Whether you’re leading a team or have to juggle multiple tasks to hit your deadline, chances are you’ve had to plan. And how good you were at planning tied directly to how good you were at meeting those goals.
Just like learning to learn, learning to plan is one of those skills we’re all supposed to have but aren’t taught. At best, we are forced to develop some kind of planning strategies (some better, others worse) by doing. At worst we can find ourselves starting a career we perfectly qualify for, except for one tiny ability: planning.
If you need to get better at this vital skill, and fast, don’t panic! We’ve broken down what actually goes behind a successful plan, into 5 quick steps for you to easily apply in your day-to-day professional life.
Step 1: Can I do it?
Yes. Yes, you can. You don’t have to be the most organized person in the world (although it can help). Even if you have a more spontaneous nature or have a shorter attention span, you can and should learn to plan effectively to avoid being overwhelmed by tasks.
While there are layers of complexity when organizing yourself or others towards a certain goal, you don’t always have to know advanced excel formulas to make spreadsheets or graphs. For example, a very easy-to-use decision tree maker online can do a lot of the heavy lifting in any kind of planning process.
Alternatively, many plans can be made easier with a pen on a piece of paper. It’s been proven that writing things down, as opposed to typing on a device, can help you retain and also focus better as it stimulates the creative part of your brain.
If you haven’t done a lot of planning, or have bad memories of not succeeding where you wanted, you might view yourself as a bad planner. It’s important to put that view aside, so it does not stunt your development process as you try implementing different ways of organizing.
Step 2: Be selective.
Especially in the beginning, but also throughout your planning process, it’s important to know where to direct your focus. You have limited energy, attention, and time, and how you use it is vital in getting things done.
One of the worst things that people who want to improve this skill do is to start one day and micro-manage every little part of their or their team’s day. That is doomed to fail, not only due to lack of experience but also from decision fatigue.
We need to think of this like going to the gym to work an underdeveloped muscle – we don’t want to damage it through overwork. We want at first to start small, which for planning can be trying to just give structure to your day. Don’t plan every little thing, just divide your day between your work life and your personal time. Assign just a few tasks to be done at work and chores for when you’re at home.
This seemingly insignificant effort will train your ability to break large things into small tasks. After a while, try going deeper with complex work tasks while at the same time looking for opportunities to keep training your planning ability in your spare time (such as when planning a vacation for example). At this time, using different tools will probably be a must.
Step 3: Use tools to help you.
Everything from online resources to spreadsheets and notepads, when diving deeper into organizing large projects you will need something to help direct your thoughts. While before a simple event on your calendar could suffice, now you’ll need to push yourself to do more.
Many naturally tend to gravitate towards the usual sticky notes, to write down what they might forget otherwise. This can be useful especially if you’re the kind of person that works better with visual cues. Other creative options worth mentioning are whiteboards and mind maps. Try them all, and see which one sticks.
Step 4: Prioritize.
Some tasks need to be done in one hour, others by end of the day, and others sometime this week or month. You’ll need to have an easy, intuitive way of differentiating these tasks so that you’ll be able to know at a glance which is which.
You can either assign each task a value, or a color. Green for “it can be done anytime this week”, red for “urgent” or 5 for low priority while 1 is the highest priority. Many successful business people usually have a simple but effective to-do list of tasks needed to be done and then another list for a given day.
Every morning they wake up reviewing the list, choosing what they think they can do that day, what can wait until tomorrow and what can or can’t be pushed. At the end of the day, they would do another check, crossing what was done and what would need to be carried over to the next day.
They would also add additional tasks from sticky notes, emails, or any other notes they took during the day. Developing this kind of system is the end goal of this stage, as it will greatly affect the number and efficiency of tasks you are able to carry out throughout the day.
Step 5: Time management and multitasking.
If you’ve done everything in the previous steps but nothing else, you’ll most likely end up at the stage where you get things done at a better rate than before, but still feel like you’re not that effective. You might think that there’s a missing piece of the puzzle. You would be correct. That piece is time.
Assigning each task a time estimate for completion once started is absolutely necessary. This will help you manage your time more efficiently, by putting a timer on every task during which everything else goes out the window. You’ll need to absolutely abandon the illusion of multitasking during this stage.
Multitasking isn’t the ability to focus on multiple things at once, human psychology teaches us that is impossible. True multitasking is the ability to quickly switch focus from one thing to another in a seamless transition. While it might seem counterintuitive, this is true focus mastery and what you should aim for. But how do you get here?
First thing is to learn to say no to distraction. Either by blocking off time off your calendar or by telling people a firm “No.” when trying to distract you, make sure once the task scheduled comes next, you focus 100% on it. Nothing else should exist for you besides the task for that given time.
Make sure to also plan breaks. By asking for more from your mind through these periods of time when you’ll be concentrating intensely on a singular purpose, you’ll also tire more. While before you could’ve been fine with a full workday with no breaks, now you need to be as serious about your breaks as about any tasks on your list. Focus on not focusing, on relaxing your mind to be ready for the next task.
Self-development takes time. True mastery will probably take you your whole life (or just 10 years by following the 10,000 hours principle), but you’ll receive immediate returns on your investment of time and effort. You can easily track this by comparing what was planned versus what was done. If you see the result is at least 70%, you can consider this ideal.
Another counterintuitive consideration is that we can never reach 100% planning. This is impossible due to the randomness of life. Everything from a doctor’s appointment to an accident, things will pull you in different directions without you being able to always say “No.”. But if you look back and see you’ve managed to do what you planned roughly 70% of the time, then you can consider yourself a good planner.