How I plan

I love getting mail. If you're a regular reader of this blog, you probably know that by now. I received a mail today from Muhammad, asking me a question that's not directly related to programming, though maybe it might interest some programmers nevertheless.

Here's what he asked:

I struggle in one area and I would like your help in that regard. I wonder how you plan your week, month, year and 5 years? Developers like me can learn coding and programming techniques; but struggle to set a goal, set proper time and follow a plan.

It only rarely happens, but this time it did: this question actually made me think really hard about my own progress, and I think it's worth sharing it.

First off, I should make a distinction between doing client work, and what I like to call "creative" work. Client work pays the bills, but creative work is what really gives me energy. I have a very different approach in handling them both.

Let's start with client work (the most boring part of the answer): I've been working on the same project for over three years now. I work on it together with a team of wonderful colleagues. I'm the one who has been communicating directly with the client though: analyzing the problem space, setting goals and deadlines, etc.

There's only one thing I can think of that I've come to find incredibly important: clear communication. Check and double check that the work we're doing is what the client is expecting, and clearly communicate about how we're doing in terms of time and budget. We have regular meetings just to talk about how it's going. We both understand that things can change, and we both are adaptable. But we also know that change comes at a price, and we respect that.

So: honest communication and building a meaningful relation between us and our clients are what I consider to be the key. Everything planning related goes rather smoothly once there's a level of trust between both parties.

That's about all I wanted to say about client work, now I want to look at the exciting part — the part that really got me thinking when Muhammad asked his question. How do I plan what I write about on this blog? What kind of podcasts I make? What kind of videos or tweets or newsletters I post?

I don't.

Whenever I try to shove my creative energy into a some kind of system, I find that it utterly fails. That's why, on some weeks, I write 3 or 4 blog posts, and while sometimes I go a month without writing anything.

Sometimes I feel inspired to make a video or podcast. When I do I usually sit down whenever I find the time, write a script, record it and edit it as soon as possible. I've got no "long term media engagement strategy" like some people do. I tried it, and it simply doesn't work.

I used to plan everything to the minute though. Both my wife and I did.

I remember us sitting in the car visiting my wife's gynaecologist — she had been pregnant with our first child for about 3 months — and we were discussing how we wanted the delivery to go. Ideally my wife wanted to stay less then 24 hours in the hospital (you can do that in Belgium if your baby is healthy, it's called an "outpatient delivery" if Google Translate can be trusted).

Fast forward two months and we're sitting in that same car driving urgently to the hospital. It turns out there were some serious complications and my wife needed to be hospitalized. Eventually our son was born at around eight months with an emergency C-section — not what we had planned for. Almost one year later the pandemic hit and we suddenly were in lockdown for the next couple of months with a 9-month old baby.

We learned that no single plan can ever guarantee it'll succeed. So why bother with the stress, disappointment and frustration that comes with it when things turn out to be different than expected. Sure, we still plan short-term things, but there's definitely not a long-term plan we hold on to. There are dreams and hopes, but we don't expect all of them to become a reality.

I do the same with my creative work. Whether it's a blog post, newsletter, tweet, video or podcast; I don't make any long term plans. At most I keep a list of ideas that pop up into my head, but I'll have to admit I remove most of them after a couple of months if I didn't find the energy to work on them by then. Only a handful of ideas make it, and those are the ones that I simply start working on whenever I feel like it.

I'll see where this whole online adventure takes me step by step, and I'm ok with that. I actually find it very liberating. The same goes for learning (for me at least). When I'm truly passionate about something, I don't need a schedule to force me to spend time digging into it. On the contrary: I'd almost need a schedule to tell me when to pause because I need to take care of the kids or do house chores or whatever. After all, aren't only the things we're truly passionate about worth spending so much time on?

I'm not sure this was the answer Muhammad expected, but at least it's the most accurate one I could give. If you want to share your thoughts as well, just send me an email!

Thanks for reading! This post is part of my "Dev Diaries" series where I write about my own and personal experiences as a developer. Would you like to read some more?

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