07/29/2014 06:24 pm ET Updated Sep 28, 2014

Re-Thinking the To-Do List: A Better Way to Accomplish Your Goals

Today, we're more reactive as people than we have ever been in our history. Technology has made it possible to access information instantaneously, and to reach anyone across the globe instantaneously, whenever we choose. The challenge is that anyone can reach us at anytime, too. More often than not, we're compelled to acknowledge or respond. Reacting to information is simply our status quo.

The average American adult wakes up and checks his or her email first thing in the morning, often before even having breakfast or coffee. And what's the last thing the average adult does before bed? That's right: checks email. Why are we compelled to check email first thing in the morning? What could possibly have happened between the time we went to bed and the time we woke up that someone would need to notify us about? The answer is almost always absolutely nothing. But we check anyway. Partially, this is because we have devices (our smartphones -- which may ironically be making us less smart) practically attached to us and that connect us to email, Facebook, Twitter (and more) round the clock.

You may be asking, "what's the big deal with reactivity?" or "why is answering email in the morning such a bad thing?" The answer is that reactivity -- what you're doing when you answer email or respond to something on social media -- is the opposite of proactivity. Proactivity is you deciding the outcome of your your time and moving forward toward your goals. Reactivity means being dictated to by others, very few of whom will have your goals and time in mind. It comes down to this: as entrepreneurs, the only way to succeed is to be in control of your time and effort. Reactivity simply doesn't allow you to be in control.

So what can you do to break the ever-present, ever-increasing cycle of reactivity most of us find ourselves trapped in? We advocate a pretty simple solution, and it starts by changing your habits. Creating new, proactive habits can help you ensure you're focusing on the right things daily for you and your business. We've used this method with hundreds of business owners and entrepreneurs, from single operators to CEOs of Fortune 500 and Global 100 companies, and we've seen tremendous results from each. In fact, during a panel of CEOs I moderated recently, the panel was asked about the habits they maintain that help them succeed, and each panelist affirmed that they were using the following strategy.

We call it Planning & Solitude. Planning & Solitude simply means starting your day by focusing on and outlining your intentions for the day, without any distractions. This happens before you get to the office, before you open your email or even look at your phone. It's a time for getting yourself in a purely proactive mindset, finding the things that will move you forward, and then committing to those things. It works like crazy.

"Planning & Solitude creates the habit of establishing the intention of each day." @AlexCharfen

In case you're wondering how it works, here's what we recommend:

  1. Start first thing in the morning. It's important to start the day with the right frame of mind, and Planning and Solitude gives you that right frame of mind. Being proactive is something you must consciously nurture, and this time is specifically for that. Many of our clients have had to get up earlier in the morning in order to find some truly quiet time to practice this, often before daylight. I can tell you that not a single one of them regrets getting up earlier to practice Planning and Solitude. In fact, many of them feel as if it's the only way to really stake a claim on their day.
  2. Use the same place every day. Find a spot that's quiet and distraction free. This will help to create a habit, and will provide you with a sense of stability. Do not use your office; your work will be too great a distraction.
  3. Eliminate distractions, especially electronics. Having quiet time with no other stimuli than a pen and paper can be an extraordinarily liberating thing. When your mind is clear, you can more easily see the path toward your goals and set a course for those goals.
  4. Don't just make a to-do list. Too often, to-do lists cause us to "sheep-walk." We tend to favor being busy over being intentional. Before you give yourself any type of to-do list, ask yourself what your intention for that day is. How can you move closer to your goals? Consider any tasks you have scheduled and what impact they will have on those goals. If they don't move you forward, start over. One of the traps so many of us fall into is creating a to-do list and finishing what was left over from yesterday's to-do list without questioning the impact or relevance. Set your intention first, make sure that it's moving you forward, and then decide what you can do to fulfill your intention.

Hopefully, over time, you'll not only develop a habit of being intentional at the start of your day, but throughout your day. Planning & Solitude sets up a pattern of proactivity that builds momentum the more your practice it. Will you still answer emails and check in on social media? Sure. It's important for us to stay connected, and sometimes we have to involve ourselves in the conversations of others. But if you start practicing Planning & Solitude, you can start taking your days back, start moving yourself forward, and start each day with the right intention.

It all starts with your habits, and what you're willing to commit to. Change your habits, and you can change your impact.

Alex Charfen is the CEO of the Charfen Institute.