Planning for the year ahead – An actuarial approach

Hello 2022! What’s in store for your year ahead?

After the lockdowns of 2020, we were excited for the promise of a fresh start that 2021 brought. But after a second challenging year of lockdowns, vaccinations and Greek letter variants, many people have expressed their hesitation about 2022.

While we can’t individually control the pandemic, we can set our intentions about what we hope to achieve in 2022. Your plans for the year ahead might include goals, objectives or areas for improvement in relation to work, such as your career direction, your team or key projects. You might also have plans for your health, personal life or the way work fits into your life.

Advice from actuaries to help you plan for the year ahead

Now, I love to plan, sometimes even more than I love to deliver! However, to get some diversity of tips I asked seven actuaries, who I personally know to be excellent planners, for their top tips on planning for the year ahead. Here’s what they recommended:

1. Start by identifying your priorities

Chris Dolman, Actuary and responsible AI expert, suggests focusing on priorities first to ensure that you make space for important tasks and outcomes.

Chris suggests “Prioritise, rather than plan. It might be tempting to try to plan things in detail, but a year is a long time. Inevitably, something will come up that will mean you need to adjust things. When this happens, you need to be clear about your priorities, rather than your plan, because sometimes the things which seem ‘less urgent’ are actually the most important and shouldn’t be discarded too readily.”

However, remember to leave room for other priorities that may emerge, “Often the most significant things you do in a year will not be obvious at the start. Leave time for these opportunities that are not yet known, but which you will want to attend to,” says Chris.

Jennifer Lang, Actuary and Non-Executive Director, also points out that ruthless prioritisation is essential to good planning.

Understanding what your priorities are makes it much easier to spend time on the most important things, rather than the easiest things. At the beginning of a year/a quarter/a week, understand what your priorities are. And then keep refreshing them. When I am busiest, I prioritise (both for myself and for my team) daily, so that any time I have a choice, about spending time, going to a meeting, reading some briefing material, I know I am choosing something at the top, rather than the bottom of the priority list. And when I have focused time available, I’ll spend it on something really important, rather than frittering it away answering emails,” says Jennifer.

Mark Henderson, experienced Appointed Actuary and CFO, reminds us to also consider medium and long-term priorities, including:

  • “Innovating and improving our actuarial processes and our company’s processes – so that things will work more efficiently/accurately next time around.”

  • “Looking over the horizon at where key drivers of our business may end up, and asking ourselves what can we do now to capitalise on the benefits / minimise the downsides of those?”

  • “Growing our people and keeping everyone engaged. Whether that means rotating people between different parts of the team or giving people new opportunities to learn things via e.g. training or managing people or contributing to projects.”

“It is important to make sure that these considerations remain ‘front of mind’ through the year whilst ‘keeping the plates spinning’ doing the ‘day job’. Otherwise, it can be the case that they don’t get the focus they deserve, and whilst there are often no immediate effects, there may be longer-term impacts,” warns Mark.

2. Improve and optimise to make room in your schedule

Lots of us fall into the trap of doing things a certain way because that’s how they’ve been done before. Experienced Actuary Ian Grubb recommends taking the time to identify what could be improved or is no longer needed as part of your planning activities. He says:

“Sometimes it’s more about planning the things that you’re not going to do…work out ways to make existing processes more efficient, contact stakeholders to make sure they’re still using the information you’re sending out, and really make sure that you’re using your time effectively.”

Chris agrees, and suggests applying an urgent/important test to help prioritise tasks:

“Tools like the Eisenhower matrix can be useful when considering what you might think about not doing. Apply this ruthlessly to the year just gone, and despair at how much you might have eliminated or delegated! Therein lies the opportunity.”

3. Schedule time to enable innovation and improvement

Mark points out how easily we can get stuck in the day-to-day and the year can pass before we’ve had time to achieve key goals. He says:

“We are often so busy, that it can easily be the case that another year just flies by. We can get to the end of a year and find that whilst we have done a great job in terms of ‘keeping the lights on’ and dealing with the many issues arising over the year, some things – particularly those that will help us in the medium to longer-term, can get left behind.”

Mark suggests scheduling time to consider medium-term priorities:

  • “Organise one or two team offsites a year, where these topics are specific agenda items. These could be at senior-level or a more junior level, but the concepts remains the same – getting key people in the team out of the office for an afternoon or a day is a great way to focus on some things that may otherwise be left behind.”

  • “Diarise short blocks of your own time to regularly ‘check in’ on these things. It is easy to set up a recurring one-hour monthly block of time in calendars.”

  • “Include medium-term priorities as standing items on key agendas. This would ensure that these topics get airtime at for example monthly management team meetings, staff meetings, or even 1×1 meetings.”

“With these items then front of mind, they can be considered, thought through, and tangible actions and goals can be set, measured and delivered going forward,” says Mark.

4. Schedule regular reviews for smaller course corrections

Genevieve Hayes, Actuary and Data Scientist, takes an Actuarial Control Cycle approach to the way she lives her life. She suggests scheduling regular review points throughout the year:

“Several times a year (including at year-end), I like to take an afternoon or two to stop and think about where I want to be heading in all the different aspects of my life and come up with a plan on how to get there. I then go off and implement these plans in a ‘set and forget’ kind of way (in order to reduce decision fatigue) and keep going until the next review or until a major event occurs in my life that causes a change in the assumptions on which my plans were based. At that point, I review how things have gone since my last review, check in with myself to see if my goals are still what they used to be, and make any necessary changes to my plans. 

