Planning the year for late starters like me…

For different reasons, I was not able to block some time in the end of last/the beginning of this year to thoroughly go through all my life’s areas to know what to do with this year. Maybe the most important of those reasons was, that my girlfriend visited me (we’re in a long distance relationship, another topic…) over the new year and so other things then planning my next year were (amazingly…) more important. Now half of the first month is already gone and I still haven’t done a yearly review proper. This coming weekend should hopefully change this. I have nothing planned and nothing else to do, then to think about my upcoming year and how I want to use it.

I’m posting this here in the hopes that people will help me catch up on the one hand and also because I could see that others didn’t have time as well to do a proper yearly review so far and might want to do one, too.

I think this could be a good place to a) share resources that helped (are supposed to help) with doing a yearly review and planning ahead and b) to comment on how you did your own review/planning for the next year, etc. I’d be interested in blog posts, general ideas, tools, approaches, theories, scientific articles, etc. and also your own experiences.

Resources

  • 8,760 Hours: How to get the most out of next year - saw it in the forums here, read it, liked it.
  • Getting Things Done - The system itself. GTD tries to get you in the habit of weekly reviews, but also suggests higher altitude reviews at certain times. It’s totally worth it to check out the specific parts about those aspects of GTD from the Book, even if you (like me) don’t practice it to the letter anymore.
  • Beeminder - Obviously(?). When working through the last year and planning the next year it makes sense to track your goals and intentions (not all of them) and give them some teeth, so procrastination doesn’t get in the way.
  • Complice - It’s awesome to keep yourself moving forward and the right tool for projects (as opposed to habits, which can be tracked better by beeminder. There is some connection between habits and projects and so there is between complice and beeminder).
  • Google Calendar and Gmail Inbox - I use the recurring tasks and the snooze features a lot. It makes working with email a breeze and helps organize the days and weeks and months on a chronological level (as opposed to a projects based or habit based approach). There is some danger in creating overhead in using three tools, so take that into consideration.
  • A journal or notes system - I have both. Day One and an ikiwiki based “Zettelkasten” (German for “slip box”, see this for a quick explaination and this for a more thorough one).
  • Freeplane - An open source mind mapping app.
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Quick update: I’m still working on reviewing the year in a big mind map before planning 2017.

Writing/thinking in mind maps as opposed to my usual one note at a time approach has been very enjoyable so far. It goes to show that it helps to reframe everything you do from time to time. Describing things in a different way (not only content wise but also in terms of the tools and approach being used) articulates aspects of the status quo that otherwise would not even show up or would be disregarded as white noise.

The many life areas that Alex Vermeer suggests to use have also unearthed a lot of potential, questions, projects and problems that I rarely tackle in such a direct way. This analytical specificity is very refreshing, although it takes a lot of time and strength to be mindful when answering all those questions for all those areas. It also poses the question if it makes sense to work with that many areas in day to day life. I would assume not. I remember from reading eat that frog way back when, that it’s more beneficial to focus on the three most important areas. The problem is one of overhead with this detailed review process. I guess I’ll have to see how I can compress some of those areas in a good way, so some of the aspects that came to light by using 12 areas of life instead of only three (personal, work, life) will be somewhat more visible in my daily life.

One other thing that seems to get more clear is that I’ll try to construct not only standard day routines, but also weekly ones. So far I tried to optimize my life based on having a felxible approach in daily life so I could deal with whatever showed up. Of course, that’s a simplification because I make a distinction between weekends and the week days and there are days on which I have to be at the university and other days on which I am in the archives working on my master thesis. But actually having a better ‘grid’ on which to layout all those elements might make a lot of sense.

I guess I realize that introducing habits by doing things daily is on the one hand much easier, since you can repeat the thing you want to do immediately next day, especially when you just failed. On the other hand conceptualizing strings of days as a structure might help with introducing habits on that level, which in turn should be harder to break. E.g.: If I fail at a part of my standard week, then I have the opportunity to follow through with the rest of my standard week (just as I would if some part, like not snoozing in the morning, in my standard day fails, which doesn’t mean the whole day is done and I have to wait until tomorrow…).

This whole process so far has shown that being mindful about this productivity stuff is important, which immediately poses the question on how to get oneself in a mindful state if one is not and how could a system be constructed that stays somewhat productive even if run on autopilot (at least to some extend), which surely will happen again when a particular stressful time comes up.

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Another update. I was not able to finish my review on the weekend since (surprise, surprise…) other stuff came up. I therefore declared working through the last year and planning for this one a project which I will work on for the next few days, up to the end of January. I’ll update the progress here.

