Plan For The Time You Have, Not The Time You Wish You Had

If you've had trouble sticking to plans in the past, in might be time to inject a little realism.

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Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash
Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash

I can’t even count the number of times someone has told me something along the lines of “I don’t plan anymore because it’s futile; I never stick to my plans”.” Or sometimes “Well, I don’t control my own schedule, so how can I plan?” Or even “Why should I plan if I know things will change?”

While these are all slightly different flavors of the same rationale, I find that they can all be rebutted with the following solution: It’s more effective to plan for the time you actually have, not the time you wish you had.

What happens more often is that we get stuck in the messy middle between our hopes and dreams about what the day holds for us, and the actual reality of our situation. No, you’re not willfully ignorant. But I’m willing to bet you’re overly optimistic. (Spoiler: most of us are!)

If you’ve been around me for long, you’ll have heard me talk about task realism: the idea that you’ll get more of the right stuff done by planning with reality in mind. That if you have time to do 5 things, it’s far better to decide what those things are, and do them, than to have 25 things on your list for the same time window that you won’t possibly get to.

But I get it; it’s hard. Often when I’m in the weeds with my clients and their task systems, I’m asking questions like “When will have time to do X?”. And the responses I get are often along the lines of “Well, it should have been done last week” or “I want to do this today”. And I always respond with “Ok, but is that realistic? When will you actually have time to do this?” The answer then usually becomes some other time; not today. What you want to get done today and what you can get done today are different. And it’s hard to face that truth. But, if you’re ruthless on the front end, I promise that you’ll be setting yourself up for success later.

How can you make reality-based planning easier? Here are a few tips:

Plan using all the data

Use a single trusted system for your tasks. If you’re not looking at the full picture, you’re going to miss something. When you try to plan with only partial data, you inevitably create a sub-par plan. A plan you’ll end up tossing when you realize you forgot to include something key because you made the plan in your head and not from your task system.

Also, when planning your work, make sure to account for the stuff that’s not in your task system but still takes time. It’s very likely that every day you eat, you go to the bathroom, you need to take a few breaks, etc. So account for that in your plans.

Plan for the unexpected

Unexpected stuff pops up every day. And if it pops up every day, then it’s not really unexpected. You may not know what will come up, but you know something will. Build enough buffer into your plans to account for the unexpected.

And if things miraculously go as planned, no surprises, well then, lucky you. You can either finish early or do something today that you had planned to do tomorrow.

Plan assuming you’re underestimating how long things will take

Are you regularly making plans that underestimate just how long things will take? If so, why not just accept that reality and plan for it? I’ve written before about how humans are generally bad time estimators and what to do about it. But if you know you underestimate, then start by inflating your estimations until they get you closer to reality.

(For instance, in my head, I always things it’s going to take me an hour to write a blog post. In reality, it takes about 90 minutes. So now I just plan for 90 minutes because that’s the reality.)

Plan for interruptions

If the nature of your work is that you’re going to be interrupted, plan for that as well. Not sure how often it’s happening or how much time the interruptions take? Try tracking it for a day.

You may be able to exert control over some of the interruptions (email/Slack notifications, for instance). However, if there are regular interruptions that can’t be avoided, it’s best to face reality and plan your time taking them into account

What’s something that you’ve been overlooking when you plan?

Tell me in the comments!

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