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Natural Project Planning to the Rescue

Natural Planning ModelThere are plenty of project planning approaches and software tools out there. But when do you actually use them? For most of us they are overwhelming and overkill. Getting caught up in complexity, we often miss the point.

On the other hand, not planning at all, and hence not knowing how to bridge the gap between one’s current place and a desired outcome, often leaves us lost in the woods and breeds procrastination. I have “occasionally” 🙄 experienced this myself and observed plenty of people in my work and private circles idling and killing time.

Fortunately, our brain knows quite well how to plan and execute a project. Once you make this planning process explicit, you realize that it doesn’t have to be complicated at all and are more likely to make a plan. And yes, very often it will fit on a paper napkin. You are also more likely to question why you are doing something.

So how does our brain plan naturally?

The Natural Planning Model is a 5-step procedure detailed by David Allen that aims to describe how our brain plans naturally. Allen defines a project as any outcome requiring more than one action step.

Remembering the steps and reflecting on them has often helped me to cut right to the chase and get going in the right direction. It is a simple procedure, but it packs quite a punch.

If you are already doing all this, this post is not for you. But if you don’t, I would like you to give it a try: Commit the steps to memory, recall them a few times, and reflect on them. Then when you want  to start a new project or when you are stuck in a current one, use it.

Here are the Natural Planning Model steps

  1. Define Purpose and Principles
  2. Envision the Outcome
  3. Brainstorm
  4. Organize
  5. Identify the Next Actions

1. Purpose

Let’s go through an example: Browsing through the image gallery in my smartphone, I realized that the quality of my photos wasn’t really all that good. Yes, people’s portraits and selfies looked great to the casual observer, but I wasn’t satisfied with my nature shots and night scenes at all.

The phone lacks a proper optical zoom and night scenes look grainy. I need a camera that can do better.

I have just defined the purpose: I have defined the “Why.” Why am I doing this?

I want better photos than my smartphone can deliver. I want a camera that can take good photos from afar and at night.

The purpose tells you when your project is a success!

How about the principles?

The principles define the boundaries of the project. Here we go:

The camera needs to be small, so that I can always take it with me. I don’t want to spend more than $300, and it needs to have an optical zoom. It needs to have an HD video mode, a manual and an auto mode, and I want to be able to share photos right on the spot without having to upload them to my notebook computer. I need at least a one-year worldwide warranty. I want to buy the camera from a reputable shop.

“I would give others totally free rein to do this as long as they…” (Allen). Complete this sentence with a list so that you would be happy to hand over the project to someone else and you have your principles down.

The principles define your constraints, but also your standards and other policies. I certainly want to exclude immoral solutions: “as long as they don’t steal the camera.”

2. Envision the Outcome

I have just reached the top of a hill, before me the mighty Mekong River. I make out an island in the middle of the river. I take the camera from my belt-attached pouch, and zoom in on the cows grazing on the little island. Snap…. I upload the photo to my Blog. It is crisp and clear.

The outcome is the blueprint of your project. What will the result of the project look like when it is completed?

Seeing the outcome clearly in front of you allows you to focus.

3. Brainstorm

I know why I want to buy a camera, and what I want to do with it. Equipped with my purpose (why), my principles, and my outcome, my brain naturally starts to look for ideas to get there. It tries to bridge the gap from where I am to my envisioned outcome. I capture these ideas in whatever form I deem best for my project. It is important to write down everything and withhold judgement to keep the flow going.

For the camera, a simple list will do:

brainstorming-step3 natural planning model

4. Organize

Identify sub-components, sequences, and priorities. At this point you also evaluate your ideas.
Looking at the list, you’ll naturally see things that go together (identify clusters). You’ll also see some things that need to come before other things. Some things are more important. Some ideas are unfeasible or you just don’t like them. You’ll also see where you have gaps and need to do more brainstorming.

I do a lot of my brainstorming in OneNote. The outlining function in OneNote makes it easy to move stuff around and organize it:

organize-step4 natural planning model

5. Identify Next Actions

For each sub-component, ask what the very next action is to move it forward. Write this action down. You need to be specific. Then act. Some items will have to wait for the completion of other items.

Email to Peter: What camera do you have? Would you buy it again?


Work through the actions and delegate if you are managing a team. Some sub-projects, you can delegate completely to someone else; they will define the actions and move the sub-project forward.

Recommended Book

To learn more about this planning model, and how it fits into a straight-forward system to manage your inbox, tasks, projects, and life, I highly recommend David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD). I have found it to be a book full of inspiration and actionable advice. An absolute classic.

Final Words

So here you have the natural planning model. Only 5 steps. Do you remember them and can describe each of them in one sentence? I recommend that you commit them to memory as I have, for example, by using an acronym or the method of loci, so that you can go through them fast whenever you want to plan or are getting stuck. Often the questions “Why am I doing this?” and “What will it look like when it is complete?” have been enough to get me going.

For more information, also read my articles on brainstorming and on organizing and evaluating ideas.


  • Image credits:
    • New Idea (modified), by Pictomago via Openclipart.org

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