This also means that I try to integrate my findings in the review with my day to day life while I’m still doing the review. So far especially the idea of a “weekly grid” which compliments my daily one, has proved at least to be interesting which in turn helped me to plan out my week on Monday in a much more mindful manner. I basically started by writing down what this week means to me, what has to happen, what I hope to achieve and so on (“I need to finish my paper for the seminar this week early, because…”, “I’d really like to go running two times this week…”, “There’s a beeminder deadline on Wednesday for cleaning the bathroom…”). I already had a somewhat defined week before, but wrote also down what days had what “themes” depending on appointments, already established routines, etc.(“Tuesday - university day”, “Friday - master thesis day”, “Saturday - Weekend”)

Then I wrote down in an outline the big (and maybe not so big) things for each day, which helped to conceptualize and internalize the week and the days better. Afterwards I wrote reminders into my calendar for the things that I’d like or must do on each of those days and entered “intentions” (Tasks) which I planned on working on for today and tomorrow into complice. This whole process somewhat reminded me of the budgeting application YNAB (you need a budget) in which you’re supposed to give every dollar a job. If times is money, then my days (mornings, afternoons, evenings, hours, etc.) needed a job, too. And that’s what I did here, I think.

The outline itself allowed for a more defined schedule for this week and helped actualize what are my wants, needs and musts in this time. Doing so on Monday, with the whole week ahead also takes some overhead of the other days, since I don’t need to go through this process every day. I can just work from my outline I developed on Monday and update it as needed. Since google calendar (with inbox) allows for snoozing reminders (as opposed to appointments) there is also a nice distinction between those things and this in turn helps being quick in replanning a whole day (around appointments). This already allows for a flexible yet not overly so planning process. Nor does it produce too much overhead. There’s a caveat. Should I ever fail to plan the week on Mondays I’d be going back to day by day planning for that week, which in turn would make it harder to enforce the habit of weekly planning. Conceptually it should be possible to think of day by day planning as weekly planning in chunks, which is why I’m not too worried that this change will not stick. Nonetheless I have created a beeminder goal to ensure I’ll do this for next few weeks at least. I call this whole process a “forecast”.

P.S.: The important part, btw. about this thing I’m trying to describe here is not so much the planning ahead for more then tomorrow, but the idea of doing so on a somewhat defined “grid”, which helps in making better and quicker decisions. If I know that my thesis days are Thursdays and Fridays then every task that comes up in this regard, can become a reminder in inbox/calendar immediately and gets snoozed until Thursday without further thinking. Of course, some thinking may be required in some cases.

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I really like the idea of planning the week in part by writing out the REASONS for what I hope to achieve; I’m going to steal that and see if it helps me actually get things done when things aren’t going well.

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Next update. The week was pretty busy so I couldn’t work on this until the weekend. I am still in the review phase, where I am going through all of my life’s areas in detail. It’s amazing how taxing thinking in that way is! Even though I basically had nothing else to do this weekend I found myself distracted or procrastinating instead of doing the review. I blame this in part on the fact that I haven’t done the review/planning around the new year. Now, that everything went back to normal and the responsibilities of my daily life are knocking at the door all the time, it’s maybe no wonder, that such a complex review project feels a little bit overwhelming at times.

The whole idea of a ‘grit’ really got my mind thinking. In the beginning it was just a device to describe how I think about my day and nowadays about my week, but this can actually be useful as a general principle in life. If we define some kind of grid on our otherwise flowing life, life becomes much more navigable. So there’s now a grit in place (or rather will be in place when I come to it) for the month and the year as well. I’ll give every quadrant a job or theme which somewhat relates to the ‘weather’ of my life but mostly it should reflect the general ‘climate’, if I can speak in metaphors for a second here. After all this is what I call forecasting. :wink:

Having marked the time in such a way allows for quicker and more reliable planning. Since the grit should relate to my life’s climate short-term fluctuations should be taken into account, but wouldn’t change the whole coordinate system, so to speak.

Another thing I can do now, is fill up those quadrants with projects, jobs, tasks, events and habits. The beauty is that I won’t overplan because all of those things have to fit the grit. And even better: Since I’m comfortable with snoozing on tasks and habits within the scope of the grit and my beeminder regime, I don’t need to overplan either. I can just throw each of those temporal entities into a fitting quadrant and figure out the order within the quadrant when I come to it. Of course, I’ll plan as much as is sensible, but I’ll not try to overspecify things.

Another thing is the realization, that the quality of an action or a course of action has to be considered. I realized that I do a lot of things in my free time that I consider comfortable but stale. For example I listen to a lot of podcasts, but actually I listen to a lot of the same podcasts over and over and over again. And not only that: I listen to the same episodes of the same podcasts instead of enriching my life with new experiences. Now this is in itself no shocking thing. Everybody has their things that comfort them. But just with every habit: As soon as we forget about a habit, we forget to be mindful about it, we introduce a bad habit in our life. A lot of bad habits have formed in my free time and so I don’t have nearly as much as rewarding experiences as I would like to have. I try to tackle this through the introduction of the term quality of an action or a series of actions. It tries to express the perceived value of that action in terms of keeping my mind engaged and at the same time open for new experiences. Therefore activities that induce a mindful or flow state and have the potential of yielding new worthwhile experiences, are deemed high-quality, whereas activities that leave everything in place and are leading to absent mindedness and forgetfulness are low quality actions. Low quality actions can become high quality actions and vice versa. For example: I’ll try to rework my podcast listening habits by whittling down on the amount of podcasts I’ve heard already and by trying to not listening to podcasts too much while I am doing creative work.

The three tools I discovered while doing this review (put your life on a grit, try to stay mindful as much as possible, transform low quality actions into high quality ones) have already shown me how helpful the review process can be. And I’m still not finished.

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