I always loved the idea of planning, but have been absolutely useless at it. I usually start by making quite an intense plan for a week. However, living according to it for longer than 2 weeks is impossible. Probably the fact that I have not planned any rest and try to achieve all my yearly goals in January has something to do with my failure. So before I know it I burn out and find myself on the sofa watching Netflix again and again. I lie there and don’t even pay attention to what is going on on the screen, instead I think about my never-ending to-do lists, that in fact are useless and unnecessary and only make me feel disappointed with how little I have achieved. They make me feel like the more I do, the longer the list becomes, and before I know it I, like Alice in Wonderland, I fall into the rabbit hole of unfinished tasks that all beg to be done. They revolve around me like mosquitoes, buzzing and reminding me how much I still have to do. There is no time to rest! These tasks keep me in a constant tense state of mind, and I no longer understand why I even have some of them on the list, I just want to get them done.
This year I am trying to do it a bit differently and hoping that it will help me break the eternal hamster in a wheel cycle. I am not putting as much pressure on myself and for a full month, I’m testing my schedule to see what is working and what needs to be changed or adjusted to suit my lifestyle. This new approach comes from product design, when you create a prototype, then test it and iterate as necessary to make it suit the needs of the target audience.
Artists and thinkers
One of the mistakes I made in the past when planning my weeks/month is trying to plan every little detail of the day. This doesn’t really work for me, because even though I appreciate my routine, too much of it kills the joy in life for me. This is exactly the moment when I rebel against it and sign up to do yet another online course to make the boring life I planned for myself so carefully a little more exciting. As a result of such ineffective behaviour I have been avoiding some important tasks in my life.
This desire to control every second of my life is limiting and paralyzing. And for any creative person (artist type according to Pavlov) an ability to feel, experience, and let the process consume me fully is the most important thing. Neverending to-do lists and time-blocking for 4 weeks ahead makes me feel like a walking dead. Even worse, because walking dead at least have a purpose, I don’t even see the point in my actions.
I can’t say that I am a workaholic, but I love to keep busy. My grandad’s favourite quote is: “Laziness – is the rust of humanity”. He grew up in a Belorussian village and was just a boy during the 2nd World War, so he was used to working hard. I grew up with the same beliefs about having to work hard. I wasn’t sent to Stanford or any other fancy school where you are taught to work smart, not hard. When you have to hide underground in the forest for years and you’re not sure when you get to eat next, the lesson you teach your family is to work hard. Which my granddad did, and I still do and I am forever grateful to my family for this useful habit.
The one thing I never learned living by these rules was the ability to experience life in the moment, slow down, and check-in with my emotional reaction which always comes before rationalisation. This emotional reaction is based on the true needs of my brain, it makes my actions synced with my needs and creates synergy in my life. Everything I do becomes a complex system, which gives me energy and motivation. All atoms, molecules, and elements of this system activate each other, everything comes to life, together as one. This feeling (a mental picture) captivates me. However, the second I start digging deeper into one of the elements and figuring out how it works – it all falls apart. It seems that the better I try to understand each individual element – the faster this unity falls apart and my motivation goes with it. You may think that this metaphor doesn’t make any sense to you, and you are entitled to think this way. I am simply trying to put into words how my mind works, and it isn’t as easy as it seems.
Brain and planning
Planning is one of the many functions of our brain. Our brain (hippocampus to be more precise) is using its past experiences (memories) to predict the future. Neuronal impulses travel from the hippocampus to many different areas of the cortex asking for relevant bits of information and then build a memory based on the received information. Visual, audial, and tactile information come from different areas in the cortex (where they are stored), and based on these collected blocks of information we construct a full memory.
The brain needs the ability to plan in order to satisfy our basic needs. We always have a need to satisfy, and once it is satisfied another one emerges. Planning isn’t something that we can tick off the list, there is no destination, it is a never-ending process. When a basic need is formed (for example I feel hungry), the energy in our brain is directed into appropriate neuronal formations in order to satisfy this need. If this need is stronger than the other ones in this given moment in time – it wins and becomes a dominant.
