How I prioritise planning over plans

You might think that I’m a really organized person. After all, I spend a good chunk of my life helping other people be more organized about their work – and not just organized, prioritised, effective, and all those other good things. That might be true, people who know me well say I’m really well organized. But I always feel I’m faking it. I’m really disorganized.

As I spend a lot of time working by myself, for myself, and interleaving clients I need to organize my days. Over the years I’ve tried man different ways of organizing myself. Todo lists in my notebook are the main mechanism. Notebook and todo-list works well for the medium range but for the actual work of today its not so effective. I have, and sometimes use, a whiteboard: write out a list of things todo today and tick them as I do them. I’ve use post-it notes: write out all the things I need to do on one post-it each, prioritise them down the side of my desk and tick them as I do them.

In general I find that a system works for a while, maybe even a few of weeks but it decays. Perhaps its too routine, perhaps I’m over familiar. After a while I need a change. So after a period in the doldrums I bring back an old system or invent a new one.

During the last year of house-arrest I’ve found organizing myself really hard. A few months ago I came up with a new system: good old index cards. Extra big ones. On the left are the mundane or household things I need to do. On the right the important business stuff todo.

The keys to making any one of my systems work are:

1. The power of the (big red) tick. Being able to tick things off and mark them as done. Perhaps thats why electronic systems never work for me.

2. Prioritisation: Recognising that some things are more important and need to be done sooner or require more time. Accept some things fall off the bottom and don’t get done.

3. Limiting WIP, work in progress. It is easy to put too many things down, not do them, and write them down again tomorrow.

4. Sticking to the list and not getting distracted.

5. Rewrite the list every day

Now the last three there: prioritisation, limiting WIP and not getting distracted require personal discipline. I have to force myself to work within my system. Sometimes that is hard but if I don’t do it the system breaks down. And actually, that is usually why the system periodically requires reinventing.

For example: many of my cards list “EM, SL and LN” – short for E-Mail, Slack and LinkedIn. Messages arrive for me on all three and there are conversations I sometimes want to join in. But, very little on any of them is so important that is needs to be looked at at 9am. Everything on Slack and LinkedIn can wait, and almost everything on e-mail can wait. So a quick e-mail triage at 9am and pushing the rest until later in the day allows focus on important stuff. Unfortunately, because EM, SL and LN all generate dopamine it it very difficult to prevent myself from being distracted by them.

Rewriting the list everyday helps focus because I’m saying “this is what I will do.” For years I found that every time my notebook todo list ran out of space and I rewrote it I was much more productive that day – plus it was a cathartic experience. Arguably rewriting my list everyday is a waste of time because some items carry over and some items repeat. But the actual process of doing it, the planning rather than the plan, creates focus and motivation.

As you might have guess by now, a lot of this carrie directly over to my clients and their teams: prioritise the work, limit wip, let work fall off, stick to the system and the difficulties of discipline. Of course, what I’m describing is a system that emphasises planning over plans.

Another issue I regularly run up against is the “second priority” problem. Once all the pressing, really important and urgent stuff is done where do I put my attention? When I have three or four lower priority things to do it can be hard to choose which one to do and to stick with it. It can help to time-box the work, write “45” next to the work item and when I start work on it set a timer to stop after 45 minutes. I may not have done everything but I will have made progress and will at least have broken the second priority logjam.

Sometimes it’s hard to address an issue because it not clear what needs doing. When todo items are transactional “call X”, “write Y” it is easy to close them off. But sometimes hard to know what “Website” actually involves, I’m the one who decided I should work on my website, I’m the one doing the work, but what exactly should I be doing? And even if I know I should be, say: “updating keywords” what keywords? where? Even thought I can see something needs attention I don’t know what.

So, am I organized? or disorganized?

Well, I think this goes back to my dyslexia. Dyslexics are frequently disorganised because many (including me) suffer with poor short term memory. Left to myself I can be very disorganized.

But, dyslexics over compensate. A reoccurring pattern with dyslexics is that we have to create our own learning strategies and solutions to our own problems. Sometimes we over compensate and something we are bad at naturally becomes something we are very good at.

That I think is why other people think I’m really well organized and I think I’m badly organized.

And it is those ways of thinking and approaching organization – and work to do – which carries over to my professional work. Call it neurodiversity if you like.


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