How much time should I spend planning my work?

Over the past few weeks I’ve read several articles discussing the appropriate mix of planning and action for achieving success. Each author assured me their approach was the one. The extremes range from placing 90% of your effort on planning and 10% on implementation to spending 5 minutes or less of every hour on planning and the bulk of efforts on doing. None was helpful. I still didn’t know how much time I should spend planning my work. Why?

There is no perfect recipe.

The Three Factors of Planning Work

As someone who worked for years with project planners, I became familiar with many different approaches to planning. What I realized from my observations and experience was the need to balance three factors when determining how much time to spend planning: situation, style, results.

1. The Situation.

Sometimes all you need is 5 minutes to plan, and sometimes that’s all you have. Other times the work is complex or risky and requires thorough planning.

No need to plan. In this situation the work isn’t complicated or you’ve done it so many times it doesn’t need planning. Or maybe it’s just not that critical and the effort of planning equals the level of importance.

No time to plan. These situations happen when a last minute meeting shows up on your calendar. Or something in your system breaks. What if a team member doesn’t show up? No time to plan so you need to just act.

Thorough planning required. You know those multi-year, multi-function, billion dollar projects? Those need plans. But what about that report you need to write or the strategy meeting next month? How much planning do those require?

The key is to recognize the situation for what it is and not to confuse your personal need for planning (or action) with the requirements of the situation. Which brings us to the next factor: You.

2. Your Style.

Recognizing that you’re good at one or the other is important in keeping that preference in check.

We each have a preferred approach, something we’re comfortable doing. Most likely if you spend more time planning than acting – you’re really good at planning. If you avoid planning and get into action quickly, you most likely prefer to be in motion and resist or just don’t like planning.

See where this is going? If you like doing one or the other, you’ll spend more time doing it.

That’s great if you’re getting the results you want, otherwise it’s time to adjust your ingredients.

3. The Results.

It’s all about the results. If you’re productive and happy with your results, there’s no need to change anything. If you’re frustrated – that’s a signal to look at your mix of ingredients.

Three steps in ‘hitting’ your goal (getting your desired results). When things are going well you have the tools, information, and skills needed (Ready); you know where your target is and have a path to get there (Aim); and once in action (Fire) you hit your target goal. Well done.

Too much planning and not enough action can show up as missed deadlines and sometimes no results at all! It can also lead to anxiety and that last minute cramming session resulting in a lower quality result. If you find you do a lot of research, create a plan, then second guess yourself and do more research (and so on) you may be stuck too much in planning.

Fire-Fire-Fix -Fire
This is a bit extreme, but if you love action you may find yourself also in a loop. This loop focuses on action but still doesn’t get the desired results.

Have you ever just jumped into the car and started driving without any plan at all? It’s a wonderful adventure full of spontaneity and surprise.

Of course that surprise may include a flat tire or an empty gas tank. That’s not a problem if you have a spare tire or are near a gas station. More often than not these events turn out o.k. Because there was some planning.

How much time should I spend planning my work?

The short answer: It depends on the situation, your preference, and the results. You’ll need spend at least a little time if only to look at the three factors.

The results are what will tell you if you have the right mix of ingredients. Unfortunately you don’t know until you see the results. It’s a little like taking a cake out of the oven only to realize that you forgot the sugar or maybe forgot to turn the oven on. Either way, if the mix isn’t right you can’t have any cake.