning what his priorities were?
Once he did this – and got it done early on – the rest of the day was gravy. Whereas our defeated worker in the Bad Day was wrestling – and losing – to a few minor tasks, our hero in the Good Day blasted through 10X the amount of work. And most importantly, he got the report – the most important thing – done early on. This then gave him impetus and the positive energy to go home and engage with his family.
So, to make this really easy for you, I want you to commit to two simple – but massively powerful – techniques:
#1 – Identify your ONE Thing for the day
Allah is Ahad, One. Tauheed and Oneness is a sacred concept for Muslims. Interestingly, the concept of the One (in a different sense) has swept the productivity world in recent years.
An entire book, then later a course and now a whole productivity community was developed around the concept ‘The One Thing’ (the book by Gary Keller is worth reading but don’t bother with their expensive training; I’ll give you much better value with my upcoming courses inshaAllah).
The concept is both profoundly simple, but can be delved into incredible depth to impact your productivity or that of entire businesses no matter how big or small.
For now, all you need to grasp is that before you start work, ask yourself the following priceless question:
What’s the ONE thing I should do today that will make the biggest impact for my department/team/company/
In the scenarios above, it was the report for the Big Project. It could be planning a lesson if you’re a teacher, writing a proposal, designing a website.
Typically, it will be linked to an important project (yes, your ‘One Project’ but we’ll get into that another time!), and should take some deep, uninterrupted work to finish.
With me so far? That’s it for Tip #1. Decide, either the night before or first thing at work, what your One Thing is. Leo Babuta calls it his MIT (Most Important Task); I prefer HIT (Highest important task) as it sounds more impactful (and is the abbreviated name of my tutoring agency!). The name doesn’t matter. Just do it.
But you must decide your HIT before you start work. That is the hard part. It takes discipline.
#2 – Schedule one-hour time-blocks to do your One Thing
This is critical. It’s all and well to decide what’s important. If you don’t plan when you’ll do it, it won’t get done.
David Allen recommends you keep your calendar ‘sacred’. Anything you put on it becomes an appointment as important as that client meeting.
So when you block off that one hour for your One Thing, nothing should get in the way of it, short of an emergency.
It’s recommended to block this time slot early in your day as possible – ideally first thing – as you’ll have most energy to tackle it.
Note that what I’m asking you to do doesn’t take a lot of time – just an hour of your 8 hour work day, and perhaps 5-10 minutes of planning. This is the essence of effective time management. It’s not about being busy all day – that’s the illusion of working hard. It’s about working smart and leveraging your time. And it’s so powerful that you’ll be hooked once you try it.
Next week, I can’t wait to announce my first workshop of 2020. If you found value in the kind of concepts explored today, you’ll love what’s coming.
I challenge you to put today’s tips into action and see where it takes you.
Yours in productivity,
P.S. Please forward this article to friends and family you think may benefit. Encourage them to subscribe. InshaAllah, through the regular motivating content they may be inspired to transform their lives.
If this article has been forwarded by a friend, you can sign up to the weekly newsletter here:
Public Profiles & Media