Three Plans

For all my projects, I have always needed three plans.

Why three?

The first is the plan on a page. This one gets used for most reporting and is waved about at project board meetings. The trick with this one is prudence. Only put essential information on it as the more there is, the harder it is to understand. IT consultancies are masters at producing incredible plan pictures that look good, but nobody has a clue what they mean. The things a one page plan should highlight are:

  • The key sequence of events (e.g. sprints or phases to a release)
  • The key milestones (especially the customer's deliveries1)
  • The range of possible release dates (never give a single date2)

The plan needs to be quick and easy to update, so you always have the latest version handy. I find a spreadsheet is good for this. You can use the grid lines to line everything up and then turn them off to look good.

Copy the area needed and paste it as a picture into a slide or document. Always send out your plan as a picture or PDF so people can't fiddle with it.

I have wasted too many hours messing about with boxes and aligning them when doing it directly in a slide software (like PowerPoint). Even worse, if the receiver has their slide size set differently, it royally screws it up.

The second plan is the detailed plan, created in suitable project planning software3. The trick with this one is getting the level of detail right. Too much, and maintaining it becomes a cottage industry. Too little, and important dependencies and schedule risks will be missed. A rule of thumb is to be able to allocate all the resources and have enough detail that it could generate an accurate budget. Also detailed enough to see the impact of adding people's holidays or sudden absences. It doesn't need to go into infinite detail, but enough to feel confident about achieving deadlines. For agile projects, you can roughly pencil in what could go in which sprint and the sequencing of backlog items. A sort of sketched out version of the product backlog. This plan is never shared. The detail would allow people to pick holes, get unrealistic expectations, or have some genius of a manager take the contingency away. It is your private master plan to rule the world. Look after it.

The third plan is the team plan. For a very short horizon, it details what everyone is doing. In Agile, it is the sprint backlog and the burn down chart. In Waterfall, it is a day-by-day team plan.

It is detailed enough to identify within a day, at most, that the plan is drifting. Projects don't overrun because of big delays but from the cumulative effect of lots of little ones4. Slippage must be jumped on immediately and only detail will identify when a tiny slip is happening. This can be as trivial as a delayed meeting or a short network outage slowing work down. Time lost is never recovered unless you work longer hours and you probably do that already. With the amount of change that goes on in a project, a horizon of over two to three weeks is pointless, something Agile projects have recognised for ages.

  1. If they are late, you have the right to change your plan. ↩︎

  2. This communicates that bad stuff can happen (it will). ↩︎

  3. For me, this has been MS project. Do yourself a favour; go on a course and learn how to use it properly. It will save hours of heartache. ↩︎

  4. Brooks, "The Mythical Man-Month" ↩︎

Can Do not To Do

Reading recently, I came across this and it resonated with me:

"To Do lists are not lists of things to do. They are lists of things you can do." (from "The Blank Screen" by William Gallagher)

Too often I have put things on my 'to do' list that I can't actually do because I am waiting on someone, do not have all the information, don't have the tools to do it, etc. These 'can't dos' clog up my day and carry over, making my list get depressingly longer and longer.

I now get rid of them as I am never going to able to do them. I shunt them to a 'someday' file which I periodically review. They could become a 'can do', but more often than not they simply disappear.

A ‘To Do’ List Journey

For most of my long career, I used my own version of the Bullet Journal Method to plan my day using a pen and notebook. It worked well. Each morning I would copy out my Outlook work calendar onto a page, together with my goal for the day, and not more than 5 'can do' tasks to attempt to get done (a 'can do' task is where you have everything you need to do it and are not waiting on anything). I settled on 5 tasks as it gets depressing if, day after day, you see lots of failed completion. I needed to be realistic about what I could do., which is not much on a normal manic, frequently interrupted, working day. I was a project manager after all. If all else failed, and my day got shot to bits, I focussed on just getting my goal for the day done. This was nothing huge and could be as simple as wanting to talk to a team member. Writing out the day's calendar allowed for quick changes with a stroke of the pen rather than lots of mouse clicks. I could re-plan my day in seconds. I also recorded notes or actions against my paper version which then got pushed into the next day or future list when I reviewed everything at the end of my day.

