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Dynamic Planning

April 30th, 2005 by Steve Pavlina          Email this article to a friend Email this article to a friend

One part of David Allen’s Getting Things Done system I’ve discarded is the idea of sorting next actions by physical context bins, such as phone calls, paper work, computer work, etc. Maybe that makes sense if you travel 200 days a year or work in a high-interruption environment where you can’t concentrate for more than 30 minutes at a time, but given that I work in a home office with virtually all of these contexts within easy reach, I find it worsens my productivity to sort actions by physical context. I get good mileage out of batching errands where I must physically go out, so I do maintain a separate errands list, but otherwise I’ve dumped this part of GTD.

The problem with sorting actions into context bins is that you scramble actions from different projects together. Perhaps you make 5 phone calls in a batch, each of which is associated with a different project. That’s fine if you’re out of the office, and you want to put your cell phone to good use, but what if you’re at your desk in your office? Does it still make sense to batch phone calls just because they all involve physically picking up a phone? If the calls are unrelated, then I’d say probably not.

My preference is to focus on a single project for as long as possible, doing a variety of actions in a row. Once I’ve loaded a project into my brain’s active RAM, I don’t like to unload it. Much efficiency is lost in the process of rebuilding awareness of a project. If I haven’t worked on a project for a while, it can take me anywhere from 15 minutes to several hours to fully reload the project into my brain — this is especially true for technical work or very large and complex projects. So I’d rather work on one project all day long instead of doing a smattering of different actions from ten different projects. I realize that not everyone has the luxury of doing that, but I do.

Taking on too many projects at once and switching between them often during the day will limit the complexity of the projects you can handle. This is fine for simple projects or if you do cog-like work, but it kills productivity on large projects where you need to keep a lot of information in your head at once. Some examples of the latter would be designing a new computer game or a web site, writing a book or screenplay, or doing strategic planning work for a business. In order to work productively on such projects, you can’t keep switching between projects, or the work will take forever. You need to load up a single mental context and stay with it for a long time, preferably days at a time but at least for several hours. Minor interruptions are OK, but you want to keep yourself from having to re-load a whole other mental context. Imagine writing 10 different books at once, working for 30 minutes a day on each one. It would be much more productive to knock off one book at a time.

Sometimes the mental context is a lot more important than the physical one. Sticking with a single project and moving all around your office building to perform the different physical actions may be better than staying at your desk and doing desk work from 5 different projects. Getting up to do something in another room may cost you a couple minutes, but switching projects will often cost you a lot more. When are you working most productively on a project? Definitely not during the first 15-30 minutes.

I think this is one of the hidden causes of procrastination. What happens when we procrastinate? We put a certain project off to the last minute, so we end up having to do the whole thing (or a large part of it) in a single marathon session. Say you put off doing a school paper until the day before it’s due. By procrastinating you ultimately force yourself to do the entire thing in one session. You load the mental context once, do all the next actions in sequence, and then you finish and release the context. This is very efficient in my opinion, a lot better than spreading the work out across several weeks and doing just a little bit each day (and forgetting must of the understanding you gained during the previous week). This is how I did assignments when I was in college, and I managed 31-39 units per semester. If I had a big project, I’d allocate a whole day to it and do it in one session — do the reading, research, writing, editing, etc. If I had to do a book report, I’d read the book and then write the report immediately afterwards. If a teacher allocated a month or two for a big assignment, I’d still try to do it in a single session.

I no longer maintain a separate next actions list, although I used to. Now I keep only a projects list, and I dynamically break it into next actions as needed. For some projects I make detailed plans of all the next actions, but for most projects I break down just enough actions to fill a day or two, and then I do them. Once I’ve completed those actions, I figure out more next actions and then set about doing those. I find this to be a highly productive balance that avoids underplanning on one side and analysis paralysis on the other.

Think of this as dynamic planning. I don’t tend to plan out the details of a project until it’s on my doorstep, and I aim to handle only 1-3 projects at a time. I barrel through, get them done, and then it’s off to the next project. This quote from Tryon Edwards basically sums up my approach:

Where duty is plain, delay is both foolish and hazardous; where it is not, delay may provide both wisdom and safety.

