To plan a productive day, you must ask this essential foundational question. Otherwise, no matter how much you get done, you’re not really being productive.
Strategies to Plan a Productive Day
If you’re a diligent student of productivity principles, you have likely heard of the strategy of planning your day, and life, by putting in the “big rocks first.” This strategy, at least as quoted and taught by many productivity “experts,” leaves out a crucial question.
The Missing Question
Before you fill your bucket, you must answer: What actually needs to go into the bucket in the first place?
Mastering the skill of how to fill the bucket is relevant only after you’ve identified what needs to fit in the bucket — which “rocks” and “pebbles” available to fill your bucket matter most. In other words: What is truly important, as compared to merely urgent?
And this answer hinges on your response to the foundational question: What is my purpose?
Purpose is the Foundation of Productivity
Purpose lies at the core of productivity because it provides a frame through which we can evaluate what is important. Without purpose, every potential task, meeting, and project carry equal weight.
I like to think about purpose in two ways: macro purpose and micro purpose.
Macro Purpose: What’s your life purpose?
What is the role you are meant to play in this world? How will you make this world a better place?
You are here for a reason. You have specific gifts and talents that only you can share with this world.
The essence of your productivity over the span of your life is how you use those gifts to create an impact.
Of course, it can take a while to hit on your macro purpose; you may even have more than one in your life.
But you’ll only discover it when you are asking the right questions.
Each day, you should be looking for clues that help you answer these questions:
- What are your gifts and talents?
- What is your best work?
- Under what conditions do you do your best work?
- How do you show up as your best self?
The answers to these questions come when we create space for reflection and contemplation to review our past and connect the dots of our experiences. They reveal themselves in the space we create for deep play, wandering, and day-dreaming.
Micro Purpose: To What End?
What’s the purpose of everything you’re trying to fit into the bucket? What is it that you’re ultimately trying to do or create?
To be clear, in the context of this article I’m combining two distinct concepts under my label of “micro purpose”:
(a) what is your desired outcome — the ultimate result you are after? and
(b) why do you desire that result?
Quick digression: “desired outcome” is not the same as “goal.” A goal might be a milestone on the way to an outcome, but you don’t necessarily need to hit the goal to get the result you want. Conversely, you might meet the goal without reaching the outcome. (This is one reason why most goal-setting exercises are a waste of time, but more on this topic another time.)
Collectively, in this context:
micro purpose = your desired outcome + reason why you desire it
Even if you don’t yet have a handle on your macro purpose, you absolutely must know your micro purpose.
Why Purpose Matters
When you are clear on what it is you desire to do or create, and the reason why you desire to create it, then you can evaluate your piles of rocks and pebbles through that lens. For each rock and pebble, you can ask: does this serve one of my outcomes, or does it serve one of my reasons why I desire those outcomes?
Fitting “more” into the bucket isn’t productive if the “more” won’t lead you to your desired destination or if you don’t even want to go to that destination.
In this analysis, it’s helpful to question your own assumptions and biases. Often, we think we need to do certain things because “everyone” tells us that that’s the way. But that “expert advice” we receive may not be true for us.
My daily practice of creating space has helped me step back and bring a critical eye to those assumptions. As I get more clear on what my best work is and how I show up at my best, I empower myself to remove a lot of rocks and pebbles from the pile. This makes for a lighter bucket and more fulfillment.
A Better Use of Your Rocks
If you want to plan a productive day using rocks, try this approach:
Instead of trying to fit more rocks into your bucket, plan which rocks you will throw into the lake. When you throw a rock into a lake, it creates ripples in the water.
This is what we desire to achieve with our work: ripples. If you can impact one person who then goes out and helps dozens of others, you’ve created ripples. By helping one person, you’ve really helped dozens, and potentially hundreds more.
The ripples are the true measure of our productivity.
Productivity Cannot Be Judged in Units of a Day
Finally, it helps to remember we cannot judge productivity by one day. Sometimes, what seems unproductive in the moment turns out to be very productive, when viewed with the perspective of time. Instead of focusing so much on planning a productive day, focus on creating a meaningful life.