By Chad Broadus
I don’t know why I do it. At least once a year I get so busy that, ironically, I stop using my planning system. Unlike the network sitcoms though, hilarity does not ensue. Long time readers of this blog, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that I’m going to write another post extolling the virtues of selecting a planning system, and sticking with it. You’re right, but since this is my personal tale of woe, hopefully it won’t be so pedantic.Like the Kubler-Ross stages of grief, there are distinct stages of breakdown when I temporarily lose the discipline to keep up my planning routing.
Things usually break down because I have a large task that is going to keep me busy for many days/weeks straight. I deny that I need to update my planner everyday because I’ll just be writing down the same stuff over and over every day. This is simply a failure to break down the tasks into small enough chunks. In a word, laziness, brought on by an enormous task. For example, I’ve been working on defining the feature specs for our latest software release for what seems like all of 2010. Do you know what I initially wrote in my planner at the beginning of my recent relapse? Features. That’s it. So, even though there are like 40 discreet features that need to be researched and defined, I lumped them all into one task listing.
The proper thing to do, of course, is to schedule some time with yourself to look at the large block of work, and then break it down into smaller chunks. This forces you to think through everything, prioritize, and then begin organized and purpose driven work.
When I stop writing things down and prioritizing, I’m painfully reminded of the limitations of my brains working memory. When not using my planner, and people come up to my desk and present me with a problem, as they invariable do on a daily basis, I immediately move that up in rank to important, and may spend some time on it that I just don’t have. I eventually get frazzled and angry because I can’t get any work done with all of the interruptions. Things go so much differently when you can immediately gauge an incoming request relative to your current priorities, and then properly rank and dispense with it. In the Getting Things Done world, this is called closing open loops. If you are presented with a task that you can’t immediately act on, and then donÂ¿t write it down, it will nag at your subconscious. You’ll be on edge, but won’t quite know why. But your subconscious will. It will be waiting for the other shoe to drop when you fail to deliver on the unwritten and unremembered task.
In this stage, I get pretty desperate. I think things like, "If only I could stop all of these interruptions, I’d get some work done. I’ll give up sleep and get there early and even work late to catch up." At this point, I’m not thinking clearly enough to make the proper bargaining point of just using my planning system properly.
Because I’m a results driven person, not checking things off my goals list is a real downer. Even more of a downer is when I’ve unnecessarily forgotten something, and either fail to deliver an item, or realize something has slipped through the cracks only at the last minute. You never forget when you write things down. A list is your second brain.
After all this unnecessary self inflicted pain and hand wringing, I finally accept that I’m not a savant with a photographic memory, and that I need a framework to get my work done efficiently. I open my trusty Franklin planner (I’m old school pen and paper), and create a high priority task to schedule some time with myself for planning. I go someplace quiet where I won’t be interrupted and step through my tasks, break them down into actionable steps, and then set goal priorities. This becomes my day to day productivity bible and touchstone. When an interruption occurs that introduces a new task, I compare it with my current priorities, and then write it down relative to how important it really is compared to my other goals. By keeping the cycle going, and reviewing at least weekly, I can get into a near Zen-like work state, and more importantly, get A LOT done.
Having been converted early in my career, I’m a Franklin-Covey guy, but there is also Getting Things Done, and many others. I encourage you all to at least review some of the systems out there and then try them for a week or so. You’ll find something that works, or will cobble together the best elements. In the end, I think you’ll find that your output will increase and your stress will decrease. When done right, using a planning system can have your ship sailing smoothly through even the most tumultuous of workplace projects. Just remember to keep it up.