Charting Courses

I had lunch at Nando’s with a friend 2 days ago, and I mentioned that I had been doing my planning for the month of November before said lunch. We had a brief discussion concerning the scope and methodology behind this, and I thought it might be interesting to share how I approach it. I’ve been iterating on this approach since starting fourth year at Imperial. I figured explicit planning was important for two reasons:

  1. I had a lot more flexibility as to how I could schedule my time, with projects spanning multiple terms, and
  2. I had more on my plate as well, having to manage 2 part-time jobs and my own personal development in parallel.

Now that I’ve graduated from Imperial, I find this is arguably even more important:

  1. There isn’t even a “term” unit now. I might have to answer questions, do emergency investigations/dev work, and even be an SME about things I implemented on previous projects. (Though that’s validation that my code’s still in production!)
  2. Personal development is still an issue, and there might be even less of an obvious driver or reminder that it’s important (the part-time jobs introduced weekly quotas and scheduling, in a way).

I have tried to be careful to avoid excessive planning for quite a fair bit of time, mainly because I want to maintain some degree of flexibility and also because it’s difficult for me to measure how long certain tasks will take (especially creative tasks; cue Hofstadter’s law). I thus don’t view the plans as absolutely prescriptive and dynamically redraft them as needed.

Typically, I have an annual planning exercise, which largely involves developing objectives and key requirements for the year across various domains, both professional and otherwise. This has been in place since year 2 at Imperial, actually, and was typically written at the start of the academic year, though I plan to realign it with the calendar year starting from 2017. Here’s an excerpt from what I wrote at the beginning of year 4 (note that there were more objectives as well as more subgoals within each objective):

  1. To be an accomplished student for my final year at Imperial.
    1. Obtain a solid overall average for the fourth year at Imperial. The score is measured by linear interpolation with 84 as 0.0, and 94 as 1.0. (So 0.7 is 91.)
    2. Complete a strong final individual project. 85 is 0.0, and 100 is 1.0. (So 0.7 is 95.5.)
    3. Successfully train a group of PMT students to develop aptitude and, hopefully, interest for the subject. Measurement involves giving the students a feedback form at the end of term 2, asking them to rate the sessions for quality on a 7-point scale. 3.5 is 0.0 and 6.5 is 1.0.
    4. Challenge said group of PMT students. The survey should ask how difficult the sessions were, again on a 7-point scale. 4 is not good (the sessions should challenge them). In fact I’d target 5.25 as an average, for 1.0. 4.0/6.5 would be 0.0.
  2. To manage one’s finances in a coordinated and efficient way.
    1. Max out my Stocks and Shares ISA for the 2017 tax year. 9,000 is 0.0, and 15,240 is 1.0 (obviously). This is allowed to wait for my start at Palantir.
    2. Earn a sufficient income from part-time work over the course of the academic year. 2,000 is 0.0, and 10,000 is 1.0.
    3. Read books concerning finance and financial management from (a reading list I defined at that time), with extensions allowed should I find other quality texts along the way. 0 would be 0; 9 would be 1.0.

The next finer-grained level of planning would be academic terms, which corresponds to quarters in the post-Imperial world. I think I started this from year 3. (I treat the summer holiday as Term 4/Q4, and would do planning for what I wanted to achieve during those as well.) This would include slightly more information about what I planned to do, though it would still be at a very high level (no/minor concrete action planned). I normally didn’t do any planning beyond that.

For monthly planning, there is some degree of executive function that’s involved. I block out time for certain time-inflexible important events or things I need to do, where feasible (for example, making sure to attend the BCS award presentation ceremony, or the graduation at Imperial). It’s also a good time to pencil in anything that should be done monthly, even if it’s not necessarily the case that it’s time to do it. For example, in the absence of shock events I typically have a look at my investment portfolio once a month on the day after payday – this is used to make potential movements and have a quick look as to whether there’s anything in particular I need to position myself for (for example, getting a chunk ready to toss at the market in the wake of the Brexit referendum; similarly, I’m keeping an eye out for November 8th this month).

I also review the quotas that I’ve set – that is, things which I set out to do N times every time interval T (thanks to John Sonmez’s book for the word). Some of these involve meeting or talking to certain people whom I value highly and wouldn’t get to see otherwise (>50% of the guys I regularly talk to are not or no longer based in London or the UK for that matter); others involve financial planning, or personal learning and development objectives.

It’s also a good time to reflect on how things have gone in the previous month, and whether my OKRs and things I’ve wanted to get done for the quarter are tracking or not – and possibly to react to these should things not be going well and/or be overheating (as tempting as it is for me to try and run my winners, in some sense). In any case, I find allocating a decent chunk of time to plan this out (usually around 90 minutes) useful for helping me to decide what to allocate the rest of my time for the month towards, without imposing an excessive overhead (that I suspect would otherwise be amortised over the course of the month anyway). I’ve found it to be a useful exercise, though of course its applicability will depend on the individual.

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