This post was originally written in January 2018 and last updated in January 2023.
It’s still early in the new year, there’s the pleasant buzz of some new beginning still wringing in my years. I sit down, look at a blank space before me, and start writing down goals.
Does this sound familiar? Yes? And do you manage to keep those goals? Yeah, me too.
It’s hard to make a promise and stick to it for a full 12 months. I’ll be the first to confess some (like meditating 31 days in a row) are easier than others (like going from an evening glass of wine to just two drinks a week). But keeping those promises is mainly affected by two things. One is sheer willpower, and the other is a good process. And the latter is something I’ve researched a TON!
Long live acronyms: VTFM and OKRs
I’ve gone through a bunch of planning frameworks, some more lax, some more rigid. I have gradually taken bits and pieces to shape my planning process. It’s a bit of a Frankenstein monster but I find it rather cute.
There are two frameworks that serve as the basis for my annual goal setting – VTFM and OKR.
VTFM: Vision, Themes, Focus Areas, and Measure
I first came across this referenced in a presentation by Atlassian. It goes from your broad vision of the future to specific actions that are measurable and concrete. Here’s a rundown of the four parts:
- Vision: Your vision of life in 2 years’ time. What does the most successful version of you look like? How do you spend your day? What are the things and people you’re surrounded with? What makes you happy?
- Themes: What are the important bits in your vision? Are there recurring themes or ones that seem important? At this point, draw a list of each theme you’re focused on.
- Focus Areas: What are the current period’s focus areas? Those are specific representations of your Themes. E.g. if a theme is to be more balanced, the focus area might be to develop the habit of meditating.
- Measures: How do you know you’re succeeding in your focus areas? Add metrics to know.
I only use the Vision part to define values (Step 1 as explained in the process below) and the Themes part to define priorities (as seen in Step 2). In getting down to specifics I need a more structured view, so I use OKRs.
OKR: Objectives and Key Results
I’ve written about the OKRs methodology already, so I won’t get into too much detail here. The key notions are:
- Objectives: Those should be specific endpoints you want to meet. In a given period, you should have between 5 and 7 objectives to conquer. You can have a longer list for the year, but you must choose what to focus on for each quarter.
- Key Results: If the Objectives show where you want to be, the key results show how you want to get there. Key results express measurable milestones that, if achieved, will directly advance the objective. Each key results should be measurable so that its completion is not a subjective judgment.
Once I have the priorities (or themes) set, I’d define specific objectives for each of them, then proceed to add key results. They tell me if I’m getting closer to the goal or not. The end result looks something like this:
2020 was the year that showed us all that planning for a full year might be difficult. In 2021, I decided to start planning my objectives at the start of the year and adding the key results on a quarterly basis. This is also closer to the original OKR methodology. Still, if there are specific key results you want to hit that are clear from the start of the year, write them down. But keep in mind plans change – and that’s OK.
All of this is included in my Trello planning board, which gives me a high-level picture I can easily get back to and review. From then on, it’s all a question of splitting those key results into monthly, weekly, and daily tasks.
The planning process takes some time but gives you a whole lot of clarity going forward. I’d do it in the following format:
- Take a whole afternoon for the high-level planning: (re)defining the vision, setting priorities and yearly objectives, as well as the first key results;
- Take 2 hours each quarter for retrospection and setting or updating key results;
- Take 1 hour each month to check progress and recalibrate;
- Take 30 minutes on Sunday afternoon for weekly retrospection and goal setting;
- Take 5 minutes each morning to set the daily plan – it’s preferably done the evening before, but I have more energy and focus in the mornings.
Here’s what each of these steps entails. Let’s start off with a “behind the scenes” photo:
Step 1: Defining your vision
You need to do some serious soulsearching before you get to set your yearly goals. It turns out there are things that are more important – like discovering your values and vision of the future.
Think of vision as the story of your most desired future. No, wait up, you can’t be a princess! It still has to be realistic. But with a pinch of realism, what does your life look like in 2 years time? What makes you tick? What makes you happy?