In other words, if you at least know what to do today, then go do it. Go back to planning when you hit the edge of the fog again. Dynamic planning: plan, do, repeat.

If a project is really, really big, then I’ll break it into subprojects, and the subprojects will be scheduled accordingly. Also, since there are always little things to do that don’t fall into any major project (like paying bills and such), I batch those little things up and then dispatch them in a marathon session too. For example, one Saturday I spent the whole day doing 20 unrelated home repairs. And often I’ll write a few days worth of blog posts in one session, scheduling each post to go live on a different day.

The downside to working like this is that once I’ve loaded up a particular mental context, it’s hard to let it go. I become semi-obsessed. My phone will ring, or my wife will walk into the room and talk to me, or my son will be crying in the next room, and I’ll automatically tune them out. It’s as if my brain has allocated all available RAM to the given project, and nothing else will fit. If anything else tries to squeeze in, I’ll chase it away with a growl. On the other hand, if I’m spending a day out with my family, I’m usually fully there with them, not thinking about other projects at all.

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10 Responses to “Dynamic Planning”

  1. Scopulus Says:

    Good post!

    GTD is not neccessarily a method for productivity as it is a methodology. What you describe is an adaptation to suit your needs.

    I like GTD but , like you, have adapted it for my specific needs.

    My projects usually require concentration and can be fairly complicated. I get my best, most thorough, and quickest work done when I am “on a roll”. This mental state requires concentration to achieve. However, I have people who have no problem whatsover interrupting me and dumping more stuff in my lap. It was often very frustrating when I’d get interruptions 3 tasks deep and totally lose what I was working on. (Call it ’stack overflow’)

    My style of GTD works around this to allow me to make progress constantly.

    For intents and purposes, at work, I have one Next-Actions List [context]. Some items on the list are created when I plan my day; some are created during the day as a response of actions; and, some are added in there as a result of everyday not-so-urgent emergencies my co-workers thow at me. I log these uninvited tasks to the list when I am interrupted and handle the issue quickly but usually not instantly. These tasks, I acknowledge that I’ll handle the issue shortly and then proceed to finish what I was working on..or at least get to a good stopping point. I make it a point to follow through with the person to make sure the issue has been handled or is being handled. In addition, when I am away from my desk, I carry something to collect new issues. (Being in I.S. always means people know what you do, never bother to learn your name {even when its printed on your hardhat, yes I’ve been called other people names}, and have no problems hijacking you for their purpose)

    My Next-Actions List is ALWAYS visible at my desk at all times. (This communicates to passers-by that I am getting lots of things done and it might slightly discourage trivial interruptions - hopefully). I review it whenever I get or need a mental context switch. If I’m tired, I’ll know off the easy ones and be done with them. I keep this list to two pages (an open binder) and often signify related tasks so I can get “on a roll” as needed.

    I also keep a Waiting-On and a To-Figure-Out list visible. As I have co-workers who often leave a request incomplete and don’t bother to communicate

    Projects are not usually visible but are viewed at the beginning of the day or when a non-trivial task falls in my lap. I clean this list at the end of the week.

    My Agendas list is occasionally used (but always private) as it is more or less a ’scratchpad’ for issues I transform into a Next-Action. I review this weekly.

    I usually maintain the “To-Aquire” list for home projects only. (not for work)

    Of course, my adaptation has developed as a direct result of my work-place demands and idiosyncrocies.


  2. Christopher Says:

    mh, larger projects, like ‘building a website’? Im my model this would not be a project. As I see it in this example, the ‘website’ is a plant (or unit/entity whatever). You then have a goal like for example ‘decent interface for my website’, that leads then to a project ‘build CSS-files for website”.
    You have ‘units’ (like home, website, car, relationship, library and so on). The planets in your universe. Then you have wishes for how you want to change the status of these. Your goals. And finally (here we arrive in GTD) we assign projects to our goals. We act on the things to alter.

