A System for Both Long-term Goals and Daily Productivity

Since we’re getting close to the end of the year, I wanted to share with you the system I use for planning, goal setting and general productivity (can you believe it’s almost the end of the decade as well !?!).

I’m not a big fan of most productivity systems because they usually focus too narrowly on day-to-day tasks and how to “get more done” without taking into account the bigger, more important things in life. In life planning and goal setting, I prefer a more top-down approach, starting with life’s big questions.

This system I follow isn’t necessarily for everyone, and I’m not suggesting you should use it. I just wanted to give you a peek at how I operate, and you can feel free to borrow any part that might suit you. As I’ll explain, the system is tailored to my own personal traits. It’s more of a life balance framework than it is a productivity system.

I’ve learned over the years that I have some tendencies that will take over and keep me from accomplishing what I really want to if I don’t build in some checks-and-balances. Specifically, I tend to work too much on things that aren’t really that important and avoid some easy-but-boring tasks that are necessary to get what I want. Typical procrastination, you might say, but it’s compounded by obsessiveness.

If you tend towards becoming obsessed with projects for months at a time, this system will be of extra use to you. I first created this system back in 2002 and have been using it off and on ever since. I am definitely happiest and most balanced when using the system.

Life's Big Question (OK, Not That Question)

I mentioned that I like to start at the top and work my way down. I don’t mean that you have to come up with the answer to the meaning of life, but I like to start one level below that.

Essentially, I like to start by answering the question:

“What is my biggest objective in life?”

Naturally, this probably won’t change from year-to-year, but it’s useful to review it on an annual basis as part of a holistic planning process.

My answer to that question currently is:

“To live a full and balanced life and help other people do the same.”

Your answer will probably be different, and there is no correct answer. The point here is to put a stake in the ground so you can judge the goals you will create against it.

Important Areas to Focus On

Once I’ve reviewed and tweaked my answer to the “big question,” I like to develop a list of “areas” that I think are important in life and that I’d like to set goals for. This really gets at the breadth of what I want from life.

My areas to focus on and plan for currently include (in no particular order):

You could break it down into more or fewer areas. I wouldn’t develop too many areas, or it becomes a little cumbersome in the goal setting process, as you’ll see below. Make sure anything that you want to get done in the next 3-5 years can fit within one of the categories.

Breaking it Down Into Goals

This is where the goal setting starts. For each of the areas from above, I like to lay out whatever goals I might have for the following three time periods:

Again, you could tweak this by using more or fewer categories, or by changing the time periods to whatever you see fit.

Within each area (like Health, Friends & Family, etc.), I do some brainstorming about what I want to accomplish in each of the time periods. This is a good time to review any previous plans or goals you had laid out and incorporate those that still stand.

Here’s an example of the goals I might set for an area. Take sailing for example. One of my previous goals was to learn how to sail, which I accomplished last year. This year, my goal was to sail at least 10 days, which I was also able to get to. Looking forward, here are my goals for sailing:

Not all areas will have short, medium and long-term goals. You might just have a long-term goal for one of the areas for now, and that’s just fine. You will probably end up with more short-term goals than medium- and long-term.

Turning Goals into Tasks

Once I’ve established goals for each area, I work to break them down into tasks that I can work on. For example, one of my short-term goals is to improve on the level of Spanish I was speaking at towards the end of our trip to Mexico earlier this year. That means I’ll need to take some lessons and start studying different methods again (in addition to the Morning Spanish lessons I’m already doing daily). For goals, I’ll set these:

I like to come up with at least one task for each of the goals I set in the previous activity. Beyond that, I’ll build some planning into the system I follow so that I can review each of the goals and make sure there are tasks planned to accomplish each.

Setting Up a System

So far, we’ve talked about three primary components in the system I use: areas, goals and tasks. When developing each of these, I like to use prefixes so I can easily cross-reference areas and goals or goals and tasks or areas and tasks. One of my tasks would end up looking like this:

Intellect : (S) Read More Literature : Pick 8 books for Mexico trip

This indicates that the task “pick 8 literature books for Mexico trip” is related to the short-term goal to “read more literature,” which is part of the “intellect” area. This way of noting things ensures things don’t fall through the cracks.

