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How To Set Smart Daily Goals

To achieve great things, we must constantly question how we spend our time and energy. Get started by asking yourself these six questions right now.

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?

More Posts by Jocelyn K. Glei

A writer and the founding editor of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei is obsessed with how to make great creative work in the Age of Distraction. Her latest book is Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distraction, and Get Real Work Done. Her previous works include the 99U’s own bestselling book series: Manage Your Day-to-Day, Maximize Your Potential, and Make Your Mark. Follow her @jkglei.

Comments (57)
  • Ming-Zhu Hii

    I love this article. Ridiculously important in our hyper-distracted present.

    These days if I have a larger creative project on the boil, or am sitting on a big idea, I make sure that I set at least an hour aside first thing in the morning (immediately after meditation) to get this work done. If I don’t do this, I know I’ll get caught up in the crapola of email checking, etc.

    What happens when I do this, is that I’m usually much more productive during the day – admin tasks get out of the way more easily, because I’ve had a strong “taste” of good, solid creative work – I’m champing at the bit to get back to it, and I therefore ensure I have ample time to do this.

  • Guest

    Powerful article. Love it. Good point about having to suck it up sometimes. That’s good advice. Enjoying all the comments too.

  • hamishmacdonald

    Funny you should ask, ’cause today I’ve cranked my focus plan up a level.

    For some time, I’ve been a fan of the Pomodoro Technique (http://www.pomodorotechnique.c…), which involves working in 25-minute bursts with breaks in-between. It’s good, but it’s all about work. And when work seems too big, daunting, or like it’s eclipsing everything else, it’s easy just to avoid it and let myself get lost down an Internet-hole.

    The bit I needed to add for myself was the larger context you mentioned in this article. So this is what I’m working with:

    2 minutes to focus on my intention.
    25 minutes to work.
    1 minute to stop, breathe, get back to myself.
    7 minutes for a break (e-mail, surfing, anything I like).
    2 minutes to re-focus on my intention for the work.
    25 minutes to work.
    1 minute to stop and breathe.
    30 minutes for a long break.

    I know, it seems a bit OCD and overcomplicated, but I wanted to build some freedom and big-picture focus into the schedule so that, on reaching the end of the day, I won’t just have got things done, I’ll have kept connected with what’s important to me and achieved things from that place. (And trying to remember to play at all this rather than work at it.)

    To help me do this, I bought an “Enso Pearl” timer — not cheap, but it lets you to create sets of up to 50 interval timers. I figured the cost of the thing was worth it if it saved me the grief, guilt, and discontent of not producing the results that are important to me.

    I hope this is helpful to someone!

  • Cynthia Howard

    Great, helpful post! I have an A4 diary that I keep on my desk. I’ll write down my goals for the next day at the top of the page and tick off what I achieve and write underneath other things that I’ve completed or spent my time on. Each week, month etc I can look back and see exactly what I’ve been spending my time doing and see if it fits in with my bigger goals that I’ve outlined at the beginning of the journal. Seems to be working okay so far…

  • David Lane

    Unlike most creative people, those of us in IT are very interrupt driven – even to the point that setting aside time to work (a great idea) results in the “crisis” of the moment impinging on the time set aside to work.

    I find that I am more productive before I come into the office. I get up, do the big lifting before even looking at the distractions and then tackle the day. The downside is that the day winds up being longer than it should because the clock doesn’t start running until you hit your chair.

  • TubbyMike

    What you say is true, especially if you work in IT support, but it’s also true of other IT roles too. We have constant interruptions and the technology to facilitate them. I’m a Business Analyst and a key part of my job is to research and design solutions and this needs “quiet time”, often in big chunks of time. One way to help get this is to turn off IM. I also set up an auto-reply on my email telling people that I’m not answering immediately because I’m working on something key to revenue generating. What I do tell them is when I will be answering email and that they can call or visit in person if their question is urgent / vital. Most of my colleagues are sensible and polite enough to only interrupt if what they need is truly urgent (six times in four years isn’t bad) and with such a low rate I now respect their interruption as truly urgent.
    This may seem a little idealistic, but clear communication of availability has educated my colleagues that I need some time to “think”. Of course, YMMV. I have colleagues I respect and I don’t work in IT support where I appreciate doing this sort of thing is practically impossible.
    I hope that this is of help in some small way.

