How to Plan Your Year Ahead (2021)

December 20, 2020

This is the third year in my life where I look ahead towards a whole year and put down some thoughts and ideas on what I want to do with it. The first time I planned a full year ahead was in 2018 on pen and paper. In 2019, I published my plans for the year ahead for everyone to read. It's worked wonderfully for me (for the most parts), and thus 2020 will be no different.

However, this post isn’t about my year ahead, it’s about giving you a framework to plan your year ahead.

I am writing this guide for people who are like me, who have multiple things going on in their life and they want to ensure they give the important aspects of their lives the right priority, time and effort.

The first people to read and hopefully benefit from this guide would be members of the DelightChat tribe. If we can help and support each other in our individual journeys to reach our goals in 2021, I will call it a huge win.

Before we dive in, here are a few things to keep in mind.

Longer horizon plans should be directional

Unless you are doing something very rigidly defined, like “sit for my MBA entrance exams in 2021”, there’s a very high likelihood that how you begin the year is not exactly how you end it.

And I want you to know that that’s completely okay.

The further ahead you plan, the less specific it should get. By getting too specific, you are not giving yourself room to wiggle, especially as life happens, circumstances evolve, and priorities change.

The purpose of planning is to move meaningfully, but any good plan knows that life and circumstances happen, and therefore the best plans adapt and evolve as you move.

When you think of a whole year ahead, think in terms of:

  • defining your high-level goals (where you are headed)
  • defining the purpose of the goal (which serves as motivation when things aren’t great)
  • setting directional checkpoints (which tell you that you’re headed in the right direction)

Short-term plans should be specific

The shorter term your plans are, the more specific you can get.

You can reasonably plan how your next week would be and what you plan to do during that time.

Which is why I think people should make specific plans for the next 3 months at a time. It’s a reasonably long time window to get something serious done, and it’s not too long that by the time you complete the 3 months, your plans would have completely changed.

It also works like a checkpoint in the year, to see whether you are headed in the right direction. If not, you can course-correct for the checkpoints ahead.

Focus on the inputs

When focusing on long-term goals, I recommend that you focus on the inputs. The inputs refers to the actions you take on a daily or weekly basis that move you forward towards your goal.

The belief here is, if you have picked the right actions to focus on and if you do them diligently, the output will take care of itself.

Don’t try to be a superhero

Here’s where I messed up in my past years. I tried to advance on all my main goals equally, and that resulted in the inevitable - some goals made huge advances, at the cost of other goals.

As James Clear explains in his four burners theory, your life’s priorities are like the burners of a stove. At a given time, an average human can probably handle 4 different priorities. 

Four Burners Theory

James says that “In order to be successful you have to cut off one of your burners. And in order to be really successful you have to cut off two.”

Further, I think that for someone to achieve outstanding results, you really only have enough energy and time to turn up the flame on 1 burner. The other 3 will remain in maintenance mode or might even get neglected.

Pillar > Theme > Action > Track: A framework for yearly planning

Over the years, the way I planned things took form. I eventually labelled them, as that’s what you do to grasp an entire concept in a single word or phrase.

Allow me paint a picture of the framework and anchor these labels in the picture, so that you can follow it too.

Step 1 - Identify your pillars and which ones you want to focus on

At the highest level, you have your long-term goals. These are goals that are unlikely to change on a yearly basis. You will probably work towards them for several years or even decades. They are the direction your life is taking in the grand scheme of things. I call them pillars.

For example - being healthy, fit and strong is a lifelong pillar that I never want to stop working on. I'll use this example to illustrate the rest of the framework.

Once you have identified and committed to your long-term goals (chances are, you are already doing it just without writing it on paper), decide which ones are you going to give priority to in the coming year. You can try to do all of them, but I’ve tried and failed and I think deliberately focusing on less is the right way to drive better results.

Once you have picked the pillars you want to focus on in the coming year, start figuring out what you need to do to make progress.

Step 2 - Identify themes for each pillar that will help you make progress

Every goal can be broken down further into a group of actions you can take, which help you make progress. I call these group of actions a theme.

For example - to be healthy, fit and strong, you need to focus your efforts around 

  1. diet - what you eat, what you don't eat, how much you eat
  2. exercise - how you workout, how often you workout, how intensely you work out
  3. rest - how much sleep you get each every night

Diet, exercise, and rest are the themes that will help you make progress towards your pillar, health.

Once you have identified these groups of actions that move you towards your long-term goals, you move on to defining the individual actions you will be undertaking that contribute towards achieving your pillar goal. This is the most specific part of your planning.