An end of day review was important to identify meetings I needed to schedule, forward plan new tasks, collate notes into my journal, and contemplate how much of a disaster the day had been. It gave me thinking time on how I might handle people problems, work out what I was going to say to them, and cheer myself up with what small victories I had achieved.

A typical day looked something like this:

(Yes, I know my handwiriting is awful)

  1. Days' schedule
  2. Notes
  3. Actions from a meeting
  4. Day's goal
  5. The 'can dos' I would like to get done
  6. The 'to dos' I could do if by some miracle I got the five main ones done
  7. A 'to do' moved to tomorrow
  8. A 'to do' moved into the future
  9. A done one!

Working in an office or at my home desk, it was easy enough to always have my notebook with me. Then everything changed.

I retired.

Carrying a notebook with me around the house and garden soon fell apart. If I left my notebook in the kitchen, by the time I found it I would forget what I needed to put in it. I needed to move to an electronic list as I nearly always had my phone handy.

I tried Things 3 as it seemed simple and looked elegant. It didn't last long. I don't know why now, but I really wanted to be able to have tasks divided into ones I would do in the morning and and ones in the afternoon. You could do it with tags, but tags were a pain to add. Things wouldn't let me put headings in my 'Today' list. I created a workaround with a task labelled '<---- Afternoon ---->' but it irritated me aesthetically, really jarred for some reason.

Then I discovered Noteplan. It had recently been launched and I loved that I could almost reproduce my bullet journal and have the morning/afternoon the way I wanted. Having my calendar right next to my 'to do' list also won me over. Noteplan has one weak feature which is repeating tasks. There are two ways round this. For repeats with a big time gap or odd pattern, I put them in my calendar as an 'all day' event. There weren't many of these, so they didn't clutter my calendar up. Calendar apps allow for all sorts of crazy repeats and you can copy them off the calendar view within Noteplan. There is an arguement that all repeating tasks should be in a calendar rather than on a to do list. I am not convinced. For repeating tasks that happen, say, every Monday, I created a Monday template that had them in and used that as a base for my Monday list.

I happily used NotePlan for over a year. Like all good apps, it was continually developed. In other words, it got more complicated. Some good stuff like year lists, quarter lists, month lists, and week lists. I found all this additional whizzy stuff started to clutter up the interface. And, as most of my use was on my iPhone or iPad, it got in the way. I also have fat fingers and found tasks were regularly toggling between done and not done if I didn't press in precisely the right place. It started to annoy me.

Time for a rethink.

What did I really need my 'to do' list to do? Was the dividing stuff into morning and afternoon that critical (as morning things frequently spilled into the afternoon)?

It is always worth having a step back and really thinking hard about what you need an app to achieve, rather than what bells and whistles it has. The lure of bells and whistle to a techie can be overwhelming.

I experimented with going back to Things 3 and ran both in parallel for a few weeks to work out which annoyed me least. I found there was much of Noteplan, the note part, I hardly used. Retired, why did I need to have meeting notes? All my useful reference stuff is stored in DevonThink as it handles a wide variety of document types and is not limited to text. I am techie enough to write most of my own notes in markdown, but everyone else sends me their stuff and it isn't (like my car insurance documents).

Things3 won, for now. Recurring tasks are easy, though week/month planning is not so good. I still hanker a little after Noteplan.

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owls mainly hunt during the daytime, flying barely above the ground over moorland, grassland and salt marshes searching for voles, which are their favourite food. Their 'ears' are two feather tufts that you can only see when they are feeling grumpy or alarmed. You are more likely to see a Short-eared Owl in the winter as northern European Owls join ours on coastal marshes and numbers swell.

