Planning. It permeates every aspect of our lives – personal and professional. We plan what to wear every day. We plan what to eat and what to shop for. We plan vacations, dinner engagements, family gatherings and household chores. There is strategic planning, operational planning, program and project planning, long-range planning and annual planning. Event planning. Emergency preparedness. Master Plans. Contingency Plans.
Yes, there is no escaping situations that require planning. And yet, in spite of this, we don’t always do it well. Some of us leave things to the last minute. Why is that? There are probably a number of valid and dubious answers to that question depending on who you ask and the context they find themselves. And that is what I want to explore today – how our planning context can influence our planning behaviours, even when we are not consciously aware of it.
But before I do that, let’s start at the beginning with a shared understanding of what we mean by the term planning. There are numerous definitions of planning and the different types of planning. I like the simplicity of this Wikipedia definition:
In its simplest form planning is the process of thinking about and organizing the activities required to achieve a desired goal. ~ Wikipedia (2017)
At its core, planning is figuring out how to make something happen. Sometimes the process is long and drawn out; at other times planning and implementation appear to happen simultaneously – we plan and act in the moment. I believe this is because our thoughts and actions are influenced by the contextual factors of available time and perceived task importance. As these contextual factors shift, so too do our planning behaviours. I envision it like this:
This illustration (creating using the Johari Window template) shows how perceived task importance and the time available for task completion alter some basic planning behaviours. While conventional wisdom may imply, “There are planners and there are doers”, I propose we frequently adjust our planning styles based on our assessment of perceived importance and available time.
As such, the four possible planning archetypes are: reactive doer, responsive doer, proactive planner and procrastinator.
Let’s explore how this plays out using the common example of planning your weekend leisure time.
When time is limited and we perceive the task to be undertaken is not very important we may become a reactive doer – someone who ‘wings it’! We quickly identify a limited number of options “in the moment” based on known facts and generally select routine and obvious actions. Thus, a reactive doer may respond to spontaneous cues about leisure activities – they read about an art exhibit in Friday’s paper and decide that’s what they will do on Saturday. Or they wake up and find it is sunny and warm on Saturday so decide to go for a bike ride or a walk along a local trail because those are activities that are familiar and easily executed at short notice.
Responsive doers face similar time constraints as the reactive doer however the high importance of the task forces them to be somewhat more deliberate in their planning and assessment. They consider both known and immediately obtainable facts when analyzing options, and often double-check their facts and assumptions before making a decision. Intuition and previous experiences also influence the responsive doers’ decisions.
You may find yourself in responsive doer mode when you receive a call on Monday from an out-of-town friend or family member who says they will be in town Saturday and would love to spend the day with you. You gather the particulars about their arrival and departure time. Maybe you ask them what they might like to do or if they have any budget constraints you should consider. You consider factors like weather and what local events are happening on the weekend and then generate a number of options to discuss with them before finalizing your plans.
When task importance is perceived to be low and we have lots of time, we may slide into procrastinator mode. Our initial assessment of the situation may suggest we have the knowledge and skills to complete the task with minimal effort and so we defer action, perhaps choosing to focus on more important, time-sensitive tasks. Building on the previous example, we know our friends are planning to visit us in the fall (3 months from now). We protect the date but don’t finalize any plans because there’s lots of time to sort out the details.
However, when we procrastinate, we run the risk of not being able to enjoy our time the way we’d like. Ticket availability for special events may be limited and our favourite restaurant booked. Our personal commitments in the weeks leading up to the visit may demand more of our time than we anticipated. As the weekend in question approaches, we are now forced into responsive doer or even reactive doer mode. The sense of urgency and importance along with the decrease in available planning time shifts our focus and consequently our behaviours. Sometimes we get lucky and everything falls into place. Often we end up compromising some of our plans and making do with less desirable options.
The sweet spot for planning seems to be the intersection between high importance and a reasonably flexible time frame. This combination offers us the opportunity to be proactive planners. With the luxury of time, we can do more careful fact-finding and be more thoughtful when identifying and analyzing possible options. We can develop a Plan A and a Plan B to cover off unanticipated circumstances. We secure prime seating for the concert and our favourite table overlooking the waterfront at our favourite restaurant. Daytime activity options include visiting the farmer’s market followed by a hike along the Bruce Trail and picnic lunch or in the event of rain, a visit to the local art gallery.
While we may have a natural bias towards one of the planning archetypes (I am more relaxed when I can be a proactive planner), we all have operated in each of the quadrants at one time or another and will do so again. Ideally, we should be aiming to do most of our planning in the upper two quadrants –proactive planner and responsive doer – to optimize our chances for success.
For those of you with a bias towards procrastination and reactive doing, honestly evaluate the outcomes you achieve. Do you really do your best work under pressure or are your outputs merely acceptable? Do other areas of your life suffer because of your procrastination and reactivity (consider stress levels, personal health, important relationships)? Try to notice when you are operating in the lower two quadrants and challenge yourself to identify how you can shift to more responsive and proactive planning behaviours – if not in the moment, then for the next task on your to do list.
In which of the planning quadrants do you spend the most time? Share your successes and lessons learned with us in the comments section below.