Continuity in Planning I: Knowing Where I Am

Continuity in Planning I: Knowing Where I Am

For the past few months I’ve been feeling unsettled about my planning balance. Since I only have one major project to focus on at the moment, I had thought that finally I could actually pace myself easily. This hasn’t proven to be the case, as the extra time has merely allowed other things to expand into my immediate consciousness. Things like:

  • Maintaining Social Commitments
  • Maintaining Physical/Health Commitments
  • Maintaining the Blog
  • Maintaining Business Relationships
  • Creating and Shipping Product
  • Keeping the House Clean
  • Planning for the Future

I have to admit to myself that the system of “winging it” for the past couple months just isn’t cutting it because, again, I am not feeling like I am making progress. Objectively, I could sit back and point out all the very interesting things that did happen, but that does not address the feeling of falling short. The system that I need to put into place doesn’t have to handle the objective tracking of things I’ve done, though functionally this is what it would appear to be. The real heart of the system I want is what will address the feeling of not being productive.

Of course, there are many approaches to this. David Allen’s Get Things Done is one of the popular ones, and the approach focuses on getting to the point where you can relax. That is, you can trust your systems to tell you the real deal, and when you’ve got information you can actually trust it’s a lot easier to get into that productive mind state. I’m not a GTD expert, but my assessment is that GTD is a mechanical methodology designed to keep your mind optimally aware of what’s going on so you can choose to do that “next action” free from doubt. I can certainly see that following this methodology would work, and maybe I should just suck it up and just do it. What I really want, though, is a system that does a better job of putting my project work in context with my goals. I’d like the system to also remember where I was when I last left off.

As I write, I’m realizing that I’m actually wishing for a lot more than just a task tracking system. I’m really looking for something to provide some semblance of meaning outside of myself. I think such a system would be the keeper of my goals and projects. Additionally, the system would “know where I am” in terms of goals and projects at all times, maintaining a sense of continuity for me when my attention is elsewhere. The two tangible deliveries of the system would be (1) a “map” with a big arrow that says YOU ARE HERE, and (2) the set of tasks that I know will make that arrow move a certain distance. You can see my video game design background peeking through there. I don’t really want to relax. I want to know what I’ll be doing next to move my piece in a direction I like, and I want to have some choice in the matter without having to process everything all the time. The trick is to provide the RIGHT choices along with ACCURATE INFORMATION about where one happens to be in life.

I don’t have any immediate solutions to this, but I’m writing it down anyway so I don’t lose the thought. My first inclination is to revisit the Concrete Goals Tracker and ponder the Task List Creation (you know, the weighed points) process itself.


  1. Mark 16 years ago


    When I hit the point where you said “a map,” that’s actually what occurred to me: That you draw up something like you’d find inside the cover of The Hobbit, with places you’ve been, where you’re at, scary places you’d like to avoid (though you might get detoured through some), and the final destination: the gold.

    The thing is, you’re not seeking a final destination. That’s unattainable. Let’s say you spend the next 1 year on this quest to reach productivity/goals nirvana. Then what? The project that fits so seamlessly into every aspect of your life that there’s no challenge? Do you hit that point and coast the rest of the way into retirement?

    I keep trying to find different ways to keep myself accountable as well, because I feel like a lot of potentially productive time slips through my fingers each day. I start the week with goals, I’ve got four projects in front of me, and I complete the week with insufficient progress on all of them. If the tracking system illustrates to me that I spent too much time reading RSS and that I value having some amount of idle time with the fam every day, what then? Being knowledgeable and spending time with the kid are important to me, that’s why I went solo. If the system shows me that I’ve burned a lot of time going over budget on a project that wasn’t terribly exciting, well, I can mitigate against that by being more selective with my clients, but there are always going to be new client challenges.

    A week ago Friday it occurred to me to build a little Twitter web app. I stayed up til 3:30 two nights in a row, after everyone went to bed, and built it that weekend. That made me feel good about accomplishing something interesting and making progress on goals to build more cool apps. That sunny little clearing in the dark forest that is starting and running this business isn’t on the map, though. It’s something I stumbled upon because I didn’t have every step charted.

    I’m not sure that this helps with your goal of “putting my project work in context with my goals,” but it’s what occurred to me. Maybe it’s not so much concrete steps to those goals, but having time in the quest to take advantage of the sunny clearings.

