The purpose of planning is to enable you to take action.
Making a plan helps you prioritize the things you want and need to do, so that what you take action on includes the things that are important. Planning also helps you ensure that time sensitive things happen on time, without dropping everything to do them right-now-before-you-forget.
You know from experience that the plan that results from the process of planning is of limited usefulness. The plan itself is a record of the decisions you made. It is based on the knowledge you had when you made it, and the inferences you made about the context in which you would implement your plan. You can’t control everything that affects your ability to implement the plan, so the more time that’s elapsed since you made it, the more useless it becomes.
This is frustrating. That frustration may have prompted you to give up on planning altogether.
If you are getting the important things done, and getting time sensitive things done on time, without overworking and without excessive stress or anxiety, then it’s okay to stick with the way you are doing things now. If, on the other hand, you are unhappy with your current situation, you might want to read on.
Pay particular attention to stories you are telling yourself about what it is reasonable to expect.
- Are you telling yourself that the things you aren’t managing to get to really aren’t important?
- Are you increasingly irritated by requests to do things that you find pointless or trivial? Is your irritation turning to anger?
- Are you telling yourself it’s impossible to have reasonable working hours?
- Are you ignoring physical symptoms of excessive stress or anxiety?
- Do you feel shame or guilt about things you have not done, deadlines you’ve missed, or the way you have communicated with students, colleagues, or friends and family?
If so, you might want to consider reintroducing a planning practice. It will take time to make it work well for you. It will never guarantee that everything you want to do will happen in the time frame you’d like it to. But it will give you more control over your activities and consequently reduce stress. Making things even 5 to 10% better is worthwhile.
What do I mean by “practice”?
I’m using the term practice the way one might use it to describe a yoga or meditation practice.
Practice (noun): The habitual doing or carrying out of something; usual or customary action or performance. (OED)
I’ve also used it in this way to talk about writing.
The practice of planning will take time. Deciding to give priority to planning will mean not doing something else to make time. On balance, this trade-off is worth it because you get more of the important things done, you get time-sensitive tasks done on time, you have better boundaries around your work, and you are less stressed and anxious.
Frequently devoting small amounts of time to planning will be the most beneficial method. Small and frequent is the best way to build a sustainable habit. But also, uncertainty increases as your time horizon does. There are good reasons to make longer term plans, but they are guaranteed to need adapting as you go along. A daily plan is more likely to work out as planned fairly regularly. As I said in Planning in uncertain times, the problem with only planning on a day to day basis is that it reminds you of how uncertain things are and may increase your anxiety.
In the Academic Writing Studio, I organize guided sessions for annual and quarterly planning, while providing prompts for monthly planning. I encourage you to use a weekly planning practice as part of your transition between working-week and weekend. You could use a very short daily practice to begin and end your working day.
The main activity of planning is making decisions
There are always more things you could do, than there is time and energy to do them. Back in 2014, I identified the 3 elements of a good plan as Priorities, Boundaries, and Slack. Here’s a brief summary:
- You need to decide what will get done and what will not, in whatever time period you are considering.
- You need to create some boundaries that limit the time and effort you put into each thing you decide to do.
- You need to leave slack in the plan for responding to things that come up.
The time available is fixed. You can only increase the time available for work tasks, by reducing the time available for rest, food, and other activities essential to the maintenance of your life and health, social activities (including family) and interests outside of work. (I highly discourage this unless you have a crunch week.) That is one of the decisions you make when planning. The time available is still fixed.
There will always be a tension between doing more things in the time available, and spending more time and effort on individual things – with a view to achieving a higher standard. Your priorities are about both.
- What will get done?
- How well will it get done?
That’s not easy. Someone is not going to like whatever decision you make. Decision making means assessing the risks and balancing your priorities against those external expectations.
A practice builds your skills
It may also be helpful to consider the meaning of practice as we use it to describe learning an instrument.
