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3 Ways to Increase Your Planning Skills, Stay
Focused, and Stop Procrastinating

By Brian Tracy

© 2013 Nightingale-Conant Corporation

The mark of the superior thinker is his or her ability to accurately predict the consequences of doing or not doing something while maintaining the ability to stay focused on the long-term goal. The potential consequences of any task or activity are the key determinants of how important it really is to you and to your company. This way of evaluating the significance of a task is how you determine what your next priority really is.

Stop Procrastinating and Stay Focused

This law says, “There is never enough time to do everything, but there is always enough time to do the most important thing.”

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When you run out of time and the consequences for non-completion of a key task or project can be really serious, you always seem to find the time to get it done, often at the very last minute. When you have no choice, when the consequences for non-completion are serious enough, you start early, you stay focused, and you drive yourself to complete the job rather than to face the unpleasantness that would follow if you didn’t get it completed within the time limit.

Rule: “There will never be enough time to do everything you have to do.”

It has been estimated that the average person in business today, especially managers in the age of cutbacks, is working at 110% to 130% of capacity. And the jobs and responsibilities just keep piling up. Everyone has stacks of reading material he or she still has to go through. One study concluded recently that the average executive has 300-400 hours of reading and projects backlogged at home and at the office.

What this means is that you will never be caught up, and planning skills are more crucial than ever. All you can hope for is to stay focused and be on top of your most important responsibilities. The others will just have to wait.

Deadlines Are an Excuse

Many people say that they work better under the pressure of deadlines. Unfortunately, years of research indicate that this is seldom true.

It is much better to better your planning skills, and then build in a sizable buffer to compensate for unexpected delays and diversions. However much time you think a task will take, add on another 20% or more, or make a game of getting it done well in advance of the deadline. You will be amazed at how much more relaxed you are, and how much better a job you do when you stop procrastinating.

Increase Your Planning Skills

There are three questions that you can use on a regular basis to help you stay focused on getting your most important tasks completed on schedule. The first question is “What are my highest-value activities?”

This is one of the most important questions you can ask and answer. What are your highest-value activities? First, think this through for yourself. Then, ask your boss. Ask your co-workers and subordinates. Ask your friends and family. Like focusing the lens of a camera, you must be crystal clear about your highest-value activities before you begin work.

The second question you can ask continually is “What can I, and only I, do, that, if done well, will make a real difference?”

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This question comes from Peter Drucker, the management guru. It is one of the best of all questions for achieving personal effectiveness. What can you, and only you, do, that if done well, can make a real difference?


Every hour of every day, you can ask yourself this question and there will be a specific answer. Your job is to use planning skills to be clear about the answer and then to start to work on this task before anything else.

The third question you can ask is “What is the most valuable use of my time, right now?”

This is the core question of time management. Answering this question correctly is the key to stop procrastinating and to develop better planning skills. Every hour of every day, there is some task that is the most valuable use of your time at that moment. Your job is to ask yourself this question, over and over again, and to always be working on the answer to it, whatever it is.

Do first things first and second things not at all. As Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said, “The things that matter most must never be at the mercy of the things that matter least.”

The more accurate your answers to these questions, the easier it will be for you to set clear priorities, to stop procrastinating, and to get started on that one activity that represents the most valuable use of your time.

Make a List and Stay Focused on Priorities for Effective Time Management

When you hit a crunch point, your ability to stay focused and concentrate can make all the difference between success and failure. You cannot do everything, so an effective way for you to complete your most important tasks is to make a list. Effective time management is essential to getting through your busy schedule.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said, ‘‘The things that matter most must never be at the mercy of the things that matter least.’’ Stephen Covey said, ‘‘The main thing is to make the main thing the main thing.’’ There is a rule that says that every minute spent in planning saves 10 minutes in execution. Make a list before you start, to ensure that when you do begin work, you will stay focused on that activity that can have the greatest possible consequences for yourself and your business.

Refuse to ‘‘major in minors.’’ Keep asking yourself, ‘‘What’s really important here?’’ Your ability to ask and answer this question will keep you on track and staying focused throughout the day.

Think on Paper

To stay focused on your top priorities, there are a series of steps you can take for effective time management. First of all, think on paper. Writing things down is absolutely essential for you to be able to take control of the situation during the emergency or crisis. Before you take any action, make a list of everything that you have to do to solve the problem and get through the crunch.

In A.D. 1342, the philosopher William of Occam developed a concept that has come to be known as Occam’s razor. This principle says that, in dealing with any problem or complex issue, the simplest and most direct explanation or solution is usually the correct one. What this means is that you should refuse to allow yourself to become overwhelmed with trivia and detail. Stay focused, and start off by trying the simplest possible solution.

Make a List

At the beginning of your day, make a list of everything that you have to do during that day. Go over the list and number the top seven items. Ask yourself, ‘‘If I could do only one thing on this list today, which one task would it be?’’ Put a ‘‘1’’ next to that task or activity. Repeat this exercise until you have your major tasks organized from one to seven to help you stay focused throughout your day.

Then, discipline yourself to start immediately on your number one task and to work at it with single-minded concentration until it is complete. Refuse to do anything else but that one thing. If you are called away or distracted, immediately return to that task, like a gyroscope returns to center, and begin working on it again. Invariably, this one task can have the greatest potential consequences in your job or situation.

Practice Triage and Stay Focused

For effective time management, use the triage method. This method was developed by the French army in World War I. When the dressing stations behind the lines were swamped with far too many wounded soldiers for the doctors and nurses to treat, they solved the problem by dividing the wounded into three groups. The first were those who would die, no matter how much treatment they received. They were put aside and made comfortable.

The second group included those who had only light wounds. They would survive whether they got immediate treatment or not. They also were put aside. The third group consisted of those soldiers who would survive only if they were treated immediately. This is where the doctors and nurses focused their attention.

In your business you should apply triage as well. Stay focused on the problems that can be solved if you act immediately. Refuse to worry about situations that cannot be resolved. Let them go. And don’t waste time on situations that will take care of themselves whether you do anything or not. Stay focused on the problems, decisions, and activities where immediate action is essential to saving the situation.

Develop Effective Time Management Skills to Stay on Track

During crunch time, keep asking yourself key questions: What is really important in this situation? Of all the things I could do, if I could do only one thing, what would it be? What does this situation need of me that only I can contribute?

Here are the two best questions to keep you on track. The first is ‘‘What can I, and only I, do that, if done well, will make a real difference?’’ The second question, which you must ask and answer over and over again, is ‘‘What is the most valuable use of my time right now?’’

Whatever your answers to these questions, discipline yourself to work on that priority, and only that, until it is complete. When you stay focused and concentrate on your highest priorities, you become more productive and effective in helping yourself and your business out of the crisis.

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