Pandemic Proof Planning
To say that 2020 did not go as any of us planned may seem like an understatement. I had some vacations I was very much looking forward to that I had to postpone. Client work that got canceled (it's hard to justify doing a staff training when you've laid everyone off). And being a first-grade teacher was nowhere (and I mean NOWHERE) on my 2020 plans.
That said, the annual plan I crafted remained incredibly relevant and offered helpful guidance as I navigated the chaos and uncertainty. Not only did I still fulfill my overarching goals for 2020, I grew in ways I never anticipated, I achieved things that weren't even on my radar when I first crafted my plan and I stayed focused on what mattered most (the vast majority of the time).
I didn't know this a year ago, but the planning process I use is pandemic proof.
How can that be?
Because the planning process I use is about adaptability, not rigidity. It's an emergent process that requires applying lessons learned as you go. It's a method that leverages the creative process, which expects unknowns to occur. As a result, it strengthens our muscles of resilience every time we go through a cycle of the feedback loop: plan, do, evaluate. Unlike overly complicated planning processes, its simplicity is what makes it so powerful. You don't need an advanced degree to use it, just curiosity, and a commitment to bettering yourself and your life.
Fredrich Nietzche wisely said, "If we have our own why of life, we shall get along with almost any how."
It Starts With You
Most planning processes are all about the how and the what and the when and as a result they miss a fundamental piece of the puzzle. At the center of your plan is YOU! Knowing yourself is paramount. Knowing what you stand for, your why, and the things that make you complete and whole. It is with an unshakeable core that you will have the foundation to navigate change.
"People can't live with change without a changeless core inside them. The key to the ability to navigate change is a changeless sense of who you are, what you are about and what you value." Stephen R. Covey.
Not only does knowing yourself help you remain strong, but it's also necessary to set realistic expectations so you may let go of "shoulding" all over yourself. If you're not a morning person, it's silly to expect yourself to wake up early to write your book for an hour every morning. If you need to eat at regular intervals to maintain your blood sugar it's unfair to expect yourself to skip lunch for a workout instead.
There are countless articles about the things that the most successful people do before 10am. It's easy to read such advice and make a decree to follow their lead. When we do so blindly we are trying to fit ourselves into the same boxes that work for other people only to deny ourselves what we deeply want and who we truly are.
Peter Drucker emphasized that "planning is a continuous process" and not a single event. The planning process I use (and teach) is a feedback loop. And before we get into defining strategy or setting timelines, we start by evaluating how things have been going.
We look backward by reviewing and reflecting on the previous year so we can identify lessons learned to apply moving forward, which reinforces knowing yourself. Additionally, by reviewing the past we illuminate blind-spots caused by things like negativity bias.
Every year I list out all my accomplishments from the previous year. It's invigorating because I tend to forget what I've done, instead fixating on what's left incomplete - negativity bias. Reviewing my calendar, photos, journals, etc and writing a list of all my accomplishments forces me to slow down and really acknowledge and celebrate what I have done instead of merely brushing past it.
I also answer reflection questions like - What went well? What were my most joyous moments? What lessons did I learn?
A participant at a private 2021 Annual Planning Workshop I just led said, "I just want to feel like I did something in 2020." Many of us have felt dejected by the challenges of last year. At the end of evaluating the previous year, she was enthusiastic to realize just how much she accomplished in 2020. Reflecting and reviewing the year offered her a much-needed confidence boost for planning 2021.
By reflecting, reviewing, and evaluating where we were, we harvest the threads with which we can weave together a stronger plan for tomorrow.
Yogi Berra once said, "If you don't know where you are going, you'll end up someplace else."
When we move into the planning portion of the process we always start with the end in mind. To aid in the art of crafting a vision for the year, I guide participants through a visualization exercise. Workshop participants often note how their vision for the year is different than what they thought it should be - and as a result, they're more inspired and committed to their plan.
Often times, participants will join the workshop thinking they need to get a handle on accomplishing some major professional milestone for the coming year, only to realize that their true yearning is to improve their personal lives. And something magical happens, when they address the tension and resistance within, their professional aspirations come within reach with more ease as well.
