Your Long-Term Planning Needs to Be Short-Term

“Someone’s sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.” – Warren Buffett

“It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him.” – J.R.R. Tolkien

To paraphrase Dwight Eisenhower, while plans might prove useless once the rubber hits the road, planning is indispensable. All but the most oblivious of companies, organizations, and business people make long-term planning an essential part of their infrastructure; those who don’t go the way of the dodo. It’s a harsh type of natural selection that constantly hones productivity and its pleasing by-product, profit. In pursuit of both, over the years “long-term” has been repeatedly redefined as business, technology, and culture have evolved.

There was a time last century when five-year plans seemed sufficient for the lumbering bureaucracies of big businesses and nations; witness the Five-Year Plans intended to modernize Stalin’s USSR. But even then, such plans were often too restrictive for maximum performance. Businesses often stalled out, while Stalin’s backhanded success came mostly through military might that ground millions of people into dust setting the stage for a bankrupt ideology a few decades later.

As the world moved on, it became clear that multi-year plans were less and less effective. By the turn of this century, one-year plans were the norm. But in the face of social changes and Moore’s law, even those were too long. Many companies, like Home Depot and Zappos, made quarterly reviews and flexibility the standard for their “long-term” plans.

You can do the same for your work goals. Here’s how.

  1. Prepare your yearly goals, insofar as possible. Where do you want to be in 12 months? Consider the big picture, based on your corporate/team goals and the projects your manager has assigned you, for as far ahead as you can see. You may not be able to forecast specifics more than a few months in advance, but you can extrapolate general goals based on your job requirements and what you suspect is coming over the horizon.
  2. Focus on just a few major goals. You can have as many goals as you like, but you can effectively focus on only 1-3 big ones. Demote the rest from “must-do” to “want-to-do” status. You can add them to your to-do list after you list out the “must-dos” and maintenance tasks (like handling email and going to meetings), if you have the time to spare.
  3. Segment your goals into three-month increments, then further into weeks. Taken as one huge piece, a specific goal may seem impossible; however, split into first four and then 48-52 pieces, the plan seems doable. Let’s say you and your team must get the latest iteration of your company’s flagship video game out in a year from a standing start. If you split the work into quarters and then further refine your schedule to weeks, you’ll know exactly how much you’ll need to accomplish to finish on deadline.
  4. Shift as necessary. Sometimes emergencies arise, or priorities change. Make your plans flexible enough to change with them.  Quarterly, monthly, and weekly segmentation of your goals will make it easier to change, especially if you add some space for known contingencies you can’t plan for.
  5. Schedule milestone reviews. Don’t skip them, as much as you may be tempted. Use these opportunities to review the previous period with your team or against your outline, so you see how much you’ve accomplished, how much you didn’t, and anything you’ve learned from the process. Then look forward. Knowing what you do, how should you retool your processes, recalculate and redistribute the remaining work, and realign your objectives?

Small steps

Carving shorter-term goals out of your long-term plans is straightforward; I recommend, quarterly, monthly, and weekly goals. (Your daily to-do list represents daily goals.) It’s just a matter of splitting that goal-mountain into foothills, then boulders and gravel.

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The hardest part may be remembering to review your goals occasionally. Amidst the hustle and bustle of productivity, your periodic reviews of your accomplishments, deficits, and alignment can slip your mind. But you can’t allow that, or you’ll have learned little or nothing. So, while you’re planning, make reviews a hard target, mini-goals you must hit before moving on. There’s nothing like a nice milestone to make you stop and assess your performance.

This was originally published on Laura Stack’s The Productivity Pro blog.

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