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Having multiple projects both at work and home is like a mildew that grows on your cubicle walls. A mildew that oozes anxiety and dismay as you plummet further behind, losing track of where you’re up to and what’s left to be done. Thankfully, there’s a relatively simple system on offer to clear up that mildew, reliably steer those projects back on track, and keep it that way.

Enter Full Horizon Planning

This system is called “Full Horizon Planning” (FHP), a term coined and illustrated by Mathematics Professor and productivity sage, Cal Newport. FHP is a workflow system that takes your largely inept to-do list 4 Popular Productivity Tips That Should Be Ignored 4 Popular Productivity Tips That Should Be Ignored Some of the productivity ideas sold to us are sometimes unfounded, and often mistaken. Let's debunk a few of these productivity myths by showing that the opposite may just as likely be true. Read More , and transforms it into something that’s both more manageable and more respectful of your time. It’s also superbly unbreakable when it comes to those guaranteed, daily distractions.

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When Newport talks about workflow systems, he defines these as a “set of habits and tools used to organize what work you do and when you do it. And when [he] says ‘effective’, [he’s] referring to the amount of value you produce”.

From this definition, it’s clear FHP is not being promoted as the system to rule all systems. It may not be suitable for your own job, but it’s definitely worth consideration. In short, it’s an alternative, with resemblances to other systems such as David Allen’s Get Things Done Organise 2015: Learn The Martial Art Of Getting Things Done [Stuff to Watch] Organise 2015: Learn The Martial Art Of Getting Things Done [Stuff to Watch] Ever wonder why the successful, over-achievers always seem to keep a cool head? Read More monotasking Get Things Done: 10 Inspiring Videos To Boost Your Productivity Get Things Done: 10 Inspiring Videos To Boost Your Productivity Instead of you going through each video channel on YouTube, we thought we'd ease the burden and recommend a few choice clips that will tell you how to boost your productivity. Read More , and time blocking Time Blocking -- The Secret Weapon For Better Focus Time Blocking -- The Secret Weapon For Better Focus Are you looking for a more efficient way to organise your work-days? Try Time Blocking. This time management tactic can help keep you on track while keeping distractions, procrastination, and unproductive multitasking at bay. Read More .  Full Horizon Planning is both an agglomeration and stripping down of parts of these ideas. Allow me to paraphrase Newport’s explanation.

  • Each project you are in the midst of should be categorized as either dormant, or active.
  • Dormant projects should be filed out of the way, but reviewed regularly.
  • When a project is promoted to active status, a detailed plan must be set out for how that project will be completed.

When it comes to planning active projects, you should not be dealing in abstractions, but “directly with the brute physicality of time”. This means:

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“On the monthly level, I know what weeks I will work on the project, and only when I get to those weeks do I plan out what days I will work on it, and only when I get to the specific days do I figure out which hours it will consume.”

This approach makes it far less likely that you will overcommit, enabling you to plan more effectively, and get more out of your time.

Too many people plan out exactly which tasks they will be completing, on which specific days, perhaps even months in advance. This leaves no room for real life. With just a couple of sick days or additional duties, the entire system can fall into disrepair.

I think an example is in order. I’ll use screenshots from Trello (read our write-up Trello - A Unique, Simple & Powerful Project Management System From A Good Home Trello - A Unique, Simple & Powerful Project Management System From A Good Home Does the name Joel Spolsky mean anything to you? If so, you’re going to want to read this post, because it showcases Spolsky’s latest and greatest project. And if not, you should know this is... Read More ) to show you how you could organize this workflow system within such a platform.

Set Up the Trello Board

This is by no means the only way to set up Trello for this system, but it’s one that’s been working for me. Set up four “lists”.

  1. A list of all active and dormant projects.
  2. A list of what you need to be tackling this coming month, and the weeks in which certain things need completing (don’t add any info to this, yet).
  3. A list of what you need to be doing this week, and on which days.
  4. A list of tasks that need completing today.

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Once you’ve added all of your projects to the “Project” list, mark those which are active with a colored “label”. I also capitalize these projects to ensure they stand out.

Write Project Overviews

Next, click on the first of your active projects, and write a comment detailing what you need to do, in broad, practical terms, and roughly by when. In this example, I’m assuming each project lasts a number of months. This allows you to really grasp what’s needed of you, and you can start to understand how you can best structure the tasks. Do this for each of your active projects.

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Note: This is the first level of granularity. You do not need to assign specific weeks, days, or times to these tasks, yet.

Plan Out this Month (Once per Month)

You should aim to do this at the start of each month.  Based on the comments you just wrote for each of your active projects, you should be able to see what needs completing by the end of this month.

Lay each of these milestones out as a separate “tile” on this list and label these with the corresponding color (the same color as the active task it relates to), so you can easily see what project that task is dealing with. Decide now which weeks during this month you will be working on these individual milestones.

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Feel free to duplicate the task, or split it into sub-tasks, if you’re going to be working on it over a number of weeks this month.

Now, at the start of each month, you know roughly what tasks you will be required to do by the end of each week. If you fail to meet any of these milestones, simply move things around a little so that you can still accomplish the overall project by the final deadline.

Plan Out this Week (Once per Week)

First thing on a Monday morning, check the relevant week on the “This Month” list to see what you need to be tackling over the next few days.

Take this time to drag each of these tasks across to the “This Week” list, and decide on which days you will be dedicating time to these items.

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Again, if you need to split the tasks into sub-tasks, or duplicate them, go ahead. If you found out at the end of last week that you had a training course to attend on Wednesday, for instance, you can now structure your schedule around this easily.

