Here we are — I’ve completed my third “planned” week since I started looking a bit further ahead than the current day (first week, second week, passing thoughts). Gosh, it was a busy week. I had only two office days, and I realize that it is not quite enough.
Around me, I’m faced either with people who are used to planning their weeks and find it normal, or people who could never dream of doing it, so busy are they putting out fires day after day.
I was like that for a long time. How did I get where I am now? I’ve been thinking a lot about which were the “first steps” on the road from chaos to “planning”.
Oh, before I forget: when I say I plan my week, I mean that I have a rough outline of what I am going to accomplish during the week, and on what day. It doesn’t go any further than that. Like when I “plan” my day, I don’t decide “I’m going to spend between 9 and 9.30 doing this, then do that for 20 minutes”. I know what I want to accomplish in the day, and go from there.
So, back to what brought me here, let me mention a few landmarks or “important steps” you might want to meditate upon if you are currently too busy putting out fires to even dream of planning your week. They’re in no particular order, because I think I haven’t quite finished figuring this out yet. If you spot one that seems doable, then start with that one.
- Protect yourself. Set a very high priority on keeping “downtime” aside for yourself. Of course there are very busy periods where you won’t get much, but this shouldn’t be your “normal” week. Don’t answer the phone during lunch break, for example. Book an evening a week for yourself, and tell people who want to see you then that you “already have something planned”. Learn to become more comfortable about making people wait. If you always put others first you’ll just burn in the fire.
- Set maker days and manager days. Yesterday evening, Claude pointed out to me that this was one of my first obvious steps towards weekly planning, back in April. It’s obvious: once you start having a clearer plan of how much actual time you’re going to have in the office to work on projects, it helps you not overcommit.
- Under-promise, over-deliver. I can’t remember who recommended this, but it stuck with me. It helps me fight against my natural tendancy to underestimate the amount of time I need to deliver something. So I figure out a reasonable estimate, and then add a lot of security padding to give myself space for bad planning and other emergencies.
- Everything takes more time than you think. I think David Allen says this somewhere in Getting Things Done, but I could be misquoting. It could be Nassim Nicholas Taleb in The Black Swan, too. Or Merlin Mann. Anyway: the unexpected almost always adds time to things. And in the cases where it doesn’t and actually reduces the time you need for something, it’s no big disaster (OMG! I have too much time to do this! I’m going to die!). So, add a lot of padding to any estimation of how much time something is going to take you. It’s always more than you think. Try doubling your initial estimate, for starters, and see if that improves things.
- End your day by looking at tomorrow. This is something I got from FlyLady when I realised it was important for me to have a “getting started” (=morning) and a “winding down” (=evening) routine. She recommends including 10 minutes in your evening routine to prepare the next day: check the train timetable, know what appointments you have, etc. It’s easy to do, and it means you’re not diving blind into tomorrow anymore.
- Learn to say no. This is the really hard one for most people. I’ve become pretty good at saying no, but I’ve come a long way: initially, I was somebody who said yes to almost everything. I was both enthusiastic about all sorts of things and terrified of hurting people by refusing their requests. So I didn’t say no. I’ll probably blog about this more extensively at some point (I already did in French), but the important thing to remember is that as long as you have trouble saying no, you will not escape fire fighting. One thing that really helped me learn to say no was to start by never immediately accepting anything. Say you’ll answer in 24 hours. Then I used that time to have a long hard think about how I keep saying yes to stuff I want to do to help out, and then end up procrastinating, not doing it, feeling horrible because deadlines slip, etc. That usually gave me enough courage to say no.
- Have a list. You can go all GTD or only part-way, like I have, but you need some kind of system or list to capture the things you need to take care of. Learn the difference between a project and a next action, and list only the latter. To start your list, just write/type down all the stuff that’s bubbling at the top of your brain and stressing you out. If you think of something you need to do while you’re working, add it to the list. Ask a friend to hold your hand (it can be through IM) if your list gets too scary. Trust me, it’ll be better when it’s written down — anything is better than being an ostrich.
- Learn to prioritize. I have huge problems with this (in other areas of my life too). When it comes to work-related stuff, here are a few rules of thumb I use. Invoicing is high priority, because it’s what brings in the money and it’s not very long to do. Anything really time-sensitive is also high priority (if I don’t announce tomorrow’s meetup today, it won’t be any use, will it?) Responding to potential clients. Paid work for clients with deadlines, of course. Asking questions like “what is the worst thing that will happen if I don’t do this today?” or “on this list, is there any item which is going to cause somebody to die if I don’t do it?” (start with “to die” and then work down on the ladder of bad things — thanks Delphine for that tip) also helps. This doesn’t mean you need to order your lists. It’s just to help you figure out where to start.
- Admit when you’re in over your head. If you over-promised, said yes when you really should have said no, and basically find yourself incapable of keeping up with your commitments, tell the people involved. And use that safety padding again. If you told the client it would be done by Wednesday, and on Monday you already have that sinking feeling that it won’t be possible, tell the client. Apologize. Say you messed up if you have. If you’re pretty certain you can get it done by Friday, tell them that it’ll be done Monday. See? Safety padding. Under-promising. Of course this doesn’t work in all situations, but you might simply not have a choice — and it’s better to be upfront about a deadline slipping than keeping it silent. Not just for the relationship with the client, but for your learning and growing process. Same with money: if you need invoices paid earlier than you initially asked because you have cashflow issues, ask. If you can’t pay the bill, ask for a payment plan. Somebody might say yes.
- You can only do so much in a day. At some point, you reach the end of the day. Either it’s time, or you’re tired, but at some point, the day is done. Pack up and go home. Watch TV. Eat. (Maybe not in that order.) Do something nice. Take a bath. First of all, it’s no use working yourself silly until ungodly hours, you just won’t get up the next morning, or if you do, you won’t be productive. Second, doing this will help you “grow” a feel for what can be done in a day.
- Plan your day. At the beginning of the day, look at your list, and think about the 2-3 important things that you want to accomplish today. Rocks and pebbles might help. Forget all the rest and get cracking on those. You’ll be interrupted, you’ll have emergencies, of course. That’s why it’s important not to plan to do too much — or you’re setting yourself up for failure. I started doing this regularly this spring, first with index cards, then with a list in Evernote. At the beginning you’ll be crap at it, but after months of practice, you get better. And this is one of the building stones you’ll need to be able to plan your weeks at some point.
- Save time for the unexpected. When I was teaching, I did quite a bit of time planning — I knew when I was in class and when I had “downtime” to prepare courses and mark tests. Doing that, I realized that I could not perfectly plan my time. There was always “unexpected” stuff coming up. So I started making sure I had empty time slots of “surprises”. At some point during the last year, I calculated that roughly half my time was taken up by “unexpected” things and “emergencies”. Now, it’s less, because I’m better at planning. So, depending on how deep in chaos you are, you want to make sure you leave enough “free time” in whatever planning you’re doing to accomodate everything you didn’t know about or hadn’t thought about. As organisation increases and stress goes down, the “things to do” will get more under control and there will be less and less emergencies — but it’s still important to leave “breathing space”.
This is more or less all I can think of for the moment. Is it useful to anybody? I like to think it would have been useful to me, but one can never know… would I have listened?