Category Archives: planning

Visual metaphors and layouts for planning your life

Marty Pauschke was interested in sketchnoting/drawing as a way of planning your own life. I find drawing to be really useful in making sense of my life and planning ahead, because it allows me to see the bigger picture. Here are some types of diagrams and visual metaphors that I use. I’d love to see yours!

Life as a journey

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You can think of life as a journey. Imagine what the destination looks like, and think about the milestones you’d like to see along the way. You can draw obstacles and think about ways around them. This is great for celebrating your progress so far and seeing what’s next.

Example: 2012 as a sketch

Arrows

Here’s another way to look at it: as a target that you’re reaching with an arrow. Sometimes it helps to think about the goal first, then work backwards: what needs to happen in order for you to reach your goal? What needs to happen for that to happen? Continue until you get to actions you can take today.

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Crossroads

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Of course, life isn’t a simple journey – it’s full of decisions. Sometimes it helps to think about what some different possible outcomes are, and what you like or dislike about each one. Then you can figure out what you’re leaning towards.

If you’re looking at multiple decisions, a simple diagram might be easier to make and read.image You can see the branching-off points and think about what information you need in order to make the best decisions at each stage.

Mindmaps and other diagrams

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Great for branching out into detail. Example: Imagining the next five years and planning 2013. You don’t have to stick with having one central idea. Play around.

Charts are handy, too – make up your own labels and chart types! Example: Mapping my work happiness

Timelinesimage

Timelines are good for remembering because you end up filling in the blanks.

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I like making spiral timelines because they give me different amounts of space for things that are more important to me (ex: more recent memories). Spirals can go the other way, too – zeroing in on a goal.

 

Strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats

imageThe SWOT analysis is used a lot in management schools and in consulting, and it’s useful for personal growth as well. I like focusing on my strengths and finding workarounds for my weaknesses.

 

Pre-mortem and post-mortem analyses

imageSpeaking of weaknesses, I like doing pre-mortems – anticipating ways something could go wrong. Gravestones are a nice touch. Example: Experiment pre-mortem

These are just some of the ways I use drawing to help me remember and plan. How do you draw your life?

What do I want to do right now? Understanding my algorithm for discretionary time

Noorul asked, "How do you generally begin your day and how does it span? Do you plan for each hour or do you plan a task across many days/weeks?"

I have three kinds of days:

  • Weekends are reserved for spending time with W- or friends, helping out around the house, cooking, and getting ready for the next week. I take an hour for my weekly review, and I often have more time to write or read, but I don’t count on it – people get first dibs.
  • Consulting days – Tuesdays and Thursdays, usually, although I’m planning to take all of August off. I wake up, have breakfast, get ready, bike, work from about 10 to 5 (earlier or later, depending on attention and need), bike back, and then go to a meetup or spend the rest of the day at home.
  • Discretionary days – Wide-open and wonderful, these are the days when I follow my interests freely: writing, coding, drawing, learning… Sometimes I punctuate them with meetings—I’m practising talking to people. 

I briefly experimented with planning my life in detail before, assigning tasks to specific days or even blocking off hours in my calendar. I wanted to make sure that important tasks didn’t fall off my radar and that I didn’t overcommit my day. It didn’t really work for me – I kept moving things around depending on how I felt.

What works for me now? Minimizing commitments, thinking in terms of weeks, making decisions moment by moment, and always having good things to choose from (it helps to keep track of good ideas). Not wasting energy in beating myself up about what I haven’t done; instead, I celebrate the things I do.

Here’s what my decision process looks like when I ask myself, "What do I want to do right now?" It’s roughly in terms of priorities, although I might pick something lower on the list if that’s what I really want, and I save chores for downtime.

  1. Does W- need my help with any projects?
  2. Have I promised anything urgent to anyone?
  3. Are there chores to be done?
    1. Is the kitchen clean?
    2. Is there laundry to be done?
    3. Does the garden need watering?
    4. Do the litter boxes need to be cleared?
    5. Do things need to be tidied a little?
    6. Have I gotten a bit of exercise?
  4. Do I want to work on my computer?
    1. Do I have something to write about? What am I curious about?
    2. Do I feel like coding?
    3. Do I feel like drawing?
      1. Do I want to draw my own things? 
      2. Do I want to work on a book review?
  5. Are there books I want to read?
  6. Do I have Japanese flashcards to review?
  7. Is there e-mail I need to reply to?
  8. Are there stories I want to read?
  9. Do I want to reach out to anyone and brighten their day?
  10. What else do I want to do?

I prioritize things based on happiness, relationships, energy, what I’ve been doing recently (momentum!), what I haven’t done recently, whatever else comes to mind…

E-mail and social networks are pretty far down my list. Sometimes I trawl my inbox for blog post ideas, and once in a while, I go through my inbox to reply to as much as I can. (I try to do this every week, although sometimes it stretches.) TV and movies are background activities, to be saved for sessions of laundry-folding or coding – almost always DVDs checked out of the library, so that we can watch with subtitles and rewinds. In the interstitial time between activities, I do flashcards or read blog posts on my phone.