I generally prefer to write this down on one long page of handwriting, but you can also do it in bullet points, a mind map or anything that works for you. To me, it’s a more useful format than just listing values, which sound a bit too cheesy.
Step 2: Setting up priorities
Now go through the text you just wrote and look for topics that naturally clump together. These bits about visiting your grandpa more often and spending time with your newborn niece? They both fall squarely in the “family” priority. Your wish to check photo galleries more often and the notes about writing theatre reviews – aren’t they both the connected theme of Art?
Think about things that fall together and create a list of priority topics. They can be vague like family or meeting new people, or specific like mastering a new language you love.
My current priority clusters are:
- Learning and professional growth
- Body and spirit
- Inspiration and personal growth
- Connection with family and friends
You won’t see them written anywhere in my annual plan, but you’ll see them manifest in my objectives.
Step 3: Writing down your objectives
Now that you have your priority spheres set, proceed to set the specific objectives for the current year. Those represent the end goals you want to hit. I’m a big fan of measurable objectives, but for the purpose of inspiration here I allow myself some creative freedom. I get really specific on the task level to make up for it.
So, for example, I don’t have a SMART physical goal – the text there reads simply “Get moving more often to feel energized, happy, and centered.” This reminds me not just what I want to do but why – and a strong why makes it easier to get back on track.
Ideally, you’ll have 5 to 7 objectives to focus on at any given moment. It’s easier to track, easier to prioritize, and easier to focus. If there are more things you want to accomplish despite your best prioritization efforts, then just choose a few objectives to work on in a given quarter.
Step 4: Getting all specific with key results
At the objective level, I’d generally strive to get a feel for what I want to achieve. But then how can I say if I really did “Get moving!” this year or not? That’s where the key results come in. They are specific and measurable milestones that show you if you’re getting closer to the objective. So, if I manage to accomplish all 3 10 kilometer competitions I’ve put under the “Get moving!” objective (compared to just one 10K run done last year), that would really mean I’m getting more and more active.
For each objective, you’d have up to 5 key results. These are set on a quarterly basis and their completion needs to move you closer to fulfilling the objective in a direct and material way. Of course, there may be additional smaller tasks involved – you can plan for them on the monthly level.
You’ll see that the key results are not a plan to achieve the objective – so they don’t follow a logical order. They can be a mix of outputs (i.e. the end result you want to achieve, like completing a running competition) and inputs (i.e. the actions you need to take to achieve the objective, like taking regular walks to work).
Step 5: Monthly retrospection and new tasks
So, it’s some Sunday afternoon close or right at the end of the month. You’ve poured yourself a nice cup of tea and you’re going through all the things you had planned for this month. There’s a couple of questions you should ask yourself:
- What did I accomplish?
- What worked in my approach and why?
- What did I fail to accomplish?
- What didn’t work in my approach and why?
- Did I overestimate or underestimate the difficulty of some task?
- How can I get better at planning?
Once you derive your learnings from the retrospection, you can proceed to review your objectives and key results and set the monthly tasks accordingly. Maybe you can reach a specific key result in one go. Or you can do something smaller, a step towards a goal. Either way, you’ll have crystal clarity on why you’re spending your time and energy there. It’s for a higher purpose.
To do this, I get back to my Trello board with my full yearly goals, and I work on breaking down monthly tasks. I’d usually pick three or so objectives or specific key results to work on in a given month, achieving greater focus. In my sample board you’ll see what my year’s plan looks like and how I’ve set down monthly tasks:
Another format you can try
2023 Update: Since writing the first version of this article, I’ve moved to Todoist for my annual goals. Since I already use the app for my task management, it’s easier to keep everything in one place – both broader objectives and specific tasks like the recurring ones you see in the “Housekeeping” section below. You can add both broader themes and more specific tasks that can then seamlessly fit your regular task planning for the week.
Here’s what this looks like (with my 2023 goals):
A couple of notes if you go that way:
- You can use the Board view of a project to get everything in a more visual format. I’d suggest adding your priorities as separate sections to keep things clearer. Frankly, I still prefer the list format.
- If you want to add your objectives without the checkbox (after all, you can’t “complete” developing new skills or another objective, just the tasks underneath it), you can type an asterisk before the text. In the screenshot below, the “Travel abroad” card is written as “* Travel abroad” to remove the checkbox.
- This can double down as an end-of-year review board, too. You can see what you’ve achieved throughout the year if you click the “Show completed tasks” option on your board. Here’s a screenshot with (redacted) upcoming trips and the one trip that’s already passed.
Step 6: Short-term planning with daily and weekly tasks
From here on, it’s all rather technical. Splitting tasks into digestible chunks, putting those on your weekly plan and prioritizing each one. I try to keep a running list of weekly tasks, and when I need to start a new one, I take into account four things taken straight off of the GTD framework:
- the context: I’m at the office, in front of my Mac or on the road with my phone.
- the time available: can I start something that’ll take me 2 hours, or will I be interrupted by a scheduled meeting halfway. The price of context switching is high, so I try to start the task that can be completed in the available time.
- the energy available: even if I have all the time in the world, I may feel down, I may have had a rough night’s sleep. Whatever it is, if I’m in low energy mode, I will use the time to get off my hands some appropriate tasks like replying to emails or going through unanswered Slack messages.
- the priority: well, did you think I’ll completely ignore it? However, you see priority is at the bottom of this list of considerations. That doesn’t mean it’s completely ignored – it means that the important tasks are too important to work on them when you’re unproductive or you don’t have the time.
I’d spend some time on Sunday to plan for the week ahead in my Bullet Journal, and I start each day by looking at what’s ahead, what meetings I have and what needs my attention so I have a fresh idea of what to take up.
The tools: Trello, Todoist, and Bullet Journal
I have dedicated a separate post to my full productivity tool stack, but here I’ll just mention the ones directly related to the planning process.
I use Trello to create my yearly goals. It allows for a lot of customizations, and adding covers for each objective makes it part planner, part vision board. At a glance, it’s already clear what your goals are. I’d often add the monthly tasks here, too, as it gives me the continuity and clarity I need. I’ve tried adding labels for each objective and tagging monthly tasks, but I find that if you have more than five objectives, it gets very confusing.
I’d then put all those monthly tasks in my Bullet Journal. I love handwriting and writing your goals by hand is a way to commit and really focus. Besides, it’s the same place where I set my weekly tasks.
I’d also use the journal to list my daily plan. At this point, setting a daily plan includes looking at the week’s list, my calendar for any appointments, and my Todoist for tasks I’ve set in advance. I use the latter to write down any tasks for the upcoming days, as bullet journals aren’t really set for scheduling future tasks.
So, having that trifecta of productivity helps me be on track with my year’s plan. Easy, right?
The power of reflection and experimentation
If you have to leave this post with one key lesson, it’s the power of regularly going through your goals, thinking what works and what doesn’t. So far, this has been the place where I see the bulk of my progress, getting to know what mistakes I’ve done in goal setting or execution. The monthly review is the perfect time for this, as you’ll already have some wins and losses to think about. Moreover, it helps you see how far you’ve come, and reminds you all the things you’ve achieved. It turns out gratitude and pride will help you build the willpower to follow through with your goals, so take that moment to cultivate those emotions.
The second key thing is that no process is ever perfect. Here I’ve outlined what works specifically for me at this specific stage of my life. If you read a post on a productivity framework you haven’t tried and it sounds interesting, by all means, try it. However, don’t fall into the trap of always blaming the process – for it to do its job, it needs to be something that comes naturally through repetition. So stick with one core approach for at least 3-4 months and test smaller tweaks more often. This will give you a consistent base against which you can experiment well.
What’s your planning process?
Is there a productivity framework you absolutely love? How do you set your own goals? Would love to hear your comments!