I asked a number of productive people the question:

How do you use planning to increase your productivity?

One thing that stuck out to me after reading all the answers is that planning is really the act of making decisions together, in a batch, ahead of time. Instead of making a bunch of little decisions as to what you are going to do throughout the day, you make decisions at least about the important things all at once when you are viewing your day, week, etc. as a whole. This lets you decide what you want to accomplish while looking at the 50,000 foot level instead of having your perspective influenced by the small stresses of your daily work.

At least that is what I took away from all these suggestions. When you finish reading them, I’d love to hear your ideas and perspectives in the comments.

Each morning I pick the one most important thing I want to accomplish today.
~ Leo Babauta from Zen Habits

This is excellent advice. Even if you could work your way through a 30 item list of trivial tasks, picking a single important goal for each day will make sure you are actually making progress–not just keeping busy.

To save time in traffic and gas money, I schedule meetings and appointments geographically — things in the same area of town get scheduled on the same day.

Also, I schedule ramp-up and follow-through time for tasks and projects on my calendar. In fourteen years in business, I’ve found that most people schedule only “”THE THING”" and don’t schedule in the necessary prep time or follow-up time which is a big time management mistake.
~ Monica Ricci from Catalyst Organizing, LLC

Excellent point. To do Y, you may need to prepare with X and followup with Z. You can’t view Y in isolation and forget about what needs to come before and after.

I constantly make to-do lists and outlines of the things I need to get done. Being able to clearly see what I need to do and in what order makes things more mentally manageable. It also feels like a reward when you’re able to cross something off your list.
~ Caroline Wright from Manilla

Lists are a powerful productivity tool. For me, the key is to put few enough things on the list that I can actually accomplish them. I find a list with 100 items demotivating, while a list of 3 things I can do before lunch inspires action.

I try to have a sense each morning of what needs to get done that day. Otherwise, it’s easy to spin off in a lot of directions. Also, I find that working is a very dangerous way to procrastinate. I need to be very clear with myself about what I actually need to get done.
~ Gretchen Rubin from The Happiness Project

Gretchen makes a very good point. Doing work can just be keeping busy if it isn’t leading you toward an important goal. In fact this can be one of the downsides of working off a long list. It can make you feel like you’ve done a lot because you’ve checked many things off by the end of the day. But if you haven’t accomplished anything that puts you closer to your goals, this is just a false sense of accomplishment.

I calendar major projects and tasks in order to help keep on target. BUT, I also deliberately stay open to the possibility that the best solution won’t actually come until I’m deep into the process and it’s important to be open to adapting to new insights on the fly.
~ Jonathan Fields from Good Life Project

This seems like a very balanced approach. Have a plan, but don’t be so dogmatic about it, that you overlook a much better solution that comes along.

I just have a simple text list on my computer with stuff that needs to be done for the day, stemming mostly from a weekly list of goals. I try to make weekly/monthly goals for projects so they don’t spiral too far out of control.
~ Glen Stansberry from Gentlemint

Glen makes a good point about todo lists–you don’t need some complicated computer system to track them. A text file is very adequate. I know someone who is always looking for a new/better way to keep track of tasks. If he’d invest that time in actually doing the tasks he is trying to manage, he might accomplish something in life, but he spends all his time changing his method of tracking work. The mechanics of the list aren’t important–execution is what matters.

Planning lets me take care of the thinking/deciding/ambiguity apart from doing the actual work. This way, when it comes time to work, I just point and shoot; the thinking has already been done and the decisions have already been made. I work much faster this way.
~ Brett Kelly

This is a powerful way to think about planning. It lets you separate the decision process from the doing process.

Ruthless focus. Gotta have it. When I plan for what I want to create, I know what I need to say no to. I’m also very clear on how I want to FEEL in my work — and creating my desired feelings is the primary goal.
~ Danielle LaPorte author of The Fire Starter Sessions

Danielle’s point about creating the desired feeling is an interesting perspective. There are two types of work where I’ve discovered I really like the “feeling” I get. One is computer programming and the other is composing orchestral music. What I find interesting is the feeling is almost the same in both cases and it isn’t something I experience with other activities.

Her other point about planning is that it lets you know what you can decline. This is pretty powerful. You only have so many minutes in the day and there is no way you are going to be able to accomplish everything you can dream up. Planning allows you to decide what is ok not to do.

I use routines as much as possible and try to schedule work in my calendar at specific times. This way, I know how long it takes me to get started on work at my desk every morning because my morning routine is a set group of steps. Also, I know I only have 20 minutes to work on responding to email, so I’m racing the clock to get it finished. By planning and scheduling the day, I am able to accomplish more than merely having a goal to finish some work.
~ Erin Doland from Unclutterer.com

Planning allows you to separate the decision on what to do from the work. Routines allow you to plan once and reap the benefit over and over again. It is easy to overlook how much effort and time goes into making a decision. Routines can help you minimize that effort.

I make prioritized to-do lists.
~ Lauren Coulston from Citi

There were lots of great ideas here, but the most frequent recommendation is what Lauren advises. If you aren’t using a priorities todo list, it is probably time to start.