In software development, we’ve got tools for planning the short run. Unit tests tell me what code to implement right now. Daily task lists tell me what to work on today. GTD helps to manage my week.
In planning my personal finances, I’ve got a good handle on my day to day expenses. The Mint iPhone app keeps my balances up to date. I’ve got money going into my checking account, out to various savings accounts, and paying my bills. I know, to a good approximation, whether I can really afford an expensive latte in the morning.
Similarly, in both areas, my long term planning is about as good as it can be. Mockups and broad product descriptions give the software project a mission. Retirement calculators and rules-of-thumb tell me whether I’ll be ok in the future. All of these visions are fuzzy, because there’s unpredictable events in the future, but the tools are there to give us the best possible answers that can we can get.
The trouble comes in the medium term. Your customer wants a new feature for their conference in three months: can you deliver? What other features need to be rearranged? You need to replace your car in a year. How much should you save? Does that interfere with your vacation plans? The medium term is where the art of planning gets dicey. It’s close enough that real decisions and commitments are needed, but far enough that intuitive notions of “easy”, “hard”, “expensive” and “minor” are not sufficient. In the medium term, there are multiple projects, each with different deadlines, requirements, and priorities.
Right now I have six medium-term financial goals, all with different deadlines. Some are flexible, both in date and amount - I could put off my vacations, or do something less expensive. Some are not - the property taxes must be paid by the deadline, come hell or high water. I don’t have a good way to visualize how they all fit together - in fact, I’m thinking of writing a tool. Given a fixed number of dollars per paycheck, will that allow me to pay everything? Or, given fixed amounts and deadlines, how much do I need to pay per paycheck?
Right now I have several projects in the works, some with deadlines, some without. If the deadlines can’t be met, then customers need to know as soon as possible, but none of them are overwhelming on their own. The question is, can they all fit together into my schedule, in a way that satisfies everyone?