Winging it doesn’t work. Playing it by ear, seeing what happens or deciding what you’ll be ‘in the mood for’ when the moment strikes – all bad, bad ideas. If you’ve bought into the idea – as I had – that spontaneous people are more relaxed, or experience higher levels of creativity or fun because of their whimsical ways – think again. Studies show that those who ‘wing it’ earn less money, get less done, and experience far greater levels of stress and anxiety. This makes sense – after all, how can you save for retirement by ‘playing it by ear’ or decide to start exercise once the mood strikes? I don’t know about you, but if I waited until I was in the mood to hit the treadmill to actually do it, I’d probably wind up exercising about once a year.

Here’s the bottom line: Plans work, and spontaneity usually doesn’t, whether we’re talking about health, wealth or our careers. This isn’t to suggest we live our lives in a rigid, inflexible way; instead, consider how plans can help us take back control, or carve out the time and space that we need to get the job done.

Use the grocery list approach to planning.

If you’re like most of us, you spend the majority of your day running from one thing to the next, commenting frequently on how busy you are. Fair enough – after all, you really are busy, but consider simple ways to spend less time on the stuff that isn’t really getting you where you want to go. Even little things count – after all, you and I spend less time (and money) at the grocery store when we’ve got a list to guide us.

Apply the ‘grocery list’ principle to whatever you do – resolve that you won’t sit down at the computer, for example, and just start mindlessly answering emails or hanging out on Facebook without a plan first. Let your goals guide your time management, so that if you’ve only got 30 minutes to work, you’re focused on getting the job done. When you walk into work, a networking meeting, or even the gym with your ‘grocery list,’ you’re more focused and less likely to waste time.

Use micro-plans to make goals manageable.

I love setting big goals for myself (“write a book,” “lose 50 lbs”) until I realize what’s actually required in order for me to accomplish them, and then I loathe and detest goals. They seem too big, too intimidating, and I’m convinced they require way more time or energy than I’ve got.

Instead, consider this: Forget goals, and live your life one step at a time using micro-plans. Rather than determine you’ve got absolutely no time to write that book you’ve been dreaming about, create a micro-plan that requires only smalls chunks of your life, your time, your energy. For example, decide that you’ll write for 20 minutes each day – then schedule those 20 minutes and stick to it. Start with small time commitments on a daily basis and grow from there. Unless you plan to quit your job or otherwise win the time lottery, get used to getting little things done in short blocks of time and you’ll be amazed at how much you accomplish over the course of a few months.

Author's Bio: 

Elizabeth Freedman is an expert in career and workplace issues. She is the author of Work 101: Learning the Ropes of the Workplace without Hanging Yourself and The MBA Student’s Job-Seeking Bible, and was a 2005 finalist for College Speaker of the Year, awarded by the Association for the Promotion of Campus Activities. Elizabeth runs a Boston-based career-development and coaching firm; clients include PricewaterhouseCoopers, Thomson Reuters and The Gillette Company. To bring Elizabeth to your next association event or workplace meeting, please visit