  2. Dave Seah 16 years ago

    Mark: You’ve hit on an important point about final destinations being unattainable. While that is true, it doesn’t mean that we don’t at times DESIRE it. We at least need a direction to move in, whether the impetus is hope, escape, or some kind of goal. A map helps. And interestingly, the map itself doesn’t need to be accurate. It just needs to show movement. That’s the interesting thing about it which might allow us to build some kind of visual representation.

    The part where you discuss accountability and time slippage reminds me that there’s never enough time. Three choices that come to mind are to go “zen” and accept the way things are, prioritize and triage, or optimize for maximum gain. No other comment, other than these create a possible basis for “terrain generation” of our hypothetical map. I’m seeing something like a “stratego” board in my mind, though as terrain it isn’t particularly interesting. I like the idea of making a “The Hobbit” map…hmm. Does feeling productive have anything in common with Joseph Campbell and the Hero’s Journey?

  3. Marina Martin 16 years ago

    I’ve taken the principles of GTD and built a really solid foundational system that truly does get everything off my mind and ensures I don’t miss anything.

    “Distractions” like maintaining social relationships happen, I feel, because it’s important to us to maintain our relationships yet we have no quantifiable means of ensuring they’re being maintained.

    I solved this problem for myself by putting all of my contacts into groups by how frequently I would like to stay in touch with them: one month, three month, and six month. I then assigned each group a color and printed out a list of all my contacts with each person’s name in a bubble of the appropriate color.

    I put the list inside a plexiglass document frame, hung it on the wall, and with a dry-erase marker I marked the name of the month I had last talked to the person.

    Then I’d check it once a month. Say it’s September. I’d quickly scan for all the one-month color bubbles and make sure they all said AUGUST—not, I wrote their name down. Then I’d scan the three-month color bubbles to check for any that said MAY or earlier. Then I’d look over the six-month color bubbles and check for anything that said FEBRUARY or earlier. Anyone who had fallen out of their contact window got added to my Next Actions list to call or email.

    (Right now my list is in ABC order by last name. This probably would be even simpler if I had three charts and grouped by color bubble first.)

    I have an image of my system here:

    I’m lousy at forms and Dave, you are AMAZING, so maybe you could whip up some new forms and systems for yourself to get more OFF your mind and into a system.

  4. Mark 16 years ago

    There are so many ‘final destinations’ for me that I’m in planned triage mode right now. I hated being employed in positions where triage was expected. When I get paid directly by clients for providing them triage, it’s OK. I guess it’s a choice thing.

    I get what you mean about hope and plans, though. I’m either working in the midst of things at home, or in my office in Beverly which is sparse and just for utility now. THE PLAN: I’d be happiest in our modest dream home with a dedicated office.

    With the baby on such a strict routine of meals and bedtime, I end my workday at 5:00, and pick up again around 9pm til I call it quits. It’d be nice to quit working at night, but I’m a finite resource and I’ve got to overbook work to maintain a constant flow. THE PLAN: Cross the threshold of truly surplus work so that I can start hiring some out and still manage projects.

    Yes, plans and hopes are necessary. For the timebeing, it’s day to day taking on as much as possible, and putting in as much as possible.

  5. Rupert 16 years ago

    Hi David,
    first of all: thank you for sharing your ideas and your tools. I like your ceo-forms very much. Your ceo-forms help me with my day to day work!

    I think GTD and many other aproaches help us to do the things right. But what helps us to do the right things?

    While this question is easy to answer within the job context it is a hard question to answer for ones life. The older I get, the harder I find it.

    We (as knowledge workers) live in an environment that gives us the opportunity to chose our work from many clients, projects, technologies etc etc. On one hand this is a priviledge on the other hand there is the danger of getting lost. Last year I read “De brevitate vitae” from Seneca in a german translation. Although 2000 years old, I found this text fresh an full of insight into this environment.

  6. Cameron 16 years ago

    Hi Dave,

    As I’ve said before, I love the way you reveal some of your struggles in your blog – I probably value this about your writing more than your tools (though these are great too!).

    For me, I think your goals need to be a part of any task tracker type system.  I’ve created something a little like GTD and also a little like the Jello dashboard… using Outlook task manager to keep track of minor tasks, projects as well as goals – and I’ve split these into categories (such as work, business, house, personal).

