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The Importance of Planning

Or, why you should be able to do your work hungover.

Planning is really important for success. I think it’s the most important factor of whether you’ll succeed or not.

By planning, I mean breaking a task into clearly defined tasks. What I didn’t understand was how clearly defined the tasks have to be.

You should be able to do the task after a day of work, when you can’t think about hard things.

For example, a common homework assignment for me is to write some code that passes some set of tests. This was really popular back in Software I and II, where I would either be required to write the tests or the code to pass the tests Id written.

This applies to non-programming tasks as well, like working out. I can be mentally drained, or hungover after a night of partying, and go to the gym, open up the spreadsheet, and do the lifts. I don’t have to think about what to do, I just put the weight on the bar and push.

What’s key is that you don’t have to think hard when you do the task. The task might be difficult, but you don’t have to think deeply.

This is part of why I liked my calculus classes so much. I had clearly defined problem sets. It was material I understood, because we had gone over it in class, I felt productive, and it was easy. Just repeat the same patterns over and over again, and feel good when I got the right answer.

I think this is why problem sets and lifting weights is so appealing to me. They’re brain dead activities, in the sense that I’m not doing any deep thinking. I’m just deepening grooves in my brain (or strengthening muscle fibers).

Planning to the point where you don’t have to think is important because it minimizes any friction associated with a time-consuming task.

For example, think about studying for a final. For most of my peers, studying for a final takes some minimum amount of time. It might be at least six hours, it might be at least twenty. But there’s some amount of work that cannot be sped up: you have to review the vocabulary, or memorize key formulas. There’s nothing you can do compress that time further.

What you can shorten is the time it takes to start with that work.

Continuing with the exam studying example, it’s hard to sit down and start memorizing terms. You need to decide which terms are important, decide how to memorize them, decide how many and how often to review, etc.

These decisions take less time than the actual study, but are hard to make. The fear of this harder work can prevent you from getting started on the study, which will take the most time. If you plan how to study, suddenly the actual studying is not so difficult.

So planning is important. But how do you effectively plan?

Like I said before, you need to plan tasks until you could do them exhausted (or hungover). So do the hard work before you’re exhausted.

The first thing you should do every day is the hard work that makes the easy work possible. That means sitting down and planning. Plan plan plan. Plaaaaaaan. It’s hard. It makes everything else easy and possible.

Another thing is to write yourself notes on what to do next. When you come back to a project, if you haven’t been working on it recently, you’ll forget what you were working on. Fix this with notes. It could be a post it, or a comment, or a note in your book.

Make your work easy, until you can do it hungover.

Please email me if you have any comments or want to discuss further.

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Sam Stevens, 2022