the-painter

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):

  • Health
  • Friends & Family
  • Intellect
  • Work
  • Finance
  • Fun/Hobbies
  • Helping Others

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:

  • Short term: 0-12 months
  • Medium term: 1-2 years
  • Long term: 2-5 years

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:

  • Short term: sail at least 10 days/year
  • Medium term: participate in a flotilla for 7-10 days in tropical waters
  • Long term: buy a boat and cruise south (Mexico/Central America) for a season

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:

  • Find an instructor and sign up for Spanish lessons in Barra (a town we’re headed to in Mexico in January)
  • Start listening to an audio podcast (2-3 podcasts / week)

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’v