Writing my latest blog post on daily planning as part of the broader Agile product development plan got me reflecting on some of my own planning tools and techniques. I wanted to share some of those thoughts here.
First of all I should acknowledge that I am a huge fan of planning. I’ve found both personally and professionally that success and effectiveness are rarely stumbled upon; pursuing them takes conscious effort and part of that effort involves planning. Yogi Berra once observed that, “If you don’t know where you’re going you might not get there.” Planning entails deciding where you are heading and determining what steps are likely to get you there.
For me daily planning starts with a wider context of knowing my goals and having a sense of purpose. Those of you who read this blog regularly know I am a huge fan of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (see my summary of these seven habits here). From Covey’s book I take the notion that you have to ‘begin with the end in mind’ before you can ‘put first things first;’ it’s important to know what you are pursuing in every area of your life before you can effectively articulate strategies for achieving your goals. These strategies then translate into plans with weekly and daily increments. That might sound like a lot of preliminary work before getting down to practical daily planning, but for me at least having this broader context helps insure my daily plans are taking me in the right direction instead of simply helping me get to the wrong place more quickly.
I like to start my planning early. Over the weekend I begin to plan the week ahead, and each night before bed I look at my calendar for the next day to make plans about when I will accomplish the key tasks in my day. Even though much of my life as a parent and a professional is by nature reactive – responding to the demands that other people put on my time – I still try to schedule my priorities rather than simply prioritizing my schedule; I consciously block out times on my calendar to get done the most important things knowing that some of my time will be grabbed by other people or unforeseen circumstances.
In addition to starting with a broader context of life goals and reviewing my daily and weekly calendars in advance to make sure I block out time for key tasks, I have also found using a personal Kanban board very helpful. I use KanbanFlow (KanbanFlow.com) to create a board that tracks tasks that I am waiting to schedule, those on my plate for the week, those I am doing on a given day, and those I am actively working on to keep a readily available picture of my plans and progress. The board is a great way for me to note things I know I have to get done at some point and to stay focused on moving forward with the most important tasks in my day.
The tools I use are often most valuable when I feel least like using them: when I am extremely busy and don’t have time to plan or when I have only longer term projects to chip away at and feel a correspondingly reduced pressure to plan well. In the former case I am running reactively between multiple competing tasks and struggle to do much planning in the midst of this chaos; here the fact that I try to plan before even coming to work usually helps me keep my head above water but at times some important things slip as I scurry about fighting fires. In the latter case, when I have no urgent matters clamoring for attention and only long-term projects to work on, it can be easy to get distracted by less important items; here it helps if I have taken some of the bigger projects on my personal Kanban board and broken them into smaller tasks so I can plan to work on steps toward these larger goals.
In spite of my best efforts and intentions for planning, life remains unpredictable. Sometimes my well-planned days get completely derailed by unexpected events at work or at home or by unanticipated opportunities to pursue bigger goals that suddenly appear. Planning my weeks and my days provides some basic scaffolding to support the shape I want my life to take, even when I have to adjust or abandon my daily plans in the face of life’s intrusions. Drifting through life at the mercy of other people’s plans and priorities offers less satisfaction than struggling to pursue what matters to me, but I know that on many of my busiest days I have to admit that in truth it’s not that simple.