    Every Christmas I review the goals that I’ve set for the previous year and plan for the next.  I also plan for the following five years.

    I’ll include things that are almost like dreams as well as the more practical ones.  So I’ll include things like x amount of dollars saved (which fits into other future goals like self funded study); as well as things like having chosen which region of Australia I’d like to move to in five or so years (part of our plan to move to the “country”).

    That way, at least I’ve captured the bigger picture things along with the smaller steps.

    I think your GHD Resolution Review would be a good addition to this process.

    You kept yourself very accountable this past twelve months by constantly reviewing what you were doing and how this fitted with your aims for 2007.  Perhaps you could do a bigger picture version for your hopes and dreams?

    Good luck!


  7. Amanda Himelein 16 years ago

    I think this relates to a thought I had just yesterday.

    I think life would be better if we kept score more like American football.  You may have to go 100 yards, but you don’t have to do it all in one shot.  You get 4 tries, as long as you make at least 10 yards each try.  (But if you can’t manage it in 4 tries, you’re clearly not trying hard enough, and someone else gets a shot.)

    So I picture a project sheet that has all the tasks you need to do in the order in which you need to do them.  A blue line says where you are.  A yellow line says where you have to be by (say) the end of the week.  If you don’t make it today, that’s OK.  If you don’t make it tomorrow, that’s OK.  But somehow, you have to get it done within 7 days.  (Football really only made sense to me once they put those lines on my TV screen.)

    And just because you made those 100 yards doesn’t mean you stop.  As soon as you get a touchdown, you go back to the beginning and start over on a new run.

    (Just remember – If this idea takes off and you get rich from it, you have to share your fortune with me.  ;)

  8. Barry W. Morris 16 years ago

    Hi David,
    I use a mind map that plots my year on a single piece of paper so I can carry it with me, reproduce it for inserting into my Moleskine, etc.

    It incorporates the 2-3 most desired accomplishments in the six main life domains.

    You can see how I do it here:

    Hope it helps,

  9. Scott 16 years ago

    As someone who works with maps on a daily basis, I think you’re not quite looking for a map so much as a timeline. A map has certain concrete elements, in this case a final destination (which Mark has pointed out really isn’t final) and terrain (or whatever difficulties result in arriving at that destination).

    When I read your article, I immediately thought of the Simpsons (bear with me). In this episode ( Homer tries to outdo Thomas Edison for total number of inventions. To keep track, he has a sliding timeline of his inventions compared to Edison’s.

    Although this largely leaves out the element of terrain (difficulties), it allows for future goals to be laid out and placed in a manner that allows you to work on them in any number of ways (order of importance, calendar date deadlines, etc.) Not a perfect system, but I’ve learned that the best system is the one you can constantly adapt to your needs.

  10. Scott Garman 16 years ago

    Hi David,

    I’ve also been struggling to think of some task management system that integrates goals and values. GTD is very task and next action based. The Franklin Day Planner system is focused more on identifying goals and the values that motivate you to achieve those goals.

    I’d like to find some way to integrate both approaches into one system or tool, and have frequently thought about a progress meter of sorts for achieving goals. I generally tend to find that there is a lot of front-loaded effort into creating something that can really visualize making progress toward a goal. I hope you’ll brainstorm on this further and maybe sketch out some designs to share.

  11. lynnoc 16 years ago

    As is often the case, when you post on your own process, your post resembles what I have been thinking on this and related dilemmas—what am I tracking, what is in my trusted system and why am I failing to get enough done in a day?  I’ve been finding myself thinking “we are knowledge workers”, this is a different and unprecedented time in the history of work. We are making up our own work-table, knowledge workers are all entrepreneurs. That’s why, I assume, you created a printable CEO.

