Every year since 2005, I’ve spent the better part of a week in late December planning my life for the next year. Overall, this is probably the best decision I’ve made in terms of working towards multiple goals simultaneously.
The idea is to create a road map for the year ahead—not a rigid daily schedule, but an overall outline of what matters to me and what I hope to achieve in the next year. I complete this process in bits and pieces over several days, partly because of my ADD brain but also because it helps to think about it slowly. Some of you who have the ability to concentrate on one thing for hours at a time may prefer to do it all at once.
In this essay I’ll take you step-by-step through what I do every December to help plan the next year. I’ll show you the spreadsheet template I use and provide examples through each part of the process. You certainly don’t have to use my system, but you’re welcome to it if you want.
By the way, the kind of goal-setting I practice and advocate is vastly different from:
- Resolutions that are broken after January 10. I don’t make resolutions; I make a plan of action based on what matters to me.
- Vague or non-measurable Goals (“Be Happier,” “Make More Money,” and so on). We all want to be happier and have more money. This process requires that each goal be measurable and specific.
- A rigid plan you have to live with if you hate. You can always change it later for any reason. It’s your plan, right? And since you’re the one making it, you shouldn’t hate it.
Devoting time to this exercise is like doing an Annual Review at work, except usually more productive and always more fun. When Annual Reviews at work are done well, they usually focus on a blend of what you’re doing right (affirmation) and what you can improve on (constructive criticism). Hopefully, you go away feeling excited about future goals and resolved to move on from any failures. Yes, I know it doesn’t always go that way at work, but the success of your personal Annual Review is dependent on only one person—you.
Here you can download a template based on what I use to do this exercise. Feel free to use it as is, modify it however you’d like, or start over to make something that works better for you. I use it because it makes sense to me, but the important thing is to find something you are comfortable with.
I like the form of the spreadsheet for easy editing and tracking throughout the year. However, I do a lot of the “thinking work” with pen and paper in a notebook before transferring it to the laptop.
For the thinking work, I recommend a Moleskine notebook, a $3 pen, and a week-long absence from the world. You’ll have to sort the last one out on your own. As I said, the process can be accelerated if needed.
To begin the process, I ask myself two questions and try to come up with at least 6-8 answers to each:
- What went well this year?
- What did not go well this year?
For these answers, I’m mostly interested in events I have control over. If something did not go well that I couldn’t prevent or control, it doesn’t need to go on the list.
In case you’re curious, my list this year consists of these things (among others):
What Went Well – After at least two years of thinking about it, I began the Art of Nonconformity site and met or exceeded most of my initial goals for it. I set a personal record for my international travel, visiting at least 27 countries. I also earned my Master’s Degree from the University of Washington and said goodbye to formal education for the time being.
What Did Not Go Well – What turned out to be a persistent running injury prevented me from running my fourth marathon. My income declined considerably, in part due to the declining economy but also due to my choice to focus more on writing than entreprenurial projects.
I like completing this list before doing any future planning. I’ve said before that we tend to overestimate what we can do in an average day but underestimate what can be done over the course of a year. Looking at a whole year in review, you may be surprised at everything you’ve accomplished.
(And next year, if you take this goal-setting process seriously, you may be even more surprised with how much you’ve done over the year.)
Results from Last Year
Next, I look at the goals I set last year (you’ll see how the process works below) and make notes in the column designated “Final Review.” Did I achieve the goal or not?
There are usually a few goals that I don’t achieve for whatever reason. Sometimes circumstances change and the goal is no longer relevant. Other times, of course, I just fall short – like I did with not being able to run much in the fall. Since I’ve been doing the Annual Review, my success rate is around 80%. I think that’s a good percentage, because if I consistently achieved 100% of my goals, I’d worry I was setting them too low.
This year my results were more mixed than usual – I haven’t gone through everything yet, but I expect the success rate will be about 70%. It was also somewhat imbalanced, since some goals were achieved quite early and others became irrelevant throughout the year.
