Who says that planning is rigid and inflexible? I recently proved this whole assumption false.
This is a question I often address at my workshops. At the end of a workshop on organization and productivity I give, I like to leave plenty of time for questions. One of the questions that almost inevitably comes up is, “How can you respond to sudden demands if you’ve already planned everything?”
While I understand the sentiment, I believe that having already planned things puts me in a good position to respond to unexpected demands.
The reason for this is that the act of planning things in itself means prioritizing. In order to decide what to put on your calendar, you first need to think about what’s important. You need to think about what work project is most important or urgent now and dedicate time to that during your work day. Or you need to decide that moving your body is more important than doing something else, so you schedule time to exercise.
And then when something unexpected comes up, you can compare its importance or urgency to the rest of the things you have planned and decide how to proceed.
How I applied this recently
The previous week was my last week at work; my maternity leave started this past Monday. Yay! Chill time at home doing baby things? Well, not exactly.
I had planned a relaxing last working week for myself. I wanted to do some final work on my new project in order to leave it in such a way that I could easily pick it up when I get back from leave. I also had quite a few admin things to take care of before leaving, which is easy to do.
And then right before my last week started, I got reviews on my paper. (In the field of cognitive neuroscience, when you’d like to publish a paper, you send it to a journal, they send it to reviewers who read it and give you feedback, and then you need to make edits that address the comments.)
In one way, this was great news because I got the reviews before my baby was born, so I could work on them before I get sleep deprived and overwhelmed with baby stuff. In another way, I felt pressure because I knew I should make edits as quickly as possible in order to make progress before the baby comes.
I thought about it and quickly decided to allocate all my working time to making edits that address the comments. All the tasks I had planned for that week had to take a backseat for a bit because the paper was more important and more urgent than the rest of the stuff. It was an easy choice.
Was it pleasant? Yes and no. On the one hand, my relaxed last week became more intense. It wouldn’t usually be a problem, but since I’m nearing the end of my pregnancy, I get tired easily now.
On the other hand, it was very motivating to be working on the edits for my paper. The comments were constructive, so I felt like I was truly improving my work. I was excited to get up each day and work hard on my paper. I was very happy with the progress I made and felt accomplished at the end of the day.
How did planning help me when I had to change my plans?
You may be wondering how planning helped at all in this situation. It seems as though I just did what I had to do and that was it. But that’s far from the whole story.
First of all, I have a very good system of keeping track of what I need to do. Especially in a process like making changes to a paper, there are many small tasks that need to be done, so I often felt like I was trying not to forget stuff. Thus, I wrote things down and then grouped the tasks in order to do them in the most efficient way possible. I also planned which types of tasks I’d do when depending on the task’s difficulty and whether I needed help from someone else.
I find it extremely helpful to come in to work, open my list of tasks, and know exactly what I need to work on. I waste no time wondering, “Oh, what was I doing here? What was I supposed to do with this?” It takes seconds to read through my notes for a particular task and start working on it. Then, when it’s done, I move on to the next task with the same ease and efficiency.
The other really helpful aspect of planning came from managing my time and energy. Especially the first two days, I was so motivated that I felt like I could keep working until late at night. However, I know that that doesn’t work for me in the long term, so I made myself stop at the end of the workday. There were also several things to arrange for the baby that week, so I made sure to make time for those as well and not just drop the ball on that.
Finally, having my planning set up well allowed me to take frequent breaks. This is something I really don’t like to do when I’m immersed in work, but it helps me to maintain my energy throughout the day. Especially with being pregnant and getting tired easily, I couldn’t afford to get too exhausted because then I wouldn’t be able to work as well the next day. So I got up from my chair every hour and walked down the hallway, went for 1-2 brief walks a day, exercised a couple of times a week, and slept enough (somewhat) during the night. I also made sure to do something fun each evening such as watch The Big Bang Theory.
In the end, I can say that this last-minute adaptation of my planning worked rather well. I was able to do my work efficiently and well and felt good about what I got done. It worked so well that I took Friday off to rest and get ready for a weekend of baby stuff. And then the following Monday, even though it was officially the first day of my leave, I went to work to finalize some administrative stuff. I didn’t even mind because I was relaxed and happy with the way my work as well as everything else was coming along.
That’s a the big win with planning! If we get our priorities straight and plan accordingly, we can make progress in multiple areas and feel like we’re accomplishing things simultaneously in different areas such as publishing a paper, taking care of our health, doing laundry, and even doing fun stuff.