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On Decapitating Joseph

Dec 13, 2021

By Christine Carron

One by one, I pulled out the carefully wrapped wooden figures from the nativity set I bought at a Christmas market in Germany years ago. As I was unwrapping Joseph, a neighbor walked past our apartment door with his dog. My pup decided to notify me of that momentous event. Her alert bark startled me, and poor Joseph went flying through the air, crashed, and lost his head. 

Post-Decapitation Decisions

Picking up the wooden carnage, my brain went into project management mode, running through possible ways to handle the situation. I considered balancing Joseph’s head on his body and acting like the beheading didn’t happen. I momentarily considered tossing the whole set, but in the end I decided to repair Joseph. 

That decision added tasks, time, and costs to my Set Up Holiday Decorations plan. (Go to the hardware store. Find and buy glue suitable for wood. Glue head back to body.) But even had I gone with one of the easier options, the surprise beheading created a drag on my plan. At the minimum, I had to spend time assessing options and deciding what I was going to do. 

Now, at this point, some of you may be thinking, Holy organization overload! Christine had a plan for setting up holiday decorations?!?

I did, but since my apartment is small, and I don’t have that many decorations, the plan was nothing more than a mental calculation of the tasks involved–cue up holiday music and hot apple cider; get boxes of decorations out of storage; unpack decorations, arrange/hang up decorations, re-store boxes. And then estimating that the whole effort wouldn’t take more than one afternoon. 

Loose plan or not, serious project management thinking did kick in after Joseph lost his head. That fact, coupled with the tragicomic nature of the situation itself, made it a fun setup to share a key planning principle that will help you meet your writing deadlines even when the unexpected happens. 

Let’s start with how plans are often put together. 

A Planning and Scheduling Baseline

When many rookie (and even some experienced) project managers make a plan, they:

  • Brain dump a set of tasks that need to be completed to achieve a goal; 
  • Estimate how long those tasks will take;
  • Do basic dependency analysis (e.g., a chapter has to be written before it can be shared to your critique group); 
  • Organize the flow of the work based on dependencies, estimates, and how much time can be spent each day on the project; 
  • Schedule the work to calendar time (which helps account for holidays, vacations, etc.);
  • End-date the project, i.e. determine the delivery date, using the date the final task finishes so as to get the project done as soon as possible.

Let’s call this planning approach the B.E.D.O.S.E. Method  (Brain-Dump, Estimate, Dependencies, Organize, Schedule, End-date).

Seems like smart planning, right? Our rookie planner was savvy enough to go beyond the initial  brain dump of to-dos. They thought through and accounted for dependencies, considered calendar realities, and organized the work into a flow to arrive at a logical end date. Absolutely, gold stars for all that!

Know the Limitations of Planning

The problem is that a plan made using the B.E.D.O.S.E. Method creates a fragile schedule, one acutely vulnerable to surprises. Why? Because no plan will account for everything. Let me repeat that. No plan will account for everything. Even one made by a professional project manager. 

So if you follow the B.E.D.O.S.E. Method and schedule everything you do know about your writing project, and jam-pack all those known tasks into the shortest amount of time possible to get to the earliest delivery date possible, then as soon as a surprise happens, your schedule slips. 

And stress hits.

We’ll call that the Stuffed Plan problem as the plan is immediately filled to the brim with no room for error. 

But really, it’s worse than that. Most Stuffed Plans are actually Overstuffed Plans. The B.E.D.O.S.E. Method assumes estimates are guarantees. They are not. They are  best guesses. It’s challenging to accurately assess how long tasks will take. Extremely challenging. And more often than not, people underestimate instead of overestimate. 

Now, your jam-packed writing plan, which has no room for error, starts off with embedded error(s). Meaning, there is more work scheduled than can/will be realistically completed in the allotted time even if nothing goes wrong.

And things will go wrong. 

Or rather, things will go as they go, as reality is reality. And reality will reveal the oversights and/or errors in your plan. With my holiday decorations, it was the decapitated Joseph. On your writing adventure, who knows what surprises will mess with your plan. 

Maybe your chapters take longer to write than you thought they would . Or you realize you don’t get pacing yet and need to do some skills upgrading. Or you get sick and lose writing days while you are feverish and downing fluids. The surprise possibilities are endless. 

So, what is a planning-savvy writer to do if they still buy into the value of planning despite its limitations? 

They build Schedule Contingency into their plans.

The Surprise-Subduing Power of Schedule Contingency 

A key way project managers build hardy, surprise-resistant plans is by using a planning tactic called Schedule Contingency. Schedule Contingency simply means building time, a buffer, into the plan to account for the unexpected. Schedule Contingency will move your delivery date further out, but by doing so, it increases the likelihood that you will be able to deliver on time.

Figuring out how much Schedule Contingency to put into a plan is an art and a skill that will grow the more you experiment with it. Some general rules of thumb I use:

  • If it is the first time I am doing something, I add in hefty Schedule Contingency. I do that because my initial plan will have more holes in it and my estimates will be less reliable. 
  • The more I repeat a process (e.g., write a novel) the less Schedule Contingency I will need since I will know to account for the things that surprised me the first time(s) around. 
  • Any time I add a new variation to the mix (e.g., write in a new genre or format, like novel-in-verse), I up my Schedule Contingency again. New equals more unknowns and more errors in estimation. 
  • If other individuals (agents, first readers, etc.) have tasks in my plan, and I do not have oversight of their work priorities, I build in lots of Schedule Contingency on top of scheduled waiting periods.

Planning Upsides

When we plan and schedule our writing projects more effectively using principles like Schedule Contingency, it becomes easier to meet the commitments we make to ourselves and others. That in turn boosts our confidence and motivates us to keep going. We can do this!

Of course, Schedule Contingency cannot buffer against all surprises. Hello every 2020 plan that faced off against the pandemic. But world-upending events aside, adding buffers to your plans will help to keep you and your writing on track, hardy and resilient, even when decapitated-Joseph'esque surprises surprise you along the way.


The Goodjelly Prompt of the Week: Playing with Planning

  • Is Schedule Contingency a new idea for you, or do you already use buffers when mapping out a plan for your writerly projects? 
  • Imagine a future where your expanded planning chops enable you to achieve your writing goals more consistently and confidently without cramping your style. Does that feel like science fiction/fantasy land to you, or an achievable (and exciting) possibility?
  • Where are you currently rocking planning and process on your writerly adventure? Where do you want to beef up your skills?
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