  3. Steve Pavlina Says:

    I see what you’re saying, Christopher. It depends on what kind of web site you’re building. For the web consulting work my wife does, building a web site is often just a one-time project that has a clear beginning and ending, not a whole new area of responsibility. In this case of this web site, however, it would be an area of responsibility (or a subset of one) instead of a project because the work is always ongoing.

  4. Prosper Says:

    Well I used to do this dynamic planning style though not entirely as described untill i met a friend and started working in teams. We often planned the whole project out down to the classes and the functions in them and then assign each class to each member of the team. This was very effective and we only had cause to go back when the was a better algorithm created in a function. Things are pretty straight and fast. I’m not very sure but i think i prefer a complete planning than dnamic. And I really don’t think i can cope with the ramdom action sytem described earlier.

    One more thing Steve,
    I enjoy your articles and they’ve been real real helpfull I read them from and i really wan’t to take time out to let you know you are doing a very very good Job on personal Developemtn writings. Have you written any book?


  5. Steve Pavlina Says:

    The usefulness of dynamic planning for projects depends on the difficulty of accurately planning out the finished project in advance. For some projects the later planning work is much easier if earlier steps are already done. Sometimes your vision of the finished project will evolve based on how the earlier steps turn out. This is especially true for creative projects like designing a computer game. An iterative plan-do-evaluate cycle will usually produce better results than a waterfall lifecycle model where everything is planned in detail in advance.

    I haven’t written any books yet, but I do have one in the works. I am working on it every day, but it is still months from completion.

  6. Nathan Gabrish Says:

    The idea of dynamic planning as reffered to in this article seems similar to the concept of rolling-wave planning. Rolling wave planning is a schedule development technique where task detail is fleshed out as it enters a closer time horizon. I have read about different hard and fast rules for level of detail vs time horizon (for example phase level detail for work more than 3 months out) as well as detailing driven by project lifecycle (task level detail and phase level detail for the current and next phase and no detail for other phases. However like most PM techniques and tools you must know when and how to adapt the rules to your situation. It’s worth noting that schedule development may not be a neccesary component of smaller projects but I think the techinque is still relevant even if there isn’t a formal schedule.

  7. Greg Says:

    One other comment on this is that I think it also depends greatly on the type of work you are doing as to how effective the GTD contexts are. A perfect example is someone in a sales environment vs. a software development environment. Where you are developing software and working a few major projects, it may be better working as you suggest in looking at project based NA’s to keep things moving along rather than jumping around different contexts. However, in a sales role (or something similar) you are often working on a large number of smaller efforts which require ongoing attention, so you may have a block of time when you are calling 10 different clients on 10-15 different projects, or sending out 5 emails all on different opportunities. So in the sales case, you aren’t doing serial project tasks so much as do a follow-up, then wait on something (a call back, and email, etc.), then another follow-up. There will of course always be large projects sprinkled in the middle, such as a large proposal to write, but I think you can see the differences.

  8. Alek Says:

    Steve, I highly recommend Anthony Robbins’ Time of your Life program. It makes GTD and Covey programs seem so generic in comparison. It mostly deal with the highest level, and the it goes down to the lower levels. It’s totally different than any other time-management systems.

  9. Steve Pavlina Says:

    I’m familiar with Robbins’ Time of Your Life and OPA/RPM systems. I agree that it’s higher level than GTD, but IMO it neither starts high enough nor goes deep enough.

  10. Axodys » Dynamic Planning Says:

    [...] I just came upon a nice article by Steve Pavlina about Dynamic Planning that I wanted to mention because it has a couple points about working on projects that I found very useful. The following part really rang true for me: My preference is to focus on a single project for as long as possible, doing a variety of actions in a row. Once I’ve loaded a project into my brain’s active RAM, I don’t like to unload it. Much efficiency is lost in the process of rebuilding awareness of a project. If I haven’t worked on a project for a while, it can take me anywhere from 15 minutes to several hours to fully reload the project into my brain — this is especially true for technical work or very large and complex projects. [...]

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