5 situations when ‘Planning by Chatting’ is an effective technique

Green dense forest with a rough path into the distance on the left side

I’m currently setting up a Learning Hub for La Trobe to bring together all the learning support across 6 campuses, and then doing the same for our online learning support. It’s pretty massive, but it also means I’ve been talking to new staff. One person talked about ‘planning by chatting’, which is an idea I loved. Thank you Dr Kim!

Planning is an essential stage in any project, and particularly useful in a PhD thesis. I usually think of it as part of the Think stage of my writing cycle but it is also significant in the Structural Edit stage with strategies like Tiny Texts or Reverse Outlines.  A lot of the ways we (and I on this blog) think about planning involve lists, charts or maps. I also think about planning in travel metaphors like journeys. Finally, many of my planning techniques involve writing–like narrative outlines , generative writing, and terrible first drafts.

However, there are other ways of planning that are more flexible, and more interactive. Planning by drawing up a Gantt chart can be an excellent mode, but it doesn’t always help you get where you need to go. Sometimes it’s better to plan by mulling it over, sleeping on it, or by chatting to a friend or colleague (or to yourself). 

Planning by chatting is a great strategy for particular stages of a project.

  • When you are trying to find words for what the issue is. 
    Chatting is a fantastic way to move from ‘I have a vague feeling / hunch / niggle that something is going on here’ to ‘this is what I’m going to call it so I can do research and start writing about it.’
  • When you need to problem solve.
    Workshopping your responses to a problem can be a great way to quickly identify, try out and discard multiple approaches to the issue. Each approach is a mini-plan, and in a half-hour coffee catch up you can throw out a range of them and see if any are useful.
  • When the plan needs to involve other people.
    Planning by chatting with your co-authors, research team or supervisors is basically brainstorming collaboratively and negotiating proposals. It’s an informal, open-ended and egalitarian mode of communication, so it works really well for early stages of a project, or any project where you are all on the same page.
  • When you think best by externally processing.
    Some people process information best by speaking and listening, and find thinking out loud is useful. (This research shows that whether that is true for you is likely to be reflective of your cultural training, and other research suggests it varies according to people’s personality so your mileage may vary!)
  • When it helps to keep the plan loose and open.
    In web design, we often sketch things by hand, or use post-it notes on a wall, as a way of keeping the plan from looking too finished and thus getting ‘set’ too early in a project. Sometimes a really polished looking plan gets in the way of your writing because it didn’t leave enough space for your thinking to evolve as you work through it.

So there you go, 5 different situations when using the technique ‘planning by chatting’ might be the most effective way to plan. 

I also love to have names for things we do anyway. Researchers sometimes discount important work because it’s ‘just thinking’, or ‘just chatting’–but a good plan that came out of a productive chat is as good as a plan that looks like a list or a calendar, though often they are good for different parts of the project!

You can’t chat, or plan, forever. But a good chat and a good plan help you move through writing your first draft, structuring or rewriting it, getting it all polished up, accepting feedback and working towards a final public piece of work!

Do you like to plan by chatting? Do you have another word for it? I’d love to hear about it!


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Doing a Research Higher Degree (like a PhD) is hard, but lots of people have succeeded and you can too. It’s easier if you understand how it works, this blog gives you the insider view.


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