Sunday, January 15, 2012


Going somewhere?

A little trip for the weekend? A holiday, perhaps? A business event, maybe?

If you're an old hand at tripping well then this isn't for you. This is for those who fail to plan for their trip and end up fifteen minutes out the door, rushing for their bus/train/ferry/plane, cursing because they've just remembered they didn't pack their camera or forgot to close the windows or...  Yeah. We've all been there. Some have learned over the years how to minimise these annoying little flubs. This is my approach. It's not unique. It's not new. I didn't create it. I'm just sharing it. Perhaps you can share yours.

Create a checklist

It is not a slight on your intelligence to use this tool. Think about it... who would you choose, the house builder who has and uses suitable tools for the task, or the proud git who plans to do it with his teeth and nails alone? So, why do you think it's a shame to rely on an external tool to remember the good ideas you've had? A good deal of you will be reading this wondering why I am even bothering to explain this simple concept; it isn't for you. It's for the surprisingly many people I've met who haven't accepted this fact.  Tools are good. Discover them. Create them. Use them. Improve them.

If you're a skilled mentalist, you can create your checklist in your mind (a peg list, maybe or if this is a frequently travelled route, a room in your palace, perhaps). Using a pen and paper checklist is fine too. As the Chinese saying goes, "The palest ink is better than the best memory." (slight irony: Every year I have to tell my grade five students this proverb to convince them to pull their notebooks out of their desks... and I live and teach in China :-/)

What? Is that it?

Well... no. It certainly is a big improvement over not making a list... but there's more.

It turns out, planning is not a memorisation problem. Well, not only a memorisation problem - and if you delegate that to an external tool then it's not a memorisation problem at all. It's a creative problem. You have to come up with the set of things you need to do and pack before you go. And not doing this at 6 AM, half an hour before you need to leave the house is the goal here.

Take your time. Grab a glass of wine, your pen and a notebook. Sit down in your favourite chair. Do this the night before or even a few nights before you go. Brainstorm your trip. What do you need to do before you go? Do you need to arrange anything for the house while you're away? The pets? Children?! What do you need to pack? Have you got your tickets? Have you worked out your timings for tomorrow?

What do you need to pack?

I'm sure you've had the experience of preparing to brainstorm something and, faced with the bare white paper in front of you, ...your brain freezes! Nothing comes. You're a drooling cretin. :-( But there is a cure. There are many. Edward de Bono has a whole suite of tools to provoke creative thinking. Here's one I like to do: Tell user stories. :-) It's probably a sick wording carried over from my developer days, but it's basically the same as eliciting use-case stories from clients when designing systems. In this case, I am the client and the trip my system. Ask yourself: What am I going to do? Ideas might start coming to mind slowly at first, but they'll come at a gush before long. Just scribble down on your notebook the activities that come to mind. When the torrent slows, start to look at the first activity and ask yourself: What will I need to take to do this? Write it down. Ask yourself: What could go wrong? Think of the fail points in that activity. What can you take to mitigate failure? Ask yourself: And then? (This is the recursive bit of the algorithm - loop until you've exhausted the needs for completing that activity.) Then move to the next activity. You get pretty quick at deciding what is necessary, what you can actually carry and which failures you can tolerate and which ones you can engineer around.  Repeat that for all the activities you listed down. Jot down any new activities that come to mind throughout this process. You now have a list of things you have to pack. Done.

Of course, you might have written down half your wardrobe and more gadgets than your case can fit... but that's a different problem.  Prosaic issues of space/rotation are much easier to solve than the dreaded tabula rasa of a startled mind.

Working out your timings

I have used this approach for many years now. I work back from a known, fixed point in time and calculate my required interim times to comfortably get where I need to be on time. Timely.

"Let's see... the train leaves at 7:30 AM. I need to be checked in 15 minutes before departure, so that's 7:15... The bus takes about 20 minutes to the station, and I take about 15 minutes to walk to the bus stop... maybe 20 dragging that big ass case at my feet... The buses are fairly regular then and there's not much traffic, so I'll allow 10 minutes waiting time. That means I need to leave here at...  6:25 at the earliest. Let's say, 6:20 to give me some breathing room. I need an hour to eat, wash up, dress, do my final pack and house check before leaving, so that means I need to get up at 5:20. Allowing 20 minutes to drift off to sleep and wanting a good 8 hours minimum for tomorrow's trip means I need to go to bed at... 9 PM. Done."

Add more breathing room for more or more complicated legs in the journey. Allow for mistakes - use the What could go wrong? here too.

I hope these little tips are useful the next time you plan to travel somewhere. Good luck, and trip well.