Step 3 - Identify actions under each theme that you need to focus on a regular basis

Each theme will have a set of actions, which if you follow on a daily, weekly or some regular cadence, it becomes inevitable that you achieve your overarching goals. The only factor then is how long it takes to make progress towards your goal.

Continuing on the earlier example, you now need to define actions under diet, exercise, and rest that you will track on a regular basis.

For example - the actions you need to focus on around your diet are

  • What you eat - to be healthy, you need to eat higher protein content, more whole foods, more greens and veggies
  • What you don’t eat - eliminate heavy carbs from most meals such as rice, eliminate calorie-dense foods like burgers, don’t stock up on junk food and pastries in the kitchen
  • How much you eat - intermittent fast in the mornings, have only 3 fixed meals a day, stay under ~2000 calories/day

Similarly, the actions around exercise are

  • How you workout - do you go to the gym, workout at home, or hit an open field
  • How often you workout - do you move your body twice a week, or 6 times
  • How intensely you workout - are you doing 20 minute sessions or moving for 60 minutes

And finally, the actions around rest

  • How much rest you get everyday - do you sleep 7-8 hours and wake up fully rested

Once you have defined the actions you plan to undertake regularly, you move on to the final step, which is tracking your actions and your progress.

Step 4 - Track your actions and set milestones in your progress

The final step is to track your actions and measure milestones, so that you know whatever you’re doing is indeed helping you move forward. And if it’s not helping, you need to find that out too so that you can course-correct.

Continuing the example, the actions one could track are

  • Did I eat healthy today? Yes/No
  • Did I avoid junk food today? Yes/No
  • Did I eat less than 2000 cal today? Yes/No
  • Did I workout today? Yes/No

These simple questions, which won’t take more than 30 seconds of your time to review at the end of a day, will inform you whether you are following-up on your commitment.

Apart from tracking your actions, you need to set milestones in your progress that you can track over the longer term.

For milestones, you want to anticipate a goal you can reasonably achieve in the next 3 months, for reasons I explained earlier in this post.

  • Reducing weight by 4kg
  • Reducing waist by 6cm
  • Lifting 30kg off the ground

Remember, we are human and it is okay to falter. You need to factor in our inherent human faults into your planning.

Don’t try to lose 12 kgs in 3 months. Set smaller goals that are easier to achieve, go on and achieve them, and as you make more progress and gain confidence that you can do this, turn up the heat and become more aggressive.

Track progress towards milestones on a weekly, bi-monthly or monthly basis. The cadence needs to be long enough that you can see small but meaningful progress every time you measure it.

Working through another real-life example using the framework

All the DelightChat tribe members have a shared goal to build a captive audience. I'll use this goal to illustrate another example using the Pillar > Theme > Action > Track framework.

Pillar - Audience

We believe that each of us should earn the trust of an audience in order to share with others what we have learnt, which can hopefully help them in their journeys. And also to have the support of people who believe in us in our future endeavours.

Twitter is the ideal place to build an audience, given that we all operate in the tech industry and we understand how Twitter works.

To achieve our goal, we will be creating content and delivering value on a consistent basis. To anchor the goal, we will give it a realistic target, such as going from 500 followers to 5000 followers in 365 days.

Themes - Creating and Distributing value

Building an audience involves two core aspects, i.e. themes to follow.

  1. Create value — Who is our ideal audience? What value do they seek in life? How best can we create that value - written, visual, audio?
  2. Distribute value - How do we reach our ideal audience? Where do they hang out on Twitter? What kind of hashtags of profiles do they follow? Do they also search for answers on Google and can we show up there?

If we answer these questions well enough time and again, the results are inevitable. The only factor will be how long it takes to achieve them.

Actions

Making our current example into something more specific — Suppose you are someone who wants to build an audience of marketers, more specifically those who work with content and in the SaaS industry.

Create value

You can approach this in several ways, the best ones would be leveraging your existing abilities.

  • Run a podcast that interviews content marketers in the SaaS industry and extracts their learnings and insights from past work.
  • Create a weekly newsletter that summarises the best content that a content marketer should read to grow their skills and be better informed.
  • Write blog posts that inform and educate someone about how to create, execute and grow the content marketing strategy for a SaaS company.
  • Tweet about relatable problems that marketers face.
  • Share in public great work by other content marketers or companies.
  • Breakdown campaigns and strategies used by other companies and how others can learn from them.

There’s a ton of ways one can create value, if they know whom they are creating value for and what they need help with.

Distribute value

Creating value doesn’t achieve an outcome by itself. For it to help anyone, it needs to be distributed and brought in front of the right people.

