When I worked in film production my day was pretty straightforward. You show up, and the production manager has every hour planned out (not that everything always went according to plan). When I started teaching, I also had a pretty clear cut schedule: Lecture, lab, grades, plan for tomorrow. But then I started blogging for a living, and then wound up in management. Let’s face it, most managers don’t start as managers! It’s a process of upward advancement, and you’re not always prepared for what’s to come.

The most productive people in the world don’t leave their day to chance, however. Everyone who is massively productive has some system they rely on — and often multiple systems. After all, you probably have a personal to do list, and at work you’re using the company-mandated project management system, right?

Going back about 2,000 years, we find this bit of advice from Marcus Aurelius. Mortality was very much on his mind, so he preferred to focus his time on the things that were most important. He would concentrate on just those things, one at a time, and do it fully. Easy to say when there’s no Facebook, right?

From there, things can get a little murky. While some psychologists say it’s important to make lists, others note that a calendar is more effective. One thing I do know: You have to have a plan. There’s a middle path, and that’s what I’ve been working on with Kitten Stuff Done.

I’ll have another post on what I call “hyperscheduling” later, but that’s supposedly what millionaires do. And that’s very likely the result of their incredibly busy schedule overall. Richard Branson has a million photo-ops a week, plus delegating a million things, and god only knows how he deals with messages like email or whatever (messages in a bottle to his island? Carrier pigeon? Who knows — he has assistants for that stuff). Most of us can’t do this effectively because “shit happens.” Yeah, I’d love to poop at 5:48AM every day, but the cat just puked and I dropped my breakfast in the toilet. You get the idea.

Then there’s the task list. It’s a comprehensive list of stuff you have to get done, with time estimates. The problem I find with making these is that I’ll inevitably forget something. Oh no, I didn’t write down “work on project X” and spent an hour catching up on email, now it’s 10PM and I need to get to bed…

Now for the REAL secret to success. It’s a balance of planning and execution, without all the finicky bits. There’s the Ivy Lee Method, which works really well. You write down the six most important things you need to do the next day, and hammer away at those once you’re awake or at work, etc. But what I have found works better is largely detailed in this post from Jonathan Vieker. First, he mentions 30-minute time blocks (as per the Pomodoro Technique). He does plan ahead, because that cuts down on decision fatigue (more on this in a moment). But he’s also a realist, and notes that this is a PLAN not a CONTRACT. If something has to be pushed back a day (you get a call that one of your kids broke a leg, screwing the rest of the day’s plans), then it’s OK. Don’t panic. You have your plan for tomorrow halfway there!

Now, about decision fatigue. I have always worked pretty long hours. And I don’t need much sleep (around 6 hours). But as I’ve gotten older I have noticed that my brain starts to “tap out” later in the day. Working from 4AM to noon doesn’t help, either. The body just isn’t wired that way! I’ve tried getting up “early” at midnight, or getting 8 hours of sleep, but it’s just bailing out a sinking ship. Better is to front load my schedule with the tasks I need to accomplish, but be flexible enough to move stuff to another time or day if needed.

That’s how Kitten Stuff Done works. You build your deck of tasks for the next day, and you account for stuff like meals and showers and commutes by using those cards. These give you a psychological boost like ticking off a to do list, but they’re easy wins. Those easy wins propel you to be more productive. Then, if you have to move a meeting to tomorrow, no sweat, just discard that card or move it into the tomorrow stack. Hey, if you’re stuck in analysis paralysis and want to switch things up, just draw a card at random!

This notion of “plan ahead but don’t be too restrictive” not only helped my ADHD but also acknowledged that life rarely goes as planned, and it’s important to both be accountable but flexible when trying to get stuff done. I hope Kitten Stuff Done makes this happen for YOU!