How Proper Planning and Being Organized Sets the Table for Productivity

Welton Chang
Jan 31, 2016 · 5 min read

Note: This is an excerpt from Growth & Productivity: 14 Principles to Achieve More, a free e-book from Grove Ave, a new startup that helps individuals focus on their growth. Click here to get your free download of the 70+ page e-book.

Have you ever heard the phrase “work smarter, not harder”? Keep that phrase in mind while you’re reading this article. There’s a place for brute force approaches to productivity, but you generally can’t sustain that for long. In order to become more productive, you have to make a greater return for your attention, labor, and effort investments.

So don’t just dive blindly in an attempt to boost your productivity. Having a good plan is essential to being productive. Preparation is the key to success in many domains. Becoming more productive is no different. Preparing for each day, each project, and each endeavor in a disciplined fashion will help you set the conditions for being more productive and ultimately for being successful. Planning means getting all the materials you need to succeed in place before you need them. It means anticipating problems in advance so that when you encounter them you’ll have a fix in mind or in place right away.

Organization, whether it be the file structure on your computer or the way you maintain written notes, means being able to call on the things and knowledge you need in a timely manner. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten frantic emails or calls from colleagues who misplaced a file or can’t remember something and need to be reminded. Keeping yourself organized and having a system prevents these kinds of pseudo-emergencies from cropping up.

First, I use backwards planning to make sure I have enough time to accomplish what I need to accomplish. This is a technique I picked up in the Army. Start with the deadline and work incrementally from there, putting in reasonable time estimates for the critical things you need to get done as you move towards your goal. If you can’t make the work fit within the deadline, then you know that the deadline isn’t reasonable and that you have to adjust it. You do this before you have to push the deadline at the last minute.

Second, I schedule my entire day. Some people are obligated to do this because that is what their workplace demands. But for many knowledge workers and the millions of freelance workers out there, your day is your day. How much work you get done is entirely dependent on you and your willpower. So, what better way of getting yourself up to the task than to put all of the “first down” markers on the field before you have to reach them? Scheduling your entire day also means that you’ll have some motivation to hit all of those interior deadlines. This ultimately makes the wider task and bigger deadlines seem less dreadful and insurmountable.

Third, using lists and Gantt charts are some of the easier ways to get and stay organized. There are lots of tools out there, but probably none better and more useful than a set of index cards. Generally, I write down tasks that I don’t immediately finish and need to tackle later on a card (it gets filled up during the day) and as I get through them, I’ll satisfyingly cross the item off my list. For longer term tracking, I use Google Keep for my lists, tracking the things I need to get done, categorized by project. It works well across platforms (it has an iOS app version and web-accessible interface) and I like that it is no-frill and barebones. I’m able to use the Keep app to categorize project-related checklists (I upload pictures for easy project identification) and it keeps track of the project tasks I’ve finished. I’ve used Evernote in the past, but ultimately it felt a bit too clunky for me to use, especially if I simply wanted to pull up a list and cross off an item. I still do keep scanned documents there, but for me, Google Keep works better than Evernote.

Before starting a big project, I’ll sketch out the broad outlines of it, to either socialize the ideas with teammates or to keep myself on track. Want to write a novel? Or learn to dunk a basketball? It is much harder to accomplish these things if you don’t plan and prepare. Gantt charts help you keep all of your lines of effort in order and on time.

One other trick I’ve learned is to prepare for the following work-day by laying out all of my clothes, preparing my backpacks, and preparing my food and coffee for the following day the night before. I’m sure many others do this too. I also keep two backpacks and a suitcase permanently packed, one for classwork, one for the gym, and one for traveling. This saves me a lot of time in case last minute travel comes up and gets me out the door sooner on a regular basis.

In terms of my daily routine, I try to keep things are routine as possible, to save my mental bandwidth for tougher and more meaningful challenges. I personally love my cheap Hamilton Beach coffee maker, because the back detaches and can be filled directly in the sink, unlike other models. Saves me time pouring water and I never have a spill to clean up. I also wear pretty much the same thing each day — khakis, slacks, and solid, dark colored collared or regular shirts. I really love Outlier clothing and Merrell boots because they are versatile, can be worn multiple days without washing, and don’t look out of place in a meeting room or when traveling. When I wore a suit to work every day for nearly five years, I had five suits on rotation, one for each day of the week. I also had about twenty pre-arranged shirt-tie combinations. I really like Banana Republic’s no wrinkle shirts. Ironing is one chore I don’t mind not doing. Wearing the same thing to work is a cognitive offloading trick that many people use. Not having to worry these small choices makes life easier. Guess who else does this? President Obama and Mark Zuckerberg.


  • Use backwards planning to ensure you can get stuff done on time
  • Use schedules, lists, and Gantt charts to keep yourself organized and disciplined
  • Prepare for each day consistently to reduce your morning cognitive load

Did you find this helpful? I just published an e-book with 13 more productivity principles to help you achieve more.

Check it out at

Grove Ave

Articles on Growth and Behind-the-Scenes of a Startup

Welton Chang

Written by co-founder, psychologist @JHUAPL, PhD @Penn, @USArmy vet, former DoD analyst, @Dartmouth and @Georgetown alum, @TrumanProject Fellow, investor

Grove Ave

Grove Ave

Articles on Growth and Behind-the-Scenes of a Startup

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