Getting Things Done — On Time!

There is a well-known axiom in business that “failure to plan is planning to fail.” Well-known, and, all too often, honored in the breach. It is planning, in its many guises, that ultimately has the greatest impact on whether you finish a task or project on time.

But for many of the tasks thrown our way at work, planning seems to be an unthinkable luxury. Assaulted by emails, barraged by phone calls, sliced and diced by meetings and interruptions, the idea of planning a day, let alone a longer-term project, is almost laughable. And if someone else isn’t imposing unrealistic deadlines on us, we’ll commit to them ourselves, agreeing to be somewhere or accomplish something in impossible time frames.

While a lot of this comes with the territory of modern life, there are some things you can do to help increase the odds of getting your projects done on time.

Protect your calendar

Your calendar isn’t your to-do list. Loading up your planner with the 19 things you want to accomplish each day just creates frustration, not productivity. Instead, separate the functions of your calendar and your to-do list, and use the calendar only for events that are time-specific.

“But the Nibblers ate my day”

Julie Morgenstern, author of Never Check E-Mail in the Morning, calls them the “nibblers”—interruptions, procrastination, perfectionism and meetings—because they will definitely consume your workday. Meetings and interruptions can be managed with a variety of tactics, starting with controlling your email habit, as the title of her book suggests. Procrastination and perfectionism are best fought, she says, with the ultimate weapon for expanding your day, planning.

Always identify the next action

Trying to finish tasks on time can often fall victim to the “urgency vs. importance” dichotomy that stresses working on the important over the merely urgent. But in addition, to finish a project, every step is critical, even the “unimportant” ones. If you are building a boat, caulking the hull so it doesn’t leak may seem more important than buying the anchor. But both tasks have to be done if you are going to put to sea.

According to productivity guru David Allen, what’s really critical is to determine the next action, the next physical thing you have to do to move your project forward. “Finish Phase II” isn’t an action. “Email Bill in accounting to release the funds for Phase II” is an action. By always keeping track of the next task for each of your open projects, you can always be productive without wasting time figuring out what to do next, which will help keep your project on track.