Just-in-Time and Deep: The Secret to Less Stressful Planning

Your project plan is mostly a way to keep your mind clear and reduce anxiety.

Posted Sep 27, 2016

Natalie B/Pexels
Source: Natalie B/Pexels

Let’s say you want a vegetable garden in your back yard. That’s going to require some planning and some doing.

But how much planning do you need to do? And when should you do it?

One possibility is that you just wing it. You get to Spring, buy some seeds, throw them in the ground, and see what happens.

Another possibility is that you do meticulous research all winter until you know exactly what kind of garden you want, what materials you will use, how you will build it, and in what order.

The problem with the first approach is that you won’t likely have much of a garden the first year.

The problem with the second approach is that you will spend a lot of time considering “what-if”s that never happen, and find out in the end that things didn’t unfold according to your meticulous plan after all.

That’s why some people take a third approach: just-in-time, deep planning.

Shallow Plans and Deeper Plans

How do you measure the depth of a plan? Well, let’s contrast a deep plan with a shallow plan. A simple to-do list is a shallow plan, because every item in the list is at the same level. If you break some of the items in the simple list down further, so you have multiple levels, then you will have a deeper plan. In general depth is a matter of how many levels your outline goes.

Shallow Plan:

  1. Put in raised bed
  2. Prepare and load the soil
  3. Plant the seeds
  4. Water and weed
  5. Harvest the crops.

Deeper Plan:

  1. Put in raised bed
    • Choose an area.
    • Prepare the area
      1. Mark out a 6x10 area in the lawn.
      2. Dig out old sod
      3. Move the sod to a pile where it can decompose into compost.
    • Collect the materials
      1. 2 2”X10”x8’ boards,
      2. 2 2”x10”x4’ boards
      3. 1.5” spax wood screws
      4. Cordless screwdriver
      5. 4 Corner brackets to join the boards.
    • Assemble the bed
  2. Prepare and load the soil
  3. Plant the seeds
  4. Water and weed
  5. Harvest the crops.
     
  • Choose an area.
  • Prepare the area
    1. Mark out a 6x10 area in the lawn.
    2. Dig out old sod
    3. Move the sod to a pile where it can decompose into compost.
  • Collect the materials
    1. 2 2”X10”x8’ boards,
    2. 2 2”x10”x4’ boards
    3. 1.5” spax wood screws
    4. Cordless screwdriver
    5. 4 Corner brackets to join the boards.
  • Assemble the bed
  1. Mark out a 6x10 area in the lawn.
  2. Dig out old sod
  3. Move the sod to a pile where it can decompose into compost.
  1. 2 2”X10”x8’ boards,
  2. 2 2”x10”x4’ boards
  3. 1.5” spax wood screws
  4. Cordless screwdriver
  5. 4 Corner brackets to join the boards.

The deeper plan takes the first item in the shallow plan and breaks it down further. In fact, with the deeper structure, the plan is now three levels deep instead of one.

Deep planning is a good idea for a couple reasons. First, it usually gives you a better plan, where more of the details are worked out. Second, it keeps your mind clear.

Here’s the thing: you’re going to do deep planning anyway. The question is how much of your plan will be kept on paper (or on a computer), and how much of it will be kept in your head, where things can get jumbled, confused, and forgotten.

How Deep?

So how deep should the planning go?

In theory you could keep breaking things down further and further until you’re planning micro-second actions that don’t even make any sense to label (“continue tilting your foot toward the floor” (as you’re walking to the door to go to the store to buy some screws)”). If you plan deeply enough, you would never get around to executing the plan, and your plan would grow longer than all the content in Wikipedia.

Obviously that’s not the answer.

Fortunately, you probably already have a sense for what kinds of tasks are simple enough to your mind that you don’t have to break them down any further. When you get to the point where you don’t have to keep any steps in your head while you’re working, that’s far enough. And that can change over time. When you first perform a multi-step procedure, you might want to write down every step. When you’ve done it a thousand times, you might be able to just write the procedure down, knowing the execution of the steps will be on autopilot.

Other than that, you plan as deeply as you need to plan to keep your mind clear. That means, if you have an important detail pop into your mind, when you’re not immediately working on it, you find the right place for it in your plan. That gets it out of your head, and into a place you can trust. If that means you need to make your plan a little deeper, you do.

