Planning: There is no Substitute.

Time Management Magazine - December 2013I write for Time Management for iPad Magazine, an authority on Time Management. This article was originally published in the December 2013 issue.

Captain Doug Morris is a pilot for Air Canada who also loves to share stories about commercial aviation – information and anecdotes not often available to the average traveller. He compiled a great deal of his knowledge into a book called From The Flight Deck, which is available at most major bookstores. Being a pilot seems, at least to non-pilots, to be a glamourous profession, although Captain Morris and many others will likely state that there is also a great deal of tedium, both in the air and on the ground.

One of the most fascinating revelations in From The Flight Deck has to do with the huge amount of redundancy that is built into air travel: the planes themselves are built with numerous redundant parts, as insurance against critical failure, but so too are the flight plans and air traffic control systems. Captain Morris points out, for example, the number of air traffic control centres that exist even within the comparatively short space between Toronto and Montréal. As a plane leaves one of these airports, it is handed off to smaller regional centres all the way along, and at all times, the flight crew are aware of every regional airport or landing strip that could be put to use in the case of an emergency. In the business of flight, nothing is left to chance.

Pilots are highly regarded. They are able to do something that very few of us can: make a machine full of people fly. And although flying itself seems like a very free and wild experience open only to Top Gun style daredevils, the truth is that it is a business governed by planning and preparation.

Planning is not a natural act for most people, although action, or rather reaction is.

It is difficult for people who find themselves in a mindset of action to discipline themselves to sit down and think things through, but in fact, this is where success comes from, because in truth, planning is an action unto itself. It is the act of writing the history of an event that has not yet happened, complete with contingencies and allowances for the unexpected.

People who plan for a living, such as project managers, learn very quickly that the act of planning can take up a sizeable proportion of the entire project. Maybe even a third. Such a concept seems crazy to many, but the fact is that to plan requires the capacity to see not just one history to come, but a few. In other words, Plan B, Plan C, and even Plan D in addition to the ideal Plan A. Their job is to envision every element of what is to come, leaving nothing to chance, and leaving nothing undefined.

But is this degree of planning necessary in a typical working day? It is certainly unrealistic and probably career limiting to assign one third of a day to simply planning. But that doesn’t mean to say no planning is necessary.

A great example lies within a person’s inbox. Most busy people never stop to think about how many emails they have to deal with in a day. They will have a vague idea, naturally, but they are too busy to stop and assess how many they receive on a typical day, how long they take to respond to, and what damage these emails do to concentration and productivity.

If a person stopped and counted up, and said, “on an average day I deal with 50 emails,” they would have a reasonably accurate inventory. But then, if they quantified these emails and said, “three-quarters of those emails can be answered in about two minutes each, but the rest of them need at least 5 minutes of my attention,” then they are moving towards a sound project plan. This act of quantifying, known by project managers as Work Breakdown Structure, would reveal that 75 minutes of the working day would be required to handle those 37 “short response” emails, and at least 65 minutes would be required to deal with those that need more than 5 minutes each. Together, 65 plus 75 equals 140 minutes. In other words, over 2 hours dedicated solely to dealing with email.

If these emails are all sufficiently important, then it is essential that a block of time, two hours or more in length, be assigned to the calendar as a daily, recurring activity. Not because it is truly possible to answer a day’s worth of emails in one uninterrupted, unbroken session, but because this solid block of time represents a bulwark against attack from those – including yourself – who would book meetings or assign other tasks into the otherwise empty space.

In the constant battle against time, many hard-working people simply forget to shore up their own defences, and consequently they allow these phantoms – these tasks without discernible duration – to accumulate on the edges of an already crammed day.

To make a plan means to identify everything that requires attention and energy and to make it real where it can be seen by everyone. Plans keep buildings standing upright and allow travellers to get where they are going safely. Similarly, just a few minutes planning per day can help any busy person defend their calendar against unrealistic scope expansion, and offers greater strength of mind for negotiating, prioritizing and delegating.

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Time Management Magazine for iPad

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