After crafting a vision, it's necessary to get organized and prioritize.
EVERYTHING cannot get done. Decisions must be made about top-level priorities. It is better for things to not get done by choice than by default.
Chris Prentiss said, "If you attempt too much, you will end by succeeding at nothing."
"Too much" is subjective. Even day by day, what pushes me to the brink of "too much" changes based on how I'm feeling or how much sleep I got the night before. That said, I know my limits and as a result, I have learned to plan so I'm not attempting too much. For example, it is too much for me to conduct an all-day client training, then attend a networking event in the evening unless I have a recovery day that follows. At the same time, I have successfully navigated multiple big projects - like writing a book, and completing a rigorous professional certification, all while keeping client work, self-care and my family as top priorities.
It is essential that you learn to listen within to determine what's "too much" for you and plan accordingly. By their very nature, we can only manage a handful of priorities. If everything is a priority, then nothing truly is. Getting good at prioritizing takes practice, it's a muscle most people have not developed in favor of responding to the tyranny of the urgent.
I have worked with a number of clients that lament how hard it is for them to identify 3-5 priorities for the day. I get it, I struggled in the beginning too. In fact, once I realized I had to train my brain to prioritize, I started by prioritizing in retrospect. At the end of the day, I’d ask myself, what priorities did I get done today? What priorities would have been good for me to get done today?
After prioritizing and organizing our aspirations for the year we move into another pandemic proof piece of the puzzle. Synthesize what you want so your overarching goals (or intentions or word or mantra) for the year are simple, memorable, and easy to recite. Since you can’t do it all it is ideal that your goal(s) for the year be catalysts for creating the change you seek to make. You want to be strategic about the lever you're pulling by asking yourself questions like, what's the most important thing here and how will I get it done? This is why it is essential to look backward in order to look forward. And this is why you must make the effort to set your own plans for the year, no one else can do it for you.
It doesn't matter if it's a SMART goal. In fact, I have found that overly contrived planning processes keep innovative professionals from setting truly groundbreaking goals. They get sucked into the minutia, figuring out if they're doing it right or trying to predict the future and forsaking the truth of the creative process. New insights must be gained through trial and error. A plan is only as good as our actions and our abilities to adapt.
As Peter Drucker is famous for saying, “Plans are only good intentions unless they immediately degenerate into hard work.”
This is where the rubber meets the road. Plans that don’t immediately degenerate into action are works of fiction. And they aren't usually entertaining reads either.
This is where we need to learn to turn our plans into bite-sized pieces. If you have a goal for launching a money-making website before the end of the year, your daily to do's have to be actionable. "Launch the website" is not a reasonable first step. Identifying and writing down the very next action you can take on a daily basis helps to ensure progress is being made on those high priority long-term goals.
Not only do we need to plan the work and work the plan, but we also must manage our emotions in the process. Fear or overwhelm stop most people from implementing their plans. Executing your plans is an exercise in giving yourself grace. Plans fail. The famous saying based on Robert Burns' poem sums it up well. “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”
But there's a difference between things not going according to plan and utter disruption. And that difference impacts how we best respond to plans that go awry.
The entrepreneur who plans to generate a lot of new sales after launching their website and fails to do so needs to evaluate and tweak their approach. Whereas the professional who plans to do an around the world tour that gets upended due to a global pandemic must reconnect with what matters to them most in order to adapt to their changing circumstances.
This planning process teaches you how to show yourself grace when things don’t go according to plan. Which they won’t, even when we aren’t faced with a global pandemic. And then get back on track so you're making progress on the most important things.
A participant in the 2020 Annual Planning Workshop recently shared with me, "I was surprised to see that I still accomplished all of my goals from last year. I didn't do them exactly as I imagined how, but I did complete every one of them!"
She was able to fulfill her 2020 goals, despite the disruptions, because she engaged in a continuous process of evaluating, planning and doing throughout the year. To do this, your plan needs to be a living, evolving document.
The ultimate moment making machine
I have downloaded more pdf planning templates over the years than I know what to do with. I’ve tried using some of them. But the papers usually get lost or put away. They don’t stay front and center and as a result, those plans don't remain alive for me.