I’ve written extensively about how I plan my days and weeks and, more importantly, why I do what I do the way I do:
- I’m a procrastinator. I fail at To-Do lists.
- Lifehacking 101: I’m bad at to-do lists, now what?
- Lifehacking 101: without data we’re blind
- Lifehacking 101: journaling as a continuous learning process
Why do we plan?
The human brain deals utterly badly with uncertainty, let alone volatility. It constantly demands stability and certainty. We’re not programmed to deal with the unknown. In the times of the COVID-19 pandemic, this is even more evident; people tend to find it unacceptable that we cannot answer questions like “when will it be over?”
A more relaxed sample is a bus timetable. There are countries in which we can count on the timetable. Switzerland, I’m looking at you. Do we need to be at that appointment by 3 PM? The bus leaves at 2.18 PM and takes 25 minutes, which gives enough time for the required short walk and any inconvenience along the way. Then there is Italy. Try to do the same in Rome; we’ll probably be a couple of hours late for our appointment. If the timetable exists at all, there’s no way we can trust it. That’s uncertainty. If the trip, which is more of an adventure, requires more than one transfer, for example, a couple of buses and a subway ride, we’ll quickly learn what volatility is.
The quest for safety
If uncertainty comes with a sense of unsafety, it’s legit that the human being tries to reduce uncertainty to increase safety. In retrospect, I realized that my recent attempts to gain more control over my daily or weekly planning were only an attempt to reduce uncertainty, or more precisely, volatility. Over the years, I gradually learned to embrace uncertainty; that doesn’t mean I’m psychologically safe. The pandemic disrupted our lives, mine included, and moved the game of life to the next level. What was uncertainty became volatility. My reaction to that was to concentrate on the tomorrow and the far away future, completely ignoring the mid-term. It makes sense to assume that in 3 years, things will be over and back to some normal; if that is the case planning what primary school my three-year-old will go to in three years makes sense. Similarly, planning this week or the following weekend makes sense, too; the situation is not going to change radically, and I’m pretty sure we won’t be able to go to a movie theater anyway. The same logic cannot be applied to the mid-term, though. What will happen in 6 months? Nearly unpredictable. Will we be able to go on summer holidays? No one really can tell. Sure we’re vaccinating, but do not forget the timetable problem. Vaccines are not this post’s topic; you probably understand how uncertainty affects different time scales.
Planning too much is harmful
If planning helps in facing uncertainty, planning too much comes with the risk of increasing stress. A train timetable is essentially a serialization problem. Railways are linear; trains run one after the other with little options, compared to the extension of the railway, to overtake. If one train slows down, the cascading effect gets bigger the tighter the scheduling is. If we need to go from Milan to Rome, the high-speed train ride can be as short as 3hrs and 10min; let’s imagine two rides a day, 6 hours apart. For the first one to affect the second one on the same day, it has to be at least late by 6 hours and break down right after leaving the departure station. Nowadays, there is a ride every 15 minutes, and that’s only Trenitalia; Italo, another railway company, has a similar schedule, and trains run on the same railway. If my math is correct, there can be up to 24 trains running at about 300km/h between Milan and Rome at any given time during daylight. When something goes badly, and it happens, the cascading effect quickly makes it a disaster. The entire system is probably running a little above its optima.
Now, project a similar situation on our weekly schedule. The calendar is packed, back-to-back meetings and things to do with no space in-between. If the first meeting of the day goes late, the disaster is served. That happens, for example, with my hairdresser. He can be late even for the first appointment, usually, me; not to mention that he likes to overbook. You probably get a nice picture of the situation and frustration created by noon every day.
What to do when in case of disruption
As I mentioned in one of my previous posts, one technique is to add some slack time between scheduled slots. For example, instead of back-to-back appointment slots, plan them taking into account delays. Some buffer is the simplest way to absorb unexpected issues.
Slack time helps on some occasions but is of minor help with disruptions.
It’s Tuesday morning, 9 AM; we’re in the middle of our first meeting. Boom, power outage. We missed the memo in the office building lobby; it’s planned maintenance. Power comes back two hours later, and we missed three meetings.
At this point, we have two options. At a first look, it seems that the best approach is to reorganize our schedule to recover the messed-up meetings. That’s the railway’s approach: given that takeovers are complex when it comes to trains, a stuck train causes delays to others. The same will happen if we try to catch up with the missed meetings. Pushing forward everything by three hours comes with a couple of axioms and no guarantees:
- everything will be delayed, at least, by 3 hours
- everyone will be mad at us
There is no guarantee that we can accommodate everything. The only inevitable result is that we’ll generate trouble.
Respect others and yourself
A few years ago, I was flying back home from Seattle to Milan via Munich. It was a Saturday to Sunday flight. A couple of colleagues left on Friday, with the same flight. Their flight was leaving on Friday and landing in Munich on Saturday, and the connection to Milan was scheduled for a few hours later on the same day. On Saturday, if I recall correctly, the Lufthansa personnel in Germany was on strike. We left Seattle when the strike was ongoing, but our colleagues landed in the eye of the tornado. Munich airport was a mess, and most of the flights were canceled, among which the connecting flight to Milan. They spent the night in Munich waiting to be boarded on another flight.
We landed on Sunday morning, the strike was over, and apparently, the situation was back to normal. While slowly moving through the airport to the gate to connect to Milan, we met our colleagues; their flight was scheduled for the day after, Monday, and we got precedence over them.
What Lufthansa did is quite exciting and something we should apply ourselves. They made a conscious decision to keep the cluster of upset people under control. They could have used the railway approach and shift ahead everyone a little bit to reduce the burden. As said, the only certainty would have been more angry people. Instead, they said: there is already a limited group of angry people, at the cost of making them even more furious, let’s try to avoid spreading the problem as much as we can. They decided not to change any upcoming scheduled flight; in fact, our connection was there waiting for us. Lufthansa used available seats on scheduled flights, sort of “slack time,” to accommodate passengers affected by the strike.
We can use the same approach as Lufthansa used that weekend. If something goes wrong, I move planned activities to the week after, or in the best case, to the end of the same week. I’m pretty strict with my schedule for Monday to Wednesday and a bit more relaxed for Thursday and Friday. That means that I usually have some options to accommodate changes at the end of the week. For example, suppose the disruptive event happens on Tuesday, I will shift some of the planned activities to the week after. Maybe some others are rescheduled for Thursday or Friday, only if that will not make any trouble to anyone, including myself.
Disruptions go hand in hand with frustration; it’s unavoidable. We cannot avoid troubles as we cannot avoid frustration. However, we can put in place compensating actions primarily designed to reduce the number of changes we have to apply to our schedule. The second important aspect is that we want to reduce the number of affected people at the minimum, similarly to what Lufthansa did. Last but not least, we want to reduce as much as we can the psychological effect of the frustration that comes with the disruptions on our day. As we said, planning helps compensate for uncertainty, giving us a sense of control that allows us to accept frustration. Finally, planning and the ability to deal with planning incidents is another tool to boost our feeling of accomplishment at the end of the day. We all have bad days; knowing that we can handle those is of great help.