Some Thoughts on Planning in General

As people, we interact with the world using models. What models can we imagine? Well, numbers are a model of quantity or enumeration. A blueprint is the model of a house. What we see is a model of physical reality.

Models can be inaccurate. E.g., we see the sky as blue, and we could see it as violet if our eyes were more sensitive to it. Does this fact harm our living somehow? I don’t think so. This discovery leads us to conclude that even inaccurate models could be good enough to be helpful. However, could the incorrect model be dangerous? Yes, imagine building a flying machine with poor knowledge of physics. This knowledge is a model of how our world operates.

A plan for a day is also a model of dedicating an effort. The plan could be useless if it doesn’t line up with reality. For many plans, this is the state of things. It could even be harmful if it makes you feel too much stress.

Throughout this article, we will discover the necessary factors for increasing the achievability of your objectives. What a strange last sentence, isn’t it? Yes, certainly. As a software engineer, you use more and more -ilities with every step towards software architecture. Then you discover that the architectural approach to thinking fits well into daily life. What a universal model!

I can’t guarantee that you’ll never fail a task after applying the described approach. What I can say for sure is that chances to complete some of your tasks significantly increase.

The Essential Parts of the Planning Model

A plan for a day usually looks like a list of randomly sorted tasks. You wake up in the morning and look at it full of determination. Then a day passes, and you get sad and regret not completing everything. Ah, what a charming picture!

Why is this situation familiar to many of us? Maybe we don’t put enough effort and should try harder? If that were the working solution, the world wouldn’t have such a problem.

Don’t push yourself too hard. You can do much better without it. As a rule, we can’t fit our plans in a day because there is just no place for all of them.

If you want to put several boxes in a room, this room should have enough space. The same goes for the plans and your day. But how can we understand space in application to a task? I suggest considering time, place, and context. I use the time factor alone for most to-do items, but sometimes you’ll need two other dimensions.

A task should have other important characteristics, but we won’t cover them here in detail. For instance, to enhance the chance of succeeding, you should formulate an item in a way that feels compatible with this question: “Did I achieve this?”. The “☐Post office” action item doesn’t look achievable: “Did I achieve post office?”. What?!

The “Receive the tax notice at the post office” looks better: “Did I achieve receiving the tax notice?”.

Checking the Availability of the First Dimension: Time

Let’s first discover what we have. We have a day consisting of predefined routines and time slots ready to be filled with activities. I like providing examples, and here we’ll look at the six-years-ago me: a software developer and a student getting an alternative graduate degree.

We will look at my workday. I still do not plan my weekends and do not know if I would ever do so.

███│█████│     │      │██████│     │     │█████│██████│█████

The scheme above is a simplification but serves well to understand the whole process. There are times when you can schedule your activities, and times when you can’t. E.g., I can’t do anything extra when I sleep or have breakfast. This time is already taken, and it’s unwise to try putting something different here. Now let’s investigate one of the spare areas inside my working day.

8:45      🧑‍💻      12:00
 │                  │█

Imagine that I have several tasks:

  • Write an email about the upcoming presentation.
  • Prepare a deck for the upcoming presentation.
  • Prepare a plan for the Friday retrospective.
  • Schedule a discussion about the leadership in the new feature development.

Let me do some guessing here:

  • Write an email about the upcoming presentation. Est., 30 minutes.
  • Prepare a deck for the upcoming presentation. Est., 3 hours.
  • Prepare a plan for the Friday retrospective. Est., 1 hour.
  • Schedule a discussion about the leadership in the new feature development. Est., 15 minutes.

Undoubtedly, my estimates are not exact. Nevertheless, I certainly can’t fit 4 hours and 45 minutes into 3 hours and 15 minutes. Thus I shouldn’t ever blame myself for not completing the whole. It just doesn’t fit in here! For now, let’s take the deck preparation and schedule the discussion. Our plan would look the following way.

8:45                        🧑‍💻                       12:00
 │                                                     │█
 │ Prepare a deck for the upcoming │ Schedule          │█
 │ presentation. Est., 3 hours.    │ a discussion      │█
 │                                 │ about             │█
 │                                 │ the leadership    │█
 │                                 │ in the new        │█
 │                                 │ feature           │█
 │                                 │ development.      │█
 │                                 │ Est., 15 minutes. │█

Does this placement imply that you will succeed with both tasks? It doesn’t. It just protects you from the inevitable failure of trying to fit everything you have into your list. Don’t forget that we also have some time after lunch. Let’s put the rest there.

1:00                        🧑‍💻                             5:45
 │                                                          │█
 │ Write an email     │ Prepare a plan for │                │█
 │ about the upcoming │ the Friday         │                │█
 │ presentation.      │ retrospective.     │                │█
 │ Est., 30 minutes.  │ Est., 1 hour.      │                │█

We even have some spare time for unplanned activities. This fact is perfect for us. On the one hand, the unexpected is the natural part of life. Something not known about beforehand can arise. On the other hand, my activities can take surprisingly more time. This unscheduled area gives flexibility and mitigates risks. Do you remember that we do not know the lengths of our tasks before we complete them? We just guess at it.

Checking the Availability of the Second Dimension: Place

Not every activity fits every place. Let’s look at the picture of my day once again. I’ve added mesh-like indications to the times when I ride a train.

███│█████│░░░░░│      │██████│     │░░░░░│█████│██████│█████

On my way to work or to my evening lessons, I don’t have any good opportunities to use my computer. But I can use my reader to read a book or listen to an audiobook. I usually read several books in parallel, so you might expect to see the following.

7:30        🚇        8:45 ... 5:45        🚇        6:30
█│                     │   ...  │                     │█
█│ Spend travel        │   ...  │ Spend travel        │█
█│ time reading        │   ...  │ time reading        │█
█│ Code Complete       │   ...  │ Refactoring         │█

You might find the wording of a task quite strange. Furthermore, where are the time estimates? I find this wording reflects reality in the best way and helps escape unnecessary stress. I do not know how long it would take to travel on this particular day. I am not sure that I will make a certain number of pages. Sometimes the pages are full of tables or code listings, and thus there is much more sparse information. Sometimes pages contain lots of text. They even could have a thought that’s worth reflecting on. It all depends. What makes me confident about these tasks is my desire to finish a book and the fact that they imply some progress in reading. You can’t mark them as done when you do nothing.

Checking the Availability of the Third Dimension: Context

This characteristic of spare time might look somewhat similar to the previous one. However, there is a significant difference. Let me show you one more example.

8:45                        🧑‍💻                       12:00
 │                                                     │█
 │ Take part in Kanban training.       │ Give a short  │█
 │ Est., 3 hours.                      │ talk about    │█
 │                                     │ software      │█
 │                                     │ architecture. │█
 │                                     │ Est., 15      │█
 │                                     │ minutes.      │█

In the example, we can see Kanban training from 8:45 to 11:45. Then I plan to give a short talk about software architecture, which lasts around 15 minutes. From the time and space perspective, everything is fine. There is enough time for both activities. They occur in the same office. What can go wrong?

Many things can go wrong or unexpected: training might finish later, I might want to discuss it with its facilitator. There would hardly be a better time to do so. Also, me or my supposed listeners could be tired. The closeness to an event with so many accompanying risks puts my little activity at risk as well. It’s better to move it to a later time.

Further Thoughts

You shouldn’t overestimate this model. If you think that you will become the champion of planning after discovering the time, place, and context limitations, then you won’t. Treat this knowledge as a part of a basis for your productivity. Add sophisticated methods on top of it to make your approach more tolerant to the unexpected and more fruitful in the end.

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