In this episode we’re going to talk about the value of planning for a productive life.
Planning our days and projects
I recently asked for your feedback and suggestions about topics. Several people asked about how I manage tasks and plan. I thought it was a great time to talk about planning in general and share a bit about what works for me.
What is planning?
Wikipedia says this:
“Planning is the process of thinking regarding the activities required to achieve a desired goal. Planning is based on foresight, the fundamental capacity for mental time travel. The evolution of forethought, the capacity to think ahead, is considered to have been a prime mover in human evolution. Planning is a fundamental property of intelligent behavior. It involves the use of logic and imagination to visualize not only a desired end result, but the steps necessary to achieve that result. An important aspect of planning is its relationship to forecasting. Forecasting aims to predict what the future will look like, while planning imagines what the future could look like.”
Planning is about taking time now to look ahead to the future–whether the next hour, the current day, or weeks or months ahead–envision an outcome, and strategize how to get from here to there.
Types of planning
Writers on entarga.com outlined an interesting summary of four approaches to planning (definitely check out their article for an explanation of each):
- Reactive – past oriented
- Inactive – present oriented
- Preactive – predict the future
- Proactive – create the future
Planning in general
Why plan and what is the benefit?
Strategic planning in business is an important part of an organization’s success. An article called Approaches to Planning describes common approaches to strategic planning in business, including SWOT analysis, which I’d heard of before, and PEST analysis, which I hadn’t.
Briefly, in SWOT analysis, the goal is to dentify the business’s objectives and then “all the internal and external factors that will affect this objective, both favorably and adversely.” SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities (“characteristics in the environment that the business or project might exploit to its advantage”), and Threats (“characteristics in the environment that might cause trouble for the business.”)
In PEST analysis, you look political, economic, socio-cultural, and technological factors that could affect the project or desired outcome. The article referenced above says a variant–PESTEL or PESTLE–adds legal and environmental factors and is popular with businesses in the UK.
How does this apply to our personal/professional lives?
Planning saves time by allowing you to prepare for obstacles and assemble resources. It’s like having a map or GPS directions on a trip. If you didn’t look at the route ahead of time, you might still get to your destination, but it likely would take longer due to the wandering, the detours, etc. Planning clarifies the process and creates the most efficient route from A to B (or L or Z).
Planning can help prevent delays. As I was preparing for this episode I was in the midst of a project I didn’t adequately plan for. I had been wanting to try a new recipe, started to gather the ingredients, and discovered I didn’t have quite enough of one key ingredient, so I had to wait until I (or Mike) could get to the store to buy more.
“Planning also reduces stress, as it should allow you to come up with a realistic view of what you can achieve in a certain amount of time.” [from Time Management: The Importance of Planning]
One writer identifies several benefits of planning:
- Helps you “set appropriate goals” – the very process of planning helps you refine your goals and evaluate whether they’re realistic
- “Breaks a problem or goal into smaller pieces,” which reduces overwhelm and makes any objective more achievable
- Looking at a plan from various angles reveals the plan’s weaknesses and strengths
- “Increases certainty and confidence” — “No one can predict the future and there will always be surprises, but planning gives you a much clearer idea of what lies ahead.”
- Increases efficiency (less “wasted money, talent, and time”)
- Reduces risk
- Increases your credibility
- Encourages creativity
- Improves decision-making (because when you plan, “you gather the information necessary to make a thoughtful, well-rounded decision.”)
Planning makes it easier to delegate. When you know what’s coming and what needs to be done, you can enlist help sooner rather than later.
To summarize, planning also helps you achieve your tasks, projects, goals, and objectives more effectively, with less wasted time, and with less frustration.
As you think about planning . . .
Remember, it doesn’t have to be time-consuming or complex. It can be as simple as sitting with a pen and paper while you’re having your morning coffee and listing what you need to get done that day, then organizing it all into an order that makes sense to you. Always allow for the unexpected, like interruptions and obstacles.
Tools and approaches I’ve used in the past for creating and tracking plans
In the early years, I used a paper planner with a monthly calendar for capturing appointments and long-term plans (birthdays, trips, events), along with either a page for each day or a 2-page spread for each week. This worked well when my kids were young and I was home with them, active in home-school organizations and my church. I used a planner that I could fit in my purse or the diaper bag so I could have it with me always.
In the later years, as technology advanced and I moved into a legal career, I switched to electronic tools, including a calendar that could be shared with colleagues and my husband and digital task managers.
Either way (digital or analog), the process for me starts with capturing information–in my calendar, my task management tool, etc.–and then processing it.
