Seven ways to plan like a pro

I enjoy the start of a new year. The blank pages in a new diary, a new calendar on the wall and different courses at University make it feel like a fresh start. A time to review last year, keep what’s working and ditch what isn’t. To try new approaches and hatch new plans.

How did last year work out for you? Were you happy with your progress at Uni? Did you feel confident you’d done your best work? Did you feel calm and relaxed, knowing you can build on last year and do even better?

Or were you disappointed? Wondered if you’d let yourself down? Felt stressed and uncertain, trying everything you could Google and hoping something worked? If so, read on!

At the start of a new year, there are lots of blog posts about making a fresh start and setting resolutions. But this one is a bit different. I'm sharing what I've learned in business and how you can apply it to your studies this semester. You see, here's the crux of the matter:

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Professional planners use SYSTEMS for success

One of the most powerful insights I've gained from running my own business as a professional writer and communicator was the importance of effective SYSTEMS. I've been fortunate to work on multi-million pound change programmes for well-known organisations like Waitrose, Rolls-Royce and the NHS. And if you work alongside great project managers it's soon apparent that they rely on SYSTEMS to support them to deliver their goals. That's because when you combine the right components together in a system, the outcome is greater than if you use one or two of them on their own.

Using a system multiplies your chances of success. Everything is working for you instead of against you. And this works for academic study too! When I returned to University I naturally applied what I'd learned in business to achieve my goals and I was pleasantly surprised by how straightforward and stress-free my study became.

Today, I've decided to take some of what I've learned about goal setting, planning and productivity and...

*drum roll please*

explain how to Plan like a Pro this semester! Here we go:

"Many people fail in life, not for lack of ability or brains or even courage, but simply because they have never organised their energies around a goal." - Elbert Hubbard

#1 Assess where you are right now

Every programme manager I've worked with began by gathering information to determine their baseline. If you know what your starting point is it makes goal setting much easier. Look back at your results from last year and ask yourself these questions:

  • What results did you achieve?
  • What did you do well?
  • What could be improved?

Write the answers down to help determine your baseline for this year's work.

#2 Set specific goals for each three months

Have you ever set yourself a HUGE year-long goal? What happened? I'm guessing you may have struggled or quit. You're not alone. You may have heard that the average number of people who keep their New Year's resolutions usually hovers around the eight or nine percent mark? Doesn't sound very promising, does it?

But here's a lesser-known statistic, which is far more encouraging. The 42% of people who set specific goals at the start of the year are ten times more likely to reach them than those people who have a vague idea that they would like to improve. Yes - 10 x! This is because setting clear and specific goals forces you to decide exactly what you want to achieve and what action you need to take to make those goals a reality.

The ideal goal setting period is about ninety days or three months - you'll find it much easier to stay motivated and enthusiastic about an objective within this time frame. You can build your whole year plan this way, comprising of one three-month block after another.

#3 Focus on the action you need to take, as well as the outcome

Every great project manager knows that it's not enough to set a target or deadline, they have to schedule the actions needed to achieve it. So, how does that apply to University work?

Here’s an example. Imagine you want to improve your essay mark from 60% to 65% this semester. If you make a commitment to read in the library for one hour three times a week and write for thirty minutes every week day these actions will help you achieve the overall outcome you want.

Do you see how a focus on the action gets you a better result than if you were to simply set a goal based on your desired outcome? You do? Great, let's move onto the next stage in the system which is....

#4 Measure your progress

Effective measurement allows you to monitor your progress as you move from your starting baseline to your end goal. It's often said in business that "what gets measured, gets done" and there's a lot of truth in the statement. Knowing how near or far you are from your goal helps you to assess whether you are on course or need to take further action to get back on track.

Your progress can be measured against a target such as word count per day, minutes spent on reading or essay marks. Alongside this, you can also track the percentage of the task you've completed so far or use a red/amber/green system to monitor if you're on track. Assessing your progress will help you maintain momentum. It also makes setting your next round of goals much easier!

