Monday, June 2, 2014

More on planning

I’ve reflected in a prior post about the virtues of planning, and my thoughts as expressed then haven’t changed (you can read that post at this link: ). But in the present post, I want to explore another aspect.
     As most of us have learned, general intentions to “make progress on everything” are all very well, but can and often do lead only to small advances on a number of different goals — or worse, getting distracted into a series of miscellaneous projects which don’t advance any particular goals, nor may they much advance broader goals of layout progress or other improvements.
     Of course, this may be a perfectly fine kind of hobby experience, where considerable enjoyment may attend all those miscellaneous projects. But if you do have actual goals, as many of us do, it may help to develop more focus. I know it helps for me.
     I learned long ago, whether in work or hobby time, or really just about anything, that one can easily keep quite busy with the daily details we all encounter. But looking back on a span of time so occupied, one may realize, as I have on occasion, that really not a lot had been accomplished, despite being “busy” the whole time.
     I once had a sign over my desk, “No Frittering,” which of course referred to frittering away of time, and hopefully meaning “no ‘busywork’ to the exclusion of bigger goals.” Of course, life requires us to do lots of small and sometimes boring things, and one’s hobby is not excluded from that — but my sign was an effort to remind myself that there should be effort devoted to bigger goals, too.
     I soon discovered, as probably most people do, that “signs over desks,” or any equivalent reminder, very quickly become part of the everyday scenery, and you no longer really see them. I once had the idea to hang such a reminder on a string from the ceiling, so it hung over the middle of the desk, and gently moved with air currents. This was certainly far more attention-getting at first, but once again, if you don’t comply with the reminder, it only works for so long. Then it too becomes part of the scenery.
     So how might one avoid “frittering” (besides reminders by your workbench)? One way is to have a plan. Of course it needs to be a realistic plan, and not too broad (I avoid items like “finish layout”). I like to break a plan into small steps so that I have frequent milestones, to give that sense of progress, and the small steps help me recognize how the work needs to be done, and perhaps rethink some of the step sequences.
     On place I’ve really seen a planning approach pay off for me, is when a deadline is in place. Maybe I’ve agreed to write an article by some date, or to give a talk that needs new material, or have my layout open for a layout tour (for example, see this post: . Then energy gets focused on very specific things to finish (or sets of things), and much more distinct progress takes place. Now of course, some deadlines can really ruin your week (or month), when the amount of work gets overwhelming, so a sense of proportion is necessary in setting goals or agreeing to deadlines from others.
     When on the topic of deadlines, I’m always reminded of a cartoon a colleague had on his bulletin board. It showed a man on his knees, with hands together in prayer. He’s saying, “Lord, please save me from this self-imposed and totally unnecessary deadline.” And of course most of us discover that to be effective, deadlines usually have to be at least partly external, not entirely self-imposed.
     So when I agree to open my layout for a tour, or write an article, I do tend to welcome the deadline that’s created, because the deadline is sure to cause some focused work to be completed. But I also try not to set the bar too high (as in “finish layout”). That’s so I won’t be the guy in that cartoon.
Tony Thompson


  1. I like the ideas suggested by David Allen, creator of the GTD (Getting Things Done) system. We never work on projects, but only on next actions. When I feel stuck on a project and find myself 'frittering', I can ask 'What is the next action I need to take to move this project forward'. Often I find it is something I don't want to do because it is boring or unpleasant in some other way. There seems to be this misconception that because we play with trains and it is, after all, just a hobby, that it will never be boring or unpleasant. Yet how many folks readily lament 'I hate wiring, or balasting, or benchwork, etc.'

    Anyway, asking for the next action on a stuck project seems to help me get back in the groove. Sometimes it is a series of next actions, like cleaning up after a project is completed, that will get me back in front of the workbench.

    Thanks, as usual, for a good read.

  2. Good comment, Galen, and you're welcome. I know what you mean -- when something seems stalled, I try to think why, and often find it is something I don't feel sure I know how to do (or do correctly), or I may be waiting for a part, or a design decision. Identifying that proximate blockage can help me focus on solving THAT problem, and thereby moving forward.
    Tony Thompson

  3. As a modeler with way too many in-process projects, and nothing completed recently, this struck a cord. Bb major (cymbal crash). There are times I now dread heading over to the workbench, even though I have plenty of things that I like to do.

    It occurs to me that I need a plan, and a deadline. Something like:

    Monday: Finish brake piping on C-30-1 caboose.
    Tuesday: Finish brake rigging on C-30-1 caboose.

    and so on. Now I've focused my work. That SC&F baggage car should no longer distract me, because it isn't on the workplan tonight. The workplan helps focus my attention to acheivable goals.

    Easier said than done. :-)

  4. Well put, Arved. Not only a plan, but small steps that can get done readily. Not sure I want that chord echoing in my head, though (grin).
    Tony Thompson