How Pro-Retro Planning is saving me from going crazy during Coronavirus

And keeping me productive, somehow

It’s been three weeks since I’ve been locked down in the French capital.

The first week, I was up the creek without a paddle: everything I’d ever done seemed meaningless, now that the world was crashing down on me.

But then something strange happened: I started planning.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve always been an extremely structured person. In pre-Corona times, I used to plan every minute of my life. And I stuck to my plans. Sure, sometimes unforeseen stuff got in the way — but still I was disciplined enough to keep to around 90 percent of my plans.

I don’t know why I’m so in love with plans. Maybe it’s because I’m on the autistic spectrum. Maybe it’s because my brain is so messy that I need to balance it with ultra-structured surroundings. Maybe I’m a robot trying to disguise as a human. Honestly, I don’t know.

But in the first week of quarantine, I fell out of my usual pattern. I didn’t plan. I didn’t do anything. I spent most of the days binge-watching brainless stuff and binge-eating food that I shouldn’t have eaten. Miraculously, I managed to write a few Medium stories. But that was all.

The next Monday came around and I woke up at 5 a.m. Okay, I usually wake up around that time. But somehow I wanted to achieve something that day. So I got to my desk and invented Pro-Retro-Planning.

Identifying the important stuff

I started by writing everything down that I wanted to improve. The result was something like the sheet below.

Unfortunately, I’ve ditched the original one — I have a rather persistent habit of throwing out my notes as soon as I don’t need them anymore.

And yes, my handwriting is always like that. Speaking of being a robot in human disguise — well, who knows.

Paper with my goals for the lockdown
Paper with my goals for the lockdown

I didn’t write these points down in any particular order. I preferred to keep it real, and jot down everything that came to my mind.

I figured that I wouldn’t be able to set a daily goal for each of these priorities and keep to it. I’d managed that in earlier times, but that had been pre-Corona. So I thought I’d dedicate different days of the week to different priorities.

Weeks, not days

I spent the next two hours racking my head about how to divide a sheet of paper into seven parts, for each day of the week. Why do we use a prime number for the days of the week? A prime number?

I settled for eight sections per week. The last section I dedicated to weekly goals and miscellaneous notes. My plan, at this stage, looked something like this:

Weekly plan, empty
Weekly plan, empty
My plan for the week, still empty.

I then went back to my list of priorities and realized that I could group them in two categories: health stuff and work-related stuff. The former includes running, eating, and mental health; the latter includes whatever I do for my studies, since I’m pursuing a PhD and an MBA in a double-degree program. I decided to count Medium as work-related as well, because I spend quite a lot of time on it and I’ve been seeing some revenue lately.

Obviously, you might have different groupings — you might want to include one for your family, or anything else that seems big and important to you.

Prioritizing little things

In pre-Corona times, I used to plan only work-related activities. The health stuff kind of happened on the side.

But in these times of crisis, I decided to make my health — both physical and mental — a top priority. So I divided each day of the week into three big categories, like so:

Weekly plan; each day has categories work, health, and things
Weekly plan; each day has categories work, health, and things
Adding fields for my top priorities

In the end, I put in three categories — work, health and things. The last one is for all the little errands that are necessary but not a priority: shopping, cleaning, and other miscellaneous stuff.

Fleshing it out

I started by filling the goals section. This should help to plan each day without losing the greater goals out of sight.

I decided to lay the bar rather low: For my PhD, I wanted to fix some bugs that I’d found in the software that I was using for my computations. While this is an essential step, I would have set my goal a lot higher in pre-Corona times.

Similarly, I aimed at doing two at-home workouts instead of full running sessions. I figured that this would discourage me less, and keep me motivated even if I didn’t have the grit that I had before the lockdown.

Since it turned out that I had quite a few Zoom and Skype meetings, I also added an extra section for appointments. In this section, I also added family calls that I’d already scheduled. This allowed me to plan my time around them.

I then added the miscellaneous stuff — I estimated that I’d run out of groceries by Thursday, so put shopping there. I also added house cleaning on the same day. And I scheduled the review of my personal finances for Saturday, because I’d always done that pre-Corona.

Weekly plan; goal section and Monday, Tuesday filled
Weekly plan; goal section and Monday, Tuesday filled
Fleshing out the pro-side

I then added health-related activities — well, actually I only added a home workout on Tuesday. At this point in time, I didn’t want to rigidly schedule workouts and such things.

After that I planned the work-related stuff. I decided that I’d only aim for one work-related activity each day — the lab-work for the PhD, Collège-stuff for the the MBA, or things for Medium. Since these times seemed so unforeseeable, I only planned for the next two days.

The pro-side was ready!

Backing it up: The retro-side

After all this, I realized that I had a beautiful pro-active plan — in the sense that everything was planned before it got done.

But I’d been on a low the week before, and I had no idea how the lockdown would affect me in the long run. So I decided that I needed a feedback loop to see whether my planning was working out.

So I used the back side of my sheet to write down each evening what I’d achieved, and how I’d been feeling. At the beginning, it looked like this:

Weekly plan, retro-side, empty
Weekly plan, retro-side, empty
The retro-side!

I flipped the sequence of the weekdays from left-to-right to right-to-left, so that each day’s retro-side would be in the same place as its pro-side. The big categories — work, health, and things — stayed the same.

I ditched the extra section for appointments since it wouldn’t matter much in retrospective. I also changed the last section from “goals” to “week” since I wanted to note the key takeaways, not my achievements.

… And it worked!

From that day on, I sat down every evening and planned my goals for the next day or two. But, more importantly, I wrote down brief reflections and key takeaways on the retro-side.

Not only did the retro-side give me a sense of achievement at the end of the day. It also gave me space to savor the random little learnings about health and other things. All these wonderful things that I got from Medium, picked up in conversations or came across otherwise…

At the end of that week, I filled the last section on the retro-side. This is what my planning looked like now:

Weekly plan, pro-side
Weekly plan, pro-side
Pro-side, at the end of the week.
Weekly plan, retro-side
Weekly plan, retro-side
Retro-side, at the end of the week.

Bottom line: Fighting uncertainty with feedback

When the lockdown came around and the hard truth about this epidemic started to hit me, my first impulse was to mentally dig a big fat hole of meaninglessness and jump right into it. But that was short-sighted; I couldn’t survive this way.

After a week, I thought about what matters to me. I set priorities again. I re-ordered them to adjust my current situation. I planned the activities that would get me a tiny step towards my goals.

“To be victorious, you must find glory in the little things.” — Janelle Monáe

But, most importantly, I gave myself space — on paper and in my mind — to reflect on what I was managing. I gave myself time to savor the little gold nuggets that life puts in your path. It’s the retro-side in Pro-Retro Planning that is the secret sauce to my productivity in these days.

Pro-Retro Planning is the realization that you can’t give five hundred percent in times like these, but you can still get a little closer to your goals. Pro-Retro Planning is the reminder that everything isn’t meaningless even when your world comes tumbling down. Pro-Retro Planning is keeping a record of all the good things that happen in your life, even when you’re stuck at home.

It helped me, and I’ve been keeping it up since the day I’ve invented it. Maybe it can help you, too, in these troubled times.

Building a startup. Also doing a PhD at Sorbonne Université and an MBA at Collège des Ingénieurs. Writing featured on TheNextWeb, HP Enterprise, and Built In.

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