Based on this dominant winning need our brain creates an objective and a plan of actions to meet it. For example, when I feel hungry (hunger is dominant) I need to find something to eat (objective), therefore I need to go to the shop, buy some food and cook it (action plan). This is how our brain is planning every day.
However, it isn’t as simple as it seems at first sight. The thing is, our brain is lazy, and it uses its past experiences to plan future actions. As a result, we base our actions on our familiar behavioural patterns (habits). This is one of the main reasons why we get stuck in a rut and are not able to solve problems effectively. The circumstances change and our usual way to solve a problem doesn’t work anymore. For example, when we are young we can eat french fries and ice cream and don’t need to worry about putting on weight. As we age, our metabolism slows down and this diet will have a different result, so we must change it due to its ineffectiveness.
Another important point to consider is that our brain will always choose the simplest solution because its main goal is to save energy. For example, instead of going to the shop and getting ingredients for a healthy dinner, we find something to snack on (which usually isn’t as healthy) to quickly satisfy the need without using too much precious brain energy.
We use the same principle to solve more complex problems. In order to find a more effective solution – we need to get out of the usual ways of thinking and acting. For example, we can find new information on this topic, get other people involved, or anything else that will help you break your usual cycle.
This principle is like the Stanford marshmallow experiment (led by psychologist Walter Mischelwhich in 1972) which studied delayed enjoyment. The same as the kids, who took part in this experiment we either decide to go for a simple solution that gives us an immediate reward (eat one marshmallow now) or a more effective solution that delays the reward (wait 20 minutes to get 2 marshmallows).
Why planning doesn’t work
Planning doesn’t work when we don’t set the right priorities, fail to correctly estimate how long completing a task will take, or when something doesn’t go according to plan.
In order to set our priorities correctly, we need to understand what is important for us. It is a little bit harder than it seems. It isn’t news for anyone, that most of our values are imposed on us by the culture we grew up in. Why then do we chase these culturally promoted attributes of happiness so tirelessly?
Most people value things like health, happiness, freedom, family, etc. And we will all put our own meaning into these values, which will change with time and depending on the circumstances we are in. This is exactly where we fall into a trap e.g we think that happiness is a successful career and only while we are going up the ladder we realise that the thing which actually makes us happy is something entirely different.
Therefore the right decision when determining your values is to assume what is important for you and then listen to yourself, your reactions, feelings, and responses to try and understand if that assumption is correct. In order to determine how important a value is for you – you need to change an ambiguous value into a specific goal, so that once you achieve it you know if you are headed in the right direction.
Correctly set reference points will keep reminding you what really brings you joy and fulfills you when the times are hard, or routine is destroying your motivation. These reference points are something that makes my complex system alive.
Time spent on a task or when something goes wrong
Planning is a skill and it needs to be developed. In the beginning, it will be hard to estimate the time needed to complete a task and you will be getting it wrong for a while, but it is okay to fail when you are learning. In fact, you have to fail to learn and improve. You need to be patient and learn from your mistakes, constantly adjusting your predictions. It is a process of constant adjustment, and you will find your own way to do it. I use the Pomodoro technique to measure how long a specific task will take me to complete.
In addition, different tasks require different approaches. You can think about categorizing them in a way that makes sense to you. I like to separate the tasks into two groups: tasks that require my full attention, and the ones that I can do in autopilot mode (doing dishes, walking, cooking).
To-do lists and why they don’t work
To-do lists are pure evil if you don’t know how and when to use them. I learned this the hard way. I started adding some truly useless things to my list and without even noticing ticking off tasks became the only goal. However, this strategy was only driving me further away from my actual goals. My list was getting longer, I could never complete all of the tasks and the only feeling I got, as a result, was never-ending anxiety caused by having too much on my plate. I remember losing my sense of direction. I was so consumed by completing tasks on my list in order to feel productive that I could not relax or enjoy the moment. I was always living in the future, where I completed all the tasks. But this future prediction never became reality, because I kept adding more to the list.