    I’m currently re-implementing my GTD system as too many papers lying around my office need to be processed, read, notes taken if important, or the contents just remembered. Yes, I read so much I can’t take notes on everything, and furthermore I still don’t have a trusted system for all my notes. One article I read yesterday, (snuck into my “processing” not my doing’ period, where reading belongs) in a rather obscure scientific journal gave me an entirely new idea of something that should be studied, even if I can’t study it myself, because I don’t have the equipment. So now I have something in my head, I have to write the authors right away. I wasn’t thinking of this project before reading the article, and now it’s taking up brain space and something else is not getting done because I’m planning a new experiment. This is the nature of knowledge work. I think the same is probably true of all of us who love your writing and your products. The idea of a map (or a hand drawn mind map perhaps) is not a bad one, there doesn’t have to be a “final” end place. There can be one with a year’s ending and one with a five-year’s ending. I might try that, I think it might help with my planning, that includes the rapid change in project or experiment or study of focus. I have no control over when some nw piece of knowledge will come into my active brain environment and dramatically change my focus.  This must be what is meant by the concept of “knowledge worker” and for me anyway, I think GTD is probably as close as I can get to a workable system, as its designed with these kinds of major, path changing, interruptions in mind. I still don’t get much done in the day and I wonder if my expectations are just unrealistic.


  12. andrew 16 years ago

    Hi David… a couple of thoughts occurred to me when reading your post.

    1. What you describe needing sounds like an executive coach. Have you tried using one before?

    2. I’ve tried GTD and found the theory compelling. The difficulty I had with the practise was that I found myself becoming good at getting trivia done – to the extent that the less important tasks recieved disproportionate input. That seems to be a general problem with ‘to do’ systems – they permit endless additions to the list. I never persisted with the GTD methodlogy to the point where I ran out of (relatively unimportant) things to add… and found myself getting overwhelmed in the end.

    cheers, Andrew

  13. Dave Seah 16 years ago

    Been looking forward to digging into all these comments all day! :-)

    Marina: That’s very cool that you’ve maintained the discipline to do all that. It sounds very systematic and cool, and I wish I could maintain that the way you do! :-) I have started to wonder, based on some recent conversations I’ve had, if my productivity buttons are wired more for experiencing change than for the sense of achievement, and therefore I should really just redefine my output in terms of things I actually enjoy. The trick would be then to tie THAT to some kind of money-generating career path. Hm. I’ve been thinking of making a board-game like set of forms that was like a “game of life”, except it would be a “game of productivity”, and the game would be designed to funnel yourself into an area where you would generate astronomical amounts of points by doing something that appealed to you. Yet another project! It would be awesome, though :-)

    Mark: Do you find that the family system in place helps provide clarity? I’ve been coming across the theme lately that new fathers are often motivated to work, and I was thinking that the rapid growth of a child was quite possibly an amazing feedback mechanism. I was asking someone if there was something new every day, and apparently this is the case. New gestures, expressions, activities, etc…it sounds all quite amazing, and I’m curious how that impacts the work mode if at all.

    Rupert: Indeed, “what are the right things”? There’s a line a first heard on a television show called “The Unit”, in which an army wife was asking one of the special forces operatives what to do in a given situation. The spec-ops guy said his commander would throw the question back at him as follow: “If you knew the answer, what would it be?” as a way to unlock (my interpretation) what we DO know and not be hung up by the expectations that there is some absolute correct approach. In this case, when I ask myself the question, the answer I know would be “I would be doing the things that clarify my understanding so I could repackage that for people to save themselves some time, because it is needed.” So that’s the “right thing” off the top of my head. The more pragmatic question is “how do I survive?” and I suspect the answer is to figure out how much you need, get that taken care of in the most easy way possible so I can maintain enough time and energy to pursue the “right thing”. Because I also know that pursing the right thing is the most likely path to success. I could draw that map right now, I think! I would just need the guts to do it.

    I’m not familiar with De Brevitate Vitae so I just looked it up. Looks long! I’ll have to review it later, but thanks for the mention!

    Cameron: I’m glad you enjoy the sharing of my struggles…it’s important to me that I present the real struggle behind all these forms. No one’s perfect, and that’s OK…so long as we don’t take that lying down :-)

    You know, I think the thing that frustrates me the most is the sheer accounting of everything. It would be one thing if I could have the entire array of life choices and goals before me in a visual form, but I don’t want to be the person who does all that data entry. So the system for me is going to be one based on principles, from which all details can be naturally extrapolated yet bounded within a model of task management. I find accounting very tedious, probably because I’m terrible at it because my short-term memory is phenomenally bad and I have learned to distrust it implicitly. The only way around it is to write everything down. If I couldn’t type fast, I probably wouldn’t be able to even think. Back to you, though: What is it that you find most satisfying about your system? I think the answer would be illuminating for me!