#5 Schedule every action and activity onto your plan

When I was Lead Communicator on a big bank acquisition we had a programme plan that covered all four walls of the project room. The plan earned the nicknamed 'The Beast' because it was huge and intimidating. Literally, every activity needed to complete the acquisition was included.

Thankfully you are unlikely to need a plan like 'The Beast' (unless you intend to acquire a European bank anytime soon!) but I learned a lot from the experience.

The main 'aha!' moment for me was understanding that when you have a plan of EVERY activity you need to achieve your goal it is easy to see the:

  • sequence of events (you have to read all the journal articles before you can write the essay)
  • interdependencies (you need everybody's sections of the group project before you can submit)
  • risks (if you leave your essay until the last minute you might run out of time)
  • bottlenecks (the group presentation can't go ahead without everyone's slides)

It may seem like a big task to list every activity you need to take to complete your goal on your plan, but trust me, it's an investment that will pay you back again and again. It will save you from feeling overwhelmed with the workload and fend off last minute panic. 

#6 Anticipate issues and mitigate them

As well as identifying potential risks, great project managers spend time thinking about known issues that will occur and how they will deal with them. If you take a moment to reflect on this, you can probably think of lots of issues which might occur, either due to external circumstances or personal factors. Wouldn't it be a relief if when the inevitable happens you already had a backup plan? Here are a couple of examples of issues and the plan to mitigate them:

  • Issue: Three assignments need to be submitted in the same week
  • Mitigation: Start them all early so there is sufficient time to complete.
  • Issue: It's difficult to study in the evenings because your housemates are noisy and often interrupt
  • Mitigation: Schedule time to go to the Uni library instead or get up early to study while the house is quieter

Follow this approach and you will not suffer any setbacks that you haven't already anticipated and planned for.

#7 Focus on one activity and give it your full attention

Now you've grasped the fundamentals of planning, it's time to move on to doing the work itself. Planning only works if you do! Keep your plan on track by completing the work on the day you scheduled. One way to do this is to concentrate on one activity at a time.

Picture this: You’re curled up on the sofa at home and you've decided to read a textbook. You start to read, but then your phone pings. You see it's a text from your friend asking whether you want to go out tonight. You quickly reply to say yes, but before you pick your book back up, you decide to quickly check your email. Scrolling down your inbox, you see there’s a sale at your favourite sports shop. You spot a pair of trainers you like, put your phone down next to your forgotten textbook and go off to get your bank card…

Does this sound like you? Constant distractions and frequent switching from one activity to another will waste valuable brain power. When you focus on one activity at a time you work faster, save energy and gain a sense of satisfaction when you complete a task. Use the Pomodoro technique or an app like Focus Keeper to encourage you to stick to one task at a time until you have completed it.

A summary of the seven ways to plan like a pro

Ultimately, if you want your most productive and stress-free year yet, I urge you to consider the seven ways I've outlined:

  1. Assess where you are right now
  2. Set specific goals for each three months
  3. Focus on the action you need to take, as well as the outcome
  4. Measure your progress
  5. Schedule every action and activity onto your plan
  6. Anticipate issues and mitigate them
  7. Focus on one activity and give it your full attention

If you’re a natural goal setter, then you are already aware of the clarity and certainty that setting short-term, action-oriented objectives and focussing on one task at a time can bring to your studies.

If you’re not, then I hope this article will encourage you to make this year the one where you get comfy with planning and goal setting and have your best year ever.

Remember you'll be ten times more likely to

  • Improve your essays
  • Read more books and journals
  • Write faster, write better, write more
  • Perform better in presentations
  • Reduce stress
  • Increase confidence
  • Get better grades
  • _______ (fill in the blank.)

And who doesn't want a piece of that?

Planning like a pro has allowed me to achieve more in my University work and perform better than I could ever have imagined. What about you? Do you set goals or resolutions? Which one of these seven insights make you go 'aha'? Tell me in the comments below.