Is it time to say goodbye to the annual planning cycle?

As we make our way steadily into the new year, most of us will have an idea of what we would have like to have achieved by the time Christmas comes around again. It seems like we have all the time in the world. Yet as the year progresses, our grand plans so often get lost in the mass of other ‘stuff’ that accumulates as the months progress. This annual cycle of planning and doing might have worked well when we were all farmers, tied to the rhythm of the seasons. But is it still the best way to get things done?

This is the question explored in a recent article by Oliver Burkeman in the Guardian. Drawing on Brian Moran and Michael Lennington’s new book ‘The Twelve Week Year’, Burkeman asks whether it’s time to ditch the traditional 365 day, twelve month cycle and replace it with something more in tune with the growing knowledge economy. Because while it may seem that the year passes all too quickly, it turns out that twelve months might be too much.

A whole year, Burkeman suggests, is just too long a period to get our heads around. And that shiny ‘new year, new you’ feeling wears off way too quickly, leaving us with eleven months of drudgery until we get another chance at a fresh start. And it’s also really difficult to plan for twelve months – as we all know – because things change so much and so quickly. What seems a reasonable assumption in January may be way out by July.

In response to this, Moran and Lennington propose that we lose the twelve-month thing and switch to (as the name of their book may have hinted) a twelve week year. We’re not talking about simply dividing the year into quarters, but thinking of each twelve week block as a year in itself. This timescale, they say, is short enough for us to stay focused, but long enough for us to get things done.

Another advantage of this approach, the authors contend, is that we can balance out the various parts of our lives over the different ‘years’. We may want to focus on our work for a particular twelve week block (for example, if we’re working on a big project) and then devote more time to our family or to our hobbies in the next one. We can have different priorities for each ‘year’, knowing that nothing’s going to get too out of hand if we take our eye off it for three months. (Unless you have small children, in which case please ignore that last bit.)

So is this the way of the future? On balance, I think perhaps not. I don’t see the traditional year disappearing any time soon. In fact, the ‘twelve week year’ strikes me more as an idea somebody came up with in order to get their name on a business book in airport lounges, rather than a serious attempt to revolutionise how we work. The twelve month cycle is far too ingrained, and based on real natural rhythms and realities (as well as on public sector funding cycles), for us to abandon it at a whim.

We can learn some things from Moran and Lennington’s ideas, though. We don’t, for example, always have to plan twelve months ahead. Especially in such volatile times, planning on a rolling three month cycle may actually be more realistic. And I rather like the idea of having different priorities for different periods of the year. It’s much easier to get something done if you really focus on it, rather than just adding it to the bottom of your to-do list and hoping you get around to it some time. After all, it’ll be Christmas again before we know it…

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