    Amanda: That’s an awesome idea. And wouldn’t it be cool to also have the playbook as well? One thing that’s interesting about football is its distillation of tactics into various formations. I only really understood it after I worked at a game company for a while making football games, but it is pretty darn cool. Productivity football is an awesome idea…if I make something, you’ll get your percentage :-)

    Barry: Thanks for sharing that approach! For some reason Mind Mapping never really clicked with me, possibly because I tend to think in terms of making diagrams already and like making custom forms. I think the cool thing about a Mind Map is that it shows the relations between the various goals in a 2D space better than a list does. I’ll check out your post again, because things like “six main life domains” is an interesting concept. Oh, and one question: do you use the mind map as a way of remembering, or do you actually track progress on it somehow?

  14. Dave Seah 16 years ago

    Scott: I can see your reasoning regarding a timeline, but this isn’t it because it doesn’t incorporate the idea of choice. A map, by virtue of its 2Dness, offers multiple paths and hence multiple destinations. The optimal solution is the one that takes you on the journey that results in what fulfills you; I’m thinking of “you are here” not in terms of “how far you’ve gotten” but literally “this is where you’re standing…which direction now?” That board game comes back to mind now. I can almost taste it. Some of the symbolic meaning from things like a fortune telling deck might map well to a symbolic representation of challenge and terrain; I’m reminded of the methodology used in certain “spreads” in Tarot card reading designed to answer certain questions.

    Scott Garman: We should get together and try to figure it out sometime. Someone emailed me today about this post, and she mentioned something very intriguing: the idea that she had to process information visually for it to make sense. It occurred to me that I’m the same way…I just don’t find numbers in the abstract very interesting at all, and I keep very sleepy. Concepts are interesting, mechanics of math are not.

    Lynnoc: You triggered an image of a Lockheed SR-71 spy plane, which was designed during the Cold War to fly very fast and very high over the Soviet Union. I remember reading how the SR-71, when it is getting ready to take-off, actually leaks jet fuel on the runway. That’s because the high heat generated by air friction causes the metal parts of the jet to expand and close-up; it’s really only efficient at speed. So the thought related to your comment is this: maybe we’re not supposed to be efficient. Since Knowledge Workers value knowledge, we perhaps feel the burden of capturing and tending ALL knowledge as our kind of sacred trust. Wrangling all that information is sort of our technical raison d’etre. But maybe we should not worry about it and leak as much as we need to when we’re idling. When it comes to the important mission, things will work just fine.

    Andrew: Actually, I have tried executive coaching with a good friend of mine, to see what it was like. Usually I am the one being the sounding board, so I also thought it would be interesting to see what it was like being on the other side :-) The aspect of coaching that I ultimately would need is, I think, more along the lines of figuring out what is really important to me. Then, I suspect I would need to hire the people to help make that a reality. I guess it’s hard for me to let go of the coaching seat myself, and that could be a mistake. I am pretty well-versed in this kind of guided exploration that I find rehashing questions I’ve already asked and answered for myself a little tedious. If anything, I feel I need to guide a set of coaches on my behalf in exploring the options. I’m not sure if I am being extremely clever or extremely dumb in thinking this :-)

    I know what you mean about the GTD tasks. I really would rather have those small tasks go away, so Tim Ferriss’ approach of applying 80/20 to tasks is more appealing to me at the moment.

  15. Mark 16 years ago

    Re: family, when things are in balance it brings tremendous clarity. I quit my job and went solo a month before Jack was born. Scary, but with the intent of getting things on track to where we want to be. And it helps. You’re compelled to be in a mode to shape tomorrow to match what you envision for your family. You’re compelled to be more focused when you’re working so that when you’re not you can take advantage of that time with the family.

    The risk, though, is all those new things can be tremendous distractions. Taking time off for the holidays put me in a mode where the three of us were spending the whole day together and we were pitching in together with Jack. Switching back to work mode has been difficult, and a week like this week, with a ton to do on multiple projects AND contending with Jack’s first cold is really hard to keep up with and balance.

  16. Barry W. Morris 16 years ago

    You asked:

    “Oh, and one question: do you use the mind map as a way of remembering, or do you actually track progress on it somehow?”

