How do you decide what comes next in your life?
Do you just go with whatever presents itself to you, or do you have a plan?
Do you end up making the same resolutions year after year?
Does life planning seem over-complicated?
I know it did to me. I tried to go through the process a couple of times and failed miserably. The whole thing never felt real enough to me: writing a mission statement, setting goals when I didn’t even know which way I wanted to go.
But then three years ago, my husband Dave and I felt overwhelmed. We wanted to find a way to simplify, bring a bit more focus into our lives, decide what was most important and ultimately get shit done. We spent the better part of a Labour Day long weekend trying to figure out how to get to the bottom of want we really wanted and develop a tool we could use year after year.
I know it sounds nerdy and after talking with a few friends and telling them about our process, I realize that it may not be for everyone, but hear me out.
It’s the first time I’ve written about it because, frankly, I feel like it’s not always working for us. It’s not the plan that’s wrong necessarily, it’s just that we falter, we get overwhelmed (that word again), demotivated or sidetracked sometimes. But ultimately, we have a base we can go back to and reframe, so that helps. I hope it can help you too.
Our Life Planning Process
1 | Start with a yearly review
Pull out your planner, your calendar, your credit card bills if you must. Go through the last year and write down and discuss what happened: what you did, the places you went, the classes you took, the projects you started and finished (or didn’t).
Makes notes on what worked and what didn’t. It’s so easy to forget how much we accomplish in a year and brush off successes. So take some time to celebrate your wins.
Now, try to understand why certain things didn’t work out or are becoming an issue. Maybe life happened, maybe you lost interest or maybe you miscalculated the time it took to complete a project. Don’t linger here too much, the idea is not to psychoanalyze, but to get a global understanding of challenges that need attention.
List everything, big and small, everything counts.
2 | Identify some dreams and goals … and all of the other things
Truth be told … I hate goal setting. There I said it!
I hate it because it feels artificial to me. It’s like the bucket list exercise, you know the one: list 100 things to do before you die. It’s fun to do, just for shits and giggles, but they’re usually just random things to do, not necessarily meaningful accomplishments. Or maybe I’m just doing it wrong.
Every time I’ve done a similar exercise, I think: given the opportunity, would I actually do the things on my list? Would I be willing to do the work that comes with going to, let’s say Everest base camp, or speak fluently a third language, or write a book. Probably not, so why put them on the list?
To me a better question is this:
If I had money coming (magically) in my bank account, not millions but enough to pay my bills and not have to work, what would I do with my life? How would I occupy my new found free time? What would I want to work on? What would I do day to day that would fill me up?
It’s still THE question I obsess over and don’t quite have an answer for yet.
See, to some people, it’s clear from the start what they want to accomplish or what they’re meant to be, but it’s never been that way for me. I still don’t exactly know what I want to be when I grow up. I’m a dabbler. I like one thing and then another, and for a long time, I thought maybe I was lazy or something was wrong with me that I didn’t have one single passion that drove me.
Now I know better and if you feel that way and have about 30 minutes, I invite you to watch Elizabeth Gilbert’s Flight of the Hummingbird video.
So, put everything on the table or on stickies. It’s like a huge brain dump of all the things that you’ve been thinking, wishing and wanting. For us, it went from having a dog, to where we wanted to go on vacation, to decide if we finish renovating our house or sell it to build something new.
3 | Build categories
The first time we did this exercise, we used sticky notes and then we were able to figure out categories by grouping the notes that fit together. It made more sense that way.
Here are the categories we came up with and what they mean; yours might be slightly different:
- Together – the two of us
- Tribe – family and friends, giving back, volunteering
- Health – physical and emotional
- Play – vacation, hobbies
- Home – where we live, our home, our vehicles
- Finances – financial and legal estate
- Wealth – business ideas, passive income, professional development
Sometimes the categories overlap each other, that’s OK, don’t get too hung up on that.
4 | Brainstorm your why
I know this seems backward, but once you’ve identified some dreams and goals you might want to go back to why you want to accomplish this. Is it because you think it’s what you should do or want or is it because that dream is truly calling your name? Dig deep, question everything and feel if it’s truly important to you if it brings you joy, enjoyment or at least satisfaction.
5 | Decide what success looks like
I was finally able to work on a life plan by asking myself what reaching my goals would look and feel like. It just added a layer of detail and made it way more real. This step was super helpful to me.
Here’s an example:
- Category: House
- Vision: We live in a calm and safe home. We feel inspired by our environment.
- Goal: Finished house by 2019
- What it looks like: The renovations on the house are finished, including the basement and yard; we only have regular maintenance to do; the house is organized, there is no clutter; we have running, safe vehicles.
Since our first plan back in September 2014 we’ve: decluttered the basement and had a garage sale; fixed our kitchen faucet; figured out a maintenance schedule and we’re trying to follow it; added some plants, lights and curbs to our landscaping; insulated the garage and rewired it, installed some lights and a heater so Dave can work in it in the winter; bought and sold more cars than I can count, one of which is my first ever personal vehicle; organized the garage (for the millionth time); had a new furnace and hot water thank installed; finished our shed and organized it properly … and this is just one area of our lives and not even half of what we wanted to do, but we’re progressing.
6 | Prioritize
Simply said, you probably can’t do everything. So prioritize what’s important to you and what needs to get done first. For example, you might have to reimburse debt before you buy your dream house or go on that sabbatical.
Move your non-priorities to your Next Projects List, a.k.a. The Parking Lot. It doesn’t mean you’ll never get to these projects; it just means they’re not a priority for now.
Break down your top picks into doable tasks. This is where the fun starts. To finish our basement, we needed to declutter it (done!) and address some plumbing issues. To do that, we needed a floor plan (working on it). Since we’re not experts, to get the plan we sought out a designer we liked and could afford. See what I’m doing there? Break. It. Down.
7 | Plan your tasks
There will always be things you HAVE TO do, that are not exactly enjoyable, like your taxes. Make sure you consider those as well when you get to the business of planning month by month and week by week.
Don’t forget your prior commitments. If you’re organizing a birthday party for one of your kids, plan around it and don’t add too many other tasks to your already limited time that week.
Identify benchmarks, i.e. when a project or task should be completed. Evaluate how long it’s going to take, multiply by two (just kidding … NOT!) and set a deadline.
Populate your planner/calendar with your tasks. Sometimes working backward from the deadline is helpful. When it was time to plan, we took out our planners and calendars and added those non-negotiable things first: work meetings, date nights and other fun events.
And for the love of sanity, leave some white space and some time to play.
One last thing, make sure there is some balance in your life when you set priorities. If your top priority is a detriment to your HEALTH and never leaves time for PLAY, it’s time to re-evaluate.
8 | Evaluate your results
If something falls to the wayside, reconsider. Why is it on your list? Are you truly motivated to get this done? Have you been realistic about how much you can accomplish in a week/month? Adjust accordingly.
Be flexible. If your plan is too rigid, it makes it hard to follow. Don’t expect perfection the first (or third) time around. It’s just a process to help you move in the direction you want to go.
Do regular check-ins. We do one weekly. We sit down with our plans and look at where we’re at. We usually also have a bigger check-in at six months. Finally, we go over the whole thing in September and set our targets for the next year.
With the new year coming up, maybe this would be a good time to create your first life plan instead of making the same old boring resolutions?
Get our worksheets to help you get started:
I’m still not sure we have this down to a science, but I’m happy we do this each year. It brings us closer and it’s an opportunity to reconnect.
What do you do to stay on top of things, keep motivated and find balance in your life?