I know some of you are Type A personalities and you opened this article looking for some bottom line good advice. If that’s you, here’s the quick and easy guide. (If you prefer a good narrative, just keep reading.)

My three steps:

  1. Set three goals for the year
  2. Create a 12-month overview of big events
  3. Break down goals into easy chunks around these big events

Over the years, I have been on an enormous number of committees, executives, and councils. Like all volunteer organizations, the drive and capacity of these groups depends on the effectiveness of the people willing to step up and get the job done. Overwhelmingly though, I saw one thing that made these groups effective – or frustratingly ineffective. In every single case, it was the absence or the presence of an annual plan that made all the difference.

I remember the group where this point was driven home more than any other time. It was a parent-led group where some parents, always with incredible intentions, would meet monthly to decide on big projects like fundraisers, children’s activities, and spending. Every single plan was undertaken with full enthusiasm. Armed with a goal and a task list, these tireless volunteers would undertake enormous projects that would be accomplished with a round of high fives and big smiles for all. There was just one problem: they never had a plan.

There was just one problem: they never had a plan.

(Speaking about a parent group from so long ago)

Don’t get me wrong. They did great things. But without a plan – a vision, if you will – of what the upcoming year would look like, it was easy to miss the meeting where they would decide to hold a bottle drive. This would then result in enormous frustration from the people who had to do all the organizing AND all the work because you failed to show up and pitch in on Saturday at 9am… you know… because you were at work blissfully unaware that you were expected at the bottle depot.

Equally frustrating and amazing were the projects they could accomplish. Faced with a few thousand dollars in the bank, they would rush to spend it. What did the playground need? Another set of monkey bars! The cheque would be written and the new monkey bars ordered for the playground that already had four sets of monkey bars, none of which were accessible to the one kid in the wheelchair. Well. “Too bad no one spoke up in the meeting where they ordered the monkey bars.” They totally would have got the accessible equipment had someone said something. But – hey – “did you notice they got new monkey bars?” (And no thanks to you after you didn’t bother to show up at the bottle depot.)

The energy of this group was remarkable, but so was the frustration of this group. They felt they did all the work, which they did. And to anyone who could not commit to their sporadic and random plans, it felt clique-ish, which it also was. As this group aged out and their children moved on from the period where they needed new playground equipment, future incumbents seemed unable to carry on with the work and simply abandoned it. Too much was expected of people who didn’t understand the vision of the people who had come before them. They didn’t throw up their hands in frustration. They simply said, “Yah no.” (That’s Canadian for “You’re nuts if you think I’m doing that.”) And that was that. In a single year, the entire organization vanished as if it had never been.

Which brings me to today and the lesson I learned, which is to ALWAYS plan my year in advance. Why you should plan can best be summed up by the sign on the wall of my bank: “A failure to plan is a plan for failure.” And thus, I plan.

“A failure to plan is a plan for failure.”

A sign on my bank wall

My planning technique has been hugely refined over the years. It used to be a series of coloured scribbles on my calendar. That was great because it allowed me to keep track of where I needed to be at any given time. What wasn’t great about it was that it meant that other people were in charge of my time. Any goals I may have considered important got squished into the margins of other people’s goals. I was constantly deferring my goals and putting my own needs after everyone else’s. Complete strangers were given more priority to my time than I gave myself. Here is how I flipped that and now make sure my goals get priority.

Set three goals for the year

You may have fewer than three goals. It’s possible you’ll even feel like you have a lot more goals. For me what works is to combine my goals into a bigger vision that includes a time limit. For example, you might decide that you want to lose weight. That’s great, but if you don’t have a purpose behind it or a deadline, probably you’ll do great for a few weeks and then you’ll bounce right up to a new weight. Lesson one is that you set three goals AND that you have a time limit or deadline that you can’t control. Yes, I have a goal to lose weight – and I combined that with one of my goals, which is to participate in a national pageant.

AND BEFORE ANYBODY ASKS: I’m confident in how I look in a bathing suit today. I am NOT losing weight to fit a pre-conceived image of a pageant competitor. I am losing fat because it makes me sluggish. Pageants demand a lot of stamina. I want to do my very best and compete at my optimal health.

For your curiosity, here are my three goals for 2021:

  1. Participate in Galaxy Canada Pageants in Toronto from August 21-23.
  2. Get re-elected on the Hospital Employees’ Union Provincial Executive.
  3. Monetize my hobby of taking photos and videos.

Create a 12-Month Overview of Big Events

The biggest killer of plans is not seeing what could potentially impede your progress. For example, if you know that Easter falls in early April 2021, you know that having a fundraiser in the weeks before will benefit hugely from having an Easter-theme OR from waiting for another time block. I create a numbered list from one to twelve and give each month a theme based on what it likely happening during that period. We know that January is a time when everyone rushes to the gym (unless there’s a pandemic) then they might rush to the diet supplements. If you own a protein shake company, this is your time to shine. (But you already know this if you did twelve months of big events in advance.)

Break down goals into easy chunks around these big events

Yes. This is a much longer process than the first two. You will need to reverse engineer your goals from the deadlines so you how hard you need to work to achieve your goals. Let’s take my example of being in a pageant in August because it is the goal that requires the most comprehensive system.

I could just show up tomorrow and “wing it.” I’d probably do about as well as anyone who “didn’t prepare and just decided to wing it.” Assuming the pageant director wasn’t outright offended and refused to let me on stage in my COVID sweatpants, pageants require months, if not years, of dedication. I laid out steps for each month between the date I entered and the day I walk on stage. These steps include micro goals that I can achieve each day, like doing kickboxing or yoga, as well as critical steps like buying a plane ticket. (Ever tried to plan when you should buy a plane ticket to Ontario in the middle of a pandemic? Am I even going this year?) My process was to create a mega list of all the things I need to do, then I started adding them to my calendar.

You absolutely must add them to your calendar.

Important action items

That is really the big action of this third step. You absolutely must add them to your calendar with a date and time for when you will do them. If you have thirty things to do in a month and you don’t make space in your calendar, you will have thirty overdue things to do next month, plus potentially thirty more things that just backed up. You may feel you work well under pressure – that’s a common sentiment – but there is no substitute for a time-bound plan. If a pageant gown takes six weeks to ship to you, and you need time to allow for alterations, then waiting until two weeks before the deadline will not give you the time you need to find a gown. (I assure you, there is a lot more to competing in a pageant than showing up in a gown. But let’s start with the obvious stuff.)

Once you have everything in your calendar, you now have a plan that you can execute. You can see where you need to pick up the pace and where you have time to breathe. You can also see what you have not planned for adequately and make shifts while there is still time to do that.

Here is the really big benefit to following three steps: it prioritizes your time over anyone else’s. Yes, you will still need to go to your day job. Yes, it will take a significant amount of your day. Plan for that and then fit your micro goals into the space around the things you can’t reschedule.

The last year was significant in so many ways. People have jokingly said the most wasteful purchase they made in 2020 was on a planner. I disagree. Life still happens, even when it feels out of control. You can still set goals and achieve them. In fact I would go so far as to say it is even more critical that you set goals during a pandemic than at any other time. If you don’t, you risk a year slipping past you with nothing to show for it. With a plan, you will accomplish something (even if it was just learning how to use a planner) and you’ll feel better. There is a lot to be said for feeling better these days.

By the way, you may notice in the photo that my notebooks have a QR code in the corner. That’s because I use a reusable planner and a reusable notebook called a Rocketbook. I’m completely smitten with anything that lets me take handwritten notes (like in labour meetings) and plan my agenda and then scan it with a QR code that magically knows if it’s my personal grocery list or my confidential meeting notes. I freaking love mine. Go check out their website here. If you use my link to make a purchase, I get a small referral fee, which allows me to fund this blog.

How my couch looks for most of the first week of January every year

Did you create a plan for 2021? What did you do? Tell me in the comments below!

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