I know better than to try to set resolutions this time of year. Also, after 2017, there’s a bit of a grim “batten down the hatches” attitude. In all honesty, there’s a part of me that looks at 2018 with a level of gibbering fear that has nothing to do with politics or climate. I’ve simply got three Very Big Projects coming up Very Soon, along with multiple smaller ones. The potential to have them all come Crashing Down Disastrously is enough to merit Random Capital Letters.
One of the ways I confront this paralyzing anxiety is to set up a schedule. Lists! Daily charts! Zero-based calendars! These provide a comforting, if illusory, sense of control and of forward progress.
Here are three very different daily planning methods that I’m considering trying for the month of January. You may find one here that appeals to you, or they may just seem like too much work. However, there’s a good point of doing what is known in some productivity circles of “fake work”. It’s not really fake – because it is work – but it’s the kind of work that creatives don’t get paid for. It’s taking the time to sit and plan out the day, taking a look at big picture next-steps and the like.
One thing you’ll notice about all three of these: they are not apps. In fact, the closest they get to digital is the occasional download. Why? Well, for one thing, I like my notebooks. For another, the calendar on the phone or the computer is more like a clock than a planning device for me. Useful for an alarm, but when I’m looking at the structure of the things that I want to get done, I can picture it better when it’s paper and pen.
The When Daily Planner:
I’m a little fanboyish about Daniel Pink; his earlier books like Drive and To Sell is Human I found valuable and fascinating. It’s no surprise that I’ve pre-ordered his next book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, because I’m a sucker for click-bait titles. Along with the pre-order you can get a nifty little pack of goodies, including planning sheets and a brief explanatory preview of what’s in the book.
It’s not your normal schedule – there’s no hourly set, but instead a Peak, Trough, and Recovery time, along with two Break times. There’s a little math you do based on sleep patterns that figures out what hours during your workday fit each of those categories.
You then are asked to divide up your daily tasks into three categories as well: Analytic, Insight, and Administrative. These match up to the times: analytic tasks to peak times, for example. And there you have it – a schedule of what to do when, during your day, based not on arbitrary Taylorist numbers but rather on your own particular work rhythms.
He also stresses that breaks are really important, and so there is space not just to schedule them but also to write down what you’re going to do. Sketch. Walk to get the mail. Juggle. Yoga (ugh).
Finally, in a part that is reflective of 5-Minute Journaling, he suggests you end by listing “3 Things I Got Done Today.” This is especially appealing if you are like me and have a hard time recognizing the things you’ve done sitting in the shadow of all the things you have yet to do. Having those three things – even if they are as simple as “I took both my breaks – can be the difference between waking and sleep when it’s time for bed.
Daily Momentum Planner
This planner also appeals because it is designed for Creatives. I’ve long chafed under any schedule that is task rather than project-based, and that’s a weakness, not a strength. The Momentum planning sheets from Productive Flourishing are designed around people like me, who would rather focus on “Today’s Projects” than hourly events. In fact, the “Scheduled Events” section is almost the smallest part of the sheet. Instead, the majority of the space is for “Supporting Tasks” (the things you know you need to do for projects) as well as “Emergent Tasks” (the things that pop up, aka “shit happens”).
With all this, you also do some energy level tracking so that you can see when you are tired of a certain task — which may mean to do it first thing, to get it over with, or after a nap so your mind is clear, or may mean that’s the time for the jolt of coffee or a quick workout to get the blood flowing.
While the daily planner is what I’m focusing on here, there’s a whole host of resources on the website, such as monthly planners, daily habit trackers, etc. If you clicked on that link, it took you to their newsletter signup page; yep, you do have to give them an email to get access to the downloads. However, there is a hidden bonus: everything is free. That’s right, every month they publish a new bunch of resources that you can use for free. Sure, they also sell a bigger package, but that’s only if you want to throw them a few bucks – less than a movie.
There are two downsides I can see to this: one, if you’re a big fan of pretty layouts and fancy lettering and BUJOesque fanciness, this is not the planner for you. It’s a gridwork of blanks to fill out, basically. Two, because this does not come bound in a book, it means you have a lot of loose papers, or a three-ring binder. It may be possible to spiral-bind them, but I am certain that the lack of a bound journal will be felt as I try this one out.