With a good planning tool it takes only a second to take anything that pops into your head, find the right spot for it, and write it down. That leaves your mind free to engage more fully in your current activity, rather than trying to remember a bunch of details that are better kept on paper.

Just-In-Time Planning

But when should we do all this deep planning? Should we spend all Winter figuring out exactly what we want to do come Springtime? Should we develop a plan for every contingency?

Well, if you want to, don’t let me stop you. I know how fun it can be to use YouTube and Reddit to dive into a new hobby, exploring all the nuances late into an evening or two (or ten).

But for most projects too much planning too early can be wasted effort. If you’re concerned about how much time you’re spending in the planning phase, it’s often best to just get the main gist early on, and then save much of the detail for when you get closer to doing the work. You’ll be more motivated at that point, and you might know more details about your situation.

You want to do SOME planning early. That allows you to take advantage of the incubation effect. [1]  The rule of thumb here is to do as much early planning as it takes to convince yourself that the project will work. You don’t need to know every detail. You just need to convince yourself that, somehow or other, it will work.

And, as you wait for Springtime, two things will drive you to expand your plan a bit. First, you will have questions about certain parts of the process. When that happens you will do some more research, make some choices, and make your plan a little deeper. Second, you will have isolated ideas pop into your head from time to time. Get those into your plan, too, so you don’t have to keep them in your head.

Other than that, you can just leave most of the deep planning until right before you do it.

So, for instance, in December, when you first decide you want a garden, you might create the simple to do list we saw in the last section. Then, as questions and ideas come to you in January and February, you might expand your plan a little to get things off your mind and manage your confidence. Then, in March, when it comes time to actually build your raised bed, you might develop the deeper plan we saw in the last section.

Notice that the deeper plan we saw in the last section has only the first task broken down into fine detail. That’s fine. Once you finish building the bed, you can turn your attention to planning in more detail how you will load the soil, plant the veggies, and so on.

Summary and Exceptions.

The suggestion here is that it’s good to plan deeply, but it’s often not necessary until right before you start the work. Let’s take just a moment now to summarize the guiding principles, and consider an exception or two.

The depth of the plan is determined by the “Rule of the Clear Mind”.

Rule of the Clear Mind: Plan to a depth that allows you to get all the details out of your mind and onto paper.

And the timing of the plan is determined by the “Rule of Confidence”.

Rule of Confidence: Early on, plan only as deeply as you need to in order to feel confident that the plan will work. (As you get closer to the time you need work on the project, you will naturally start to have deeper an deeper questions that will drive deeper and deeper planning).

Now, here are some exceptions:

  1. If the project is important and requires you to justify to others that you’ve got all your bases covered, you will need to do more deep planning early on. There’s a difference between building a garden in your backyard and building a bridge for the city.
  2. If parts of your plan require you to take an action, and then wait for others to do their jobs, then you will need to do more deep planning early so you can choreograph a good schedule (perhaps even using a gantt chart [2].) For example, if you plan to have soil delivered to you by a landscape supply company, then you will want to order the soil far enough ahead of when you want to use it that it’s there when you need it. In general, if you sense that timing will be an issue, it’s a good idea to plan a little more deeply a little earlier in the process.
  3. If you find yourself geeking out over the details, and you have the time available, then you should feel free to plan as deeply as you want as early as you want. Just don’t become overly-attached to the details, because they will likely change as you get closer to working on your project. If you want to understand all the common contingencies (bugs, soil problems, powdery mildew, oh my!), and how people deal with them, and learn 100 different ways people out in YouTube land are approaching backyard gardens (or whatever it is you’re planning) these days, then, by all means, Geek On!

And, of course, all of this applies to any project you might want to take on. It doesn’t matter whether you’re gardening, planning a wedding, building a business, remodeling a kitchen, or writing a paper. The same principles apply.

Notes:

[1] See: "The Creativity Hack You Can Do in Your Sleep

[2] Wikipedia: Gantt Chart

[3] A word processor outline will work for any plan. If you want to be able to zoom in and pan out, hide and reveal parts of the plan, and check things off, then either of these two applications work better: