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How Much Planning Is Too Much?

| September 10, 2019

by Jim Bruce

In previous Tuesday Readings we have focused on the importance of planning,on being intentional about how we use our time,and on the importance of regularly moving items from our one To Do list to our calendar.Returning to this topic as the school year begins, seems particularly important. Each year our pace seems to be more hurried and our time more precious. It becomes increasingly easy to rationalize that you can “just wing it,” that you don’t need to plan. Nothing could be further from the truth. You do need to plan. And, while you do need to plan, there is always the danger of over-planning, and seemingly never getting beyond the planning and re-planning stages to “do the work.”
As good and important as a deliberate planning practice is, it can often leave us frustrated at the end of the day when we find that the day didn’t go as we planned, that there were interruptions, that new tasks that needed to be done immediately were added to the day’s work, etc. We look back and our plan for the day is in shambles, much of what we had carefully planned to do remains undone, and, often, we begin to wonder whether there is any real value in planning. Our Tuesday Reading for today draws from Elizabeth Grace Saunders’ essay How to Stop Overplanning (Even If You’re a Perfectionist).Saunders is also author of How to Invest Your Time Like Money,a time coach, and founder of RealLife Time Coaching & Training.
She notes that “people experience planning stress when they don’t understand the role that spontaneity plays in the process of implementing their plans for the day. Instead of embracing change as part of the process, they get irritated at themselves or others whenever something doesn’t go exactly according to plan, such as a meeting running late or something taking longer than expected.” She goes on to note that we sometimes let such disruptions so stress us that it keeps us from working on or starting other tasks on the calendar for that.
Saunders believes that we can reap the benefits of daily and weekly planning and avoid stressful side effects of the plan not unfolding as we anticipated by taking a more relaxed approach. She suggests seven attitudes that allow us to use planning effectively while being open to the unexpected events that inevitably occur:
1.  Intention matters.  Planning is about making a decision in advance about what you want to do and setting out a set of steps to reach your goals. It’s not unlike the flight plan that a pilot files before departing the gate. However, as we all know from personal experience, sometimes the plan changes, multiple times, and even drastically. But, having the plan increases the likelihood that you will reach your planned destination. Your plan will set your initial trajectory for the day and equip you to reach your goals at some point even if you have to modify the plan along the way.
2. Redefine success for the day.  Many of us, expect our day to go entirely according to plan. Departing from the plan is stressful and may feel like it’s a sign of failure. Saunders suggests that a better approach is to have confidence that your plan is the best way to invest your time for that day given the information – items on your To Do list, priorities, and expectations for the day – that you had when you formed the plan. And, she argues that your plan with the modifications made during the day, continues to be the best way to invest your time given the new circumstances.
3.  Don’t obsess about having a perfect plan. There is no perfect plan. The goal of planning should be to develop an appropriate level of clarity so that you know where, and for how long, to focus your attention in each area and then to evaluate opportunities as they arise. Saunders suggests that you spend no more than an hour on weekly planning and follow this with about by 15 minutes each day to recalibrate that day’s plan.
4.  Consider plans as road maps.  Think of your plan – for a day, a month, or even a year – as a road map. It gives you a sense of direction and a high-level overview of the different paths you could take. If you have to take a detour – for unexpected events of the day – having a plan to come back to gives you the insight you need to reroute your schedule. It makes it easier to ask what’s important now? What can I move? What else can I delegate?
5.  Expect the unexpected.  Planning gives you the ability to intelligently respond to the unexpected. When you plan, you look ahead and place your work along a timeline. And, if when you planned, you included some margin, for example some unassigned “preemptive calendaring” time, and if you have not overdone a “Just-in-time” scheduling approach, you will have flexibility in adjusting your calendar to respond to the unexpected. And, for those tasks with firm deadlines, Saunders recommends that you plan to finish them at least a day, if not more, before they are actually due.
6.  Your plan is not a test.  Saunders says that if your plans, and their successful execution, are a basis for your self worth, you’re in trouble. While intention and discipline are important, stuff happens. Don’t let a forced change so upset you that you become unable to function after the interruption. Expect that you will need to change and embrace those changes. It is a very rare day if my plan for that day doesn’t change, many times, and sometimes radically. Ask questions about what happened, could you have foreseen the events that “wrecked” your day, how would you handle the situation differently if it happened again, etc. to inform your future planning.
7.  Be open to creativity.  Your plan is your guide. It’s not cast in stone. It should not reduce either the spontaneity or hinder the creativity in how you respond to achieve your goals.
Do plan carefully but also be open to new situations, requirements, opportunities, and the totally unexpected, and adjust seamlessly, as necessary and appropriate. And, by all means don’t stress out. Life is much more than having a perfect plan.
Make it a great week for your team and for yourself! .  .  .   jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates.  He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.
An earlier version of this essay appeared as the Tuesday Reading on December 8, 2015.

  1. Jim Bruce, The Balance of Planning and Spontaneity, MOR Associates, Inc., Tuesday Reading, September 1, 2015.  
  2. Jim Bruce, Meetings, MOR Associates, Inc., Tuesday Reading, November 17, 2015.  
  3. Jim Bruce, Your To Do List and Your Calendar, MOR Associates, Inc., October 27, 2015. 
  4. Elizabeth Grace Saunders, How to Stop Overplanning (Even If You’re a Perfectionist), Harvard Business Review, August 24, 2015. 
  5. Elizabeth Grace Saunders, How to Invest Your Time Like Money, Harvard Business School Press, 2015.