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Project Plans Best Practice

According to psychologist Allison Kidd, one of the reasons people keep papers spread all over their desk is that they serve as a mental crutch.

The papers help them get an overall idea of everything they are working on and serve as a trigger to regain a mental context for each active project whenever they want to start working on that project again (see Piles of Paper worst practice).

An example would be leaving a memo on top of your desk to remind you that you need to include the total cost figures from the memo in your client presentation project.

You would typically leave this memo out when you start working on some other project, get interrupted and have to leave your office, or leave for the day. When you get back, the memo would be sitting right there reminding you that you need to include the figures in the presentation.

Leaving papers in your desk may work fine when you are only dealing with a single project or plan to continue working on it when you get back. The problem comes when you start leaving out papers and notes for all your projects at the same time, creating a chaotic and disorganized work environment full of distractions.

People fall into this practice because they don’t know what else to do; it’s the only way they know for keeping track of things without having to rely only on their memory.

The Master Project List goes a long way towards eliminating the need to keep papers spread all over your desk because it helps you keep track of all your projects in a clear and organized way.

However, the master project list alone does not solve the problem completely. The master project list is not sufficient to regain the full mental context for each of your projects because it doesn’t have enough detail regarding where you left off or what you need to work on next.

That’s were the project plan comes in. The project plan contains the detailed information for each project. Depending on the type of project, it could be as simple as a list of things that remain to be done, or comprehensive information for the project including a written description of the desired outcome, a schedule for the project including task breakdown,  estimates, dependencies and resource assignments, and a risk analysis. It all depends on the size and complexity of the project.

Some projects are small enough that they may not even need a separate plan because the entry in the master project list contains all the relevant information.

The goal of the project plan is to keep track of all the information that you need to regain the full mental context on any of your active projects so you can start working productively on them as fast as possible.

This means that you should not have to struggle to remember or rethink things about your project that you’ve already thought about or decided. All these things should be included in your project plan so you can easily find and remember them without having to rely on your memory.

The goal is to be able to forget about all the details of your project and easily remember them only when you actually need them.

For all but the simplest projects, the project plan should include a list of tasks that still need to be done. All the tasks and information for this project that you would normally put in a to‑do list can be stored in the project plan instead (see Using a More Effective To-Do List for details.)

For the example of the client presentation requiring the figures from the memo, all you would have to do to remember that you need to include the figures in the presentation is to add an entry in the project plan:

  • Include total cost figures from marketing memo in ‘Cost Analysis’ section

With this entry in your project plan, there would be absolutely no need to keep the memo lying around in your desk. Your master project list would remind you about the client presentation project, and the project plan would remind you about including the figures from the memo.

As long as you consistently use your project plan to regain your mental context whenever you start working on a project, you can rest assured that you won’t forget something important and you won’t have to struggle to regain your mental context.

As you work on a project, it is a good idea to have your project plan handy so you can easily add entries as you think about them. Your mind can come up with ideas, insights, and things you need to do at unpredictable times.

Having your project plan easily accessible will make it simple to write your thoughts and avoid using your memory to keep track of them. You’ll find that if you write these thoughts down instead of trying to block them out and remember them later, you’ll be able to regain your focus and concentration much faster.

Depending on the size, complexity, or importance of a project, the project plan may also contain other valuable information in addition to the list of remaining tasks.

Here is the most useful information to keep as part of your project plan:

  • Task List - The most common part of the project plan is the task list. This is a list of all the remaining things that you need to do for the project to be completed successfully. The task list can be a simple prioritized list, or it can be a comprehensive schedule including task breakdown, resources, and dates.
  • Project Definition - Remember that a project represents a desired outcome or result, not just an action that needs to be done. The project definition is a clear written description of this desired outcome that answers the question “What am I ultimately trying to accomplish?” The project definition will serve as a focusing tool so you don’t lose sight of the desired outcome while working on your project.
  • Project Objectives - The project objectives represent the key elements that must be met in order for the project to be considered a success. They represent the goals of the project in clear, specific and measurable terms.
  • Project Priorities - Many projects will require you to make tradeoffs. Budget vs. schedule, quality vs. launch date, and presentation vs. content are just some of the tradeoffs you may have to make during your project. By thinking about project priorities ahead of time, you’ll have consistent and systematic way of deciding which way to go each time you face a potential tradeoff. Project priorities are normally guided by the project objectives.
  • Project Risks - The project risks sections contains the most important risks your project is facing and what you can do to avoid or mitigate them. You can find more information in the Risk Management best practice.
  • Project Issues - The project issues section is a place to record information about issues that you faced during your project and how you resolved them. The issues could be an unexpected problem, a tradeoff, a risk, or a decision that you have made. This section serves as a history of important project decisions and agreements.

Obviously, not all of your projects will require this level of planning. The key is to only include sections that will provide value during project execution.

Using Your Project Plan

In my experience, the best way to store and manage a project plan is to use your computer.

Digital versions of your project plans are much easier to create, maintain, organize and manage than paper versions, especially for large or complex projects. Having said that, you will find that having a paper‑based project plan is much better than no plan at all.

A digital version of your project plans could be stored in a specialized application like the Achieve Planner time management software, or could be stored as separate files in a “Project Plans” folder on your computer with a separate folder for each project. You could even use an application like Excel where you could filter rows using a Project column.

Achieve Planner's Project Information Form for project planning

Achieve Planner's Project Information can store all the project planning details

A paper‑based project plan could be as simple as two sheets of paper. One for the project definition, objectives, priorities, risks and issues, and a separate one to manage the project tasks.

The project task list is the part of your project plan that you will use and change more frequently. As you complete tasks, cross them of your task list. When you think of new tasks that need to be done, add them to the task list.

The other sections are mostly used during your weekly planning sessions or when you are facing important project decisions.

Keys To Success

Keep in mind the following keys to using the Project Plan practice effectively:

  • Use a separate project plan for each of your active projects
  • Keep your project plans within reach; a good rule of thumb is to be able to get project plans without having to leave your chair. If you are using paper‑based plans, don’t file them away in the corner file drawer.


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