Friday, August 13, 2010

Planning in layers

How can you plan a project when inspiration plays a key role in it? Inspiration is famously fickle; it could vanish without warning at any point.

Usually a project starts strong, and it's tempting to plan that you'll simply keep going with the same amount of momentum. For example, "I wrote 2000 words today! I'll just keep that up every day, and I'll have a first draft of my novel by the end of the summer!" That's an optimistic plan, not a realistic plan.

But don't be hard on yourself if this optimistic-planning pitfall snags you. Blame the nature of inspiration: it distorts our judgment and makes us unrealistically optimistic.

It's better to plan pessimistically, and always allow for the possibility that your progress will drag to a halt along the way.

If you must make a plan, keep your focus on short timeframes, prioritize ruthlessly, and be as flexible as possible about the size of the project.

Plan every week (or every day) as if it could be the end of the project, and always look for things that you can bring to completion. It's better if you have something potentially usable if you decide to pull the plug on the project.

For example, suppose you are struck by an idea for a 24-song album, one song for every major and minor key, linking each of the keys to one of the 24 hours in a day. It's a pretty cool concept, but the fact that it's tied to a specific level of effort should make you cautious from the start. If you decide to go ahead with this ambitious project, you should plan for the likely possibility that you won't finish it.

Don't start your 24-song album by recording 24 drum tracks, because if the project ends at that point, you don't have anything to show for your work. Instead, start by recording all the tracks for "Midnight." Then, if the project ends, you at least have one finished song that could be reused in some other project.

The worst trouble you can get into is to make a commitment with a deadline, a commitment that depends on inspiration helping you out. Unfortunately, some of us can't seem to get anything finished without a deadline. But is anything really worth worth the stress of facing a deadline under that much uncertainty? It's so much simpler if you get the critical inspiration-dependent work done first, and have only routine cleanup left to do before you set a deadline.

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