A plan is like a weather forecast

When we plan our days, why do we so often tend to budget insufficient time for tasks, and then feel inadequate and inefficient when we’re setting the alarm for the next morning?

The temptation is to use a plan as a magic spell. This is not as irrational as it sounds, because it’s trying to workaround/exploit the irrationality of human nature. A task that’s been dragging on and on can sometimes be completed amazingly quickly when laser-like concentration is applied. And such concentration can sometimes be provoked by constraining the available time or by hard deadlines. A few famous sayings

Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.
The prospect of hanging concentrates the mind wonderfully.
If you wait until the last minute, it only takes a minute to do.

But experience shows that an unrealistic plan does not actually work as a magic replacement for self-discipline. For example, if you’re having trouble concentrating, then the disciplined, results-oriented approach is to move yourself to a place without distractions.

It used to be that when I heard ‘realistic’ or ‘real world’, I had a negative reaction, because the words have been unfairly abused by people that hate change and think small — “Well some of us have to live in the ‘real world’!” According to Fried & Hansson

The real world isn’t a place, it’s an excuse. It’s a justification for not trying.

But that’s not the real ‘real world’. The real ‘real world is our friend, and whoever is its best friend goes furthest. People that get ahead know how the world really works, including how they themselves really work.

So then what is a plan? It’s a predictive model of what will really happen.

Like how NOAA generates a weather report? Yes, but the difference is that NOAA doesn’t yet own enough of the boundary conditions to force a particular weather outcome.

A plan, on the other hand, is all about choosing boundary conditions. (Of course, you don’t own all of them either, but many more than NOAA does.)

If the plan predicts that you won’t achieve what you want by the time you want it, then magic thinking says to change the predictive model, but scientific thinking says to change the boundary conditions by making different choices.

The more accurate your predictive model, the more useful your planning. Obviously there are always surprises, and plans are always subject to change, but systematic inaccuracies, such as underestimating task length, amplifies the error.

In the long-term, it’s a great investment to improve your efficiency by working smarter, concentrating better, improving your skills, and so on. And after you’ve done any of those things, you’ll need to update your predictive model. But changes in the model must be driven by changes in the world. To imagine that the reverse can happen, that changing your model can change the world, is to use magic thinking.


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