Planning Series: Prioritizing Projects

So, I have a little side-business where I help people manage their own renovations. I basically sit down and discuss priorities, money, and schedule, and help them come up with a plan. Then we can meet and discuss progress and how to work around snags as the project continues. I think of it as being a renovation guidance counsellor, and it sort of just evolved out of the work on the Casa combined with my project management background.

One of the things I've figured out from this whole thing is that the hardest part of a renovation is getting a plan and sticking to it. You're going along really well until one day you get sparks out of the outlet when you try to use the toaster, and pretty soon you're pulling bales of uninsulated wire out of the kitchen ceiling. Or one day you wake up and realize that you cannot live another day with that dark green bathroom, even if it means putting another project on hold while you prep, prime, and paint.

So this post is the first in a series I'll be writing about project planning and management, with a few tips on how to get on track and stay there. And what to do when you get off track, because we all know that's going to happen no matter how disciplined you are.

The very first thing to do is make a list of projects. I like to make lists on the computer because they are easy to reorganize, but another way to handle it is to put projects on index cards, which is what I recommend for people who are starting out. Just list one project per card, then you can sort them around on a big table and see what you're dealing with.

Actually, coming up with a list of projects might not be so easy. Maybe you've just moved in and you're not entirely sure what's actually not working yet, or you're not certain what you want to do about a problem. You don't need to know every detail up front. If you're not sure what you want to do about the kitchen, just make a card that says "kitchen." You'll know what it means, and if you ever can't figure it out, you can remove it from the set of cards and nobody gets hurt. And if you're not sure what projects might come up, maybe make a list of the first several projects you know you want to undertake.

With cards in hand, now is the time to do some arranging. The first thing to do is find projects that have a natural affinity for one another. Things like replacing plaster with drywall work well with more invasive projects like rewiring or insulating. Find any projects like that and group them together with a paperclip (in my computer file, I use an indent under a common title to make things a group).

When you have all your projects grouped, now is the part where the cards are a bit easier than the computer file. You need to arrange projects in chronological order. When we started prioritizing our projects, we found that everything we wanted to do came back to the foundation in the end, and this actually moved up our projected start date for the foundation replacement by a few years. This is often the case: you work from the foundation upwards, and from the outside inwards. So in our case we made a ten-year plan (which you can find in our Planning archives) which basically started with the idea of doing the foundation work.

Our ten-year plan started with the idea that there we had a large set of projects with affinity for each other (removing a bunch of plaster and drywalling, redoing all the floors, doing an addition on the second story, plus retrofitting the upper part of the house with bracing). In fact, the set was so large with such a strong affinity that we realized we would basically want to do them all at once, but there was no way we'd have money or time to do it for at least ten years. Once we had that idea in our heads, everything fell into place. How many projects can we do in ten years, with one of us 250 miles away at school for much of that time? We took everything that wasn't part of that large affinity group and put it on the list. We spoke in very general terms, but also specific enough that you could tell when a project was underway.

So look at your cards, and consider whether you want to make a lot of steady progress over a long period of time, or whether you want to do a few things then a major project, then a few things, and so on. If you'll be doing all the work yourself, think about when you're going to need to do an easier project after a hard one, or a smaller project after a longer one. Think about how you like to work.

And arrange. For us, a table of of index cards would have the foundation on the far left (like most Westerners, I think of time moving from left to right), then a bunch of cards at the same level after the foundation for things like the landscaping, and paneling removal, and paint stripping. Almost nothing hinges on those projects, and any one of them could be done first.

When the projects that are gating factors are all in the right places, consider money and time. Every project has a cost, both in terms of cash and in terms of your time and energy. If you're not going to have the money to rebuild your front steps for a few years, that should more further into the future. The key is to be realistic with your plan.

At this point, make a note on the cards about rough expected cost (money and effort on your part). You will be coming to them later wondering why you decided to put off that roof project, having forgotten that you got a quote for more than your current net worth. And without planning, it's easy to get in over your head. A lot of people I talk to think that planning can work miracles. It can't give you more money or more energy; all it can do is help you use them better.

When you have everything arranged roughly as it has to be done, you can start rearranging as you want to do it. So for us, right now, our cards would be in this order: back fence, chicken yard, Accordion Room, chicken house, deck, pantry. That's all the projects we've got on our roster right now, although there are a few others on the one-year plan. But two weeks ago, we would have put the Accordion Room project first, because it seemed more critical and also we had not yet started the fence as we were waiting on a second set of asbestos test results (which were negative!). With the end of the fence in our grasp, and the chickens fast outgrowing their habitat, those projects jumped in priority.

Which is the beauty of the index cards. You can rearrange them as you need to. When you wake up one Saturday morning and know the bathroom must not be dark green for another day, you can have a discussion about moving it up in priority and what will fall behind because you need to do this for your sanity. Or when you're waiting for test results or supplies or even just a permit, you can move another small project up the queue and work on it until the first project can be restarted.

When you have a pretty clear idea of the order things will happen in, make a short list on paper that has your next several projects. It's all too easy to get sidetracked and start another massive project without finishing what you started. It's also easy to get sidetracked and then wonder, six months later, how you managed not to get any of your scheduled projects started, much less finished.

We tend to keep our current short list as a mantra to recite to one another in times of weakness. We hang copies of our ten-year plan in the stairway niche and in the kitchen, because it helps us keep the bigger picture clear in our minds. Also, it means a lot to cross things off that list.

So maybe you hang up a big-picture list and a short-term list, or maybe you choose to focus on one or the other (if you're not ready to start work just yet, go for long term, so you'll be thinking far enough in advance). Now you work from the list. Do not ever work on a project that is not on the list. If it needs doing, it needs planning. Even things like plumbing explosions that are fairly obvious top priorities should be discussed in terms of the list. If you spend a weekend working on the drainpipe, that means you will delay work on other projects. It's easy, when you're running late or short-tempered with each other, to forget that you both agreed that there would be a delay.

With your planning complete for the moment, put the cards in a box or rubber band them together, and set them aside until you need to do more advance planning. Every time you are deciding what comes next you should spread all the cards out and re-order them or add to them as needed. It gives you a perspective on why you made those decisions in the past, but it also allows you to change and be flexible as your work progresses.

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posted by ayse on 04/19/08