how much time should you spend planning

How much of your time should you spend planning? [PMP #122]

Last week I was chatting with a client who said he’d read that you should spend around 10% of your time planning. My initial thought after hearing this was that it sounded like a good guideline, but I couldn’t really say how much time I actually spend planning.

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After our call, I opened up Timing which I use to track my time. Conveniently, one of the projects I have in Timing is called ‘Planning’. Because Timing looks at when I use apps like Asana and my Calendar, I was able to get a pretty good estimate of the percentage of time I spend planning. I looked at the total time spent in the ‘Planning’ category and divided this by the total time spent on all ‘work’ related tasks over the last 6 months. And you know what my average time was… 6.7%.

This surprised me a little as I thought I was a pretty hardcore planner and that I must be spending at least, if not more than 10% of my time planning.

I think it’s interesting to explore your planning habits and consider how and when you plan your time. Are you planning enough? And what’s the point in planning in the first place?

Firstly, a lot of people fall into the trap of not planning enough or worse, not planning at all. People that are really ‘busy’ like to make the excuse that they don’t have time. And I get it, planning can feel like a chore because you have to sit down, think and plan without actually doing or achieving anything meaningful. However, the time invested in planning now will save you massive amounts of time later. It’s like making small deposits into a high-interest bank account. Those savings will grow so when you withdraw your money, you’ll get out more than you put in.

You should dedicate at least 10% of your time to planning. It's like making small deposits into a high-interest bank account. You'll be glad you made the investment when you cash out later.Click To Tweet

Even without the time benefits, planning out your work and projects makes you feel more organised. It takes you from a state of ‘how am I going to do all this in time?’ to ‘okay, I got this’.

I consider myself to be more of a real-time planner (Learn more » Being organised is a mindset). In other words, my planning takes place all the time rather than sporadically throughout the month or year. While I set aside time to plan at the end of the day and week, a lot of my planning happens in real-time as I’m working.

For example, when I finish a call with a client, I immediately work out what the next action for that client is. Maybe I have an action item I need to work on. Or maybe the client needs to send me a document. In which case, my next action is to follow up with the client. In either case, this action is added to Asana. If it’s an action that requires more than 15 minutes of my time, I’ll even block out time on my calendar to work on the action. All this happens immediately following the call. I don’t wait until the end of the day.

My end of day planning is different. I go through a work shutdown checklist (as per Cal Newport’s suggestion in Deep Work). I’ll look at my upcoming tasks for tomorrow and reconcile this with my calendar to make sure I’ve blocked out enough time for the things I said I’d do. It’s a slightly higher level of planning because I’m looking not at the next actions, but at how to win the day.

And I have a similar routine at the end of the week. On a Friday I look at what I need to do over the next 7 days but with more of an emphasis on projects rather than tasks.

Where my real-time and daily planning is more granular (what’s next for this client or project), weekly planning is project focused. This is so I can link my daily tasks with the project I'm working on.

And on a monthly or quarterly basis, I'll then review what projects I need to work in order to achieve my goals for the year.

So you see, your planning needs to reflect the timeframe you're thinking about:

  • Real-time planning » Next actions and tasks.
  • Daily planning (end of each day) » What tasks do you need to complete today or tomorrow?
  • Weekly planning (end of each week) » What projects do you need to work on next week?
  • Monthly/quarterly planning (end of each month/quarter) » What went well this month/quarter? What projects do you need to work on or start to achieve your annual goal(s)?
  • Yearly planning (end of each year) » How did you go this year and what would you like to achieve next year?

And how long you spend planning during each of these phases is also likely to change. Where daily real-time and daily planning takes just a few minutes, weekly planning is more likely to take 15-30 minutes and annual planning may even take a few weeks.

I think the mistake a lot of us make is that we spend a great deal of time planning at the start of the year. Then we get to work and because we're so busy with our heads down working, we quickly forget about the big plan. The purpose of the daily, weekly and monthly planning is to take an opportunity to step back and bridge the gap between where you are now and where you want to be by the end of the year. It's a chance to look and ask ‘Am I heading in the right direction?' and ‘Am I on track?'.

So my big takeaway from this post is to plan more. Even if you think you already plan enough, plan more. It can’t hurt. I thought I was spending at least 10% of my time planning but was surprised to learn that I wasn’t. Make sure if you have an annual plan that you break this down into the smaller weekly goals and daily tasks. Keep your plan up to date in real time and this helps you to avoid the need to ‘catch up’ later. And if you’re not already, see if you can find a way to track your planning time using tools like Timing or RescueTime.