Master the art of planning

Oliver Burkeman invites you to try this experiment to improve your work life


Master the art of planning

The project

Why do we chronically underestimate how long tasks will take, or feel paralysed by indecision over which project to tackle first? There’s an art to planning well. And no, mastering it won’t turn you into an unspontaneous robot.

The aim

One potential pitfall is the ‘planning fallacy’ – we tend to be over-optimistic about how long something will take. In one study, students estimated they’d complete an essay an average of 10 days before deadline; in reality, the average was one day.

Things always take longer than you think – part of the problem is that emotions blow your reasoning skills off course; when you really want something to be finished by Thursday, it’s easy to persuade yourself it can be. 

The theory

The crucial habit worth developing is a short weekly planning session – half an hour might be enough – when you can take an ‘aerial view’ of your work, like an air traffic controller. Otherwise, you’ll only make a plan when you’re overwhelmed, which is when you are most vulnerable to the planning fallacy.

List all projects, make a schedule assigning specific times to tasks – and add at least 25 per cent to your estimates of time required. Don’t try to convince yourself that this once, you’ll do more in less time – that’s the planning fallacy again. And don’t worry that scheduling life will drain it of fun; on the contrary, giving your days more structure will free you from constantly having to decide what to do next. 

Now try It out

  • Schedule ‘slack time’. Author Laura Vanderkam rarely schedules any work for Fridays – not because she’s lazy, but because she knows work from the previous four days will spill over. Even if your job won’t allow that, consider scheduling a few hours a week as protected ‘slack time’ to catch up.
  • Refocus every hour. Set your phone to ring every hour, time coach Peter Bregman suggests, then, when you hear it, take a deep breath and ask if you’re currently doing what needs doing most. That way, your plan won’t become a distant memory.
  • Replace your to-do list with a ‘will-do’ list. Abandon those 30-item daily lists that you never get close to finishing. Instead, pick fewer items than you think you can manage – five, for example – but really commit to doing them all. In the long run, you’ll get more done. 

OLIVER BURKEMAN is the author of The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking (Canongate, £8.99)

Photograph: Corbis

More inspiration:

Read What can we learn from those colourful people who thrive, rather than simply surviving at work? by David Head on LifeLabs

Sign up for our Life Labs Practical Wisdom online course How to Achieve Your Goals here. You can also try a free taster of the course here

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