I’ve long been a fan of having a plan to help focus my time and energy into what I see as my priorities. The biggest challenge I have in my life, and from talking to others over the years it’s incredibly common, is that my available time to accomplish things is THIS long, and my todo list and list of things I want to do is THIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIS long. And if you don’t understand where you’re trying to get in life (or at work; ask any project or program manager, this is effectively what they do for a living) then you tend to poke at things based on whatever is interesting or currently on fire, and you put a lot of effort in and looking back, you haven’t really accomplished much.
The planning doesn’t have to be too formal; I rarely write anything down unless I’m trying to work through complex issues, and I never turn something into “The Plan“, but I always want to know what my overall goals and priorities are so if I’m considering doing something, I can understand how it fits into those longer term goals (if it does) as a way to judge whether to commit time to it.
So in general, I always have some vision of where I want my life to be in five years (beyond “still breathing”, which as I get older becomes both a bigger priority and a higher risk), and I also take a quick look at around 3 years out as a judge of how I’m making progress on it, and then once or twice a year I try to look at one year out and try to figure out what I think I can accomplish in the next year and how that gets me closer to that five year goal. (if you find that what you feel you need to do in the next year doesn’t help that five year plan, then either you’re lying to yourself about your priorities, or your plan is out of sync and you need to reevaluate that five year plan. Like I’m doing here)
(By the way, one more aside… when talking to people about how to set up these kinds of things in their life, a common response to top priority are things like “my family”, and yet when you look at what they’re doing, often their work is where their time and energy is going into, and they’ll tell me they’re doing it to make sure they’re family is taken care of. Also, often, at some point in the next number of years I find out they’re now either divorced, or barely stayed married after some big crisis, and THEN they went about aligning their priorities and their time and energy, instead of rationalizing it all out in their heads. Just saying…)
In any event, the less sure you are where you want to be down the road, the more nebulous the plans should be, but at least, you should have SOME direction, and work in that direction, and then cross-check whether you think that’s really the right direction or not and adjust the goals and directions as you go along. think of it as a focussing device in a chaos that can overwhelm you in options…
Once you have these goals and directions and are setting plans, you need to find ways to measure whether what you are accomplishing those goals. Many of these are subjective, but objective measures when you can find them are always good — if you think about the FitBit or Apple Watch activity systems, they are ways to help you objectify metrics in “get/stay healthy” and just your improvement over time. Or lack of improvement, maybe
In my case, my goals were pretty clear: originally “Pro photography” (metric: INCOME/Revenue). Later, “Supplemental income from photography and my web sites” (metric: Income/Revenue). And to generate revenue, you need assets with value, which is writing (and writing begats ebooks, and estores, and marketing, and branding, and… you get the drill).
And when time in your most limited resource, then you find yourself pushing that limited time at projects that push those priorities forward. And in my case, I ended up always working on projects generating assets, and rarely on, well, the kind of writing I enjoyed most or going out and taking pictures. And that’s how you end up realizing your priorities are out of sync and it’s time to re-evaluate everything and move into a Pivot and change the directions you’re taking things.
The plan drives the priorities; the priorities drives the metrics of success, the metrics drives the projects and the projects drives the time allocations.
And this is why when I’m doing business planning (at work or in real life) I tend to harp on making sure that the metrics you track are the proper ones, not the easy to get ones, because your determination of success will be based on the metrics, so what you do will be driven by what generates the metrics you’re tracking.
This is why so much of how we do Social Media is really wrong — the easy metrics out there are pageviews and likes and followers, and so we tend to try to drive those into larger numbers, when in fact, those numbers mean so very little and actually accomplish even less.
(one more aside: back when I was at Apple doing their mailing lists, one of the things I used to do was give presentation to managers that said things like “If your people come and tell you how big their lists are, fire them. What matters is what people are doing with those emails”. that was over a decade ago, long before “engagement” in social became a thing. And most people there got it, but we had one group that loved their big list numbers to wag around the hydrant. I spent a chunk of time trying to get that shut down and never quite did — close twice — even though 70% of the list churned after three mailings when the bounces dropped them, and they were 90% of Apple’s overall spam complaints. Ultimately, after I left, it did get shut down, but they were cowboys to the very end…)
And that was why I needed to Pivot. My key metric was revenue, and it was driving my projects, and my projects were eating up my time. And having looked back at it, I feel all of my projects and results were good ones, but ultimately I was chasing a goal that was no longer in line with what my priorities should have been. whoops. (hey, seriously. this happens. you need to recognize it and course correct. If you don’t EVER do this, you’re being too safe and conservative, and that’s a worse, harder to fix failure in a different form, because you’re comfortable in that failure)
So, what does this mean?