PLANNING FOR NEXT YEAR
Next, I start looking towards the future, based on goals that are set by category. Here are the categories that I use:
Writing, Business, Friends & Family, Service, Travel, Spiritual, Health, Learning, Financial (Earning), Financial (Giving), Financial (Saving)
While thinking about each category over the course of a week (off and on), I set an average of 3-5 measurable goals for each. Here’s what a few of them looked like for me throughout 2008:
1. Run my third marathon in the spring with family.
2. Maintain ongoing schedule of running at least 15-20 miles a week.
3. Continue weekly strength training program when possible.
4. Consider beginning a new sport in January.
5. Run my fourth marathon in Portland or Vancouver in the fall.
In this case, I achieved the first three goals, but did not start playing a new sport in January (or anytime during the year) and did not run the fourth marathon.
1. Visit 25 countries, including 15 new countries if possible.
2. Purchase and Travel on a OneWorld Round-the-World ticket for summer “Lonely Places” tour.
3. Travel to Liberia to speak to my NGO friends.
4. Plan for and take a vacation with Jolie in December.
In this case, I did not travel to Liberia, but I did achieve the other three goals.
You’ll notice that I have several categories for finance. This is because each category has to do with money, but they are actually quite distinct. I break it up like this:
Financial (Income) – Simply put, how much money do I want to earn and where will it come from? Since I’m self-employed, my money comes from several different sources. I identify each one and set a goal for each.
Financial (Giving) – Giving is important to me, and I’ve learned I give more when I plan for it. I identify a target percentage of income and several specific gifts I want to make.
Financial (Savings) – I need to save for several things on a regular basis: a) long-term savings that I put in a retirement account, b) short-term savings, including the end-of-year vacation funds, and c) savings for taxes.
(Also due to being self-employed, I have to pay taxes four times a year, and I don’t always do a good job of having money in the bank when the time comes.)
The rest of the category goals are set in a similar fashion. Some of my other goals for 2008 were:
- Read 52 books
- Complete my M.A. degree
- Make writing the most important thing I do all year
- Buy a new OneWorld Round-the-World plane ticket
- Interview with literary agents and sign initial contract
- Facilitate leadership retreat for the non-profit board I work with
- Attend three plays and two cultural events in Seattle
The Second Column
The second column is called “Actions Required for Each Goal.” In other words, what do I need to do (next) to achieve each goal?
Attention: This is very important! Without completing this section, you’ll have a vision without a plan. You need to have both.
Remembering that the goals need to be measurable is one of the most important predictors of success in the coming year. To sort out the next actions, I always think, “What do I need to do to achieve this?”
To run a marathon, I need to start running 3 miles at a time, 3 times a week.
To travel to my one place, I need to save $2 a day.
To graduate college, I need to fulfill or negate a number of requirements that gatekeepers have designed to keep me in the system for a while. What are they, and what do I need to do next?
I capture the major actions for each goal and put them in the second column of the spreadsheet. For GTD fanatics, I should mention that I don’t actually capture all of the micro actions at this point. As an example, let’s say my goal is to publish an academic paper. I think of it like this:
Goal: Submit paper to XYZ Journal for publication
Required Actions: Decide on topic, conduct literature review, write first draft, get feedback, write additional drafts, and submit for approval.
The long list of micro actions (“tasks” in GTD-speak) might include 10 or more items for each of those “next actions,” but that’s OK for me. As long as I have the major ones there, I know that I’ll be working on the project at some point in my notebook and can break it down further.
I tend to look at my goals every month, but I set up a longer (30 minutes or so) review every quarter. I call these the Spring, Summer, and Fall reviews. The Final Review is what I’m doing now, in the process of planning out the next year’s projects.
Possible Additional Goals
While I’m working on this, I usually identify a few goals that I decide not to put in the categories because they may or may not happen throughout the course of the year. I include these at the bottom of the spreadsheet.
Last year, these possibilities were on my list:
- Qualify for Boston Marathon
- Hire a part-time personal assistant
- Host Ken in Seattle
- Host Mary in Seattle
- If no grad school, visit PDX with Jolie before April
- Write second manifesto to follow-up on World Domination
(In this case, about half of these possibilities turned into real projects and the other half didn’t. I definitely didn’t come close to qualifying for the Boston Marathon! That one will go in the possible goals again for next year, although it’s still a long shot with all the travel I do.)