Commitments go on my planner (Org Mode in Emacs, for flexibility); all the rest are unscheduled tasks that I can review by context or look up by project depending on what I’m interested in or drawn to. There are things that I plan to do that I don’t end up doing, but that’s because they get preempted by things that are more important to me.

So that’s the discretionary stuff. What about our routines?

I wake up at 8 or 9, snoozing if I feel sleepy. I use the bathroom, wash my mouth guard, let the cats drink from the faucet. Downstairs, I have our "standard breakfast": one fried egg with brown rice, sometimes even two eggs as a weekend luxury. I head upstairs to brush my teeth and dress up. Then I pack my lunch and whatever I need (if I’m going outside) or settle into working on my own projects on our kitchen table or at our standing desk. W- leaves for work, J- leaves for school. If I’m at home, I have a simple lunch (salad? home-made frozen food?), and then I move on to whatever I want to do next. J- comes home, W- comes home. We have dinner, and then it’s time for chores or exercise or a little more writing. I tidy up, shower, brush my teeth, and go to bed at roughly midnight, although sometimes I stay up later.

I’m lucky. We keep our lives simple so that we have time.

How do you decide what to do?

See also: How I use Emacs Org Mode for my weekly reviews

Use the weekly review to give yourself permission to do things you want to do

One of the habits I’ve formed through my blog is the practice of doing a weekly review. This is where I celebrate what I accomplished and get a heads-up on what’s next. I do this almost every Saturday, which turns out to be a great day for reflecting and preparing.

I also use the weekly review to make sure I spend time on things that I want to do. It’s easy to forget that in the endless ping-pong game of responding to other people’s requests, or to scatter your attention among lots of interests and not feel like you’re making progress in any particular one. Give yourself permission to work on something you want to do, and carve out space for it in your to-do list or calendar. I divide my to-do list into three categories: work, relationships, and life. The work category is easy to fill. Relationships take a little more thought, but other people make it easy by asking. Life, on the other hand—the skills I want to develop, the hobbies I want to explore—that requires me to step up and choose to do something instead of having my time filled by things that other people have chosen for me.

Lots of things are interesting, but I try to pick one or two things to focus on during each week. For example, I’ve been focusing on planting the garden and studying Japanese. I might explore other ideas during the week, but it’s good to make slow and steady progress in my focus areas.

I make that space by managing my commitments. It’s easy to get used to a hectic, time-starved status quo, and it’s gratifying as well—busy-ness helps you feel valued. For me, “normal life” includes time to breathe and time to play. I avoid being busy. When I notice I’m starting to make mistakes because my calendar is too full, I slow down and see what I can say no to.

I add “want-to”s to my to-do list instead of just keeping it to the “must-do”s, and I remove or change other tasks until things look like they’ll fit. It makes reviewing and planning more fun, and it gives me something to look forward to during the week.

Might be something that can help you establish that habit. =) Happy to hear your thoughts and to read your weekly reviews!

Related: On the practice of a weekly review

Squishing my excuses: idea edition

I’ve been trying to figure out what intimidates me about this new idea every month challenge. I guess it’s because each business idea feels like a fresh opportunity for the impostor syndrome. I deal with the impostor syndrome by being up front about what I can do, assuming people are responsible for their decisions, by offering a satisfaction guarantee.

Fortunately, other people are exploring that path, and I can learn from their experiences. I’m a little envious of the folks over at Ridiculo.us, who’ve not only set a goal of 12 projects in 12 months but have also figured out how to quickly whip up prototypes. David Seah is another person I look up to, and he’s been working on designing a new product every day. It’s clearly something you can still do solo if you’ve got the skills to back it up.

I’d be more comfortable with committing to make something new every month if:

  • I had more practice in creating and supporting stuff, which is a catch-22 because you don’t get practice in creating stuff until you create stuff, so I should just go ahead and do it.
  • I knew more people with well-defined needs that happened to match up pretty well with what I want to create, which is easier if I talk about the things I want to build.
  • I set aside a monthly business budget in terms of money and time, which is entirely under my control and therefore something I should just go ahead and do.
  • I clearly define the parameters of the experiment so that I have multiple ways to succeed or I get more comfortable with the idea of failure.
  • I brainstorm a bunch of ideas that I can work on even when I’m not feeling particularly creative, and I break them down into smaller steps so that I can reduce the time between coming up with an idea and testing it out.
  • I remind myself that this is about practice and experimentation. It’s low risk, and this is as good a time as any to try things out.