Practice (noun): Repeated exercise in or performance of an activity so as to acquire or maintain proficiency in it. (OED)
When I first started my daily yoga practice there were lots of things I couldn’t do. I couldn’t touch the floor in a forward fold. I struggled with a lot of balance poses. I couldn’t do plank, much less lower myself gracefully to the floor from plank. I couldn’t put my palms together over my head. 6 years later, I’ve noticed that I routinely do things I used to just skip in yoga class. Most days I can touch the floor in my first forward fold of the day. I can incorporate Warrior 3 in a sequence without much difficulty. I can now hold plank pose for several breaths, though my grace in lowering myself to the floor still needs improvement.
The same thing will happen with your planning practice and your confidence about the difficult decisions you need to make.
- You’ll get better at judging how much you can do in a week.
- You’ll be more confident that you can recover from a bad decision if you make one.
- You’ll get better at setting reasonable deadlines and at renegotiating deadlines.
- You’ll get better at judging what’s good enough and when it really is worth doing more.
- You’ll get better at recognizing the things that really don’t need to be done, by you or anyone.
- You’ll recover faster from the frustration of having to make last-minute changes to your plans, though you’ll always find that frustrating.
One day you will notice that the things you used to find frustrating and difficult are now the things you do as the relatively easy warm up before you tackle the really difficult new things. Because there will always be things that are more difficult or challenging. And sometimes no matter how much you practice and learn, things still don’t work out the way you want them to.
Planning as a reflective practice
I use yoga as a comparator deliberately. Like yoga, the goal of your planning practice is not to achieve an ideal demonstrated by someone else. Your goal is deeply personal. You are learning about yourself and how to organize your work (and life) in ways that are effective for you, specifically.
Establishing a planning practice means regularly paying attention to what affects your ability to accomplish the things you need to accomplish. You have the opportunity to try new things and see if they work better. You have an opportunity to notice what you have accomplished, how long certain things take, what the useful milestones are in bigger projects, and so on.
You might also notice if some times of day, or parts of the week, are better for some activities than others. You may experiment with different ways of breaking down projects or with different ways of grouping tasks to see how that affects how much time and energy they need. You might notice the energy involved in transitions between activities and experiment with ways of reducing the effort involved in the transition.
By planning regularly you learn more about yourself.
- What is important to you?
- What works and doesn’t work for you?
- What kind of support do you find helpful?
- Which decisions are relatively easy for you (even if others find them difficult)?
- Which decisions are difficult for you (even if others find them easy)?
You also learn more about the risks of not doing certain things or of doing them to a different standard than you might have wanted to.
- What are the consequences?
- Are those consequences acceptable to you?
- What turned out to be less important than you expected?
- What turned out to be more important than you expected?
You not only become more confident about planning itself, you become more confident about your work.
Other things may become clearer.
Establishing and maintaining a practice of planning is not easy.
When I say planning requires difficult decisions, I mean it. Sometimes it involves confronting where your values are mis-aligned with the values of your employer, your colleagues, and possibly members of your family or household, your friends, or other people or groups who have been important to you.
- That might mean realizing that you can’t be the kind of academic you want to be in the circumstances you currently find yourself in.
- It might mean realizing that you can’t be the kind of academic you want to be and the kind of parent you want to be.
- It might mean realizing that you don’t want to be the kind of academic (or parent, or partner) you thought you wanted to be.
- It might mean realizing you care less about the things (specific) other people wanted for you than you thought you did.
- You might clarify what really is important to you. That might feel like a relief or it might just reveal more difficult decisions.
The thing about establishing a practice of planning is that you will also realize that you can adapt your practice to acknowledge and incorporate these insights. You can use your planning practice to plan bigger changes if you decide you need to make them.
Whatever happens, I hope you learn that your difficulty doing all the things that are expected of you by your employer, colleagues, students, family, friends, community, and everyone else is *not* the result of some personal failing.
I hope you develop a deeper appreciation for everything you do accomplish. I hope you establish boundaries that allow you to look after yourself so that you have the physical, cognitive, and emotional capacity to deal with the things you don’t control and the consequences of the decisions you’ve made, even when they aren’t pleasant.
This post was originally sent to recipients of the newsletter on 15 September 2021. Subscribe below to get first access.