“If you do this frequently enough, then any ‘course corrections’ will usually be minor (like increasing the amount I contribute to my super fund by $50 per fortnight). However, in the case of major assumption changes, I have ended up making huge changes to my life (for example, it was after a review such as this that I decided to do my Masters). Because I conduct frequent reviews, though, I usually make these changes pretty quickly.”

5. Allow time for feedback on your plans

When planning for bigger projects involving many stakeholders, Dennis Jiang, Financial Reporting Actuary, reminds us that planning is not a solo activity.

Dennis says “Allow time for feedback of your plan across all key stakeholders, including both senior and junior. Key benefits are:

  • “Test the feasibility of the plan. Juniors who do the work may have more knowledge to assess feasibility, or seniors may know of broader projects that can be leveraged or synergised.”

  • “Get buy-in from those doing the work to improve project outcomes.”

  • “Set expectations with both junior and senior stakeholders, to allow them to better manage work.”

While this can be time-consuming, it is usually worth the investment to set your projects up for success. Build time for feedback into your planning and consider all feedback to improve the plan.

6. Plan to protect your non-work time

Whether it’s study, parenting or life in general, we all have priorities outside of work. Planning for how you will make room for these can set you up for better work-life balance throughout the year.

Jennifer recommends starting by deciding how much time you plan to spend on work:

“I learned this when I had two small children and had to leave work at 5:30pm every evening for childcare reasons. I couldn’t pretend to myself that I had infinite time, so I had to work out what I was going to fit into the time I have. When I didn’t have that restriction and pretended I would just keep working until I finished, my work wasn’t better. I just spent more time doing it. In most jobs I’ve had (and for most people I’ve worked with) I could have done twice as many things, and they would have added value. But it wasn’t possible to spend twice as much time. Deciding how much time I have makes the time I spend more useful, and that mindset made it much easier to take serious action on ruthlessly prioritising.”

Chris suggests setting your intentions for work-life balance and including them in your planning. He recalls:

“Back when I used to do financial reporting, I used to set my team a goal of zero work on weekends and zero nights working after 7pm for year-end. I remember when I first mentioned this my team looked shocked – how could this be possible?! In reality we didn’t always achieve it, but a clear statement of intent to prioritise non-work – even in busy periods – makes it more likely to happen. It also means your plan needs to think about this as a goal when planning – you can’t have an ‘oh we can just work the weekend if needs be’ attitude.”

This approach also helps if you are trying to juggle part-time work or study leave. “I have the same attitude to my days off – without this, plans can too easily bleed into your personal time, which in the long run is bad for you, your team and your client or employer,” says Chris.

7. Make time for your career development

Ian recommends scheduling some time to think about your career direction. He suggests:

“Specifically put aside time to think about where you’re going with your career, and what you might like to do next. Who’s already going somewhere that you want to go? Get yourself involved. And who’s expressed an interest in something you’d like to do? Get them involved.”

He suggests capturing ideas as they come up. “Keep a notepad handy around the house – you never know when inspiration will strike,” says Ian.

Chris also advocates making time for your own personal development.

“Explicitly include some personal development into your plans, and note that these are usually ‘important but not urgent’ in the Eisenhower classification, which is the dangerous zone of things which get left for another day unless you deliberately plan for them. So set aside time for them and don’t let it get taken.”

And to help you stay focussed on your goals, Mark advises finding a mentor. “A good mentor will be sure to ask you how you are progressing on your own priorities,” says Mark.

8. Don’t just plan, do!

Ian also reminds us that January can be the perfect time not just to plan, but to take action. He recommends building your plans into your calendar. “Review your calendar, and get important meetings locked in so you can hit the ground running.”

And if time permits, get started on some of your important tasks now:

“With so many people out of the office, January is a great time to do all the ‘housekeeping’ that you’ve put off all year – get the CPD up, read that interesting article that you filed away ages ago, and generally catch up on all the things that you want to do, but never find the time,” says Ian.

9. Find ways to keep your plan front of mind

It is important to have a system that allows you to regularly revisit your plan. Amanda Aitken, Actuary and Actuarial Educator, finds it helpful to have visual reminders of her plans close by. Amanda says:

“I blu-tac several different work plans to the wall next to my desk”. These include:

Amanda Aitken’s office wall, covered in work plans.
  • “Semester calendars, which set out key dates for the semester from both my perspective as the teacher and from my students’ perspectives.”

  • “An annual calendar so I can easily check what day different key dates fall on.”

  • “A monthly calendar, which maps out the tasks I will work on each day over the next month.”

  • “A list of the command verbs we use in the subjects.”

 

“I find it helpful to have printed versions of these easily at hand because I’m referring to them all so frequently each day. It also gives me a sense of satisfaction to cross things off as I complete them,” says Amanda.

10. Read further to build your planning toolkit

If you want to delve deeper into the topic, Jennifer recommends the following books to help you hone your time management and planning skills:

You can find reviews of these books on Jennifer’s blog, Actuarial Eye.

Conclusion

Hopefully, your teammates will also come back from their break feeling recharged and ready to tackle the new year.

Ian reminds us to be flexible. “Don’t worry if everything changes when your boss gets back from leave with their own bright ideas!”

Some of us love to plan, while others prefer to take things as they come. Wherever you sit on this spectrum, you may find some degree of planning helpful to set you up for a happy and productive 2022.

What will you do today to set yourself up for success in 2022? Let me know how it goes!

CPD: Actuaries Institute Members can claim two CPD points for every hour of reading articles on Actuaries Digital.

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