Many river restoration projects fail. Inadequate project planning underpins many of the reasons given for failure (such as setting overly ambitious goals; selecting inappropriate sites and techniques; losing stakeholder motivation; and neglecting to monitor, assess, and document projects). Another major problem is the lack of an agreed guiding image to direct the activities aimed at restoring the necessary biophysical and ecological processes within the logistic constraints of on-ground works. Despite a rich literature defining the components of restoration project planning, restoration ecology currently lacks an explicit and logical means of moving from the initial project vision through to on-ground strategies. Yet this process is fundamental because it directly links the ecological goals of the project to the on-ground strategies used to achieve them. We present a planning process that explicitly uses an interdisciplinary mechanistic model of disturbance drivers and system responses to build from the initial project vision to the implementation of on-ground works. A worked example on the Upper Hunter River in southeastern Australia shows how understanding catchment history can reveal disturbance and response mechanisms, thus facilitating process-based restoration.