Planning Only One Step Out

by Mike Shea on 12 June 2011

30 Second Summary

A lot of different organizational systems, business, and people love to plan things out. They have stacks and stacks of bullets of things that need to be done to get to an outcome. For every project they have the next thirty things laid out, ready to do step by step. Then reality hits and all that stuff changes. So why bother? Why not reduce projects down to the following three simple things: A goal, an end date, and the next step.

Toying around with Omnioutliner

Listening to the wonderful podcast Back to Work with Dan Benjamin and Merlin Mann, I decided to give Merlin's Getting Things Done application, Omnioutliner a shot. I generally avoid any sort of electronic GTD system since I don't often have computers with me, even mobile ones, so my Moleskine based system works just fine.

One of the things I discovered when monkeying around with Omnioutliner is the way it handles projects. Each of your next actions can all be tied to a specific project. This, in turn, creates a project with many possible actions. This is certainly not how I work.

Focus on the next action

For about five years I've stopped planning out a bunch of steps for things. Instead, each project I work on I have only three things I really care about:

These are all pretty straight forward Getting Things Done questions to ask but I don't think people really scale back to just these things. I think a lot of people still sit and walk through the next forty steps without doing the very next one. This is why I'm not big on mind mapping. You could spend days building beautiful mind maps of complicated projects instead of just sitting down and doing the very next piece. You might mind map an entire novel without ever writing any of it. I suppose if a project feels completely overwhelming to you, you might sit down and doodle some outlines to get your head around the problem but generally speaking, your best bet is to go do part of it.

One step leads to the next

The beauty of being so focused like this is that each step leads to the next. You don't have to map out fifty steps, you'll instead just do each one of those fifty steps when it comes time. Course correction occurs every time you complete the previous part. You don't have to shift every piece of a five year plan every time it turns out you didn't expect the outcome. Now you just worry about the next step after you've finished the previous.

And you save a whole bunch of time and energy to do it.

No plans, just checklists

That said, you sure can't build a complex project like this. You can't design and build an aircraft carrier or an office building or a 180 million dollar movie. Some degree of planning is needed to get the schedule down.

But most of the work we do doesn't fit into this. Most of the time we don't need to plan any further than the next thing we're going to do. On a daily basis, the only questions we need to ask is what we need to do next.

Even smaller projects, however, like planning out my D&D game every Wednesday night, has a few steps I need to remember. Instead of rewriting a plan every week, I just keep a checklist of the things I'll need to do and I can use the same checklist every week.

What's your next action?

So stop spending a ton of time doodling up lists of steps for a potential project or building a beautiful multivariate mind map of how you're going to clean your basement. Put in the blinders. Focus way down. Pick a single small thing you can do in 30 minutes, and go get started.