Best Laid Plans: Why They Often Fall Short

How to overcome productivity drains and finish what you start
March 14, 2017 Updated: March 14, 2017
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We’ve all been there: We get a new gym membership, sign up for a class, buy an e-book … and then don’t use it.

Or we have the best intentions, at the start of the day, to be productive and kick some butt. And then our plans fall apart. We fail to live up to our hopes.

A big part of whether we succeed is having an environment that’s conducive to staying on task.

Why is this? What’s wrong with us?

In my experience, there are a few key obstacles:

  1. We Are Overly Optimistic. We think we’re going to be able to do much more than we can realistically manage. We only have so much capacity, energy, and time in the day, and we are not very good at estimating any of it. When we underestimate the time each thing takes, it adds up to a lot of disappointment and missed goals.
  2. We Don’t Account for the Little Things. This goes hand in hand with the unrealistic optimism. When we’re thinking about our plans, we don’t consider all the tiny micro-tasks that need to get done in order to accomplish projects—or even just to live. We don’t think about showering, brushing our teeth, getting dressed, cooking, eating, cleaning up, doing laundry, driving, getting gas, answering countless emails, taking phone calls, using the bathroom, and so on. We just aren’t wired to calculate all of that.
  3. We Fail in the Face of Resistance. When we have the choice of either focusing on what’s most important or doing some easier busywork, resistance often leads us astray. Our habitual, conditioned response is to shy away from the resistance. Sometimes we have the motivation to overcome it, but most times we put things off or allow ourselves to get distracted. Beating the resistance isn’t easy, and it can be a huge time waster.
  4. We don’t have the right environment. A big part of whether we succeed is having an environment that’s conducive to staying on task and holding us accountable. For example, if we are part of a team, and they are counting on us to get a project done by the end of the day, we will be more motivated because we don’t want to let them down. But let’s say no one will know if we procrastinate for an entire day—we’re less likely to get things done. Accountability, supportive people, the presence of distractions—these are key parts of whatever environment we’re in.

These obstacles are things we all succumb to from time to time. There isn’t a person among us who is immune to these problems—certainly not me, nor anyone I know.

So what can we do? It turns out there are a few key habits we can form to help with these problems.

Solutions to Key Obstacles

If you want to actually put that class or gym pass to use, get that project done, or finally read that e-book, here are some suggestions I’ve found that can help in achieving goals:

  • Know that you probably only have 3 to 4 hours a day of productive time to get important work done. The rest of the time is spent on sleeping, eating, personal maintenance, transportation, meetings, calls, emails, distractions, errands, shopping, cooking, taking care of kids, and so on.
  • Estimate what you can do in that limited window of time—for example, exercise, writing, reading, learning, or maybe a few important tasks.
  • Now cut out half of those activities. The things you want to do are going to take twice as long as you think they will. If you have some time left over, bonus! Use that time not on distractions, but on the tasks you cut out.
  • If you want more productive time, cut out some distractions, such as TV watching time or internet surfing. But you’ll probably only be able to add another hour a day.
  • Set up a good environment for each project you want to complete—if you want to learn guitar, have some accountability and support, even if that means finding someone to practice with online. Set deadlines and have people count on you to get your project done. Go someplace where you won’t have any distractions.
  • When you’re ready to focus on the thing you hoped to get done, face the resistance instead of running from it. Stare it in the face. See that it’s not that bad. Know your deeper reason for wanting to get this done, and remember that it’s worth pushing on despite that discomfort.

I hope you find these useful. I’ve used them to learn things, to get projects done, to stick to exercise programs, to do things with my kids. I’m far from perfect; I forget these things all the time. But when I remember to do them, I am much better at living up to my hopes and dreams.

Leo Babauta is the author of six books and the writer of “Zen Habits,” a blog with over 2 million subscribers. Visit ZenHabits.net