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How planning your day is actually making you less productive

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Leadership Insider is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: What’s your best advice for staying productive at work? is written by William Craig, founder and president of WebpageFX.

Some of the best productivity ‘hacks’ really aren’t new ideas at all. To that end, I’d like to contribute a familiar phrase to the conversation: Take things one step at a time. Here’s how this a la carte approach can improve your productivity at work:

Break down your workload into specific goals
At WebpageFX, our employees spend some time (usually between 15 and 30 minutes) every Monday morning plotting out the major tasks they need to accomplish throughout the week. You can call them iterations, goals, or priorities. Each team member assigns their goals an estimated time for completion, whether it’s 10 minutes or five hours.

Suppose one of your priorities for the week is cleaning your room. You know from experience that it usually takes between one and 1.5 hours. You also know that the task requires a number of smaller sub-tasks before it’s done, such as changing the sheets, doing laundry, and vacuuming the carpet. Successful completion of these sub-tasks are crucial to reaching your final goal, or in this case, a clean room.

Create a hierarchy by prioritizing
It should be mentioned at this point that rigorously planning every moment of your day may actually increase your stress level and make it more difficult to focus. A related issue is what we call the planning fallacy, which refers to our tendency to underestimate the time it will take us to complete a particular task.

Given these two pieces of insight, I’d suggest allowing for some wiggle room when planning what you hope to accomplish during the work day. Slightly overestimate (and I do mean slightly) the time each iteration might require. Give yourself a bit of breathing room. You’ll feel more confident that you have the time you need, and if things end up going exceptionally smoothly, you’ll have a chance to turn your attention to next week’s tasks a little early.

But prioritizing is probably even more important than assigning time frames. Prioritizing means knowing which tasks are time sensitive (and which are not) ultimately, providing the structure necessary to plan your week.

Know when to disrupt your rhythm
Many employees tend to work in short bursts, rather than trying to focus on a large project in its entirety. This, too, is a result of the human mind at work, which science tells us moves from states of high to low alertness every 90 minutes or so — not unlike the circadian rhythms that govern our sleep patterns. Try structuring tasks around 90-minute blocks of time.

What you’ll find is that creating a schedule can help you react to new challenges as they arise. By knowing how many steps remain between you and your goal, and which are of highest priority, you won’t be thrown for a loop when a client surprises you with a new request mid-week. Your rhythm can react and adjust accordingly.

Read all answers to the Leadership Insider question: What’s your best advice for staying productive at work?

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