Optimize your life #9 – Planning vs action

Everybody has to get things done.  That's just a fact of life.  However, how you go about getting things done varies tremendously from person to person.

You might say that every time we do something, it consists of two simple phases…planning and action.  You could also say that, in essence, each person cycles through these two phases hundreds of times a day.  Figuring out when to correctly transition from planning to action, then, has got to be pretty important, considering how often the cycle is repeated.

Planning is a vital activity.  It basically consists of researching all your available courses of action, considering various outcomes and trying to predict what will happen, and eventually committing to one of the available choices.  It's obvious, of course, that one has to eventually move out of the planning stage to get results.

Action is vital as well.  After all, nothing happens if you don't take action.  Since there are typically many more ways to do things incorrectly than correctly, you don't want to simply shoot off without any planning whatsoever.

Action, however, has some inherent advantages over planning.  The first advantage is that many people simply learn better in context, while acting, than they do out of context.  The second, and likely the most important, advantage is the fact that action is simply what Scott Berkun refers to as a forcing function.  Me, I just call it a type of reality check or a way to reduce risk.

Let's divert for a second.

Psychologically, humans are not objective creatures.  This fact alone is worth burning into your brain.  You are not objective.  Worse yet, you aren't even wired to realize that you are not objective.  For example, within any company, roughly 75% of the people rate themselves as above average within that company.  In a survey of drivers in Europe, 90% of the drivers rated themselves as above average drivers.  These perceptions are not based in reality.

The point, of course, is that each of us has a window through which we see things, and the walls around that window hide the complete truth from us.  Those who recognize their inherent biases and force themselves to cut through them have a significant advantage over those who deny their biases.

A forcing function or reality check, then, is some sort of action or process that cuts through subjectivity and exposes reality.  It's a crucial step in any important project.  If you leave these until the end, you're likely to get lots of nasty surprises.

OK, now let's get back to the point.

When activities are disconnected from reality, the return on investment in those activities drops off because the risk of those activities being correct begins to outweigh the incremental benefits of additional activity.  It's analogous to making a bullet fire faster or do more damage when it's not even aimed at the target.  Or looking at the butterfly you can see through your window when there's an elephant hiding behind the wall.  Because planning is significantly more disconnected from reality and rooted more in our subjective perceptions, it is inferior in many ways to simple action.

Now, some of you are probably thinking "This is crazy…planning more is clearly the best thing to do in many situations."  You're not insane…this is absolutely true.  Up to now, we've basically ignored the issue of cost.  Since action often costs more, and planning frequently costs much less, planning more can often be the most cost-effective approach.

Pay attention here, because this is the important part.  The decision of planning vs action is based on the cost of both activities plus the fact that action is a much better reality check and experience builder than planning.  The trap many people fall into is generalizing their approach into "planning is always good" or "acting is always good".  Perhaps it's personality issues that determine where people tend to fall on this issue or a faulty assumption that what worked once should work again…but regardless, the correct approach to a situation isn't determined by personality.

If you act too much, you incur a lot of costs associated with a lot of misfires.  If you plan too much, it costs you valuable time, money, and magnifies the risk involved with not taking action to get a reality check on your assumptions.  Deciding how and when to do both is simply an issue of cost and risk.

In general, from my experience, the usual best approach involves

  1. A minimal and considered amount of planning.  The 80/20 rule means you probably want to do a small amount of preparation.
  2. A lot of action intended to force reality to the surface.  This is because there are usually courses of action which are fairly cheap reality checks or costs you would have to incur anyway.  You just need to bother looking for them.  Once you realize that the decision is based on cost and risk factors, you know how to look for and spot opportunities.

The most interesting situations are where the exceptions to these guidelines appear.  So, in my next post, I'll present some simple questions to ask when you're trying to figure out how much you should plan before acting.

Thanks for reading!

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