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  • Planning


    I just wanted to throw the subject of planning out for discussion.

    Specifically, I’m talking about small projects, which can be carried out by me, or with an assistant.

    I don’t think the planning notes would be much more than a page of bullet points. I imagine that “waiting for” and also “bookmaking” would be the main GTD features.

    What I would like to know is, how does anyone out there plan? I read a technique once that went something like:
    Step 1: where are you trying to get?
    Step 2: what is the second last step/action/stage?
    Step 3: what is the third last stage?
    Etc, etc.
    Until you get to “what is the next thing I have to do?” (ties in nicely with GTD).

    But, how big is a step/stage/bullet point in a plan?

    Is there established thinking on how to identify the relevant nodes?

    I think I may be addressing the Great Wall of China syndrome – in order to stop the builders going mad, they set specific stages that took about a month each to do, so that the builders would have regular episodes of fulfilment.

    In my case, the thought of a task spreading blob-like over two to three days induces a sense of bored numbness. Yet when I try to break it down into bite-sized pieces, I find the pieces can vary from “acquire a red pen” to “dictate first draft”.

    PLEASE don’t let anyone say that each project has its own individual character which will decide the planning steps – what I am after are any rules-of-thumb, tricks-of-the-trade: any tools that turn a blob into do-able steps that sit nicely with your idea of what work is.

    Thanks a million,


  • #2
    Well, one thing to keep in mind is that your "steps" or "stages" are not necessarily the same as a "next action" as defined by David Allen. A next action is a bookmark as to where you will start the next time that you work on the project. My next action would normally be something that takes 10-30 minutes. If I am really procrastinating the project, then it may only be a 1-2 minute action, just to force me to get moving.

    That doesn't mean that you only work on each project for ten minutes, jumping from one to the other like a cricket. It means that you start with a ten minute next action, and you work on it for however long you have decided (time scheduled, time available, to reach a certain point, until you are interrupted, etc.) completing as many actions as you can. When you are done you note the next action to start on when you resume the project.

    Steps and stages, on the other hand are probably quite a bit bigger than your next action. If you have a one-year project, you probably break it down into monthly or weekly stages, maybe with daily steps, to accomplish it. If you have a small project, as you say, that is going to take a "few days", then you will probably set a deadline, then determine what stage you hope to be at each day until you hit that deadline.

    Myself, I prefer not to set a lot of steps and stages, but if it is something that motivates you, go ahead. I find the nature of my business (and life) is that what appears to be a big project may quickly be finished or have to be deferred, and what appears to be a small project can actually take weeks to accomplish. I do not do a lot of project planning, listing out steps, etc. I know what I need to do next, and when I would like to be done, and that is about it.



    • #3

      I've used the planning technique you describe. You are basically working backwards from the desired outcome. It is sometimes useful for kick-starting your thinking when you run aground trying to plan from start to finish.

      I mainly use mind mapping because it's tough for me to think things out in precisely chronological order - forward or backward. With a mind map you can just put down steps as they occur to you and then organize them chronologically afterward.

      I was taught a long time ago that plans should focus on the creation of deliverables rather than on the performance of activities. Deliverables are either things you create or conditions you bring about.

      For example, the deliverables for doing a proposal might be:
      1. A clear understanding of the clients needs
      2. A clear understanding of how you will satisfy them
      3. The first draft
      4. The peer-reviewed draft
      5. The draft that has been approved by the Contracts Department
      6. The proposal delivered to the client

      Your plan steps might be:
      1. Interview the client
      2. Develop a solution
      3. Write the first draft
      4. Have the first draft peer-reviewed
      5. Incorporate review comments into the proposal
      6. Have the proposal reviewed by the Contracts Department
      7. Incorporate comments from the Contracts Department
      8. Present the proposal to the client

      The steps will certainly take differing amounts of time. It may take you an hour to interview the client, while it takes the better part of a day to write the first draft of the proposal. That's not a bad thing, however. Each step represents a significant accomplishment. It is either a key deliverable or a significant change in the state of affairs.

      Here are some rules of thumb I use to determine how far to break down plan steps.

      1. Decompose a plan step if you feel uneasy or confused about how you are going to accomplish it.

      2. Decompose a plan step if it takes more than a certain amount of time. Whether that "certain amount" is an hour, a day, or a week is up to you. Based on your note, I'd say for you it would be a day, but it is really based on your subjective impression that the step is "too big."

      3. Do not decompose a plan step if you are clear about how you will accomplish it.

      4. Do not decompose a plan step if the steps you will take to accomplish it depend on information you don't yet have or the outcomes of things you haven't yet done. You will only know this after you have run aground trying to decompose it.

      5. Do not decompose a plan step if its sub-steps do not represent significant accomplishments. For example, getting a red pen is not a significant accomplishment when your objective is to proofread the draft of a proposal. However, verifying the figures in the pro forma financial statement on page 6 might be.

      Basically, I'm trying to plan just enough to get clear, stay motivated, and get the job done.

      Hope this is helpful.


      • #4
        I'd second the use of a mind map or an outliner.

        I start intending to do a general brainstorm and tend to find I have a reasonably organised set of next actions at the end of it.

        I do go down to the next action level.

        I almost always think of things I've missed over the next day or two. I often review new plans on the PPC in quiet moments of personal hygiene at the start of the day, when I've still got some energy. I hadn't thought of it before, but a day or two of incubation is probably worth building in if you have the time.

        I don't keep next actions and the project plan synchronised from day to day.

        The natural planning chapter gives a good framework: it's worth setting up a general template based on the five steps, if only to give you a bit of a prod when you've missed a step.

        If you have Listpro4 adn a ppc, there's a copy of my template on