While Bullet Journaling is based around lists, there’s another way of visualizing it that’s a bit more unusual. It’s based on radial planning, whether that’s for a day, for a month, or even a year. Rather than a linear list, you’re given circles to fill in the blanks. As you can see, it can be combined with lists, and either made all pretty with colors or just left as lines (I particularly like the “DO ALL THE STUFF!” battle cry on the example page).
Obviously you can draw your own circles, but there’s a thriving online business community of downloadable templates if you don’t feel like trying to divide the circle into 31, 30, or 28 segments for your monthly work.
Why would this appeal? Well, I’m someone who gets a jolt of energy out of re-arranging things (probably part of why Natasha and I threw away our couch today). Looking at my day as a circle rather than a list changes things up. There’s also something to reminding ourselves that we are in cyclical lives, not linear; the ending of one day is the beginning of the next.
Also, hey, it was good enough for the Mayans, it’s good enough for me.
There you have it! What kind of planners are you using in 2018? Let us know in the comments — we’ll be coming back to this again at the end of the year.
We are not good at planning.
I mean any kind of planning. Ask for any soldier’s list of favorite quotes about war, and odds are one of the top three is some variation of the phrase “No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy.” (If you want to look brainy, when someone tries to tell you that Colin Powell or George S. Patton or John Wick said that, you can inform them it was actually Helmuth von Moltke the Elder).
There are many other versions of this sentiment:
Life is what happens to us when we’re busy making other plans – Allen Saunders
The best-laid plans of mice and men aft gang agley – Robert Frost
Shit happens. – Forrest Gump
So if we know this — if this has been enshrined in multiple tomes of wisdom and situations where lives were at stake based on how well people who were only job is to strategize make their plan — why do we give ourselves such a hard time when we can’t finish a to-do list?
The Map is Not the Territory
Here’s a test for you — really, for just about any of you:
Draw, from memory, a map to my house.
Some of you know where I live, and might even be able to remember the building and apartment number. A few will remember the street, but likely not the cross street. Some know what part of Madison, WI, I live in, and most likely are going “Wisconsin? People live there?”
Now here’s the question: how critical should I be of your map? Should I tell you you’re no good at map making? Really, directions obviously aren’t your forte – and I’m certainly going to caution anyone from traveling with you if you’re in charge of navigation.
Ridiculous, right? And yet that’s what happens with a schedule and a to-do list. We are drawing a map of a place we’ve never been: the Future. What’s more, nobody else has ever been there, either — so really, what you have is a bunch of people using a map they made up about a place they’ve never been, often depending on other people’s maps to get where they want to go.
When you look at it that way, it’s miraculous that anybody ever accomplishes anything.
Don’t Get Better at Planning; Get Better at Living
This is not going to end with me telling you how to be a better planner. I mean, I have lots of ideas (ok, a hint: plan fewer things).
That’s not the point, though. At any time your plan for tomorrow can be derailed, whether it’s meticulous or just a scrawled “Do some stuff”. The point is to remember: your schedule is your imagined life. What happens is your life.
That means that if things don’t go according to schedule, that just means the plan wasn’t accurate, not that you lived your life wrong.
Just because it’s not accurate doesn’t mean it’s not useful. Plans can be statements of intention; they can show where your values are; they can be inspiring and comforting and a useful tool when you’re faced with a What do I do now?
Using them as a tool for criticism, though? Not terribly useful. Use your plans as allies, not prison guards. The world is cruel enough without you adding to it.
And let me know what you plan, and how that helps you!
I remember when I was talking with my lawyer (who had also been my best friend all through high school) about starting a business. He patiently explained to my non-business brain about the differences between Limited Liability Companies and Sole Proprietorships and the like, and listened patiently as I explained what I was hoping to do with my company. His official advice was “Yep, you should form an LLC.”
At least, that’s what I remember hearing. So I went home, went online, and found out how to establish an LLC with a few minor clicks of the mouse. Then I called him back. “Ok, I formed the LLC,” I said. “What’s the next step?”
“You what?” I remember him answering. Apparently what he had meant when he said “You should form an LLC” was “We should plan out what it would look like, investigate the best places to incorporate, come up with a business plan, and then file the papers.” I had skipped a few steps.
