Planning tips 1: Plan - Get some tools and use them
Have you broken your New Year’s Resolution about being more organised? Don’t beat yourself up. Becoming more organised takes a bit of practice. Even if you are quite an organised person, as you progress through your career you will inevitably take on more administrative responsibilities and this means more organising. Different tools suit different people but the basic list of tools are all similar, regardless of whether you use digital and virtual tools, or paper-based methods. The basics tools tend to include:
Methods of prioritising (which tends to brings us back to lists).
Now here is the important news. All of these things can be a colossal waste of your time unless you have a process for planning. Random lists and diary entries are just 'busy' not necessarily productive. They can actually make you feel more stressed and disorganised. One common processes in planning is understanding your long-term goals, the things required in the medium-term to achieve those goals and finally the short-term tasks that build towards the achievement of those goals. As I said in January's blog, long-term planning is done rarely and short-term planning is done more often. Long-term, medium-term and short-term mean different things depending upon your work. If you're on a permanent contract or 4 year doctoral programme, long term could be a vastly different time period than if you are on a six-month contract. My long-term is more than a year. My medium-term is a term (or 3 months) and my short-term is about 10 days. I also keep a daily task list, or log.
Year-planners and minds-maps and are a great way of understanding what you want and how much time you realistically need to achieve it. I usually start with a mind-map of what I want/need to achieve and then think about time. Using SMART targets can create that bridge between long-term and medium-term as you refine your goals into realistic plans as compared with vague wishes. There are lots of apps for creating mind-maps and you can happily waste hours of your life being 'busy' on these. e.g. Coggle, Mindmanager, XMind. I have used all of these when I've needed to create a really nice-looking mind-map, but I prefer paper and pencil because for me it's faster. I sometimes just take a photo and insert that into any presentation that I need to make. Keep your mind-maps and year-planner where you can keep an eye on them. A yearly planner is not the same as a daily diary. It is simply an overview of your availability over a large span of time. You can set your large deadlines and blocks of tasks here.
For the medium term planning you do need your diary (or Calendar as Microsoft call it) as you will need to start breaking down your task and set some interim deadlines (You might call them progress checks, way-markers, staging posts). You'll also need to allow flexibility for the unexpected. How many diaries have you got? Do you synchronise them? Do you increase your cognitive load and carry it all round in your head? I prefer to keep a single electronic diary and synchronise it with all of my devices. I have a number of jobs and contracts that might mean keeping several diaries and it's important that I don't double book myself or miss appointments. The synch settings can be a pain, especially when there's another new software update, but it's well worth the effort. My private appointments are kept private by ticking the private box and anyone who needs to see if I'm available can easily see without having to send me an email or call me.
The things you plan in the medium-term need to serve your long-term goals and begin to address the what of the things you are going to do to achieve your goals and approximately how and when and with whom. You might have to adjust to suit others' plans, which is why you need to consider this in the medium term, rather than the short term. You may not know the answers to questions just yet, but you should be organising your time so that you will have time to answer the questions when the time comes, and perhaps more importantly, develop a better sense of which questions need to be asked first and which can wait.
For short-term planning you need to be really specific about you are going to do - specifically what, how, when, where and with whom. My diary for the next 10 days is very detailed. After that I have time blocked out for different topics but the details are less specific. Lists are particularly helpful in the short-term. If you keep a log of your lists and review them you can also develop your sense of how long things take, which tasks you spend most time on, and whether these tasks serve your long-term goals. Three hundred Facebook posts a week might not be the best use of your time, but on the other hand are you ignoring your digital profile completely? You can use your diary both as a way of planning what you will do and as a way of recording what you actually did. The fewer amendments you have to make, the better your planning.
By the way, there's another reason for considering your planning tools. Here in the UK Universities are taking greater interest in approaches to performance management (groan!), and time management, planning and organisational skills feature in many approaches. Being organised can reduce the stress of these kinds of performance reviews and they can equip you with the proof you might need to show that you are organised and capable. Remember those diary records? There's your record of the things that you have spent your time working on, making it easier for you to reflect on your efforts and your organisation over the year. But a note on integrity. Lord Jeffry Archer, Peer and former MP went to prison in 2000 for perjury after it was found that he submitted a false diary entry as evidence in a libel case that he brought against a newspaper in 1987.
If you want to explore more tools, especially logs and project management tools, Business Balls offers some very handy free downloadable templates http://www.businessballs.com/project.htm . Get some tools, and use them, but use a process, like taking a long-term, medium-term, short-term focus.