The Short-eared Owl is larger than a Barn Owl with a round face and fierce, staring yellow eyes surrounded by black rings to make them look even fiercer. They have a mottled brown body, a streaked breast, and a pale belly and flanks. Their wings are long and narrow with black tips and a dark mark at the 'elbow'. Their short tail has four strong bars. They hover and glide with a few floppy wing beats, feet above the ground. The Short-eared Owl gives a short bark when alarmed but is otherwise silent except when singing its low hooting "boo boo boo" song. Like many raptors, the female is slightly larger than the male and a lot bossier.

Their main food is small mammals such as rats, mice, squirrels, and small rabbits. Short-eared Owls will also eat birds up to Thrush sized and insects and frogs if pushed, but their favourite snack is voles which make up to 65% of their diet. They catch their prey by swooping down feet-first on top of them. Like all Owls, because of the low acidity of their stomachs, they can't easily digest bones and have to eject them as pellets.

Short-eared Owls are able to breed after one year. In spring, the male attracts a mate by doing an aerial display above his moorland territory, clapping his wings below his body and showing off. The nest is a scraped-out hollow on the ground lined with grass and downy feathers, concealed by low vegetation. Mum lays her 4-8 white eggs in March. They are spaced out over several days so that the youngsters hatch at different times. If food is short, only the oldest and strongest survive. The young owlets are fed by both mum and dad. After 15 days they leave the nest to hide nearby until they can fly 35 days later. Breeding success depends crucially on how many voles there are. On a year with plenty of voles, they may even have two broods.

There are about 2,000 pairs of Short-eared Owls in Britain and the population is stable. Numbers increase in the winter, especially on the coast, as Owls come over from northern Europe to join ours. Some of our Owls may move south to southern Europe. Winter numbers can fluctuate depending on food availability. Because Short-eared Owls are of European conservation concern, they are Amber Listed. The oldest ringed Short-eared Owl lived for 12 years.

Their Latin name is 'asio flammeus' where 'flammeus' means 'flame coloured' and 'asio' is the Latin name for a horned owl. We call them ears rather than horns but the flame colour is spot on. There are eleven subspecies of Short-eared Owls worldwide.


The Stonechat loves having his picture taken. He will happily pose upright on a post while you get a photo of his good side, flicking his wings impatiently. Stonechats need grassy areas for feeding, dense cover for nesting and the all-important posing post for singing. They can be found on heaths in the summer and along the coast in winter.

Stonechats are small and dumpy, a little smaller than a Robin, with a big head and short tail. The male has a black head, white on his neck, an orange breast and a dark brown back. The female has a brown head and a less obvious white neck. She is altogether browner. The youngsters look like mum. They have a white shoulder patch that is visible when flying on their whirring wings, looking a bit like giant bumble bees. Their call is a harsh "tac tac" like two stones being tapped together and hence their Stonechat name. 

Stonechats drop to the ground to feed. They are mainly insectivorous, feeding on caterpillars, moths, ants, spiders and flies, though they will also take worms and snails, and feed on seeds and berries in the autumn and winter. 

They breed on lowland heaths and sites with plenty of gorse bushes, like railway embankments. Stonechats first breed when they are one year old. They are monogamous during the breeding season but do not pair for life. Mum builds an untidy cup of leaves close to the ground under a bush which she lines with hair, wool, and feathers. She incubates the 4-6 greenish-blue speckled eggs with little help from dad, who is too busy posing. The eggs hatch after 13 days. Both parents feed the young, who can fly 13 days later. The quick turnaround gives time for 2-3 broods and often while dad feeds the first brood, mum gets on with a second. They do their moult once all the kids have left home and then move down to the coast for winter.

Stonechats are partial migrants. While many stay here, some migrate to southern Europe. There are 60,000 breeding pairs in Britain though numbers have fallen because of heaths being turned into farmland and pesticides killing the insects they need to feed. Stonechats can also suffer in severe winters.

Their Latin name is 'saxicola rubicola' where 'saxicola' means 'rock dweller' from the Latin 'saxum' for 'rock' and 'incola' for 'dwelling in'. The 'rubicola' is a combination of 'rubus' for 'bramble' and 'incola' again, giving a 'rock and bramble dweller' which is pretty close. Another local name is the 'gorse chat'.


