When you feel like you have to do a million things at once, and you can’t even plan for it because you don’t know what else will come up in 10 minutes, Just-In-Time planning gives you calm amidst the chaos, certainty that you won’t forget anything and productivity to get through it at the speed of light.
Systems should be simple
Actually, Just-In-Time Planning is an incredibly simple system. You see, one of the characteristics of really good systems—be it productivity methods or computer programs or bridges—is that they are simple. I’m a software engineer and the core of my job really lies in simplifying.
“Things should be made as simple as possible—but not simpler.” - Einstein
This is especially the case with systems that people have to work with. We want to have a sense of freedom, not being constrained by rigid processes or a bunch of have to‘s. We won’t do things if we have to think about it too much. Our tools, our processes, our systems—they should help us and get out of our way as quickly as possible. They should let us focus on what we are best at: being human.
That’s why all you need for Just-In-Time Planning is a place to write. It can be on paper or digital—though digital works better because you will often have to reorder what you’re writing down. It can be a to-do list or just plain text, whatever feels more comfortable for you. I like Obsidian.
It’s funny how I “discovered” this because I just started doing it and then afterwards realized it was a pretty good idea.
I was programming and working on building a new feature, but I didn’t really know how or where in the code I would have to add this. So I needed to look around through tens of different files. Some gave me hints on “how this is where I should add this part” or “this should later be extended with that thing.” In the meantime I was playing around with different parts of the software and found some bugs I started figuring out because I needed to fix them. But 27 open files later I forgot what I started with and had to start over again.
If I didn’t do anything about it, this would become an infinite loop of having to restart so I had to do something. If I didn’t figure this out I would have to say the next morning “uhh yeah so yesterday I was trying to figure it out but didn’t know where to start”—not a nice message to give my customer. I want to always do everything with passion and excellence—and my excellence was just not at the level it needed to be here.
I knew roughly what my end goal was, had a few ideas on how to get there but I couldn’t figure out what to do first, right now. So I opened another file and wrote down what I knew. The goal, the few things I could remember and the bugs I found along the way. I needed to know what to do first, which came down to “find the file I need to change.”
Okay, so with that list on one side of my screen and my code editor on the other side, I started searching again and added what I learned underneath the to-do. Okay, this file contains the logic, this other file is the visual parts—so that’s where I will have to make it prettier—this other thing kind of looks similar so I can probably copy-paste some things.
From that point it just started flowing. I knew what to do, wrote down what I needed to know, checked it off, added the next todo and so on. A few times I re-ordered or looked at what I overlooked, but just having this side-by side let me take off like a rocket. It was amazing.
What happened there? And how can you replicate it?
I want to encourage you here and make you realize that you can come up with ideas for productivity too. You don’t need to be particularly smart or creative. What matters is that you have a mindset of excellence when you’re working and that you—once in a while—take a step back to investigate, “am I doing this in the best way possible?” That small shift in the way you work will, over time, bring your productivity to another level.
For doing JIT Planning well, here are 5 guidelines that you need to follow.
Keep a plan within eyesight
Your Just-In-Time Plan is giving you clear, immediate action steps plus any extra information you might need. You will refer to it probably once every few minutes, this is your grounding during the work. I have been most productive when I split my screen with the plan on one side and the application I’m working in on the other.
Always stick to the plan
The first unchecked to-do on your plan is the only thing you should be doing right now.
The point for this is that you never get lost. If you were really in the flow and suddenly got an urgent phone call—normally you might need 20 minutes to get back in the flow, but always sticking to it is like creating checkpoints in a videogame: you just continue right where you left off, and get back into flow much more quickly.
Update the plan so you can stick to it
When I started using a plan to direct my work I was scared because I tend to underestimate how long it takes me to do things, so the plan I made at the beginning never ever happened. This was incredibly frustrating, and it’s also why I don’t like to-do applications that much—I keep having to move tasks to the next day and it sucks.
The breakthrough came when I realized that I could change the plan! So now, every time I get off track, I take a few seconds to update the plan. I always stick to the plan because I cheat. Seriously though, this is the slack you need to cut yourself so you stay motivated, you stay in the zone and you can continue doing your best work with the most focus. (Thanks Cal Newport for this idea.)
Especially for all-over-the-place-tasks where you don’t really know what you should be doing 10 minutes later.
Combine what to do with how to do it
This was one of these realizations for me where, once you know it, you don’t want anything else anymore—and actually basically all to-do applications fail at this.
So often we have a task list with a vague description of what to do and then we need to figure out how to go about it—like “write report.” Which one? Where is it? Which part do I need to write on? How much time will I need? We lose so much time in figuring out how to complete our task—while we really knew at some earlier point in time. So as you are figuring out how to do what you need to do, add it to the plan. Oh this section needs updating, I want to rewrite the introduction here, don’t forget to create a graph for chapter 3, et cetera.
Don’t take it too seriously
Guys, the whole purpose of life is to enjoy life. So don’t get stuck in the details of this method, or me saying “always” and “you must” all the time. If you’re 80% of the way there it’s perfect.
There’s one more hidden advantage you get when working from a plan as opposed to a to-do list. Do you get motivated when you see a list of 30 things you need to do? Well I don’t. I just wanna walk away and watch another YouTube video about the propulsion system of the newest spacecraft or something.
One of your main sources of motivation is a sense of progress and momentum. If you want to do your best work, you need to be motivated. So keeping yourself motivated is one of your core tasks in work, it’s just hidden one level deeper than your “actual to-dos”. A plan is a great way to do that because it also shows you, right in your face, the things you’ve already accomplished. That just makes you feel like a boss and it’s amazing.
- When you start to feel overwhelm, create a just-in-time plan.
- Write down your specific, detailed tasks, along with any information you need to complete them.
- Update the plan as you go.
This technique is one of those rare ones that make you calmer and at the same time help you get more done. To me, that’s what it’s all about: and producing more excellent work and doing it in a way that makes you feel better about life.
So take this information, go out there and crush it. With love.