Have you ever been called on a project with so much to do that you don’t know where to start? Do you often work overtime? Near burnout?
The following 3-step planning process:
• ELICIT the To-Do’s for your workday
• PRIORITIZE the To-Do’s according to the 4 quadrants of the Eisenhower matrix
• SEQUENCE the To-Do’s using criteria such as expected business value and expected duration
can be implemented in different ways. We illustrate how the process works using the mind mapping technique, a natural implementation candidate.
Execution is improved first as a result of better planning and by concentrating on the To-Do always showing up on top of the list, while paying attention to details « attached » to the To-Do, resulting in a more fluid workday and ultimately a better work-life balance.
It is totally obvious that in order to make progress, one must be able execute; this is particularly true in projects in crisis, as many action items need to be done for a sustainable recovery (in fact, lack of execution may be a perception that project stakeholders may complain about). But before execution, careful planning needs to happen. For that, we are presenting below a process to better plan our workday using the mind mapping technique (can be used stand-alone or in the cloud using free or commercial mind mapping tools…). It must be conceived as complementary to the more macro planning, typically a Gantt chart, done at project level.
The mind map below is a tool supporting the methodology. It acts as a To-Do idea catcher to capture all To-Do’s that cross our mind, any day, any time. We can attach the To-Do’s to any node, depending on our expectation/obligation to complete the To-Do’s: if we expect/must accomplish the To-Do within the week (resp. this month or this year), we will attach to node « this WEEK » (resp. « this MONTH », « this YEAR »). If the time horizon of a To-Do is unclear, we can attach it to the « To Plan » node.
Seems natural to you? Let us remind ourselves here of a quote from David Allen, author of the book Getting Things Done: « Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them”. Making a note of our To-Do’s allows us to unload our mind from the responsibility and anxiety of remembering them.
We will now focus on the planning part. The 3 stages of the planning process are ELICIT – PRIORITIZE – SEQUENCE. Let us examine each stage in more details.
Elicit the To-Do’s of your day. To enable this, it is necessary to find a peaceful moment (usually at the end of your workday or in the evening – best, anticipating your next day, for a better sleep – or early in the morning) when you feel relaxed to think ahead and come up with the activities for the next day.
To-Do’s for the day may come from different sources:
- project-related tasks that need to be worked on (either managing activities or action items implementing tasks of the project plan, which will be at a finer grain of detail than the project tasks);
- unplanned To-Do’s identified as a result of unplanned project-related events such as incidents, issues and risks;
- other work-related domains, because you have a life outside of your projects (training, reporting, connecting with customers or colleagues, admin work, …). To-Do’s in this category may come from long-term objectives you set for yourself.
Note: it is useful to browse To-Do’s attached to nodes “this WEEK” and “this MONTH” for To-Do’s candidates for TODAY, among which “Repeat To-Do’s” to be accomplished at regular intervals, weekly or monthly.
During the elicitation stage, attach To-Do’s for the day to the “Elicit” node. To-Do’s should be described as precisely as possible with a clear scope of what needs to be done and should start with an action verb.
Prioritizing boils down to assigning each To-Do’s of the ELICIT stage to one of the 4 quadrants of the Eisenhower matrix, namely:
- UI: Urgent and Important;
- uI: non urgent and Important;
- Ui: Urgent and non important;
- ui: non urgent and non important.
It is beyond the scope of this post to present the Eisenhower prioritization matrix in details, let us insist however on the 2 key concepts here:
- Urgency: there is a pressing deadline by which a To-Do must be completed;
- Importance: it relates to the main objectives you set for yourself or for your project (and for
which you feel a strong commitment); alternatively your boss or client has assigned the objective to you.
- UI is the quadrant of critical activities;
- uI is the ideal quadrant to be in (it is ideal to work on important things without tough time pressure);
- Ui is the quadrant of activities you can probably delegate to someone else instead of spending time doing them yourself;
- ui is the quadrant of activities not worth your time: just drop them!
In the context of the mind mapping tool, « prioritizing » means selecting each To-Do’s listed under the « Elicit » node and dragging & dropping it under any of the 4 child-nodes of the “Prioritize” node.
As a project in crisis recovers its normal course, there should be more and more To-Do’s located in the uI quadrant (as opposed to the UI quadrant) than at the beginning of the recovery of the project.
Within each quadrant, order the To-Do’s in the order you plan to accomplish them (UI and uI are the only two quadrants requiring our full implication; for Ui, we “just” need to monitor the execution of the To-Do’s delegated to someone else). The ordering may depend on multiple criteria such as: the moment of the day you are most efficient dealing with work requiring high concentration, the type of To-Do’s, the expected duration to complete them, the availability of a resource… It is recommended to be attentive to the transition between tasks; can you avoid too many context changes, which are a time waster in your workday?
At the end of this 3-phase process, To-Do’s located under the UI and uI nodes are action items you commit to accomplish today (sort of a contract with yourself).
It is very important to not forget to take breaks; breathing is essential during the workday. If taking pauses is not natural, then the Pomodoro technique is for you: try to enforce pauses by grouping To-Do’s within 30-min to 1-hour chunks, during which you plan to accomplish them with no interruption, and by making pauses between chunks. If a To-Do is expected to last more than, say, 1 hour, then break it up into several To-Do’s, in between which you will be able to take a break. We are not robots; we definitely need to take breaks to find inspiration, socialize, maintain high spirits, …
- this planning process does not need to be time-consuming (over-planning not recommended). Indeed, one does not need to spend more than 15-20 min per day when trained. This is time well spent and payoff is usually immediate by having a more thought out and fluid workday;
- if unexpected events happen during the day that require attention and action the same day, prioritizing and sequencing kicks in again to adapt the plan to the new situation;
- using a mind map, it is easy to add details as appropriate, for instance by dividing a To-Do into several sub-actions (child nodes) in order not to forget to execute them (« the devil is in the details » the saying goes, but so are opportunities to make a difference for the customer);
- To-Do’s not depending on other To-Do’s, estimated to take just a few minutes and whose expected benefit/business value (BV) is big should be executed first; therefore they should appear near the top of the list.
EXECUTE THE PLAN
Once planning is done, it is time to execute:
- execution is improved by focusing on the To-Do appearing on top of the list and by paying attention to the details attached to the node (child nodes, notes, …);
- once a To-Do is completed, we can drag and drop it under node « Done Today »; we can then focus on the next To-Do showing at the top of the UI quadrant (or uI, if UI is empty);
- don’t be upset if you have not accomplished all the tasks planned for today! It is essential however that the most critical and important To-Do’s of your day get done;
- at the end of the day, all done items under « Done Today » can be dragged and dropped under a child node of « Done in the PAST » labeled with today’s date, thus providing a record of today’s achievements, useful for instance for reporting purposes (activity sheets, …).
BENEFITS AND CONCLUSION
In this article, we presented a simple yet powerful approach to planning and executing the workday, which is systematic and based on a combination of the following main concepts: task capture, prioritization, sequencing and expected business value.
Execution is improved first as a result of better planning by capturing all To-Do’s that need to be done, by prioritizing them using the Eisenhower matrix and finally by sequencing them with an understanding of the expected duration and expected benefit of each To-Do. One does not need to periodically think about what needs to be done next, as this has been planned already. Of course, we must leave room for the unexpected and adapt the plan if necessary. Second, concentrating on the To-Do that shows up “at the top of the list”, while paying attention to the details attached to the To-Do node, facilitates execution.
This article is an invitation to a journey. Depending on your level of maturity in managing your time, if you generally don’t make a note of the To-Do’s that cross your mind at any time, then you will find doing so very useful. The support format (mind mapping tool, kanban, MS Office, software or paper notepad, …) is not the central issue even though the mind mapping tool is a natural fit for this kind of planning and keeping-track-of activities; just use the format that best suits your way of working. If you are willing to go one step further, prioritize according to the 4 quadrants then sequence and it won’t be long before you (and your clients) reap the benefits. Happy elicitation, prioritization, sequencing and finally happy execution!