  • Ty Johnson

    A great article. Working with IT and Relationship Management, I am constantly asking myself “what is my message”. Will my actions help or have no affect on my message.

  • Dollhouse Miniatures

    Great article. Thanks for the great tips. I make a list of the things that I need to do and strike them off. I find that extremely helpful and helps me to focus!

  • Bjarte Edvardsen


    Another question to ask: ‘Do I really need to use the computer for this task?’

  • Say No! to the Office

    I only get a real satisfaction rush if I complete whatever I’m working on. Even if I leave just 2 minutes worth of work, it will remain on my mind and I won’t be able to go out into the real world and relax. Breaking down big tasks into achievable chunks thus works well for me as I am able to satisfy my need for ‘completion’ on a more regular basis.

  • Essay help

    I really love this article! It’s very useful for me! Thank you very much!

  • Jeremy

    I find a simple to do list on a daily basis is really powerful. There is a “some day” area list the big picture or future goals.

  • Mark

    I set my phone’s timer to go off in 20 minutes and then commit myself to doing nothing but the task at hand for those 20 minutes. I find that I get more done when I actively restrict how much time I have to spend on a task. also when working on the computer I write down a checklist of tasks I am going to do before I even turn it on. I then work from my checklist instead of doing all the random things that always pop up when I’m online.

  • Stephen Sauls

    I stick a bright Post-It note right in front of me on my desk first thing before powering up my computer. I then ask myself, “If I could get one BIG thing done today, what would that be?” I write that BIG thing as # 1. Then I fill in 4 more items that are important, such as administrative tasks, but that aren’t a really BIG item. I don’t start #2 until I’m done w/ #1.

    My priorities are now set and all I have to do is manage the interruptions from phone and drop-ins. Note: rarely, if ever, does “Check Email” pop-up on my top 5 list! I dedicate 15 mins and the start and close of the day to check my email.

  • Tim Rosenberg

    I make hourly goals

  • jvmedia

    I’m still trying to get a handle on this myself. I find the post it note thing works fairly well. You can only write so much on one! Put the major thing up top and smaller things below that. Crossing it off or throwing out the note at the end of the day makes it feel like you accomplished something.

  • lucas

    I set my “today’s goal”, and I try to keep my “other me”, who’s constantly asking me to do or think about other things, quiet for as long as possible.

  • Thomas_bauch

    I like this article and I’m practicing quite a bit of the methods and tools myself. Nevertheless, many of this is related to a “linear” understanding of time. Indigenous people know also a different concept of time, the “circular” or “sacred” time. Part of that is the idea of synchronicity, which means that things happen because of an event in the future we have started to manifest earlier. In other words: We constantly manifest our future, consciously or unconsciously, and the Universe responses to that and makes arrangements so that these things can actually become reality. These “arrangements” are steps towards to vision we have, but often, we do not recognize it as such, because we are manifesting unconsciously, or have a complete different idea about “how” our vision should come true. If we learn to see any daily event as potential step stone towards our vision and not disturbance, the whole day can become a complete “flow feeling” and things are achieved without big effort. But also in this case, it is very helpful to become clear and conscious about “what” we envision, and become flexible “how” this may manifest.

  • Erica M

    at the end of each day, i take a look at tomorrow’s to do list and see if there is anything I can accomplish from it before I head out of my office. One or two less smaller tasks to complete the next day helps me start the next day off on the right foot.

  • funimalista

    To integrate some of what was mentioned in this article, I find it helpful and motivating to ask myself “What is the SINGLE big thing I want to accomplish in my life?” Then I better understand the context of what I am doing during my day and always have a source of motivation at ready.

  • Alex

    @806eecdccaa71dc426e8394176a13b67:disqus , I am very intrigued by this idea of circular time. Something in my mind slid right into place when reading your explanation. I started on a quest about a year ago, having a vision of what I wanted to be doing this summer. At the time I knew nothing about how I was going to make this happen; I only decided that I would. Remarkably, I now sit on the edge of a major milestone, astonished at the fact that something I expected to happen, is actually happening. And while my family will testify as to the ridiculous number of hours I’ve put into this project, I really feel as if I’ve done nothing more than sit back and watch my vision grow into reality.

    I will ponder this during my next 90 minute period of focused thought…

  • Alex

    As a hypomanic/ADD/Type A creative sort, I never stop. And while I accomplish tons, I never actually finish what I want to most.

    The best advice I’ve ever received was from a like-minded publisher who told me to draw a picture of a bicycle wheel. In the center, write/draw/insert the object of my attentions. In the tire, list all of the reasons for accomplishing this goal. Then make each spoke represent some aspect of the work to be done. I have 72 spokes including everything from online marketing to story editing, to forecasting. Now I check the amount of time I have available and choose the spoke that requires the most attention and that fits that time allotment. This gives me more freedom (I can work according to my mood), less pressure (everything is getting the attention it needs), and a constant feeling of accomplishment.

    This idea has trumped every list, calendar, poster, agenda, and job jar I’ve ever used. I’d feel quite selfish not sharing it.

  • Seadog Games

    I’ve struggled with this my entire life. It’s been incredibly frustrating and only in the last couple years do I feel like I’ve made progress on this matter. I hope what I write below can help others make similar progress if needed.

    I’d describe myself as having the exact same attributes as
    . I’m 37 years old now and would describe myself as being successful; however, with some mentoring in this area I’d have arrived at this place 10-15 years ago. After trying so many tactics (and forgetting about them 2 days later) I realized the only way I was going to make a success out of myself was to put in place some external structure to keep me on point.

    Here’s what I’ve done that’s worked for me (it’s heavily influenced by Zen Habits, Tim Ferriss and John D. Rockefeller Sr.). Some of these things may only apply to self-employed people:

    1. Reduced my work day to 4 hours (not to be confused with 4 hours per the 4-Hour Workweek). I don’t do this to be lazy, but I literally can’t corral my brain for any longer. And sitting down for a focused 4 hours is something I can handle. If I make a hearty go at it I get all I need to get done in this 4 hours and the results of my efforts are exemplary, especially compared to what I’d accomplish in an 8 hour day. When I work a longer day I get much less done, I get frustrated and I get mentally exhausted (again Alex and others with our “condition” will understand what I mean).

    2. I run a small company and I hire project managers who are very much unlike me in that they can follow through on things and keep high attention to detail over an extended period of time. I made a point of focusing on what I do well and outsourcing what I don’t.

    3. When I do have bursts of energy I use that to fully outline a project, etc that I have coming up. Sometimes that’s a challenge but squeezing out the extra juice to get something fully planned out (even though that plan will change) gives a sense of accomplishment and creates something tangible to be handed off. It gets something real out and into the world and off your mind so you can focus on the next thing.

    4. Fly the FoF (f*** off flag — taken from Ryan at Carsonified). i.e. vigilantly guard your focused time. Don’t answer the phone, don’t respond to emails, etc.

    5. Get up at the same time each day and exercise in the morning.

    6. I do Yoga. The asanas quiet the central nervous system. It works for me.

    That latter two points have also helped me sleep at night. I’ve had chronic insomnia since birth it seems. I’m confident if those things helped me they’ll work for anyone. And a good night’s sleep fuels this whole cycle in a positive way.


  • Jim Velgot

    Professionals from ALL walks of life have to start understanding the importance of saying NO to doing some things. I will let you decide what to say YES to.

  • Andrew

    I need to set aside uninterupted time to focus on one or two tasks or projects. Often by doing this I find I can make lots of progress in very little time. I’m learning to use my right brain more, spend time being intentionally creative. My business is to help others achieve their productivity goals so I best be doing it myself.

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