Sunday 12 October 2008

Planning: Top Down, or Bottom Up?

Training professionals, like all knowledge workers, need to plan their time. There is always more to be done than time available, and choices have to be made. These choices become commitments -- and once made, these commitments need to be tracked to ensure we follow through on them.

What city am I in next week? Has the venue been prepared? Did I send the course materials ahead? Which course is it, so I can pack the right Instructor Guide?

Two popular approaches to planning systems are top-down (or values-driven) and bottom-up (or action-driven).

An example of the top-down approach is the Franklin-Covey Planner. Their process starts with writing a personal mission statement that embodies your personal values. "Begin with the end in mind," says Steven Covey, and work backwards from that. The mission statement leads to long term goals in the various roles in your life, such as spouse, parent, worker, church member, etc.  These long term goals in turn lead to shorter term projects, and eventually, daily tasks which are tracked on the pages of the Planner. Your purpose becomes a compass that guides you in daily decisionmaking.

David Allen, author of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, works from the bottom up. You start by itemizing every "open loop" or unfinished commitment in your life, and taking them one at a time, determine if there is a next action to be performed. Any action that takes 2 minutes or less is done immediately, and longer actions are either delegated or scheduled on a calendar or action list.  Allen contends that as you gain control over execution, your mind will become freer to strategize what's important to you.

So which system is right: top-down, or bottom-up? The answer for me is "both." (Your answer, of course, may vary.)  I have done some work identifying my personal values, and I use a paper-based Franklin-Covey Compass planner. (Classic size, wire-bound, weekly format, in case you're interested.) But I don't use it the way that Franklin-Covey says to use it: instead, I use it as the calendar component of an overall Getting Things Done (GTD) filing system.

I've been working with planning systems for over 35 years now, constantly refining and adapting as my needs change.  And I still miss things occasionally. But my systems help me do the best job I can of fulfilling my commitments, both to others, and to myself.