The thing is to-do lists distract us not only from important tasks but also from what is happening in the here and now. Our brain chooses to focus on an easier task by default because its main goal is to preserve energy and easier tasks consume less energy. To-do lists focus our attention on what needs to be done but they encourage us to predict the result of our actions in the future. These future predictions make us anxious because there are multiple different outcomes of our action and not all of them are positive.
Time blocking is a much more effective method of time management. This technique allows us to replace multiple predictions of the future with concrete actions and thinking about these concrete actions helps us tap into the natural way our brains plan to achieve goals. This kind of planning returns us to here and now because there is no room for reflecting or predicting which helps us create a realistic timeframe.
This method also helps to free up some brain capacity for more complicated and energy-consuming tasks as it doesn’t need to waste its resources holding irrelevant information.
Let’s go back to priorities because they will help us to plan the time blocks in a way to save us from professional burnout. Nir Eyal suggests dividing all tasks into 3 groups based on their importance. The first and the most important group is you, second – important people in your life, third – is work and other projects. He recommends planning time blocks in this order. First, you add all things you do for yourself (fitness, self-care, anything that you need), then tasks and activities for important people in your life, and only then work-related tasks. In my opinion and experience, it is better to stick to these 3 categories, especially when you are just starting to use the time-blocking technique.
Another technique is to use Eisenhauer’s matrix, which can help you prioritise tasks by dividing them into two categories:
How much will it affect my life? Important and unimportant tasks.
When does it need to be done? Urgent and not urgent tasks.
1 Fire Alarm mode, drop everything else
4 True planning
2 Default mode, automated actions, and habits
3 Avoiding complexity
This is the order in which our brain chooses to complete tasks:
Important and urgent tasks. Something that you can’t postpone. Completing these tasks makes us feel really good about ourselves, we feel like heroes. Endorphins are being released, which makes us feel on top of the world, motivated, and energised. However, to complete these chaotic and unpredictable tasks we have to use most of the cognitive resources available to us. And if we have too many tasks from this category on our plate – we can’t handle it and feel drained very quickly.
Urgent, but unimportant tasks. All our routine tasks sit in this category, the tasks that we complete in autopilot mode. If we spend too long in this mode, we feel empty inside and losing the joy in life. We consider completing these tasks not a significant effort and most of the time feel like we haven’t done anything special.
Not urgent and unimportant tasks. This is where we get into a trap of to-do lists and complete simple tasks first, postponing the complex ones. If we have 2 tasks on our to-do list, our brain will always choose to complete the easier ones first.
Not urgent, but important. These tasks have the lowest priority for our brain, but they are the most important ones because they help us to plan strategically and invest in our future. By completing tasks from this category we can avoid having too many tasks from the 1st quadrant. On top of that, completing them makes us feel happy and as if we have done something really important.
One thing to consider when prioritising tasks is that we don’t always recognise which tasks are important and we sometimes mistake unimportant ones for important ones.
This table can help you work out which quadrant the task you are focusing on belongs to and determine whether you are actually focusing on something important, or simply trying to escape complexity and doing something to appear busy and productive.
Which quadrant does it belong to?
At the moment I am trying to combine all the techniques I have described and create a system that is tailored to my personal needs and lifestyle.
I split my week into time blocks which I kept quite general (for example focus time), and plan more specific tasks depending on my daily and weekly goals. These time blocks are tentative and easy enough to swap with other ones in case of an unexpected task or poor judgment on how long completing the task will take me. I have also started planning my rest which helps me to be in the moment.
This way of planning is working for me so far, because it allows some flexibility and sets me up for success.