Based on the ideas in the above section, here are some ways you can distribute value.

  • Identify key insights from a podcast, turn them into a blog post and a tweet thread. Also take the clips, summarise the key insight and tweet it and share it on LinkedIn. Identify subreddits on Reddit that would appreciate listening to these podcasts. Ask your guests to share the tweet threads and LinkedIn summary posts, thereby amplifying your reach.
  • Summarise the top ideas shared in your weekly newsletter in an easy-to-digest format on Twitter. It could be a tweet thread, or it could be a simple emoji + 1 sentence format. I would pick the best content each week and create a tweet thread around just that, and tag the original creator in the end in the hopes of getting amplified.
  • If you’re writing blog posts, turn them into digestible tweet threads and share them. Summarize the post and use the right hashtags to share it on LinkedIn. You could also share the entire post on Reddit, with a link back to your original blog post or Twitter account.
  • Find newsletters that already feature great content aimed at marketers, and ask to be featured when you think you have created something of sufficiently high value that is worth getting featured.
  • Join Facebook groups or Slack communities where people from the content marketing industry already hang out. Engage with them, deliver value, share your posts once in a while and especially when it’s contextually relevant.

Track your progress

There's two parts here, one is to track your actions, and other is to measure milestones in your progress.

Track your actions

  • Did I publish a blog post this week? Yes/No
  • Did I summarize a great idea into a tweet thread this week? Yes/No
  • Did I send out the weekly newsletter this week? Yes/No
  • Did I tweet about relatable problems that marketers face this week? Yes/No
  • Did I share someone else's great work and praise it, or break it down for others to consume? Yes/No

Measure milestones

  • How many tweets, tweet impressions, profile visits and followers did I gain this month?
  • How does it look compared to last month? Why was it higher/lower? What should I do differently next month.
  • What % of my overarching Twitter audience goal am I currently at?

Reminder - Don’t try to be a superhero

I’ve listed a ton of actions above which might lead one to think “Do I have to do all of them?”. The answer is no, you don’t. In fact, you shouldn’t even attempt it.

Trying to do all of them means you are unlikely to do any of them well. Ask yourself this, “Do I want to be everywhere but unnoticed, or do I want to be so good in specific places that it’s impossible to ignore me.”

I would pick the latter, every time.

So from the above strategy, here’s what I personally would do:

  • Write posts bi-monthly, and send out the newsletter weekly. I would start with one of them (whichever is easiest to start), and add the next layer on top.
  • Create tweet threads out of the posts, and newsletters as per their cadence. Share them on LinkedIn and Reddit as well.
  • On a daily basis, I would engage with at least 1 marketer or marketing related thread on Twitter and try to add meaningful value to these existing conversations.
  • On a weekly basis, I would try to share at least 1 great work by other marketers or companies, which I would anyway be gathering for the newsletter. I would try to breakdown or highlight one campaign by other companies that I may have come across as I browse.
  • I wouldn’t engage in FB or Slack groups. The above actions are already a butt load, and if done properly, they should be sufficient to build a sizeable audience on Twitter. Hence I would ignore FB and Slack altogether.

Make 2021 a year that works for you!

If you are reading this sentence, then let me tell you that you now have everything you need to plan your year ahead.

Planning for such a long-term horizon can be difficult, it can feel like you’re delving into unknown territory that feels uncomfortable, especially if you’re doing it for the first time. You can tackle this process over several days, just be sure to allocate an hour or few each day until you are done.

Take a physical notepad or open your favourite journaling or note-taking app, and just write in free flow about your goals and aspirations. Write till you feel like it. Try to be as descriptive as possible.

Later, maybe the next day, read through everything you wrote, identify the overarching goals and aspirations you have and start to apply the framework on top of it. 

Identifying the pillars should be easy and straightforward. Choosing which pillars to focus on in the coming year is slightly harder, but also doable.

When you reach the themes and pillars step, you might falter a bit. Don’t worry and take your time to write down descriptively the various actions you can take to achieve your goals. Once you have written down everything that’s in your mind, repeat the same exercise as above. 

That is, read through everything you wrote, and identify the groups of activities that you need to focus on in order to achieve your goals. Like how I broke down building an audience into creating value and distributing value. It really can be that simple.

The final step is deciding on which actions you can and should undertake within each theme, and how you would track them. In this step, you could even share your writings with close friends and ask for their thoughts and inputs. Once you have an exhaustive list of actions, you can prioritise which ones to focus on.

Don’t worry too much, and don’t overthink it. Everyone is figuring things out and winging it as they go. You got this 👊

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