Learning curves are quite an experience, especially when the curve is based on “support your family.” Ah, those were some wild times…the point is to illustrate that I am really good at jumping off a cliff and building a plane (or a parachute, or a landing cushion, or even learning to fly) on the way down. I’m a big fan of “damn the torpedoes – full speed ahead!” or the more recent Star Wars version: “Never tell me the odds!“
In a lot of ways, this has been a character strength for me. It’s led to many wonderful and beneficial experiences, including this blog; conceived in a laudromat in Amsterdam by me and my friend Erik, it launched shortly after and has been going ever since. At an average of about 900 words per post, about 150 posts per year, that works out to over 400,000 words written in three years (plus a podcast that’s approaching the one-year anniversary). All without planning more than “I’ll write about practice, and life, and love…”
The Limits of Spontaneity
Over the past three months I’ve been doing an experiment: T. Harv Eker’s Life Makeover Coaching program. It’s a weekly conference call with his certified coaches and a monthly lecture by him. I won’t give away the entire program – that would be unethical. I can refer you to his interview with James Altucher if you’d like to know what I heard that made me want to try it. The truth is, I can’t really recommend it, because even the initial interview used high-pressure sales techniques to get people (myself included) to buy. To be completely honest, part of why I joined was out of admiration for the slick way he used the techniques of the “sales funnel” to get people to join (and make it difficult to cancel). The more I dig into the organization, the more it feels like a carnival barker trying to sell magic ointment. It may be simply that I’m not in the target demographic, it may just be (as they imply) that I’m “just not ready” to succeed, but I am canceling my involvement with them as of August (the final billing for the initial program).
At the same time, the last three months have been absolutely game-changing. I’ve written a book, improved my health, built a bike with my own two hands, severed business ties that were draining and created new ones that have given me amazing new opportunities. I’ve vacationed on the coast, I’ve improved my personal relationships, and in general I feel more in control of my life.
The question is: why? What is it about his system that has given me this new super power of making things happen? What is the ingredient in the snake oil that actually is making me feel better?
The answer – the one thing that I’m seeing myself do with the program that I didn’t do before – lies in planning. A good deal of the program is spent thinking about the big picture and then distilling it down into actionable items. Now, my spontaneous practice does that to – in fact, I’ve often described it as “Don’t look at where you’re going. Just do the Next Right Thing, and trust that where you end up will be a good place.” It’s worked pretty well – I’m in a very good place.
But with a little more planning – and I’m talking one hour a week, if even that – I’ve gotten more of what I wanted in the past three months than in the previous three years.
Now my goal is to learn to integrate that planning into my routine without needing the sales funnel pitch. Take away the parts I still need, leave the parts that don’t serve or resonate. How about you? Do you take time to plan and act? I know many people who have the opposite habit that I do: they plan and plan and dream and dream but never actually take action. That’s likely the subject for a different post.
Plans and dreams. Hopes and schemes. What are yours?
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
There’s a great podcast out from the Guardian’s Science Weekly where psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer talks about risk. He makes the point over and over again that first, people spend a lot of time worrying about the wrong risks, and second, even the ones we should worry about are just about impossible to predict.
I’d like you to try and remember that as you go through this next step in the Defining Moment process. You see, now that we have an action plan of getting what we want, it’s time to figure out what are the risks of actually putting it into action.
What if I wrote a novel and nobody read?
We can still use my own D.M. to show this process. What could be the results of actually writing that book so that the person in the bookstore could pick it up? In no particular order,
- I could go broke because writing kept me from a “real” job
- I could lose touch with family and friends because I’m writing/talking about the writing all the time.
- I might get carpal tunnel syndrome from too much typing.
- I might forget to bathe, contract a skin-eating algae, and die in a puddle of green goo still trying to fix that one verdammt paragraph.
But don’t stop there. Write about the “good” outcomes as well, and extrapolate them. Maybe I write the book, and it becomes a bestseller, and I become the next Stephen King! But then he got his dream house, and ended up getting run over…but that gave him a better perspective for finishing The Gunslinger saga…but that is something he’ll likely never trump, so it perhaps means the end of his epics…
See what I mean? Try to think of all the possible results. Don’t worry about how to deal with them-as much as possible, anyway. I know that for everything you put down your brain will say one of two things: “Well, that’s not very likely!” or “Well, if that happens, then I’ll…”
We can’t help it. We make plans, and a good portion of what seems to be “people handling stress well” is more “people prepared to handle stress.” Creating this fun Risk List conditions your mind not only to anticipate outcomes but also automatically starts you out on how to solve them.
Prepare to be Surprised
Just don’t forget that second principle: life is inherently unpredictable, from the flip of a coin to the stock market. What that exercise in coming up with the risks of attempting your Defining Moment Action Plan is doing is conditioning your brain to handle new results…and that increases your resilience when that thing that you weren’t expecting happens. Next week we’ll take a look at the strategies that can help you when that happens.