Another very secretive reedbed bird. The booming call of a Bittern is unmistakable, like someone blowing across the top of a very large milk bottle. Despite its size, it is tricky to spot being a master of camouflage, you can look right at one and not know it's there until it blinks. Bitterns are loners and spend a lot of time standing still. When you do see one, it is magic.

The Bittern is brown, streaked with black and buff to match the reeds. It has a black crown, long dagger bill, and huge light green feet. It flies owl-like on broad rounded wings with its neck hunched up like a Heron's. When alarmed it points its bill skywards and sways to mimic reeds in the wind. The deep booming call is heard mainly between March and July, typically at dusk, and the low note can carry for up to 5km!

Bitterns eat mainly fish, especially eels. A bit of a cockney geezer. It will also snack on small birds and amphibians. It searches for food with the tip of its bill, which makes it vulnerable if the water freezes over and it can't get its bill through the ice. Many will die in a harsh winter.

Bitterns return to their breeding grounds in spring. The male Bittern defends a large territory and uses his booming call to attract one or more females. Once he has done his business, like a good East End lad, he leaves the missus to do everything. She makes a nest from a heap of dead reeds and lays 4-6 eggs which hatch after 25 days. The youngsters leave the nest after 15 days and are cared for by mum until they can fly 50 days later. The youngsters disperse from the breeding ground in late summer and may visit smaller reedbeds and riverside marshes as they move about to find their own patch. Young Bitterns can breed after 1 year and their average lifespan is 10 years.

Many Bitterns stay within their territories, though some northern Bitterns will move south in autumn and be joined by others from northern Europe. There are 160 breeding pairs in Britain with numbers swelling to 600 in winter. There are about 29,000 Bitterns across all of Europe. The drainage of wetlands and the removal of eggs by egg collectors nearly wiped Bitterns out in Britain. In 1997 there were just 11 males left. Thankfully, their numbers are now steadily rising. The small numbers and their nature reserve dependency make them Amber Listed.

Their Latin name is 'botaurus stellaris' where 'botaurus' is derived from the Latin 'bos' for 'ox' and  'taurus' for bull because of the bellowing call. The 'stellaris' is Latin for 'starred' and refers to the Bittern's speckled plumage. The English name is a corruption of the Latin. Other names include; 'bog thumper', 'bull of the bog', 'bog hen', 'boom bird' and 'bottle bump'. Imagination runs wild when things are hard to see.

Bearded Tit

The Bearded Tit lives exclusively in dense reedbeds. It is hard to see but easy to hear with its distinctive metallic "ting ting" call. A very sociable chap, sharing his patch with lots of mates. It is another badly named bird as it isn't a Tit and doesn't have a beard.

Bearded Tits are a similar colour to dead reeds with an orange-brown body, a blue-grey head, and a droopy black patch under their eyes (like their mascara has run). They are long-tailed with a delicate wing pattern and a small orange bill. The female has a plainer head and the kids look like mum. They are usually seen flying rapidly in a looping flight across the top of a reedbed showing their white outer tail feathers.

Their main foods are insects and spiders in the summer, then switching to moss and seeds in winter when insects are scarce. Bearded Tits don't have teeth, and their bills aren't powerful enough to crack open the tough seed shells, so they have to eat grit which helps them grind the hard seeds into a digestible pulp. 

Bearded Tit breeding starts in April. Both mum and dad build the nest which is a deep cup of reed leaves and vegetation built amongst the reed stems and lined with fluffy seed heads. These guys are all about reeds. The 4-8 eggs hatch after 11 days and the youngsters can feed themselves after a week. They can fly 12 days later which gives mum and dad time to squeeze in 2-3 broods. They do their moult between June and October once all the kids have left home.

There are 700 pairs of Bearded Tits in Britain. Numbers fell because of the drainage of wetlands. Their numbers are now slowly increasing thanks to reedbed conservation. Most birds are sedentary but when numbers get large in an area, this can cause a mass 'irruption' to other areas in autumn. Bearded Tits from Holland have been known to come here to overwinter. They are very sensitive to severe winter weather and the cold winter of 1947 nearly wiped them out. The oldest recorded Bearded Tit lived for 6 years.