    I use the map to organize my targets (goals) but not to track my progress. Because I’m more right-brained in my thinking and connecting, I use sub maps in the same way to create a plan of action.

    Yesterday, I came across a reference to another graphic tool and I used it to create an action plan.  The tool is called and UNiversal Organizer (UNO) published by Paul Borzo at Metropolitan State University in The Twin Cities:

    It’s still a mind map but I can see how it can be used to track progress when organized with action steps. Worth a look. :)

  17. Penny 16 years ago

    Dave, you might look at LifeBalance by Llamagraphics. It’s an interesting take on electronic task management. All your tasks and projects are entered into a giant outline with priority and difficulty ratings for each task and/or task group. Then the software (optionally) massages your current task list to help you achieve the balance of focus areas as you’ve defined.

    You can try it for free.

  18. Rupert 16 years ago

    Hm, what is a goal?

    Obviously, there is a hierachy of goals. So mind maps work by representing different levels of goals (at least they help me to structure things for a year or two years …).

    However I think, there are many hierachies of goals. One can alwas form one hierachy from these different perspective hierachies. But this results in goals like “private life”, “business”, “family”, which I think are categories not goals ….

    Hm, what is the context within which I set my goals and plan my activities? I do some expreriments to map this “context” instead of the goals. At least for this context i can imagine a landscape or map or … So I focus on context more than i focus on goals. Of course there is a very interesting interdependency between my activities and the context, which turns out to be changing and formable (at least to a certain extent).

    Hm, is there a goal behind every activity?
    At least, I can construct a goal for every activity. But does this help me?

    I think there is an element of chance, luck, fate, … in our lives.

    Also I think that most of the decisions to start an activity or not to do so are not conscious, willful, deliberate. I mean we can’t sit down for every activity and make an analysis about possible outcome, etc. etc. There is something behind these decisions. The German word is “Haltung” (attitude, mind set,…). So I try to get a handle on this? What had been my motives, values behind ad-hoc decisions to start things or leave them in the past? Are these the correct ones? Are they effective? Do they bring the ship to the coast I want to come to?

  19. Rupert 16 years ago

    Visualizing a context landscape: We follow our goals in a virtual landscape: Climbing up a steep mountain (learning a new language), to fight ourselves through a djungle (a new market /business). Finally we reach a nice little river to rest there (spend a family weekend with the kids). Then we have to cross a desert (stupid work that nevertheless has to be done) in order to reach an unknow forrest green, dark a little scary but full of deer (a new postion, a new rewarding project, …), then by crossing a plain we suddenly find ourselves in a battle of two armies and try to survive somehow (a big outsourcing due diligence …) when we finally sail on the ocean to discover new coasts (read some philosophy, make new acquantances etc.)

  20. Cameron 16 years ago

    Dave… What do I find satisfying about my system?

    Well partly I’m a naturally reflective person, so making sure I schedule in time to think about what it is I want to achieve in LIFE (not just business, work, etc) is naturally rewarding for me.  It helps me to make sure I actually think about this sort of stuff systematically – turning my hopes and dreams into some sort of specific targets or purposes.

    My Outlook Task List is filtered according to categories.  I’ve used the categories a bit like GTD contexts – but rather than location contexts, I’ve used those different elements of my life (work, home, personal, business, etc). 

    Then I’ve used the Jello Dashboard method of sorting the tasks in each category according to “project”.  My projects are things like “work – administration” or “household – maintenance”.  I’ve got things like “personal – goals” to capture the sorts of things I want to see in my life within whatever timeframe I set.

    For me, with a million ideas buzzing around in my head, two jobs to juggle, hopes to gain more clients so I can do less job/more business, family responsibilities, etc… it just helps to capture everything formally so I remember to actually do something about them.

    I’ve gone one step further with my categories by colour coordinating them.  So the colour for “home” is orange.  If I schedule an appointment relating to home, I colour it in orange.  If I start a project at home (like a building project in the garden) the folder I use is orange.  And so on.

    This merger of dreams and hopes with tasks and actions satisfies my creative and my fastidious sides!

  21. Nollind Whachell 16 years ago

    Situational awareness.

  22. Jerome 16 years ago

    I consider myself as pretty simple person. I don’t want to think too much and too wide at all times, so I always do the deep thinking process in a specific initial time frame and create a map with many decision branches (actually it is a process chart) from it