The list is also going to come in handy after you take action, as a possibly entertaining look at how different reality can be from what we plan.
“No kidding, there I was…”
I was lucky enough to spend the weekend at a retreat in Indeana with a few other performance art enthusiasts, including a very dear friend of mine from New York. He was talking about a recent show he did:
I really thought that was it – the best show I’d ever done, the most perfect expression of my art. It wasn’t until I got offstage that I thought of a couple of things that didn’t go the way I planned, two places where I’d done it wrong…
I looked at him and blurted out: “What if you did it right, but actually planned it wrong?“
You Are Your Own Worst Back-Seat Driver
It’s not as though this was something that I’ve always known – it took hearing him say it in that way to make me realize it. When we are making plans, we are doing our best to predict variables that are, by their very name, unpredictable. Life doesn’t work like the old Mission: Impossible TV show, with every tiny step leading inexorably to the pre-planned goal. Life is messy.
It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plan – it means that you should plan for everything, including the chance that things will happen that you haven’t planned for. There’s a strategy for that (OODA) which I’ll talk about next Monday. Right now, though, I want to talk about that evil version of yourself.
It’s the version of yourself that looks life and thinks that what happened should have matched what was planned rather than vice versa. It applies to more than performances; it applies to your entire life. I could sit here and look at how my career is nothing like the Web Design Entrepreneur plan, the Video Engineer plan, the Dance Technology plan, the Music Teacher plan, the Insurance Agent plan, the Emergency Medical Technician plan, the Career Marine plan, the Broadway Dancer plan, or even the Firefighter or Astronaut plan.
Should I really beat myself up because the plan that I came up with when I was 14 years old to get a senatorial recommendation to West Point didn’t work out that way? Was there any way anyone then could have predicted the variables, from the worldwide political landscape to the functioning of my thyroid gland?
More to the point, if I’m currently doing work that is meaningful and enjoyable to me, that provides me time to pursue other goals like family, friends, and movies, why would that be considered wrong?
It seems to me that if there’s anything that was “wrong” (such an unfortunate label) then it was the plan itself. That’s not really fair to the planner, though – would you let a 14 year old boy plan out the rest of your life? Why should the Published Novelist plan be any more accurate? It’s fine to have goals – but it’s not ok to beat myself up if life gets in the way.
There’s an old Zen adage: “Loose the arrow. What it hits, you call the target.”
Are you beating yourself up about plans that didn’t go right? Maybe it’s time to let that go, and look at it as practice for making better plans instead.
Do What You Love, and…
While it’s very exciting that the Defining Moment series has come about, I don’t want to give anyone the impression that it’s meant to change your life. It might – it has for some – but that’s not what it’s for. It’s for moments. Parts of a life, times that nourish and inspire and provide the framework for the rest of the parts.
I don’t mean to say you can’t, or shouldn’t, love your job. Only that love is a feeling and a shaky foundation for a career. You don’t feel love after a seventy hour work week, when a stranger tears you to shreds on Yelp, or after losing everything in a power outage. If love’s the only fuel you’ve got, those moments will defeat you. When I get to the restaurant to face some fresh disaster, my love for homemade sprinkles doesn’t well up inside and lift me above the fray. What gets me through is an ability to set my emotions aside and say, “I don’t mind.”
That’s a short excerpt from the excellent post by BraveTart.
In fact, I’m not even going to write much more about it. Go read her post instead.
Back Already? Didn’t you Love it?The part that I think hit me the hardest was the bit about finding an environment where you can thrive. It’s one of the hardest and most important things to understand about love of any kind: it comes at a price. Hopefully that price is understood, and hopefully it’s compensated by the benefits of loving.
But if that’s not the case…then there is the possibility that love is not only not all you need, but it may be exactly what you don’t need. It may be that you need to create an environment where you can thrive – and have the resources to meet the price of love – before you are really ready to welcome it into your life.
I know. Heretical thoughts for our “Love is the answer” culture. Believe me, I’m the poster boy for “All for love!” I love a good romance as much as the next guy. Especially if there are swords and horses involved.
But the truth is, love untrammeled can be more destructive than anything. Troy? Camelot? Les Miserables? The Clinton Administration? Ted Haggard?
Trammel that puppy, already. Make a home for your love, and then invite it in knowing it will have a place to flourish and grow.