Their Latin name is 'panurus biarmicus' where 'panurus' is from Ancient Greek 'panu' for 'exceedingly' and 'ουρa' for 'tail', a reference to their long tail. The 'biarmicus' is from 'Bjarmaland' part of Russia where, presumably, they were first spotted. Another English name is the 'bearded reedling', which is better as they are not related to Tits but still wrong on the beard front. 

Reed Bunting

The Reed Bunting is one of the few wetland birds that didn't decline when reedbeds were drained. It simply moved to drier areas and nobody knows why. The male Reed Bunting is a dapper fellow with a jet-black head and white moustache, often singing his "zinc zinc zinc zonk" song from a prominent perch, like someone learning to count from one to four.

The Reed Bunting is sparrow-sized, but slimmer, with a long, deeply notched tail. The male has a black head, a white collar and his all-important drooping white moustache. Females, winter males and youngsters have streaked heads. In flight, the tail looks black with broad, white edges. They have stubby seed eater bills and dull wing bars.

Although Reed Buntings will eat insects, their chief food is seeds and they are often seen feasting on seed heads. Reed Buntings will also visit garden bird tables for seeds, especially in cold winters.

Nesting starts in April and finishes in late August. The nest is built amongst the ground vegetation by mum, usually near water, but it can also be on an arable field, especially oilseed rape. It is made from grass and moss and then lined with finer material. The 4-5 olive-grey eggs hatch after 13 days and both proud parents feed the young. If a predator comes near the nest, mum and dad will feign injury in an attempt to draw the predator away from where the nest is hidden. The youngsters can fly after a further 10 days which gives time to have 2 or 3 broods. Mum and dad do their moult between July and November once they have finished raising the kids. They do a second moult between March and May when dad gets his dapper black head.

Reed Buntings mostly stay put, but some move southwards or to lowland areas in autumn. A few from northern Europe arrive to overwinter here too. They form winter flocks with other finches and buntings. There are about 250,000 pairs in Britain and the population is stable.

Their Latin name is 'emberiza schoeniclus' where 'emberiza' is from the Old German 'embritz' for a bunting. The 'schoeniclus' is derived from the Ancient Greek 'skhoiniklos' for an unknown waterside bird. The 'emberizidae' bird family contains around 300 seed-eating species, the majority of which are found in the Americas. Our Reed Bunting is most closely related to the Japanese Reed Bunting and the Pallas's Reed Bunting. The English name is from where it is mainly found. Another name is the 'reed sparrow'.

Reed Warbler

The Reed Warbler is a shy 'steady Eddie' of the reedbeds who remains hidden. He sings at a constant beat, repeating one phrase several times before smoothly spinning into the next. You could dance away to it. Like the Sedge Warbler, the Reed Warbler is a summer visitor from central Africa, arriving in April and leaving in September. Unlike the Sedge Warbler it, more sensibly, makes the journey in short stages.

The Reed Warbler is smaller than a Great Tit. It has plain unstreaked brown upperparts, a white throat, paler underparts and a rich brown rump. The bill is dark and looks long for its size. It has a very faint eye stripe unlike the bold one of a Sedge Warbler. It is a bit of a brown job. Like most warblers, mum and dad are identical and the kids are a richer buff colour. They sing from within the reeds and are rarely seen on a perch.

Reed Warblers eat insects, spiders and small snails which they find amongst the dense, waterside vegetation. 

Normally a bit of a loner, the Reed Warbler breeds in reedbed colonies as this gives them better protection from ground predators. The males return two or three weeks before the females and, once hooked up, are usually monogamous. The nest is built entirely by mum. It takes her four days to build the initial cup of grass, reed stems and leaves, and another three days to finish lining it with finer materials to her satisfaction. In May, she lays 3-5 pale green speckled eggs at daily intervals. Both mum and dad incubate the eggs and have to keep a careful watch as they are favourite victims of the dastardly Cuckoo which will lay its own eggs in their nest. The eggs hatch at different times after 9-12 days. Only the eldest chick survives in wet summers with few insects. The chicks are fed by their parents and can fly after 10 days, but stay with mum and dad for 2 weeks. There are often two broods. Like the Sedge Warbler, mum and dad do a partial moult after breeding before finishing it off once back in Africa.

