The Runway — Planning the Next Thing

Lit runway
Photo by Jordi Moncasi on Unsplash

In “Holes”, I noted that one of the holes in my work planning and management is a good tool for tracking and planning upcoming work over time. I have now filled that hole with my Runway Document, which also replaces “The Wall”.


Runway Organization

I keep my runway in a document in DynaList, an online outliner (similar to Workflowy but with multiple separate files). I have a section for each upcoming term (spring, summer, and fall), at least through the next year. The current term, and occasionally the next term, is broken down with a subsection for each month.

Within these sections, I keep a list of the things coming up that month. Most of these are deadlines or commitments, but some are other planned activities or ticklers (e.g. a reminder to re-activate a currently dormant project). If something has a known deadline, I include that (as a Dynalist date).

When something is done, I mark it as completed; at the end of a period, I mark the whole period (month or term) completed after dealing with the unfinished items (moving them to a later period or deleting them if they are no longer relevant).

Adding to the Runway

Whenever I commit to something with a time period, like a talk or a conference PC, I put in the runway.

When a CFP comes out that I want to target, I put it in the runway. If it's more of an aspirational target, I'll put a question mark after it.

When I have a project that I'm ready to actually start working on, I'll make sure key pieces and the tentative target are in the runway.

When I create the section for a new term that contains deadlines I typically target (FAccT, RecSys, increasingly SIGIR), I put those in, even if the exact deadline isn't available yet.

If something comes up that's further out than my runway currently extends, I create a new section for that time block (e.g. upcoming semester or summer).

Using the Runway

The result of this practice is that, in addition to the weekly and daily plans in my notebook, I have continuous telemetry on where I sit with respect to my planned work for the next year (at least).

When I am sitting down to plan my week (a typical Sunday evening ritual; I'll write more about my rituals in a separate post), I can review the runway to see what's on my horizon that I need to be making progress on, and should think about adding to the week's Desired Outcomes.

When I get a new review request, I can look at the runway and see what else I've already committed to during that time. I try not to be on more than one regular conference PC in any given month.

Reviewing the Runway

At the beginning of each term, part of my term planning process is to flesh out that term's outline into per-month details, and review for things I might be missing (as well as things I should drop or defer due to overcommitment).

I also review it as needed and try to make sure it stays current throughout the term; I re-evaluate at least once a month to make sure the current term still reflects my goals and the term's surprises to date.

Wrapping Up

via GIPHY

I've been using the runway document for a little over a year now, and it has significantly improved my ability to keep track of my work over time and make more realistic plans on a longer time horizon. I wish I had started this practice years ago — work is less overwhelming when I have it slotted in to specific times and can think ahead about what to expect in future months and terms. I finally feel like I actually have strategic control of my future work, in addition to the tactical control the other pieces of my productivity strategy afford. Time and commitments are also a more useful way to manage future planning at this time than the Kanban-style board modeling the research pipeline.

The runway is a plan, not a prison. I don't treat it as a firm commitment to myself, and adjust it liberally as my priorities change, new opportunities arise, and projects take more or less time than expected. It does help make space for things, though; if a new collaboration possibility comes up, for example, I can think more concretely about what I might need to give up to make it work, or communicate up front about a realistic timeline for my involvement.

I'm not entirely sure “runway” is really the best name for this document, because I'm always accelerating and never taking off. Sometimes it feels a bit more like the little dog, building his railway track just in time to ride on it, but it's more like he's got the controls for a robot that's laying it out a few more feet in advance.