Natural Planning, Unnatural Planning, and Reactive Planning

In addition to the 5 stages of workflow and 5 horizons of workflow, another critical insight in Getting Things Done is the natural planning model.

The Natural Planning Model

The natural planning model can be summarized in five steps:

  1. Defining purpose and principles
  2. Outcome visioning
  3. Brainstorming
  4. Organizing
  5. Identifying next actions

The purpose is the “why.” Principles are the standards and boundaries of your plan. Outcome visioning clarifies the “what.” Brainstorming generates the “how.” Organizing puts it all together in a manageable form. And identifying next actions gets you going.

As David Allen writes, “these five phases of project planning occur naturally for everything you accomplish during the day” (Getting Things Done, 58). However, when most people go about formally planning something, they end up doing the opposite — what Allen calls the unnatural planning model.

The Unnatural Planning Model

In the unnatural planning model, you try to come up with a “good idea” on this or that issue before defining purpose and vision. This almost always creates more ambiguity and increased stress because it is artificial and unnatural. And since this is most people’s typical experience with planning, they prefer not to plan at all.

(Or, as Allen discusses, they create the plan “after the fact” just to please those who want to see a plan — like in elementary school when you’d create the outline to your paper after writing the paper.)

The Reactive Planning Model

But Allen points out that the result of not planning is often crises. When this happens, urgency takes over and people decide to plan after all. But in this case, they reverse the natural planning model and slide into the reactive planning model. So instead of defining purpose and principles first, you hear a “call to action” first — to work harder, get more people on things, get busier.

Instead of resolving things, that usually just creates a mess. So someone says “hey, let’s get organized.” When this doesn’t solve the problem, someone then says “let’s brainstorm.” So everyone gets gathered into a room and the leader says “who has a good idea here?” When not much happens, finally someone asks “so, what are we trying to do here again?” — which gets to vision and purpose.

“The reactive style is the reverse of the natural planning model. It will always come back to top-down focus. It’s not a matter of whether the natural planning model will be done — just when, and at what cost” (p. 62).

Save yourself and your organization time and frustration. Start with the natural planning model!