For any large event (moving day, opening night, wedding, etc), I like to worry early and push hard right at the beginning. Like is a strong word. It’s probably better to say I really DON’T like feeling any undue stress related to these events. In this case, when I say “stress”, I mean the range of duress you feel between genuinely not knowing if you will be able to be ready on time and seriously doubting that you can be ready in time. I work very hard to avoid feeling this way.
By and large, I’m successful in doing this by implementing a philosophy I call “carry the ball forward.” Anytime you’re looking eye to eye with a massive project, make constant progress any which way you can from the moment you become aware of your responsibilities. Big projects, especially in the creative realm, have many unknowns. They often include coordinating with a whole bunch of moving pieces. Various people with different agendas will likely need to converge on the same space in order to do what you need them to do. And there will never feel like there’s enough time to get everything done. So, planning, strategizing and really making the most of the time you have beforehand will make everyone’s life easier.
The benefits of this are two-fold. First, I can react to any last minute surprises from my calmest state of being and I have the bandwidth to actually deal with them, both of which enable me to give them my best response. Second, being well prepared going through the process allows my mind the time and space to think of other things that might come up. Which often translates to even fewer surprises.
Things that can help with this process…
I like to think that everyone recognizes how fantastic pre-planning is, but that they sometimes find it difficult to get fired-up about it. Seth Godin was asked at a speaking event if he ever got nervous about presenting. He replied that he always gets nervous about it, but he’s trained himself to be more worried about what the ramifications would be if he never presented again. If he never did this presentation, maybe he would never make the next one and the next one and so on. Maybe he would have to go back to doing work he didn’t care about with people he didn’t like for the rest of his career. By making the fear of not presenting so vivid, the initial fear of presenting pales in comparison.
To that end, I invite you imagine the full experience of what being under-prepared for your big day would be like. On a physical level it might feel like that time in school where you thought you’d studied the right material, only to find out on the test that it was the other chapter you should have focused on. Your heart pounds, your stomach drops, your mouth goes dry, you start to sweat. Now consider how that unpreparedness could impact everyone else involved in this equation – the friends who gave up their Saturday to help you schlep boxes, the investors who believed in your vision enough to sink money into your project, your mom or dad who (presumably) will only see you get married once. Consider what would happen if there was suddenly an emergency in your own personal life – right before this event – that demanded your attention be elsewhere for a week? Injury or illness to your or a friend or family member, a catastrophe at work, a fire or robbery in your apartment building. Or perhaps imagine what it feels like when you have to pay double what you were expecting because you’re forced to use the only vendor who can deliver within your time frame. I don’t mean to rain on your parade, but all of these things are real possibilities. And you can either be a victim of your circumstances or you can be well prepared to take on the world. If you’ve done a great job of preparing, you’ll be in the best position you can be to temper or take advantage of any last minute surprises. When the experience matters, set yourself up for success.
It’s tempting to just jump right in and start doing stuff when something over-whelming is on the horizon. But without planning, this isn’t progress. It’s creating chaos. Not helpful. Not helpful at all. I start my planning by doing a huge brain dump with just plain old pen and paper. Start by writing down…
Categories are the major areas of focus. These are the main components of your events. When I got married, my categories were things like “flowers”, “food”, “ceremony”. If anything pops into your consciousness during this phase that isn’t a category, write that somewhere in the margins so that it can be plugged into the process at the appropriate time. (If you’re into mind mapping, this is a great place to use it.) The idea is to create as much of a broad scope as you can. Once I’ve got what seems like a good overview, I go back through each category and start identifying…
Your subcategories are things that are manageable chunks, but still require a couple of steps of parts to complete. So, for example, my category of “flowers” yielded the subcategories “bouquets”, “boutineers”, “centerpieces”, “accessories” and “misc. decorating”. From there, I could move to…
How many boutineers do I need? What are the centerpieces going to be? What kind of flowers do I want? Am I going to hire a florist? Who do I know who might know a good florist in that area? Ask, ask, ask. As some things are answered, they will generate more questions. But this initial round of questions at least alerts you to what it is you know you don’t know. From here, begin…
Prioritizing is initially a question of where your minimum requirements lie. What are the things that you absolutely could not be satisfied going without? Once you’ve determined your list of “must haves”, then identify what from that list is going to take the most time to get done. (Note: if there’s something that is on your “must have” list that you have no idea how you’re actually going to pull off that automatically classifies something that will take the most time.) From there divide everything into one of three groups – “most important”, “important” and “nice to have”. If it’s a top priority and you don’t know how you’re going to do it/you know it IS going to take a long time, it moves to the “most important” section. Just under that in the “important” realm will be the things that are straight forward and don’t involve a long process. And lastly, the rest of the stuff that would be “nice to have”, but is not imperative. Now for the fun of…
Identifying Next Actions.
What are the next actions (the first steps) that needs to happen for your top priority items? (This part of the process may trigger a whole other round of questions. Fear not. There will always be a certain amount of refining in this process.) Your list of next action steps should be as black and white as possible and ideally have a definite end point. It might be “decide on colors”. It might be “ask my Facebook friends who they would recommend as a florist”. It might be “research where I can buy 13 glass bowls for centerpieces”. List these as succinctly as you can. If you’ve identified something as a next action but you actually need to do something else before you can complete it, it’s not a next action. If you’ve listed “address envelopes” as your next action item, but you’re still missing a number addresses from your mailing list, your next action item is actually “get missing addresses”…followed by “address envelopes”. Once you’ve got your next immediate actions in order, you’re welcome to list all subsequent actions that you can foresee. If the next action is “get missing addresses”, the progression from there might be “address envelopes”, “buy stamps”, “mail invites”, etc. (The difficulty I always have with this phase is in telling myself that I don’t really need to break things down THAT explicitly. Although I’m capable of figuring out that addressing envelopes should come after actually getting the mailing address, I have a much better grasp of everything that needs to be done – and I’m able to plow through it faster – if I’ve identified the very next thing that needs to be done.) And now, the moment we’ve all been waiting for, you get to…
Attack that list of actions. If you’re waiting for a response on one action, attack another one. When you get an answer to one of your questions, channel that back into action. The beauty of this process is that you will always know where and how you can make immediate progress. You will also be able to delegate, if given the opportunity, because you will have a precise list of what needs doing. If you’ve really planned out everything that you need to do, you should have a pretty realistic picture with regard to how things are coming together. If things seem like they’re way behind, figure out what the minimum you need to accomplish is. Also, look to see if there are ways to get the work done that may be less ideal, but significantly faster. When I was moving it would have been ideal to pack each box only with items for a certain room. But it was significantly faster for me pack things as they were no longer needed and as they could be fit into boxes. Extra towels in the linen closet became the perfect thing for wrapping extra glassware from the kitchen.
I realize that at this point I’ve beaten this concept to death. But I really and truly believe in its merits. We DIY’ed just about everything that could be DIY’ed for our wedding. I made my dress. I made the flower girls dresses. My husband made all our signage. We built the website from scratch. We made all of our flowers. We made our favors. We made our centerpieces. We designed our own programs. We made our guestbook. We wrote our own vows. If it could be done, we did it. Additionally, I was out of town for a month working on a show that closed two weeks before my wedding. My husband took off the three days before our wedding so that he can be available to help with last minute stuff. But we were in such great shape that we basically spent that time goofing around. And it was the best way to start our wedding weekend. We were able to just be happy and relaxed before all our family and friends descended. It’s possible. And it’s so fantastic to step into the hurricane knowing that you’re really and truly ready.
Carry that ball forward!
Thoughts? Questions? Comments? Post them below. The more the merrier!