In 2012 I quit my job and founded a startup, built a team, wrote and published a startup book, produced an indie nature documentary and moved between countries twice. It was a productive year. Here’s what I wrote about my productivity planning exactly a year ago.
New Year forces you to stop and think about what you’ve done, what you haven’t done, and what you want to do. A year ago I chose to put more work into things that matter and less into things that don’t matter. I chose to drop quite a few things altogether. I’ve also chosen to reverse the planning process. Here’s how.
I work with and think about startups most of my waking hours and a few of the non-waking ones, so ‘lean’ and ‘agile’ and ‘iterative’ are thoughts that I’ve applied in my personal routines as well. Two years ago I was even creating an iteration-driven personal productivity system, but I realized soon that it doesn’t work for me anymore. I’ve encouraged and followed the idea of ‘efficient drifting’, where you head onwards with the flow and steer as new channels are revealed (not too far from evidence-based management, or lean principles).
The problem with iterative models both in life and in product development is that it is too easy to bend and change direction. In pivoting a startup, you bend rather than break, and this is good. You get a new direction that is more sustainable, and you head there as long as the evidence and customer adoption is there. Say, a social news service can’t find sustainable revenues, and pivots into a vertical ad network that makes money and is profitable. But what if you don’t like vertical ad networks?
This is where life differs from startups (though, maybe startups shouldn’t differ from life in that – another topic for later). You may not like your direction, or at least all the directions that your various projects are taking.
Reverse planning is one answer. In reverse planning, you set your goal first, and chart your path from that goal to the present moment, in reverse order. I find there are hard and soft versions of reverse planning.
Hard reverse planning – this style has its roots in military theory. There is an exact end state that needs to be reached, and a careful plan is constructed to get to that point. This works on some level.
Soft reverse planning – this is an NLP or self-suggestive practice, where you vividly imagine the goal you want to reach, and equally vividly imagine the steps required to get you there. Visualization, repetition and linguistic enforcement is key here.
I use elements of both without putting either force or blind faith into the process. In setting a long-term goal with reverse planning, you always have to make sure you are dealing with things that have as few immutables as possible. Medium-term goals can have more environmental factors in them, and short-term planning can better take into account contingencies.
Here’s how I follow a reverse planning process for meaningful productivity.
1. Goals: Decide on your long-term goal. Here, we’re talking the the very basics. Happiness? Money? Fame? Expertise in a certain field? Pick it and write it down. Avoid using anything external in this goal – it must come from yourself, and only include yourself. That way, only you are responsible. This is your goal, your decision. This is what is valuable to you. Long-term, here, can mean anything from a few months to a few years, depending what you are applying it to. Give it a deadline.
2. Stages: Break it down into medium-term stages. These are goals, too, but they have instrumental value. They help you towards your long-term goal. They are stages, because they allow you to stop and realize you’ve made your progress towards the end-goal. They all have deadlines. Between stages, you can have anything from a couple of weeks to a few months.
3. Steps: Chart the short-term steps that will take you to the first medium-term stage. These are the exact things you need to do, the actions you have to take, the people you have to convince, the sales you have to make that take you to the end of this medium-term stage. These must be exact, and for these you can use whatever process and productivity method you find works for you (calendar, Kanban, GTD, Agile, Superfocus + Pomodoro…). During the steps, you will steer your course towards the stage.
4. Breather: Once you reach a Stage (a medium-term goal), stop. Look what you did, what worked, what didn’t. Did you reach the stage by the deadline? If not, maybe you are a bit further down the mountain still, but you are heading up (or are you?). Evaluate your next Steps to the next Stage. Chart your path, make sure it leads in the right direction, and that the Stage is still relevant. If you ended up on a different Stage because things have changed, maybe you will have to change your next couple of Stages too, before you get back on track with your planned Stages. Then keep going.
That’s all there is to reverse planning, the way I do it. It seems to work pretty well, and being able to set your own value is powerful. With the advent of lean, agile and evidence-based fly-by-wire management, planning has been getting a bad rap. But efficient planning - making a plan, sticking to it, and hitting your goal - is both powerful and empowering.