How to plan effectively

Bijgewerkt: mei 25

This is part 2 of our 4 part series on productivity. To read the rest of the articles click the links below:


Introduction

Part 1: Productive Environment

Part 2: How to plan effectively

Part 3: Lifestyle

Part 4: Psyche


Effective planning

When looking to increase your productivity it is very likely that you will pay attention to your planning. We probably won’t be surprising anyone when we say that having a proper planning (and generally sticking to it!) can have a tremendous impact on your productive output.

But, not only will you become more productive: having a proper planning can actually have a measurable effect on your stress-level and general well-being. Research has shown that people that plan effectively experience lower levels of stress, sleep better, feel less anxious and are more confident in the tasks they have to perform. The science is clear: Proper Planning Pays! [1] [2]

But, as most of us will know, making a proper planning is much easier said than done. It requires a large amount of consistency and discipline to keep your planning up to date and to hold yourself accountable.

Add to that the ever-increasing amount of tools, methods and apps that are entering the market and it is not surprising that you can be easily overwhelmed. You might be wondering: Where do I start? What methods work best? How do I tie long term and short-term planning together? What do I do when my planning is suddenly changed?

This article will help you understand how to plan effectively. We will share information on the three most important components of effective planning and give you useful tools, methods and apps for each one so you can truly utilise planning to help you become more productive.



How do I plan productively?

Not all plannings are created equal. Some work like a charm while others fail horribly. Why is that? What is considered effective planning? When do you know when a planning is ‘good’ and when do you know when a planning is ‘bad’?

To help you make your planning as productive as possible, we have defined the three most important components of planning for productivity. If you fail to incorporate these three elements you greatly increase the odds that it will not work out. If you do incorporate them, your planning will be able to serve you, instead of causing you headaches.

That said, the three most important components of any planning are the following:

  1. Targets

  2. Tasks

  3. Time

Your targets are synchronous to your goals - what is it that you want to achieve?

Your tasks are the lifeblood of achieving your targets - what do you have to do to achieve them?

Your time is your most valuable asset - how much time will it take you to perform the tasks required to achieve your goals, and in what order will the tasks need to be performed?

Each of these components requires further elaboration, so let’s get right into it.



How to set effective goals

Defining your targets is the first step that you have to take when you want to plan effectively; if you don’t know what it is you are trying to achieve it is almost impossible to figure out how. (we will talk about knowing your why in a later article).

Having clear goals helps you remain focused on the medium to long term and gives context to tasks that are performed in the short term, making it easier to muster up the willpower needed to do them.

But, setting targets (or goals) effectively is not as easy as it might seem. Saying ‘I want to have a lot of money’ is not an effective target. Saying ‘I want to be a millionaire’ is already better, as there is now a quantifiable measure of success. Still, the goal is too vague. Saying ‘I want to have a million dollars in my retirement fund before the age of 45’ is a much better goal, as most people would agree. The way you formulate your goals can be of great help in actually achieving them.

A popular method to formulate goals more effectively is the SMART method [3]. This method instructs you to define goals in a way that makes them:

Specific - Be precise in what it is you want to achieve

Measurable - Make your achievement measurable (1 million vs. ‘rich’)

Attainable - Be ambitious but don’t set goals you won’t be able to accomplish

Relevant - Make sure the goal is actually meaningful to YOU

Timely - Set a deadline on achieving the goal

Many have appraised its usefulness throughout the years. While it is undeniably valuable, this method is probably not new for most readers. Some of you -if not most- have probably tried it, with varying degrees of success. What most people don’t realise is that effective goal setting should consider another very important thing.

That thing, much less glamorous, is an integral part of goal setting: what kind of suffering are you willing to endure? Setting big and fancy goals is fun but putting in the work is much less appealing than fantasizing about a desirable outcome. Setting goals that you are not willing to work for is like buying lottery tickets to try to get rich: it gives you temporary relief but the odds of anything actually happening are very slim. The truth of the matter is that adversity is an unavoidable part of achievement; It took 11 Apollo missions before humanity first set foot on the moon. On the first try three astronauts tragically lost their lives; Steve Jobs was kicked out of his own company and saw his next business on the verge of bankruptcy, before being reinstated as Apple’s CEO and obtaining superstar-like fame in the business world; It is often reported that Elon Musk sleeps on the factory floor and works 100-120 hour weeks when production of Tesla’s electric vehicles faces difficulty. The cars don’t make themselves. Results don’t come without suffering. Mark Manson’s book ‘The subtle art of not giving a fuck’ handles this topic very well.

For every goal you set for yourself, ask yourself the question: what kind of suffering will I need to endure to achieve this goal? What kind of hardships can I expect when I pursue this goal? Only when you accept the work that has to go into hitting the targets that you’ve set out for yourself is when a target becomes effective - you now have a well formulated goal (e.g. SMART) and you know that you are prepared to put in the work necessary to achieve it [4].

But, this is not the last step of setting effective goals. There is one more important part of making sure you actually achieve your goals: setting effective sub-goals. Setting smaller goals for yourself that are achievable within a shorter timeframe than the main goal will provide motivation and keep you on track [5]. It is much easier to perform a task when you can put it in a context where it contributes to the main goal, even if indirectly.

Effective goal setting can therefore be looked at as a hierarchy of interconnected goals. The longer the timeframe for the main goal, the more layers of sub-goals you will have to formulate for yourself. For example: Your main goal has a timeframe of one year. You can divide this goal into 4 quarterly goals. You can further divide these quarterly goals into monthly goals, and these monthly goals into weekly goals. Doing this allows you to remain focused on the tasks that contribute most to achieving your goal at that moment. It provides you with motivation to perform tasks that don’t seem to contribute to the goal directly by allowing you to see the indirect value they bring.

Integrating the three aspects that we have discussed will drastically improve the effectiveness of your planning. Of course, not all people like or want to go this deep into their planning. We recommend you take the tools that bring you the most value and find a clever way to adapt it to your situation.

In summary:

● Set SMART Goals (or any other method of precise formulation)

● Be aware of (and accept) the necessary suffering to achieve the goal

● Set smaller sub-goals that provide context and motivation for short-term work

Applied to a possible situation this can look like the following:

SMART Goal

= I want to sell out a performance with at least 200 attendees for a concert where I will be performing my own album within the next 4 years

Necessary suffering

= I will have to practice my craft for at least two hours every day

= I will have to do a lot of research on the music industry to figure out what the best practices are

= I will have to skip a lot of nights out to stick to my routine of practicing every morning

= I will face a lot of financial insecurities because I won’t be earning money in the time I spend practicing

Sub-goals

  1. Create an EP with at least 5 tracks within the next year

  2. Perform my EP for 75 people within the next 2 years

  3. Create an album with at least 10 tracks on it within the next 3 years

After you’ve gone through these steps it is time to move on to the next topic; what are the tasks that I need to perform to achieve this goal?


Task management for productivity

With your goals set you know what it is you want to achieve. The necessary next step is to define how you’re going to achieve it. This is where task management comes into play. Having a proper task management system provides a host of benefits. It can help you organize your work, helps others to collaborate on things you’re working on, it helps you prioritize the most important tasks, it reduces your stress levels and it helps you remain focused for longer. At the end of this chapter we will share with you some effective task management systems, so be sure to keep reading.

Task management refers to everything you need to do to make sure you:

  1. Have insight into the tasks you need to perform (Capture)

  2. Know which tasks matter most (Prioritize)

  3. Know how far along you are on your tasks (Track)

Inspiration and insights often come when you least expect them. You might be in the middle of a discussion when you realise there is an important task you need to do. Or you might be in the shower when you have a valuable idea that can contribute to achieving your goal. At these times it is important to make sure that your tasks management system allows you to easily capture those thoughts so you can retrieve them for later use. David Allen mentions this in his book ‘Getting Things Done’: ‘’Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them’’. What this means is that you need to have a task management system that allows you to easily capture your thoughts when they occur. This prevents them from slipping through the cracks and you forgetting about them.

To give you an example: At BeMore we use Trello as our task management system. To make sure that I never miss any important tasks or ideas that occur to me I made it as easy as I could to capture my thoughts directly into Trello. I did this by adding shortcuts to my trello boards on the home screen of my phone. I also have Trello open at all times on my laptop. Like a true millennial you will rarely find me without my laptop or phone, so this allows me to capture my thoughts and tasks directly into my task management system with relative ease.

After you’ve captured and collected all the tasks that you think can contribute towards achieving your goal it is time to start prioritizing them. There are different methods you can utilize to figure out which tasks matter most.

The first method is the application of the Pareto Principle, also known as the law of the vital few [6]. This law states that for many events, 80% of the results come from 20% of the causes. What this means for your task management is that there are some tasks that are significantly more valuable than others. Identify those tasks and give them a visible marker of their priority so you know what you need to get done first. For example, when building and designing a website there are many things you have to take into account. Colors, fonts, layout, responsiveness and text are just a few things that are important to work on. However, when your website is still completely dysfunctional on mobile devices, it might be best to focus on fixing that before you focus on choosing the prettiest font or color combination. 20% of the work will provide 80% of the results.

Another method you can use to prioritize tasks is called the Eisenhower Matrix [7]. This is a model that forces you to rate tasks on two dimensions: urgency and importance. Out of these two dimensions come four quadrants:


  1. Important and urgent (DO)

  2. Non-important and urgent (DELEGATE)

  3. Important but not urgent (SCHEDULE)

  4. Non-important and not urgent (ELIMINATE)

This matrix forces you to take an honest look at your tasks and helps you focus only on the things that actually contribute the most value. Draw out this matrix when you ever feel lost and you will find that there are a few tasks that are significantly more valuable than others.

Once you’ve got your tasks down, it’s time to integrate the last part of effective planning: the time needed and the order of execution for different tasks.



Time management for productivity

When you’ve effectively set your goals and figured out what the necessary tasks are that you need to execute on there is one last thing that requires attention: how long will the tasks take, and in what order do I need to execute on them? These pieces of information will allow you to effectively schedule time in your day to work on certain tasks. If you know you have a 1-hour commute or gap between classes, you can make sure you use that time for a task or set of tasks that fit in that timeframe. The same goes for shorter windows of time, e.g. a 5-minute coffee break where you can send a quick email, or longer time slots like a 3-hour gap between meetings where you finish off a larger chunk of work.

Figuring out how long certain tasks are going to take is a process of trial and error that you will get better at the more you practice it. Start off by jotting down the time you think a task will take right next to the task on paper, or in the description when working with software. Estimates might be off at first, but you will get better over time. If you want to make your time tracking abilities even better, you could opt for using a timer. Both physical or software based (e.g. TimerBit) will allow you to track time spent on activities by the second. Below is an image of what that could look like.


The second part of time-management is knowing in what order different (groups of) tasks need to be performed. Some things can only be done when another task has already been completed. To give you an example: before we can publish this article, we need to have a functional website that allows us to host the articles online. It would make sense to focus our efforts and energy into making sure the website is functional before we spend a lot of time writing an article (that we then wouldn't be able to publish). Knowing what the interdependence is of the tasks you need to complete helps you achieve things in the most time-efficient manner possible.

One of the easiest and most efficient ways to help you understand this task-interdependence is by making a gantt-chart. A gantt chart is a tool that shows a horizontal timeline in which you place (sets of) tasks in their chronological order. It also allows you to have multiple (sets of) tasks running concurrently and gives you a global overview of the things that should be worked on at any given time. The picture below is a good example.


Making a Gantt chart for your own activities can be of great value because it shows you when you should be starting, working and finishing up groups of tasks.


Conclusion

Effective planning is an integral part of increasing your productivity. But, as most will know, planning effectively is much easier said than done. This article explained the building blocks that every planning needs to implement and gave some examples of tools, methods and software that you could use to do just that.

We saw that an effective planning takes three important things into account:

  1. Targets - What is my goal?

  2. Tasks - What do I need to do to achieve that?

  3. Time - How long do tasks take and in what order do I complete them?

Setting effective goals is the first step in making your planning work for you. What is it that you want to achieve? A very effective method of formulating goals is the SMART method. It forces you to be precise in your formulation and increases accountability. Another part of setting goals is realising the suffering and sacrifices that will have to be made to achieve the goal. Be realistic about the challenges and accept them if you want to succeed. The last part of setting goals is breaking large goals down into smaller goals. This provides context for short term work and increases motivation.

When you’ve set your goals, it’s time to figure out what the tasks are that need to be completed to achieve the goal. We discussed the importance of making it easy to capture tasks into your task-management system, prioritizing them and estimating the time you will be spending on them. Some tools that can be helpful for this are Trello, Asana, Todoist and TimeBit. After doing this there is just one more step: figuring out the interdependence of different (groups of) tasks. An excellent way to do this is by making a Gantt-chart. This gives you a birds eye view of your work and grants insight into what you need to be doing at any given time.

Integrating all these things into your planning will make sure that your planning works for you instead of against you.

What piece of information was most valuable to you? Let us know in the comments!

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