Successful business owners regularly assess their progress towards goals to ensure they’re on track. In this post, Kelly Brown explains why and how a daily checklist can be a powerful tool to kick off your day. We all have emergencies that enter into our world. But if we let ourselves be driven by the latest and loudest, we never make progress towards our long term goals. If we’re going to ‘advance the ball’, we need to plan our work & work our plan. Successful business owners wake up each morning, assess their progress towards our goals, and make darn sure they take one step – as small as it may be — towards that goal. Each day builds on the success of the previous day. Unfortunately, most of us start our days just by picking up what’s leftover from yesterday. We scan our emails, we pick up the latest emergency, and we let ourselves be victims of all the stuff coming at us. If our work has no context – no meaning – we end up feeling overwhelmed. Worse, we don’t advance the most critical projects to our success and happiness. It’s what Stephen Covey called putting the ‘Big Rocks First.’ In a famous example from his book, First Things First, Covey tells the story of a teacher in front of a class with a wide-mouth gallon jar. Next to the jar is a pile of fist-sized rocks. After filling the jar to the top with the rocks, the teacher asks the class if the milk jug is full. The class answers, ‘Yes.’ The teacher then takes out a box of tiny pebbles underneath his desk and then places them into the container, topping it off. The teacher asks again if the container is full? Tentatively, they answer ‘Yes’ again. The teacher then takes out a bag of sand and pours it into the container filling it to the top. Then he takes water and pours it into the container. He says, ‘Ok, NOW it’s full?’ When the teacher asks what the lesson of the demonstration is, the class answers, ‘You can always fit more into the container.’ The teacher says, ‘No. ‘It’s that I would have never fit the big rocks in if I saved them for last.’ Why It’s a Problem It’s a matter of execution. We can make all the grand plans we like. But if we are unable to ACT on those plans, we will never achieve our goals. This is the actual DOING. This is taking a positive step forward — ACTING rather than REACTING. Symptoms While you have a solid set of goals and a plan to get there, you don’t feel that you have any measurable progress towards those goals. Your daily work is defined by what’s in your inbox vs. what s on your project list. You’ve become frustrated with goal setting and planning in the past because you never feel like you can get to it. You feel tempted to start your day by knocking off a few easy items from your tasks list, so you get that sense of accomplishment. At the end of the day, you’re not sure what you accomplished. How to Avoid This Mistake: As mentioned previously, standardization is the basis for continuous improvement. Successful entrepreneurs have a daily ritual, a checklist of steps they go through before they check their messages before they review their bank account before they read ANY email. Successful business owners start their day by comparing their short & long term goals to the emergency items that need to be addressed today. I find a good checklist addresses: Preparing your environment so you can enjoy your workday and focus. Is your desk cleared of pop cans, paper, files, junk that inevitably gathers at the end of the day? Do you enjoy listening to music when working? Brainstorm of ‘what’s on your mind.’ We all wake up with anxieties, worries, things that are eating at us in some way. Brainstorming these will get these out of your head and onto paper. Once on paper, you can then determine what you need to act on now or what can be deferred to another time. Review of your goals – Doing this after your brainstorm allows you to weigh these in context to perceived emergencies. It also allows you to make connections from the future desired state to the present. Avoid just glancing over these to say so you can get past this step. Use this time to connect back to the emotion, the WHY behind these goals. Assess your progress towards these goals and ask questions to understand what’s preventing you from reaching it. A review of projects & next actions – Ideally, you’ll be able to tie every goal to some project on your list. Identify THE next step you can take, something you can accomplish TODAY. A review of your calendar – This is pretty straight forward. But it’s a good idea to look at today, tomorrow, the coming week, etc. That way, nothing catches you by surprise. A quick scan of your inboxes for urgent items – Email, voice mail, snail-mail, etc. JUST review them, don’t answer anything yet. Try to have the discipline to hold off until you’ve completely pulled your action plan together. Prepare your work plan – Don’t get too greedy here. You’re going to have calls, questions, new emergencies. You still have to deal with the anxieties captured during your brainstorm. I find I can only plan AND complete 3-5 substantive things throughout the day. Putting 15 things on your list that absolutely must be completed today will be setting yourself up for failure. You’ll feel defeated at the end of the day, and who needs that? Also, a trick I use is to set time estimates on tasks, so it doesn’t get out of control. So if I estimate 30-45 minutes, I’ll set an egg-timer for 30 min when I’m ready actually to pick up that task. When the timer goes off, I’ll reset it for 5 minutes and try to wrap it up so I can at least pick up where I left off tomorrow. Even if you only spend 30 minutes today advancing your goals, you’ve ADVANCED them. Try to make this the first thing you do to start the day. You’ll have greater energy, and your chances of completing the task are almost assured.