Plan Today (Once per Day)

At the start of each day, spend 10-15 minutes planning, based on the tasks in This Week how you’re going to be spending your time to ensure you hit those milestones. So, again, drag the relevant items from the This Week list, to the Today list.

At this stage of granularity, things can change quickly, so keep this in mind, and be prepared to alter your plan based on those distractions. But by intentionally setting aside specific blocks of time, and having the self-discipline to stick to the schedule as far as possible, you’re far more likely to complete what needs completing.

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In the example above, you can see that the entire work-day has been planned out, including meetings, calls, and responding to emails. The key task has been split into two separate blocks of time.

At the end of each day, clear the Today list. At the end of each week, clear the This Week list. And at the end of each month, clear the This Month list, and begin again by reviewing your projects.

Making this a Habit

As you can hopefully see, this is a system built for those following a variety of relatively complex projects. It’s for people who must meet a number of deadlines without locking themselves into a pre-set routine and schedule that’s dictated weeks, or even months, in advance.

Once you get to grips with this routine over a couple of weeks, you’ll quickly learn whether it’s for you. If you do like this system, that time frame should be enough for you to edit the system as set out above, so it works efficiently for your specific needs. Only then will it sink in as a habit.

Other Setups

Physical Notebooks

If you don’t like using Trello, or would rather use this system in another setting, there are a few options. Newport himself uses a selection of notebooks. Using physical pen and paper can actually contribute more 6 Simple Reasons Why Paper Can Still Be Your Killer Productivity App 6 Simple Reasons Why Paper Can Still Be Your Killer Productivity App Paper can be a more potent tool for productivity than a computer or a touch device, and shouldn't immediately be dismissed. Not convinced? Here are six reasons why paper is still relevant. Read More than you might think to your productivity. Each notebook represents a different level of granularity: month, week, day, so he can quickly scribble changes to his schedules if and when they are needed.

Evernote & OneNote

Another alternative are tools like Evernote or OneNote. You can set this up in exactly the same way as Newport uses physical notebooks. Set up a new notebook OneNote Is Now Truly Free With More Features Than Before OneNote Is Now Truly Free With More Features Than Before Evernote no longer rules the roost of note taking apps. Microsoft recently announced OneNote would be more free than ever before. Let us show you what this means in terms of features and functionality. Read More for each level of granularity you need (see below). Then, follow the steps, similar to those above, to keep these up to date. My only issue with this approach is that there is a lot of clicking back and forth between different notebooks, which is why I prefer to use Trello, where most of the information can be seen at a glance, and can be moved around very easily.

Excel

If you’re an Excel kind of person, one potential solution is to recreate the layout that we set up in Trello. This does work, but moving tasks around and changing their order is trickier when you have cells to move around Saving Time with Text Operations in Excel Saving Time with Text Operations in Excel Excel can do magic with numbers and it can handle characters equally well. This manual demonstrates how to analyze, convert, replace, and edit text within spreadsheets. These basics will allow you to perform complex transformations. Read More , rather than simply dragging and dropping. If you’d rather have less information on one page, you could always set up new tabs for Projects, This Month, This Week, and Today.

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Could FHP Work for You?

Full Horizon Planning is a workflow system that means you can manage multiple project without needing to commit to schedules that you either can’t really predict, or can’t control.

There’s no doubting that this “system requires more upfront investment of mental energy than lurching from deadline to deadline, and it certainly wouldn’t work for all types of jobs”. But it’s been a major contributor to Newport’s own notable productivity in academia, blogging, and authorship, while ensuring he rarely works past 5pm without getting burned out Programming Burnout: How to Regain Your Lost Motivation Programming Burnout: How to Regain Your Lost Motivation Writing all those lines of code can be draining physically and emotionally. All you need to get back up is the awareness that motivation can be regained. Read More .

Do you think this is a workflow system you could make use of? How would you have to adopt it to your own career? Or is there a system that works more effectively The 3-Strike System: How To Prioritize Your To-Do List The 3-Strike System: How To Prioritize Your To-Do List Are you not getting through your to-do list? The problem might not be your productivity, it might just be your priorities. Let's learn how to prioritise the to-do list, and get things done. Read More for you?

Image Credit: exhausted business woman by Piotr Marcinski via Shutterstock, 40+235 by Bark via Flickr

  1. Alexandra Graßler
    August 4, 2016 at 4:41 pm

    Thank you for this great article! I stumpled upon it last week and it changed my planing behavior instantly.

    The most difficult part for me was to think through the whole projects. What kind of tasks are to do in which month? And then to balance different projects tasks in different weeks.

    But it was such a difference! In the last days I accomplished more focused work as in the 2 weeks before.

    So, thanks again!

    And maybe I can add a little tech tip in trello: If you don't use the activity area to lay out all your tasks and use instead the checklists, then you can easy convert one checklist-point into a single card. Hope this helps.

    Greetings from Germany, Alexandra

    • Rob Nightingale
      August 21, 2016 at 4:19 pm

      So pleased it went well for you, Alexandra!!

  2. Leslie C Barry
    April 28, 2016 at 2:48 am

    Excellent approach. My world has stopped swirling with loose threads of to-do's and order has been restored. Works really well. Thanks for the article.

    • Rob Nightingale
      May 18, 2016 at 10:41 am

      Thank you, Leslie! :)

    • Rob Nightingale
      August 21, 2016 at 4:19 pm

      Thank you Leslie!! :)

  3. Corrie
    April 16, 2016 at 4:04 pm

    Please button your shirt! It was so uncomfortable to look at, I couldn't focus on the article.

    • Rob Nightingale
      April 16, 2016 at 4:38 pm

      No can do. That's not a picture of me, I'm afraid!

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