In my experience, most of us have a predilection either for planning or doing. I like to plan things as thoroughly as possible, a desire which stems from my love of efficiency. I hate the thought of sinking a lot of extra time and energy into something when a little advance planning could help to avoid the trouble spots. Many of my friends tend to value accomplishment of any kind over measured efficiency. Unfortunately, the line between planning and procrastination can be vanishingly fine. The bulk of the advice geared toward beating procrastination focuses on circumventing barriers and accomplishing things, so it follows that most of us take our first steps out of procrastination by doing something—anything—and as soon as possible. One accomplishment leads to another, and before you know it, little things lead to big things.
This is all absolutely true, and absolutely legitimate. Doing something will always beat doing nothing in the world of productivity. Doing something mindfully, however, will always trump just doing something. “Increased productivity” is a euphemism for “doing more stuff,” so the simple route to increased productivity will always be to do more. Since most of us have long since tapped out our reserves of time and energy, however, any practical and sustainable method for increasing productivity also has to be efficient. That doesn’t happen without a plan.
If we want to make any kind of progress against large-scale goals, that progress on any given day tends to be small. The power of doing things lies in accomplishing discrete, incremental tasks that move long-term projects toward completion. The power of planning lies in uncovering enough of a project’s contours to identify, prioritize, and organize the things we need to do. When these forces get out of balance we wind up with aimless productivity or excessive planning. If you know your tendencies, you can ensure they don’t knock you off balance.
I like to segregate my productivity from my planning wherever possible. In practice, this means I take time early in the week to make plans, and then I take a shorter amount of time early each day to check my plans for the day. With that road map in mind, I can set about doing things without taking extra time to worry about planning or wonder if I’ve wandered off track. When questions come up, I try to take notes and incorporate them into my next round of planning rather than letting them kill my momentum.
Sustainable efficiency requires a lot of this type of balancing between our personal (or human) tendencies and their helpful counterparts. Productivity becomes addictive, and it’s easy to start in on a to-do list without first checking to make sure that list conforms to your needs. It’s equally easy to spend all day making lists of things to do without ever getting anything done. But neither one alone will get you done as fast as the two together.