Now that I have all of the areas, goals and tasks written down, I like to review my system and make any adjustments I feel necessary to best help me accomplish everything I’ve laid out.

Setting up a system not only includes the planning process I’ve walked through so far, but it also includes the mechanical aspects of working, like where, when and how I will work.

For example, I know that I work best in a quiet environment without distractions. Since I’m working for myself, it’s tempting to sit in the living room with the television on while I work. As part of my “system,” I require from myself that when I’m working (we’ll talk about my work schedule below), I work in my office when possible, or at least somewhere clear from distractions when I’m traveling.

I also like to identify a few simple tools I’ll use to make the system work. Namely, where I will keep the goals and tasks as well as my calendar. Currently, I’m just using a single Google Document (called “Today”) to store all of my goals and plans and Google Calendar for appointments.

Your system will have different rules and tools, depending on what it takes to make you most effective at accomplishing your goals. Just make sure you think about how to check-and-balance your natural tendencies with rules that will keep you on track.

The Linchpin: a Fixed Work Schedule

By far, the tendency I need to control most is the fact that without a rigid work schedule, I will end up working most of the day, 7 days a week. I know, I’ve harped on the need for work-life balance here before, and yet I’m telling you that I’m basically a workaholic. It’s true. I could work 80+ hours a week without a problem indefinitely (on things that I’m interested in).

Unfortunately, working so much really detracts from the other goals I’ve set for myself (and doesn’t fit with my answer to the “big question” of life above). It also puts a serious strain on my relationships (mostly with my wife). Working so much is actually counter-productive in a lot of ways as well (see this excellent post on time management by Cal Newport over at I Will Teach You to be Rich for more about how an undefined schedule is bad for productivity).

For these reasons, I’ve started using a fixed work schedule.

Basically, I choose a working schedule, including which days I’ll work, and I do my damnedest to stick to that schedule. When I’m working, I’m working, and when I’m not working, I’m free to do whatever I choose.

That’s the goal, anyways. Occasionally bigger projects will require work on evenings and weekends, but that should be a rare exception. I do allow for some strategic thinking/planning that is work-related outside of work hours, but I make myself do it on paper, as opposed to on the computer where I would be tempted to work on something else.

For me, right now I work 10-6, Monday through Friday, with regular holidays and some planned vacations. I also usually schedule at least an hour break during the day to socialize, exercise or have some fun.

The workday for me always starts the same. I spend about 1 hour responding to email, checking in with social networks and reviewing my goals/tasks and planning (in that Google Document I mentioned). At the end of that hour, I should have my tasks for the day identified, and a schedule laid out.

If you work for yourself and you find that there is no defined beginning or end to work each day, I highly suggest you try a fixed work schedule, at least for a couple of weeks. If you’re like me, you’ll probably find that a lot of what you do during the work day isn’t really critical. That wasted time ends up killing any chance you have for having actual leisure time. Once you fix your schedule, you’ll probably actually get more done in less time.

Regular Review and Revisions

To make sure all the parts of the system are working properly, I like to plan for regular review of the system itself as well as all of my goals. I do a big annual review, which starts at the top and takes everything into question.

Then, in addition to the daily planning I mentioned as part of my fixed work schedule, I also like to do slightly bigger monthly planning sessions where I check in with all the goals I’ve set (short, medium and long-term).

Some of the goals I have end up requiring a regular set of tasks (especially financial goals), so I set up some recurring appointments on my calendar. I try to do this sparingly, and if I notice myself skipping any of the appointments, I know it’s time to remove them or change my approach.

What's Your System?

That basically sums up my goal setting and productivity system. As I said, it’s really a framework to make sure I’m working on what I rationally know is most important, as opposed to what I would naturally tend to work on.

What do you use for goal setting and planning? Do you use a system at all? Are you planning to do any special planning as we approach the next decade?

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Hi, I’m Corbett Barr. I’ve been writing here since 2009. Join my email list for new articles about supporting yourself doing something you love: