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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
Similarly, the actions around exercise are
And finally, the actions around rest
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Building an audience involves two core aspects, i.e. themes to follow.
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.
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.
You can approach this in several ways, the best ones would be leveraging your existing abilities.
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.
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.
There's two parts here, one is to track your actions, and other is to measure milestones in your progress.
Track your actions
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:
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 👊