Planning: Bring the Future Into the Present!

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The New Year is an excellent time to think about planning. Whether you are trying to figure out how you can keep your New Year’s resolution for longer than a month or struggling to complete that winter break school project, planning is key to productivity and success. It is the brain-based executive function that enables us to envision a distant goal, create sub-goals, prioritize which of them to do and when, and finally, to manage these tasks within time constraints. In this article, we will look at styles of planning and strategies to assist those who struggle with it.

Two Types of Planners, sort of.
There are two types of people in the world--those who plan and those who don't. Planners carry around some form of either paper planner or nowadays a digital one. Non-planners don't do this. Nonplanners are thinking "what's the fuss?" and planners are thinking “what’s that due date again?”

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Let’s look at an example of the two types in a planning intensive situation, the long-term school project. Imagine the teacher in front of the classroom announcing that the big science project is due in a month and students will complete it at home. At that moment, some students are scrambling to pull out their planners or diligently writing in their notebooks. Their hands will go up asking about the scope, dimensions, and range of possible projects. It is as though an alarm went off in those students, and they are in critical planning mode. Other students will not have moved a muscle and may be saying to themselves “why are they going bananas over a science project? It’s no big deal, and we have way more than enough time to get it done. Easy peasy!” Whether in school, on the job, or at home, this latter type of planner may have these experiences:

  • Can only complete projects with near-term or immediate deadlines.
  • Get stuck easily and have difficulty problem-solving.
  • Habitually miss project or assignment due dates.
  • Find it challenging to organize or prioritize the steps to complete a project.

As you can see from this short list, deficits in the ability to plan have a pervasive and adverse effect on productivity. Below are three strategies to help reduce their impact:

Sound the Alarms!
Okay, that line may be overdoing it a bit, but the idea is that the planning process begins with a recognition that a planning strategy is necessary for the task at hand. The planners in the above example recognized this and initiate a planning strategy. If this stage is a challenge for you or someone you know, here are things that you can do:

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  • Keep a pad and pencil or digital notepad on your cell phone handy. When a project or task is announced in a meeting or class, write it down.
  • Use a template or list of questions to ensure that you have the information you need. You’ll want to know the due date, requirements, and an idea of what is expected.
  • For students with accommodations, you might ask the teacher to prompt your child to take down the project information and to initial that your child has the essential information written in his or her school planner.

Seeing with The Mind’s Eye.
Having the due date and a sense of the project initiates the planning process. A next critical step is to have a visual conception of what the final project will look like as well as options for how it aligns with or exceeds the teacher or supervisor’s expectations. This explains why students in the science class were asking all of those questions. They created an image of project ideas in their mind’s eye and were asking questions based on it. Here is how to access this step:

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  • Review the criteria for the project and imagine it in your mind’s eye. Think of other projects you have done or have seen. Create a clear image!
  • With the image in mind, ask yourself logistical questions: Will I be able to locate those materials easily? How long will it take me to make that? Whose help will I need? What problems would this present?
  • If you are working with a student, turn this process into a worksheet that the student can follow and write answers to questions on. Use a format that he or she can return to throughout the project.
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“Inch by inch, life's a cinch.”
Long-term projects take time because several components must be completed. The 4th Grade California Missions project often requires that parents, oh sorry, students, research a mission, build a scale model, visit the chosen site, and create a presentation. In a job, you may have to collect and crunch sales numbers, determine trends, and present your analysis to the sales team. The basic idea of this step is to simplify and break the larger project into manageable subgoals. Here are things that you can do:

  • Create a list of subgoals and turn them into a checklist. Figure out what you must do first, then second, and so on.
  • Estimate the amount of time needed to complete each sub-goal.
  • Put each goal and time on a calendar, school planner, or large piece of butcher block paper. As an additional reminder, set calendar alarms on a cell phone.
  • If you are working with a child, do more than tell them to perform each step. Create ways for him or her to externalize the creation of subgoals. Also, verbally model the thinking process, so he or she gains insight into how planning works.

Planning enables us to project our ideas, thoughts, and intuitions beyond our immediate circumstances. It is, therefore, a key to productivity and success in school and life. An executive function skills coach can help you identify and customize planning strategies for home, work, or school. Don't let poor planning skills prevent you from living a productive and fulfilling life.

Are you or someone you know struggling with focus, productivity, or confidence? Dr. Clarence Perkins is an Executive Function and ADHD Coach who can help you reach your goals. Call or write for a free consultation.