The first time I ever heard the phrase “All of the wood behind one arrow head” was Scott McNealy, back in my Sun days, back in ancient history, but it’s helped shape my view on both work and life. My view: it is better in the long run to be able to do a few things well (or in Johnny Ive speak: “right”) than do many things okay or mediocre. One reason I gave up needlepoint was that time/priority tradeoff, even though I miss it still and may pick it up again. Ditto why every time I think of getting a clarinet and taking it up again I put that back on the Maybe Someday pile — because both of those are time consuming things that in reality, are shiny objects but not as important to me as other things already taking up all of the time in my life. I’d like to do them, but I’d have to remove something else from life to do them well enough to make it worth it, and whenever I ask myself that question, they fall lower on the priority list again. But, well, maybe someday.
The Pivot is partially about doing fewer things, because in the grand scheme of things and for the best of reasons I was involved in too many things to do them all well (and leave time for things, like, well, relaxation and play). But beyond that, I needed to change my goals, my metrics and therefore my plans and projects.
Old goal: make money off this stuff. Metric: revenue.
New goal: have fun. Metric: Am I enjoying what I’m doing? (note: subjective metric)
And part of the Pivot is to free up time for other stuff. Needlepoint still doesn’t make the cut (yet, but it might in a few months once things settle down), but more time on the camera does. So does “blog writing” instead of “creating assets”
But this pivot is also about freeing up time for things that weren’t making the cut. For instance, I’ve long wanted to dig back into coding again and I spent some time a year or so ago taking a long, serious look at developing an IOS app I’ve wanted to write, only to decide it didn’t fit the revenue thing well give then state of making money in the IOS App Store. So it stayed on hold.
Now? I’ve dug out Xcode (last time I played with this it was called MPW (and Think C; remember that?) and I’m starting to dive into programming for the Mac (not IOS) with Swift. Maybe I’ll get to a certain point and decide the code sucks and throw it out; if I like it it’ll go onto GitHub and others will play with it. All I can say right now is I’ve wanted to write a modern Rogue, and while there are some decent roguelikes out there (on the Mac, check out Runestone Keeper) and the reason mac not IOS is because I think doing it on the mac lets me do a classic keyboard-centric version while also trying to add a layer over that for mouse and keypad touch. but without the keyboard, it’s not rogue.
Also, while I’m not doing that photography video podcast thing that turned into that big hairy complex beastie, podcasting still intrigues me and I’m looking at launching one. I have a concept down I like and I’m pulling some things together and I’m going to try recording a few sample podcasts. And if they suck I’ll delete them and you’ll never hear another thing about it, and if I like them, well, I’ll launch something and let you have a good giggle at them.
One other thing in process — a couple of months ago I reached out to an organization I’ve been involved with for a project I’ve been considering collaborating with them on. We’ve been talking about it and I expect that between now and the end of the year we’ll decide if we are going to pursue it. If so, it’s going to be a fun and interesting (and busy in a good way) 2016, I think. If not, I have a variation of the project I’m going to do personally via my site that will give me most of the fun and creation aspects of the project but fewer of the “official” parts.
And this winter I want to spend more time in the refuges, and time writing about why I do this and why these areas are important for all of us, and focus more on that aspect of things and the larger issues that tie into it, like climate change. Folks who follow my twitter feed will not be surprised to hear that.
And I’m going to read more, adn maybe catch up on my backlog of reviews, and play with the new PS4 and take time unplugged and not doing stuff more, too, because getting myself to the point where all my time (and then some) was scheduled is what got me to this point in the first place.
And that’s the final note here: when you DO build your plans and work your way towards some longer term goal, never put yourself into that spot where you have no downtime. fun and rest and relaxation matter, and if you lose that, it’s like building up a balance on a credit card. it may seem manageable, but at some point you hit the limit, and bam, bad things happen.