Planning vs. panic: 5 strategies for success

Someone whose work I really appreciate is Jo Van Every (@JoVanEvery). She has written a lot of blog posts (for example Juggling 101: Elements of a good plan), and is now putting out a selection of tiny short guides on Scholarly Writing. I’m a real fan of these: her advice marries practical steps with room for creativity. This post was supposed to be a review (the books are great, go read them and use them!) but I found that actually I was more inspired to have a conversation with them–which means building on their ideas. In this post, I’m going to jump off from some of Jo’s ideas about planning from Finding Time for your Scholarly Writing and The Scholarly Writing Process

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Planning and pressure go hand in hand.

As Jo points out, a good plan often takes stress out of the situation:

  • it gives you a chance to control and prioritise in a situation, and be sure you will do what needs to be done.
  • making decisions is incredibly energy intensive, so having a plan means you’ve already made the decisions.
  • a good plan reduces the anxiety that you won’t have done enough or the right things by the end of the day.

However, plans also give us deadlines and key goals–there is a pressure to meet those goals and in those time frames. That means that plans can put stress in to the situation. When that is motivating, the pressure is a good thing. When it feeds into anxiety, or if the plans are set up in a way that means we keep failing, then the pressure is not a good thing!

Some people honestly love that last-minute panic feeling, just like some people like going on roller coasters. Other people find that much stress just makes them feel sick. Neither person is ‘right’ or ‘healthy’ or ‘successful’: we are who we are.

That’s why I have five levels of panic-inducing (or not!) strategies for planning. You can try each level out and find which one is right for you. Jo suggests you identify three levels of goal in Finding Time, as having a spectrum of successes is often more effective than a single strategy. You may also want to change things up from day to day: yesterday I was massively productive and today I’m feeling a bit tired, so my goal setting strategies might shift to match my energy.

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1. The lowest, least panic-inducing form of planning: the minimum viable action. 

If something is stressing you out, and just the thought of a plan or to-do list makes you anxious, don’t make a traditional plan. Instead, plan your single minimum viable action. (This is a term that lots of people are using online, but I don’t really like any of the examples enough to link to them, they are all not minimum enough.  Sorry!)

The single minimum viable action is the smallest, smallest thing you could do towards productivity. Rather than make your plan or goal the thing you want to achieve (such as ‘write 500 words’), you make the goal a tiny step on the way towards it (‘open the draft document’). If you regularly procrastinate to avoid a task, there will be many days you didn’t even get to the minimum viable action. If you have been burnt by over ambitious plans in the past, then the later strategies in this list might not be what you need right now. What you need is to feel like you can tick off a win. And if you have taken a step towards your goal, you haven’t taken a step backwards or run away!

When you are ready to step it up, use Charles Duhigg’s ‘power of habit’ strategy for a way to make the minimum viable action into a ‘cue’ to prompt more action.

2. The relatively easy form of planning: The base-line plan

The base-line plan is something that you know you can achieve if you actually turn up and do the work. For example, if I am ready to write, and sit down to do writing at a Shut Up and Write session, I know that I should get 400 words down in a Pomodoro. This is my number, it might not be yours! But if I don’t hit it, I have to ask if something is wrong. And likely it’s just that I’m not focusing enough and I’d better get on with it.

The base-line plan is the SMART goal: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-Bound. If ticking everything off your list at the end of the day is your top goal, make this your planning strategy.  Perfectionists SHOULD love this strategy, but they know it’s a base-line or minimum, and that can cut down on how much they enjoy it. So work out what’s right for you.

3. The ‘happy medium’ form of planning: room to grow and room to breathe

This is, of course, the ideal place to plan, the way you would plan if you did what all the planning advice told you to do. As Jo says, ‘It may be a bit of a stretch, but there is enough slack here for bad weeks.’

And it is a good way to plan, but this post is all about people who didn’t get what they needed from To-Do lists that actually work, How to plan your research days, Categorising the kinds of work you do, and Yet another to-do list blog.

4. The high intensity form of planning: The stretch plan

A stretch goal is one which, with some extra effort and good luck, you can still safely achieve. For example, in the writing example for strategy 2, I said 400 words is my base-line. I can write up to 600 words if things are really flowing, so it might be good to aim towards that. A stretch goal is one you can achieve by reaching out, not a goal requiring an over-reach.

I include ‘and good luck’ in stretch goals though, because a stretch goal is not only in your hands. You do need to bring your effort and focus, but other things also have to fall into place. The situation doesn’t need to be perfect, and you always will have to overcome a few niggles… but it has to be the right place, the right time, the right environment. This is why people typically write 5,000-20,000 words in a weekend at Thesis Boot Camp. A goal that would be ridiculously impossible and dangerous on a normal weekend, becomes achievable when everything aligns and the right support is there for you.

5. The impossible form of planning:  The ‘reach for the stars’ plan

This is the kind of plan that good planning advice tells you not to do. (Jo doesn’t agree with me that this is helpful to include (we talk online as well)–so if this one’s not helpful, it’s my fault!) It is the kind of plan recommended by problematic Instagram inspirational memes (though it turns out the one I was thinking of started on Facebook), or cheesy 2000s pop classics.

[I rewatched this video and… reaching for the stars means… strangers giving candy to a lot of primary school children and then leaving them stranded in the dessert in a cloud of purple dust? Not an ethical strategy to copy!]

So why do I put it on the list? Because, as I said earlier, “some people like going on roller coasters.” Planning is not just about what you get done, it’s about how it makes you feel. If avoiding stress is what you want to feel, then this is not the strategy for you. If heights and high speed and giddy turns and screaming and white knuckles is your idea of fun, you might like this kind of planning. 

The impossible plan is just that. You aim for something outrageous. Your to-do list is a wish list. Your goals are fantasies.

Remember though, that what you want to be doing is aiming high and getting stuff done and having a fun time. If you are beating yourself up for failing, then you aren’t doing it right.  You won’t make your fantasy goal, so you have to have had a good time, and been productive, and celebrate what you did do. Rollercoasters are scary, but they get shut down when they cause actual injuries. Shoot for the moon! Just have a well-made re-entry pod for when you miss. 

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None of these kinds of goals are the ‘right’ kind of goal. People respond to different kinds of goals for different kinds of projects at different stages of the project, and for different kinds of motivations. And, as Jo says, having more than one of these kinds of goals running at once can be useful, encouraging and productive. I personally have used every single one of these goal-setting strategies, and regularly switch between them–so I’d love to hear about what works for you and your strategies!

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These ideas are just a small sampling of the awesome advice in Jo’s books, Finding Time for your Scholarly Writing and The Scholarly Writing Process, which encourage you to think about how they will work for you, just like this post. Thanks Jo! 

I’ve been thinking about planning and stress for a long time now, so you might want to check some of the other posts out: here here or here or use the search bar at the bottom of the page to search for ‘stress’. I also have another post in development about the fifth kind of goal–it’s currently a handwritten draft though, so it might take a bit of polishing before I’m ready to share it!

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1 Comment

  1. Thanks for the this, I love the minimum viable idea. And I’ve bought Jo’s book too. You might need to check the Charles Duhigg link.

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