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How to do a Yearly Plan

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Introduction

The most important thing I do for my productivity each year is a yearly plan. My daily, weekly, and monthly plans/reviews are mostly about execution, but the yearly plan is where I decide what I’m going to do, and – importantly – how I’m going to do it. This article will take you through how to do a yearly plan, so that you can get more out of the year ahead.

My own Yearly Plan process draws on Alex Vermeer’s 8,760 Hours. You should check his out too.

What is a yearly plan?

Before we start, I want to make clear what a yearly plan is. It’s not a vague vision of how you’d like the year to go in your dreams (although there is a role for that vision, which we’ll come onto). Nor is it a list of New Year’s Resolutions. No – a plan is a list of the things you intend to do over the next 12 months. It has clear, measurable goals, along with concrete steps for how you’re going to achieve them.

Why should you do a yearly plan?

I’ve done some version of planning for the future since I was about 8 years old. To me, it seems obvious that if you want to achieve things, you should make a plan. I’m goal-oriented and analytical. But not everyone sees the world the same way. If you’re happier being spontaneous with how you go through the year, then keep doing that.

That said, I do think most people can benefit from a yearly plan. I’m not going to say there are tonnes of rigorous scientific studies showing that people who make yearly plans are happier and more successful. Obsessing about goals can set you up for failure or unhappiness. But even if you’re all about enjoying the journey, having an idea of the direction of travel is useful. Here are the reasons I think it’s worth having a Yearly Plan.

Reasons to do a Yearly Plan

  1. Plans can be motivating. If I’ve said I’ll do something, even if only to myself, that makes me more likely to do it.
  2. It helps you make decisions about competing priorities. If you make a realistic plan, you’ll likely have to trade things off against one another. For example, you might want to invest money for the future, but also start working with a personal trainer to improve your fitness. It’s better to decide up front what’s more important to you, rather paying for the personal trainer, then realising you didn’t have any money to invest, or having to stop eating or something.
  3. It can reduce anxiety. Particularly if you’re someone who worries about ‘achieving’ enough, having a plan for how you’re going to do the things you want to do can ease this worry.
  4. It helps you improve. If you look back on the year, and measure the gap between the plan and what happened, it helps you identify why things didn’t go as planned, which could be areas for improvement.

How to do a yearly plan

1. Set aside the right time

A whole year is a significant chunk of your life, so it’s reasonable to take at least half a day to make your yearly plan – others take much longer. I find it best to do this sometime in December. If I get into the New Year without actually having made the plan, I feel like I’m starting the year behind. But if you’re reading this at some random point during the year, there’s no reason you can’t start your year right now – or just make a plan for the rest of the calendar year.

2. Break your life down into areas

If you’ve done my Yearly Review, you’ll already have these. It’s too hard to think about everything you want to achieve without any structure, so it helps to break it down. Breaking your life down into sections can also help give you some perspective if one isn’t going well!

What areas you choose is up to you, but don’t worry about it too much – they’re just a guide. And they don’t have to be mutually exclusive. For instance, joining a book club might bring you some happiness, but is also part of your social life. My areas are as follows:

  • Admin, Productivity & Organisation
  • Altruistic Impact
  • Business & Career
  • Finances
  • Fun & Adventure
  • Happiness, Satisfaction & Meaning
  • Health & Fitness
  • Knowledge, Education & Skills
  • Living Situation & Possessions
  • Partner
  • Social Life

3. Write down your goals

Once you’ve got your categories, it’s time for the fun part: thinking of what you want to achieve in each of the categories. Again, if you’ve done the Yearly Review, you might already have some material for this section, particularly if there are things you wanted to do last year that you didn’t manage.

If you already have a life plan, vision, bucket list, or list of life goals, then you can convert some of these things into items for your Yearly Plan too. After all, if they don’t make it down the list into actions, they’re unlikely to ever get done.

How many goals to set

3-5 goals per category is usually enough for me, but the number obviously depends on how many categories you have. If one category isn’t a priority for the coming year, you can leave it without any goals.

You can also have different types of goals, as long as they can be turned into some form of action or lack thereof. For example, you may wish to maintain your skill on the guitar, rather than get significantly better, so you set a goal to play for 2h each week, rather than to complete the next grade.

How ambitious should I make my goals

How ambitious you make your goals is up to you, but a good barometer is how you would feel if you achieved all those things – you should probably feel proud and satisfied, but not deliriously ecstatic. I also like to keep in mind that these are the only things that I need to do in the year to come – anything else, such as items already in my task manager – is a nice-to-have.

The important thing is that the goals are SMART i.e. specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. Try asking yourself the following questions, and revising the goals if you need to:

  • Will I be able to say for sure if this goal was met or not?
  • How will I track / record / measure whether this goal was met?
  • Can I reasonably expect to achieve this in the following year (with a bit of luck)?
  • Will achieving this goal actually get me towards where I want to be? Is it doing something important?
  • What is the deadline for this goal, or is it an ongoing commitment?

Some examples from my own 2022 plan are as follows:

  • Business & Career: publish 92 articles on effectiveliving.co
  • Finances: end the year with £18k left in savings
  • Health & Fitness: hit 95kg bench, 125kg squat, 200kg deadlift
  • Knowledge, Education & Skills: record typing speed of 90wpm by end of year
  • Living Situation & Possessions: buy a new iPhone

Making goals realistic

Where there are lots of external factors at play, I like to make my ‘goals’ input-based, rather than defined by outcomes. For instance, rather than saying I want to grow my web traffic by x%, I say that I want to spend y hours on marketing my website. I can’t literally control whether people come to my website or not; I can only control how much I put into the marketing.You could argue that makes them more like ‘to dos’ than ‘goals’ in the strictest sense, but I’m OK with that.

Of course, some things will always be out of your control. Plans for a social life during the coronavirus lockdowns are unlikely to have been successful, but you can’t really legislate for that. The important thing is to do what you can, and record where external factors screwed you over in your Yearly Review.

4. Review the whole

This bit is trickier, but crucial. You should have already written goals that are individually achievable, but once you have them all together, you may notice that you can’t manage them all. You may even have goals that are in conflict, such as saving money and going on an expensive trip. Some questions to ask are as follows:

  • Does achieving any of the goals mean I can’t achieve any of the others?
  • Can I reasonably expect to achieve these things with concerted effort over the next year?
  • Are there any of these goals I can drop without sacrificing much?

Strengthening your motivation

Write why each goal is important to you. It’s easy to be motivated when all you have to do is write the things down, but your motivation is likely to ebb at times throughout the year. For those times, it can be helpful to have a reminder of why you’re trying to achieve your goals. Some people like to note down the values that these things apply to. Personally, I prefer to write down the bad things that will happen if I fail to achieve my goals. Some examples below, corresponding to the examples in the last section:

  • If I don’t publish consistently, my site will never grow and I won’t have a business
  • If I squander my money, I’ll have to get a remote working job
  • If I don’t keep making progress in the gym, I’ll never achieve my life goal of 300/400/500 lift
  • If I don’t speed up my typing, I’ll lose hundreds of hours each year
  • If I don’t get a phone with a camera that works, I won’t have good memories of the year

Depending on how optimistic/pessimistic you feel about your chances of success, you can mark some of your goals as ‘key’ goals, ‘crucial’ goals, or some other such name. These are the few things that will mean you have your minimum successful year, even if you don’t achieve anything else. You can think of it as like a minimum effective dose of a medicine. You know that if you’re getting behind on your goals, these are the ones you want to protect at the expense of others.

What to do with your plan once you’ve made it

Making a list of goals is not the end. If that’s as far as you get, your chances of achieving your goals are still pretty slim. More important than setting the goals is noting the action you will take to achieve them, and having a system for a) reminding you to take action and b) tracking whether you have done. You need to turn your goals into a process.

For me, I do this through the three major systems I use to organise my life: my calendar, my task manager, and my habit tracker. How I use those systems generally is for another article, but some examples of goals from my 2022 yearly plan that I’ve put into these systems are as follows:

GoalActionSystem
Spend 365h learning PortugueseDo 1h Portuguese per day30m as part of morning routine, 30m as part of evening routine – tracked through habit tracker
Read 46 books and make notes in NotionDo 1h reading 2145-2245, Sunday – Thursday; read audio books while at gym1h recurring blocks marked in calendar – tracked through habit tracker
Hit 95kg bench, 125kg squat, 200kg deadliftDo three weights sessions per week when have access to gym90m recurring blocks marked in calendar – weight tracked through Fitbod app
Publish 46 articles on effectiveliving.coWrite 46 articles, edit in Hemingway and Yoast, publish through WordPressRecurring time blocked in calendar for writing, editing and publishing – number tracked through habit tracker
Learn photography basicsComplete beginners photography courseTo Do created in my task manager

Putting your goals into a system

Most of my goals are broken down into things that require consistent and repeated effort over time, so I can save time by having recurring blocks in my calendar, regular to dos, or repeating habits. For those that are discrete items, such as ‘Buy a new iPhone’, I put them into my task manager, usually with a deadline, or at least a specific date they will surface in ‘Today’. I don’t necessarily do the task on that date, but it serves as a reminder to at least consider doing it then.

To save time, I don’t necessarily break all goals down into their specific action steps, or the ‘next action’ in Getting Things Done terms. Instead, I leave them in my task manager as items I will later break down into projects with next action steps. An example is the photography goal above. At some point during a Monthly Review, I will create a ‘Complete beginners photography course’ project, with steps such as ‘Identify online course’. The important thing to ensure is that the goal is captured somewhere in my ‘action’ systems.

If your goal is to avoid doing something, such as ‘not drinking alcohol on weeknights’, it’s important to put that into an action system, too. Even just marking your run streak in a habit tracker can make it more likely you succeed with your goal.

How to make sure you stay on track with your yearly plan

Even with the best systems for reminding you to take action, and tracking your progress, it’s possible for plans to slide. This is where reviews come in. As well as my daily journals and weekly reviews, I do a monthly review, which is where I check progress against my yearly plan, amongst other things. Some people prefer a quarterly review, but I find that three months is too long between checks – things can get so far behind in three months that it’s impossible to recover, whereas most things can be recovered in a month.

On the last day of every month (I have a recurring reminder in my task manager), I review my yearly plan and run through the following questions:

  1. Do I need to cross-off / add / change / delete any goals in Yearly Plan?
  2. Do I need to re-organise my calendar template?
  3. Do I need to change / add / delete any habits in my habit tracker?
  4. Are there any goals where I’m not on course? What specific actions do I need to take to get back on course? Have I put these into my systems?

And that’s it. As with most life improvement interventions, tweaking the model to find what works for you is advisable. I’d love to hear your feedback on what worked or didn’t work, or if you have any suggestions for how this guide can be improved – let me know at tom@effectiveliving.co.