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Strategic Planning or Guns Blazing: Different Ways to Get Things Done

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Coffeeshop Girl

Today we’re going to look at a paradox about how things get done in reality. We all know people who are productivity nerds – they have systems, charts and lists for everything. Their lists are color-coded, tagged with shortcodes and they have lists that summarize their summary lists. Everything they do gets done in an ordered manner, and, as you would expect, they deliver results – they get things done. And yet we also know people, who have trouble finding their car keys in the morning. They can’t tell you if the coffee is in the left pantry cabinet, or the right pantry cabinet – or even if it’s in the kitchen at all. But when it comes to delivering what’s important, they somehow manage to do it – every single time.

In fact, there are a lot of people out there, who don’t know what a to-do list is, barely have a workable schedule and don’t even use the address book on their phone, who manage to excel in life and do amazing things. What we’re talking about here is a fundamental difference in the way people do things live. It’s the difference between people who use systems to help them navigate through life, and those who use overwhelming amounts of action to do the same. The question is – which way is best? Is it better to be organized and ordered and to know how everything stands, or is it better to dive in headfirst and get into the rough of things? Let’s take a look at both.

Systems and Strategic Planning

Let’s start with the ordered side of things, as that’s the one likely to be most familiar to readers of Asian Efficiency. The whole idea of systems and strategic planning is that results are largely attainable through increases in productivity, planning and then a smooth execution. What this means, is that when you do something, you sit down, plan it out step-by-step as best you can, then execute, analyze and improve upon that plan over time. This is a great strategy for many things – and a not-so-great one for others. The biggest issue with strategic planning is obvious – you can end up in analysis paralysis, where you spend all your time organizing, reorganizing, resorting and perfecting lists, schedules and plans.

There are some things that using systems are great for, namely:

  • Projects and project management.
  • Complex tasks that you already have the process for – things that have prewritten scripts.
  • The general everyday stuff that can easily slip your mind – e.g., paying bills, birthdays, important dates and events.

And of course, there are certain things that systems are generally bad for:

  • Social situations.
  • Innovation and creativity – it’s really hard to brainstorm using a step-by-step 7-point plan.
  • Anything with unforeseen amounts of complexity, or where there are too many variables.

Action and Guns Blazing

This is the other side of the paradox. It’s where to get things done, you essentially forgo the planning and:

  1. Have a really rough idea of where you’re going.
  2. Commit to getting there.
  3. Go for it.

When you’re driving with action rather than systems, there is no real need to plan – you just start taking “spontaneous action” so to speak. If you wan to understand the why behind how this works, AE Thanh has a great article on Solar Flaring that outlines it all.

Taking immediate action is great for:

  • When you don’t know what the end looks like in great detail. Starting with action lets you take steps in the general direction of where you’re going, and the momentum and course-corrections you’ll have along the way will get you to where you want to go. Think of this as ready, fire, aim (then fire, aim, fire, aim etc until you get there).
  • Social situations.
  • When you don’t feel inspired to take action. This is the idea behind solar flaring.

Taking immediate action is usually bad for:

  • Tasks where minutia and details are important.
  • Working with a team, where everyone needs to have their actions and outcomes aligned.

Next Actions

By now you have a pretty good idea of what to use and when. The reality is, to navigate successfully through life you need a combination of both approaches – sometimes it’s better to just get started with things and see where they go. At other times, you need to take a step back and plan a little. Using the wrong approach can result in hours (if not days) of wasted time, and lead to frustration. With that in mind, here’s what to try and implement next:

  • When you’re next stuck on something, try switching up your strategy – if you’ve been following a plan, set it aside and just start doing what you think you need to do next. If you’ve been “winging it”, grab some paper and sketch out a plan.
  • Recognize that actions and systems aren’t mutually exclusive. Action can exist within a framework of structure – e.g., a 3-hour window you set aside to simply start doing things and see where it goes.
Photo By: Andrea Rose

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1 Comment

Posted by Thanh Pham  | September 21, 2011 at 5:41AM | Reply

You call me a productivity nerd? Wow that’s the best compliment I’ve ever received. Thanks Aaron :-)

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