The capturing of info is key to my ability to plan and manage my life. I don’t try to keep anything in my head. Appointments or time-specific commitments get added to my calendar immediately, along with any relevant information (phone number, address, Zoom or Teams link, attachment of any document that’s going to be discussed, or a note regarding the purpose of the call or meeting).
- Avoids double-booking or forgetting
- The extra info helps me in preparing
- Essential for being able to plan
Processing/planning happens at specific times. I plan on Sunday for the week ahead (although I’m trying to incorporate Laura Vanderkam’s recommendation of planning the next week on Fridays) and at the end of the workday for the next day.
How I plan
For the week/day – I try to look ahead at appointments, commitments, and workload, and ask myself a few questions: How do I need to prepare? What resources do I need? Where do I need to block out time to “eat the frog”–do my MIT (most important task) for the day, or a work project that requires concentrated attention? Generally, I try to put a list together at the end of each workday of the things that need to happen the next day.
For projects or events – Well ahead of time, I brainstorm a list of everything that has to be done and all materials/resources needed. I try to break it down into its smallest components. I usually do this brainstorming in a notebook–I just think well on paper. I list the ideas as they come to me and then estimate how much time is needed for each.
After I’ve got the list, I sort it in ways that make sense
- Time order — this has to happen before that; I can’t do this until someone does that
- Similar tasks (e.g., errands, phone calls, etc.)
Then, I reverse engineer it. If there’s a deadline for a project’s completion or a specific date for an event, I calculate backward to figure out the timeframe for each milestone. I then calendar them with alerts ahead of each deadline. For example: planning a vacation trip — when do travel tickets need to be bought, hotel reservations, tickets for activities, etc?
Current tools – what’s changed and why
My stage of life is different now. There are no kids at home, so only Mike and me to consider in making plans or establishing household routines. This was very different when I was needing to manage appointments, schedules, etc., for us and 5 kids of different ages.
(Note: This is about to change, and we will be welcoming a teen foster daughter into our home soon, so will have added tasks for me (with her, her caseworker, and her school) and added scheduling considerations. So for example, I spent a few minutes on the school website noting the schoolday start/end times, checking the calendar for the remainder of the school year, and adding spring break and other days off and early release days to our shared calendar, as we’ll need to take those into consideration when planning trips, appointments, etc. going forward.)
I work from home and am at my desk, so portability is not as much of an issue as when I commuted between the office and home and traveled for work a lot.
Mike is at work during weekdays and there are not a lot of outside activities.
I still use a digital calendar–Apple Calendar for personal and household calendars, Outlook for work, and I use Fantastical on my devices because it will connect to my other calendars and show all — personal, household, Mike’s, and work — on one screen, in different colors.
For appointments out of the house, I use the travel time feature to show on each calendar entry so I am sure to leave enough time between commitments to get where I need to be. I use alerts for appointments, to remind me in time to get ready.
I still have a digital task manager (I use OmniFocus), but for the most part I’m analog. I have a notebook I keep handy for lists, planning, etc. I also have “to-do list” pads that I’ll pull out on busy days to list the things that (1) must get done, and (2) I’d like to get done. I try to put that list together before I leave my desk for the day so that I can get right to work in the morning.
Some final thoughts
Planning is an important part of a productive life but it doesn’t have to be a complex, overwhelming process. Think of it in terms of just thinking ahead a bit, capturing necessary information, and then taking action, step by step.
Do what works for you. There is a great article on Designing your own personal planning system.
Try to avoid getting bogged down in planning. Planning has its benefits and can help us be more effective and more efficient, but ultimately projects are completed and goals are achieved when we take action.
What do you think?
Are you a planner or a “fly by the seat of your pants”-er? Post your thoughts and suggestions in the comments section below or in The Productive Woman Community Facebook group, or email me.
Resources and Link
- 4 Approaches to Planning (Reactive, Inactive, Preactive, & Proactive)
- Top-down and Bottom-up planning as an important aspect in EPM
- The 5-Step Planning Approach That Works Every Time
- Approaches to Planning: SWOT and PEST Analysis
- The 7 Planning Tools & Systems I Use To Organize My Whole Life
- Designing your own personal planning system – Starfall Projects
- How To Develop Your Own Personal Planning System | Day Designer
- 10 Reasons Why Planning Is Important – The Important Site
- Time Management: The Importance of Planning – Acuity Training
- 23 Amazing Reasons Why Planning Is Important In Your Life – Explicit Success
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