How To Set Smart Daily Goals

You’re busy. I’m busy. Everyone is busy. Yet, despite all this bustle, we often don’t feel particularly productive from day to day. Whole weeks can flash by in a blur of relatively meaningless emails, meetings, and admin tasks while the “big stuff” goes untended. As the 19th-century thinker Henry David Thoreau wrote, “It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?”

If we want to take back control of our workday schedules and priorities, the only way to do it is by relentlessly questioning how we’re spending our time. But what questions should we ask?I reached out to a handful of regular 99U contributors and 99U Conference speakers to get their insights on daily energy and task management. Here’s what they said:

From Leo Babauta of Zen Habits:

What are you doing in this moment?

The simple act of becoming more aware of where your attention is helps you to focus it where you want it to be – on creating something great. Too often we get distracted or get caught in unimportant tasks – coming back to the moment often will help.

From Tony Schwartz of the Energy Project:

Are you scheduling time daily to focus without interruption?

Set aside at least one time period during the day – no more than 90 minutes at a time (and as close to that as possible) – to focus without interruption. Time, in other words, to do something important but not urgent – to write something, reflect, strategize, imagine, work on a longer term project.

The key here is control of attention. We’re so distracted, and we’re feeding that instinct every time we move between tasks. We need to (re)train our attention. Focused attention can serve tasks – that’s the left hemisphere at work, doing rational, deductive, logical, step-by-step thinking.

The other kind of attention, which serves creativity, is where the right hemisphere is dominant. That requires deeply quieting the mind.  It was Betty Edwards (Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain) who discovered that one powerful way to prompt a powerful shift from left to right hemisphere is to copy an upside down line drawing.  Or simply to draw, for that matter.

But there are lots of ways to prompt the shift: take a walk in nature, go for a run, listen to classical music… Even take a shower. It’s repetition that matters. The more we train any muscle – including the right hemisphere – the stronger and more active it becomes.

From Mark McGuinness of Lateral Action:

What’s the ONE BIG THING you want to accomplish today?

The big danger for hyperconnected creative professionals is that incoming demands and digital distractions get in the way of real productivity – i.e. making inroads on your big, scary, difficult, and (ultimately) rewarding creative challenges.

If you do ONE BIG THING today – one draft design, one chapter, one photoshoot, one intensive rehearsal – it feels like a productive day. (Two or more is for superheroes.) But if you don’t nail that one thing, it doesn’t matter how many little jobs you get done, you know in your heart it was a wasted day.

Asking yourself this question first thing helps you focus and prioritize. After that, the only things that can get in your way are emergencies and excuses.

From Chris Guillebeau of The Art of Non-Conformity:

Why do you do this every single day?

It’s very hard to be productive in the long-term when trying to do things for which you aren’t motivated. You might have to “suck it up” once in a while to complete a certain task, but for the “big rocks” it’s much easier to construct your work around things you’re excited about.

From Scott Belsky of Behance:

Is what I’m about to do (or say) moving the ball forward?

Oftentimes, in creative projects, we act out of impulse rather than reason. Shiny objects and other fleeting fascinations have a tendency to drain our resources. Before you allocate time to any task, question your intended outcome. The same goes for your contributions in meetings. When you speak, are you “content-making” or simply “commentating”? Be intentional. Everything you do or say should move the ball forward toward your goal. If it doesn’t, it is liable to waste precious energy and get you off track.

From Cal Newport of Study Hacks:

What is your training regime for increasing your ability to focus hard on something without distraction?

This “hard focus” is at the core of completing outstanding work in a compact amount of time – be it a book or problem set. Hard focus, however, is also a muscle that requires training to develop. (When helping students with this ability, for example, I have them start with 20-minute blocks of undistracted work, and then add 10 minutes every two weeks.)

To ignore this muscle, and continue to work with your email open and Facebook refreshing, thinking up excuse after excuse why this connection is “crucial” for your job, makes you like the wannabe athlete who refuses to hit the weight room. You’re not a contender.

Over To You

How do you manage your energy day-to-day? Any great questions you think we should ask ourselves?

Jocelyn K. Glei

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As Editor-in-Chief and Director of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei leads the 99U in its mission to provide the “missing curriculum” on making ideas happen. She oversees the Webby Award-winning 99u.com website, curates the popular 99U Conference, and is the editor of the 99U books, Manage Your Day-to-Day and Maximize Your Potential.
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