The largest concentration of Reed Warblers is found in East Anglia and along the south coast. Very few breed in Scotland and Ireland. About 130,000 pairs come to Britain in the summer. The biggest threat to them is the loss of breeding sites because of drainage. The longest-living Reed Warbler was 12.

Their Latin name is 'acrocephalus scripaceus' where 'acrocephalus' is from the Ancient Greek 'akros' for 'highest' and 'kephale' for 'head' like the Sedge Warbler. The 'scirpaceus' is from the Latin for 'reed'. Another English name is the 'reed wren'. It would be much better if scientists listened to the locals as this is a perfect name. There are ten subspecies of Reed Warbler and our Common Reed Warbler looks very similar to the Great Reed Warbler, except it is, of course, bigger and has a stronger eye stripe.

Sedge Warbler

The Sedge Warbler is a summer visitor that loves to hide in thick vegetation or reedbeds near rivers and lakes. They arrive in April and return to Africa in the autumn making an awesome 4,000km non-stop flight across Europe, the Mediterranean Ocean and the Sahara Desert.

It is smaller than a House Sparrow with streaked upperparts, pale underparts, a black crown, and a prominent white eyebrow stripe. Its yellowish-brown rump is visible in flight. Youngsters are like mum and dad but yellower. The Sedge Warbler's song is very similar to a Reed Warbler's but you can tell the two apart as the Sedge Warbler's song is more jazzy, fast-flowing and off-beat, often sung from the sky or a high perch. They sing a mix of harsh churring and sweeter notes with each verse in a different rhythm, often singing non-stop for a minute or two.

Sedge Warblers chiefly feed on insects like flies, beetles, and spiders. They will also eat snails, worms and the occasional berry in autumn. They find most of their food low down in the vegetation. Their feeding techniques include 'picking' insects from underneath leaves, while perched or hovering, and 'leap-catching', where they grab an insect as it flies past. They cleverly take advantage of the low temperatures around dusk and dawn when their prey is less mobile. They have a big feed up before their epic migration, doubling their body weight.

The best breeding territories are grabbed by the earliest arriving males, who then sing to attract a female, never singing the same song twice, adding new riffs to impress the jazz-cat girls. The Sedge Warbler finishes singing as soon as he has a mate. The music struck mum then builds a nest from a cup of grasses, moss and spiders' webs lined with soft hair and plant down. It is woven around plant stems off the ground. She lays 5-6 eggs in May and incubates them until they hatch 13 days later. Both parents feed the young. The youngsters can fly after 13 days. With that fast turnaround, there are often two broods. The family then moves to pre-migration areas to bulk up. Mum and dad do a partial moult, then set off ahead of the kids and finish moulting once back in Africa. 

Sedge Warblers suffered a large decline in the 1970s and 1980s because of droughts in Africa but their numbers are now recovering. It goes to show that everything, not just people, suffers in a drought. About 300,000 pairs breed in Britain and their breeding success depends on good wetlands and marshes. The oldest ringed Sedge Warbler was 8 years old.

Their Latin name is 'acrocephalus schoenobaenus' where 'acrocephalus' is from the Ancient Greek 'akros' for 'highest' and 'kephale' for 'head'. The people naming it actually meant 'sharp-pointed head' but got their Greek a bit mixed up. The 'schoenobaenus' is from Ancient Greek 'skhoinos' for 'reed' and 'baino' 'to tread'. Reed walker is a lot better. The Sedge Warbler is closely related to the similar-looking Aquatic Warbler found in Poland and Russia, which occasionally passes through on its own way to Africa. The English name comes from its singing in the sedge (grasses and rushes). Another local name is the 'sedge reedling'.