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Today I finished typing up my detailed plan for this quarter, which is about 10 pages long. I revise my goals and plans roughly every 90 days, and I find that although this can be tedious (usually 10-15 hours of tiresome work), it’s an essential tool for me, not just for running a business but for managing my entire life. Life can get pretty complicated sometimes, and it’s easy to get knocked off track by external pressures if you don’t know precisely where you’re headed. When you’re working for several days on a particular project, and a new opportunity comes along in a totally different area, it can be tough to make a clear decision if you aren’t able to mentally pull your mind out of that project and see the forest for the trees. Having a written plan you can review at any time makes it easy to review your current situation from a bird’s eye view, so you can make more consistent decisions.
In 2001 I wrote articles on goal setting and planning, and aside from some minor refinements, I still follow this basic approach today. But one thing I now include in my planning document is a list of assumptions that I made in putting the plan together. These are often assumptions about what I expect to happen, such as how long I think it will take to complete a particular project. Invariably I’ll get a few weeks into my plan, and I’ll hit a snag. So I go back to my list of assumptions and look for any that may have turned out to be wrong. Then I can adjust those assumptions and update the plan accordingly. But if I find that all the assumptions still seem to be accurate, then I usually feel safe that the heart of the high-level plan is still OK — I may just need to alter the way I’m currently implementing it. Just today I had to turn down two potential licensing deals; on the surface they looked potentially lucrative, but in light of my overall long-term goals, it’s clear they would be off course for me.
When you create a 90-day plan, you’re really looking ahead much further than just 90 days. I typically think ahead at least two years to figure out what I should be doing over the next 90 days. There are many decisions that look good when you consider them on a 3-6 month time frame, but when you look 2+ years ahead, they seem more problematic. It’s a lot like AI chess programs — the computer player will think a particular move is optimal when it looks ahead 5 ply, but when it looks ahead 10 ply, it ends up picking an entirely different move. So it is when making short-term plans. You’ll create the best plans if you look ahead a few years and think about where you’ll end up, and then use that long time perspective to decide what you need to be doing right now. And for certain big decisions, like whether you’d like to have another child, you may want to look ahead much further. The long view sharpens the short view.
When I was single and living alone and hadn’t yet started my own business, this kind of detailed planning would probably have been overkill. But now that my life is much more complicated, it helps me cut through the possible quagmire of confusion and really focus. The more complicated my life gets, the more important I find it to spend time clarifying my goals and plans.
The main thing a written plan does for me is gives me a sense of peace, knowing that I’ve thought everything through consciously, and everything is covered. It can be hard to make choices such as… should I spend time with the wife and kids, or exercise, or practice my next speech, or write an article, or work on my book, or do some marketing tasks, or play poker, or read a book? One thing I’ve learned is that I tend to do a bad job making these kinds of balancing decisions on the spur of the moment — I vastly underrepresent some areas while overworking others, so something important slips through the cracks. I just don’t have the time to think several years ahead when making every single decision. It’s only by creating a high-level plan that I can trust that I’m able to achieve the right balance and get the really important things done while consciously deciding what areas can afford less attention. I can trust the plan because I know I spent the time thinking things through to create it, so it acts as a tool that helps me simplify and speed up daily decisions.
Once you have a solid written plan, the next trick is to learn how to work it effectively. I manage my daily workflow using a system based on the one in David Allen’s excellent Getting Things Done book.