Theme for the Year
I also have a theme and one-paragraph statement for the year. This is the summary of the whole year – what’s it going to look like? Who will I be for the next year?
Since I started doing the review three years ago, here are the themes I’ve chosen for myself:
Year of Transition (2006) – When Jolie and I both focused on returning to the U.S. after four years away and began building a new life in Seattle
Year of Learning and Preparation (2007) – When I focused on completing most of the requirements for my graduate degree and getting ready for the next stage of life
Year of the Revolution (2008) – When I completed grad school, started the writing project, and formalized my goal of visiting every country in the world. (I wrote in the theme statement: “This time next year, my life will be very different,” and indeed that is the case.)
I think I’ve got my 2009 theme and statement ready to go now, but I’m going to spend a few more days considering it to make sure.
By the way, you might think I put this section at the beginning of the process, but instead I wait for the end because I need to understand which goals I am more excited about pursuing and what my overall life is shaping up to be.
In 2006, for example, I knew that transition would be a major theme since we were preparing to leave Africa, settle in a new city, and begin a new university program.
In 2007, I sensed I would be preparing for something completely different in the future. That year, I knew that the theme would have more to do with being in one place (most of the time) while getting ready to launch something completely different the following year.
On a separate tab of the spreadsheet, I keep up with a few general metrics from year to year, including these:
- New Countries Visited
- All Countries Visited
- Charity %
- Charity Total
- People on Life List
- Major Projects Accomplished
- Long-term Savings
- Income Sustainability Formula (in months)
I’ll probably add a couple of new ones this year to reflect my shift to spending more time on writing — perhaps categories like Blog Posts, Number of Readers, Number of True Fans, Progress towards Book, and so on.
I don’t really do much with these during the year, but it’s nice to look back over the past four years and see what’s happened. (Unfortunately, with the death of the stock market, a couple of those financial goals have gone backwards.)
Note: Your categories may be similar to mine, but I suspect your metrics will be quite different. Some categories are fairly general (health, learning, etc.) but almost all metrics are highly specific.
THE FINISHED PRODUCT
With the goals properly documented, I set out to achieve them over the next year. I complete the next actions for each goal, or at least as many as possible. After completing the next actions, sometimes new actions materialize, so I start working on those next.
After I finish the Annual Review, then and only then do I break out the GTD and other productivity tools that I use throughout the year. I’d rather do the right things poorly than the wrong things efficiently, so I spend more time thinking about these kinds of high-level things than about how I can save 5 minutes a day.
The achieving of goals is something I write about often, but if you’re new here, the following essays might help orient you:
“But I don’t like setting goals…”
The most common objection I hear to this kind of planning is something like, “But I don’t like to plan, because there are too many unexpected variables.”
Yes, things do change – negative effects like the declining economy or a personal injury, and positive effects like a new job or new relationship. The plan is designed to give you a road map, not a strict schedule you have to live by. Life does come along and change things, but it doesn’t happen as often as you think. Andy Warhol put it very well:
They say that time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.
That’s a great philosophy to live by, don’t you think? The goal-setting exercise and Annual Review are all about changing things yourself instead of waiting for change to suddenly show up one day.
The second objection I hear is, “But what if I end up hating the plan later?” My short answer to that is if you really hate the plan later, you can discard it and create another. It’s your life, after all. But since you are the one making the plan, it’s unlikely that you’ll completely hate it.
I maintain a lot of different roles, both professional and personal. It’s how I like to work, and I know that you are probably a busy person too. When someone asks how I can do “so much,” I always mention this week-long planning process. There is no hidden secret to working towards a lot of big goals at the same time, but taking the time to clearly define specific objectives each year has helped me more than anything else.
Remember, we tend to underestimate what we can do in an average year. Set your goals high. Take some time to do this right, and you’ll thank yourself later.
By using this exercise or creating your own, you might even have the best year of your life.