Managing uncertainty

I’ve been doing a lot more introspection lately. I think it’s a spill-over from stuffing Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality into my brain, and in the process, discovering LessWrong’s treasure trove of rationality materials. I’ve been slowing down to observe when I’m confused and then dissecting it, because I think it’s useful to be able to see and articulate what’s going on. (“Articulate” is an interesting word for this, actually; to express it, but also something about forming joints and rotating them…)

I am dealing with a lot more uncertainty than I’m used to. Which is good and proper and precisely on track, because one of the goals of this 5-year experiment is to get better at handling uncertainty. So I’m where I wanted to be last year: learning how to make decisions with less information, sketching out the probabilities and planning the scenarios. I used to get really stressed out by uncertainty and lack of control, and I’ve been getting a lot better at planning ahead and being nimble.

Things I am not certain about:

  • Timing: mitigated by conservative planning, creating plenty of buffer
  • Optimum actions: mitigated by focusing on satisficing instead of maximizing
  • Prices: mitigated by budgeting and price comparison
  • Side effects and their probabilities: mitigated by research and conservative planning
  • Not knowing: mitigated by research and analysis
  • How much I really want various things: mitigated by generally choosing among good options and by making forecasts/backcasts

What would being even better at dealing with uncertainty look like?

  • More spontaneity because I’d know that I can handle it, which means being able to jump on more opportunities
  • Better-documented decisions and decision criteria, so that open decisions don’t take up a lot of brainspace and I don’t forget important considerations
  • A better understanding of the decision space, mapping out the possibilities
  • Stronger foundations / safety-nets for the kinds of things I want to do

Seeing the futures

I often imagine different futures, sketching them out on paper or in those moments right before or after dreaming. It’s a good way of testing an idea to see whether I’d like it, and then working backwards from there to figure out how to get there from here. I also explore mediocrity and failure so that I can get a sense of what I want to avoid and what I could do to lower the risks.

For example, how might this 5-year experiment of mine turn out?

  • Awesome: My blog has plenty of detailed, open notes about trying different things. I’ve found an idea or two (or a business, even!) that fits me well, and I have the financial foundation to continue with even more experiments.
  • So-so: I have a fairly conventional consulting / freelancing story. It’s okay, but I missed out on pushing myself to do a lot more because of my safety net.
  • Darn: I’ve misjudged skill growth and finances. I reach the 5-year mark with little to show for it, and need to work a lot with my social network to get back into the job market.
  • I can influence this by being more deliberate about my experiments.

How about my relationship with W-?

  • Awesome: We consciously cultivate the relationship, sailing into our later years with plenty of stories and shared experiences.
  • So-so: We settle down into normality.
  • Darn: We forget to pay attention and end up drifting apart.
  • I can influence this by investing time.

Family?

  • Awesome: I’m close to both my family and W’s – I know people’s stories and interests, and I help out with whatever I can. I visit every other year or so, or more frequently if finances allow. I keep in touch through Skype and letters.
  • So-so: We keep in touch occasionally, but tend to be peripheral to each other’s lives.
  • Darn: The distance leads to miscommunication and fights.
  • I can influence this by investing time and setting aside money.

Friends?

  • Awesome: I’ve gotten to know a bunch of people whose company I really enjoy. I think they’re great people. I learn a lot by hanging out with them, which I do one way or another every week. I have conspirators for ideas and projects, and work with other people to make their ideas happen.
  • So-so: I practise the skill of making friends with people as people drift in and out of life.
  • Darn: I forget to pay attention to this and let my introvert hibernation urge take over.
  • I can influence this by investing time and setting aside money.

Finances?

  • Awesome: W- and I live frugally, with roughly the same level of expenses that we’re at now. We have a great safety net, though, so we don’t have to worry. I resist the potential wonkiness of irregular income (both fear and overconfidence) by stabilizing it with savings. I’ve learned how to build businesses, so I can jump on opportunities when I see them.
  • So-so: I dip into my savings occasionally, replenishing it with income.
  • Darn: Tax or legal issues, prolonged sickness, disability, or death chew into our savings.
  • I can influence this by being deliberate about spending and earning.

Learning?

  • Awesome: My learning is aligned with my goals in terms of topic and depth. I learn a little bit about random things and go deeper on a few topics, but I push myself to try things instead of being lulled by “knowing” things from books. I seek out specific learning opportunities. I’ve learned how I learn best, although I keep working on learning other ways too. I map out what I’m learning so that I can review it easily and so that I can spot gaps.
  • So-so: I drift a little, but in a general direction. I back up learning by trying things out.
  • Darn: I confuse reading about something or listening to something with knowing something, and spend way more time doing more of the former two. I drift a lot.
  • I can influence this by examining how and what I learn.

Playing?

  • Awesome: I play with things that teach me more about life, give me a new way of looking at things, help me relate better to other people, or improve the way I live.
  • So-so: I play the occasionally distracting thing, and then get back to regular life.
  • Darn: I get sucked in by game mechanics. W- gets annoyed with me.
  • I can influence this by reflecting on what and how I play.

Good to get a sense of what good looks like.