If you want to work more effectively, and with less negative stress, then you need to use good planning tools and good productivity procedures.
The more complicated your projects are, the more important it is to make sure you have good tools and procedures.
Many (probably most) project planning tools allow you to define projects and tasks, with nothing more fine-grained than that. That level of detail might work for small and simple projects. But it’s nowhere near sufficient for more complex projects (such as writing a book, building and marketing a product, or running a small business).
While working on complex projects, it’s better if you can not only break projects into tasks, but also break those tasks into sub tasks, sub tasks into sub-sub tasks, and so on.
How deep can this process go? Actually, it can go hundreds of levels deep. But it won’t.
The goal is not to keep breaking tasks down further and further just because you can.
Instead, this should be your goal:
keep your mind clear as you work.
It turns out that most projects of reasonable size won’t require you to plan any more than about 5-7 levels deep to get to the point where you don’t have to juggle anything in your mind as you work. It’s a simple matter of mathematics. By the time you get 5-7 levels deep, the lowest-level items will take only 2-3 minutes to perform.
With that said, if you’re seven levels deep, and you need to break a task down further, it’s important to be able to do so. So the ideal planning structure will basically let you plan as deeply as you want.
For more thoughts about the depth of the typical plan, see: Fractal Planning, How Deep?
Because they allow you to break down tasks as far as you want, I recommend a fractal planning tool for people executing complex projects.
A fractal planning tool (like the Fractal Planner) is kind of like a word processor outline, but with more structure. Specifically, it will allow you to zoom and pan, show and hide, and highlight items for better focus. It will allow you to rearrange items easily, without getting your outline all messed up. And it will allow you to process your tasks (such as marking them done when you have completed them). It might have other features on top of that, but those are the core features that allow for fluid planning.
With a fractal planning tool we can plan as deeply as we need to. And that’s a good thing. But it’s not necessary to go crazy breaking down your projects from the get-go. Here are two thoughts that should guide you as you plan out your projects.
- Break things down further in order to free your mind.
- Strive to master the art of “just in time” planning.
We’ll take a look at each of these in turn . . .
Deep Planning for a Clear Mind
Suppose you need to send out a message to your email list. You could simply list one task in your planner:
- Send email message out to list
Sending out an email message to a list sounds pretty simple, but it’s actually a pretty complex task – a task that could take hours, depending on how much care you need to take crafting the message.
If you have only that one item on your to do list, your brain will feel compelled to make its own finer-grained plan internally, and it will keep looping on its own plan to make sure you don’t forget any steps.
If you get that finer-grained plan into writing, it will save your brain the effort of keeping track of it as you work. And that will keep you mentally fresh longer into the day.
So you can break the task down further, something like this:
- Send email message out to list
- Brainstorm the elements that will go into the email message
- Freewrite the message
- Rearrange and edit the message
- Put the message into the auto-responder application
- Test it
- Send it out.
If you frequently send out email messages through your auto-responder service, and most of that task is second nature to you, this might be all the more deeply you need to plan. If, on the other hand, you are still clumsy with using the auto-responder service, you might benefit from breaking down task “d” further to get the steps out of your mind and into your plan.
The whole point is to free up your mind. When you get things written down in a well-organized plan, you no longer have to juggle them in your mind as you work. And you won’t have that haunting fear that you might forget something.
So, yes, you should plan things more deeply. But you shouldn’t do so right out of the gate.
There are two main reasons to add more detail to a plan intended for personal project execution (as opposed to a plan you need to present to others):
- to convince yourself that your plan is sound
- to keep your mind clear as you work.
When you first start a project, you needn’t plan your project out in full detail. For instance, if your project will require you to send out an email message, and you’re confident that, one way or another, you can get that message sent, you don’t need to add all the sub-steps when you’re first planning your overall project.
When first starting a project, you just plan as far as you need to in order to feel like, one way or another, you can do all the pieces, and they will add up to the finished product.
Sometimes, though, when you’re working on part of a project (call it part “A”), it will dawn on you that something you’re doing has implications for another part of your project (call it part “D”). If you take 20 seconds at that moment to expand part D as far as you need to in order to assure yourself that parts A and D will fit together, the process of expanding D’s plan will get this worry off your mind.
This is a case where it’s good to add more detail to part D, even though you’re not working on it, because it does serve the purpose of getting stray thoughts off your mind while you’re working on part A.
But, for the most part, you can (and should) wait to add detail to part D . . . until right before you start working on it. And then it is good to plan it out one level at a time, adding more layers whenever it seems like it will be good to get things out of your head and into your plan.
In short, waiting to plan the details can save time and increase flexibility. It also keeps you more “foolishly optimistic” which is a good thing for creative types.
Here’s a corny couplet to help you remember:
Break things down to clear your mind
But wait to do it “just in time”