Clients and students often ask me, “C.J., you always seem to have a million things going on. How do you keep track of it all?” Their questions imply that they believe I am more organized, focused, or productive than the average bear. Personally, I’m not so sure that’s true. You should see my desk, for example! But I do have a system, and in honor of New Year’s resolution-makers everywhere, I’m going to share it with y’all.

Planning notebook

There is quite a bit of detail in what follows, in order to clearly explain each step of my system so you can try something similar for yourself. Hopefully, you can adapt it into a system that will suit you as well as this one suits me. I’ve been using this system consistently for eight years now, and it took quite a bit of trial and error in the time before that to develop an approach to planning and productivity that I found helpful. If you take the time to read this through, I think you’ll find at least a couple of approaches that will work for your own preferences and situation.

Setting up my system begins at the end of every year, when I make three lists. I include all areas of my life in these lists — business, health, relationships, etc.

  • My successes, accomplishments, and breakthroughs in the past year.
  • My failures, disappointments, and breakdowns for the year.
  • My intentions, themes, and areas of focus for the year to come.

Listing the successes and failures is fairly easy now that I always have the prior year’s plan to look at. The first time I did this, though, it was difficult to remember what had happened earlier in the year. You might want to refer to your appointment calendar, personal journal, social media posts, or saved documents, files, or emails to help jog your memory. A look through your checkbook and credit card statements can also be quite enlightening.

Now that I’ve done this for several years running, I find that the intentions for the next year flow naturally out of contemplating my successes and failures. I like to wait at least 24 hours, though, after completing the success/failure lists before I tackle the intentions. If setting new intentions doesn’t come quite as easily for you, you might try journaling about it, drawing or painting it, dancing it out, discussing it with a supportive friend, or considering it with your coach, if you have one.

I usually end up with five to seven intentions or themes for each year. You might think of these as lighthouses in the fog — they remind you where you are trying to go, what dangers you might encounter, and help you get back on track when you get lost. They are similar in many ways to New Year’s resolutions. For example, one year, one of mine was the intention “I will limit the number of projects I engage in simultaneously to a number manageable enough to make substantial progress on all.” For another year, one of my themes was “Filling the well — replenishing mind and spirit before they run dry.”

Before I go on to the next step, notice that I record my successes, failures, and intentions in “lists.” I am a word person, and lists are a good match for the way I typically think. If you are a picture person, or a music person, or a movement person, feel free to record your own successes/failures/intentions in any way that works for you. Just make sure you have enough data to work with in order to get very concrete about your future plans.

The next step is where the notebook comes in. Mine is spiral bound, with college ruled pages. At the top of the first three pages, I write “20XX Goals, Projects and Commitments.” Underneath that, I write headings that categorize my planned activities for the year into related groups. My three categories for this year are:

  • Health and Personal Growth
  • Relationships, Home, and Hobbies
  • Career, Money, Writing, and Service

As you can see, these categories are very personal. Your own may be quite different, and listed in a very different order. “Writing,” for example, is important enough in my view of my career that I include it in the heading instead of lumping it under just “Career.” And I list the career-related areas last in order to constantly remind myself that there are things in life more important than work.

On each of these three category pages (and of course, you could have five or eight categories), I list all of the activities I want to hold a focus on for the coming year, based on the intentions, themes, and focus areas I chose. These lists are not comprehensive -— they don’t include everything I want to do or should do. Instead, they include only those activities I have deemed “important,” or that I am afraid might get lost, or that I would consider to be “accomplishments” once they are completed.

If an activity is inconsequential, or so ingrained as a practice that I know it will happen without my putting attention on it, I don’t include it. “Read email” does not appear, for example. Nor does “floss teeth” or “spend time with Dave.” These are things I know will do without needing to think about them.

Here are some activities that do appear on my current list:

  • Treadmill 3 times per week
  • Take Sundays off
  • Time with friends once per week
  • Crafting time twice per week
  • Write 1 hour every work day
  • Organize a fundraising tea each quarter
  • Launch Business Building Writer program
  • Earn 14 CCEUs

Some of these are goals — planned accomplishments I feel excited about — e.g., “Launch Business Building Writer program.” Some are projects — activities with a start and end that perhaps aren’t so exciting, but need to be done — e.g., “Earn 14 CCEUs.” And others are commitments — activities to be done repeatedly throughout the year — e.g., “Treadmill 3 times per week.”

I list as many of these as I think will be “enough” to satisfy my intentions in each category. The upper limit is 25 items per category. Right now, I have a total of 48 goals, projects, and commitments across my three categories.

On the next page of my notebook, I head the page with “Jan 20XX.” I list on this page all the activities I want to include in January. Some of these are copied directly from my yearly list, like “Treadmill 3 times per week.” Others list the specific stage of the annual goal or project I want to accomplish this month. So “Launch Business Building Writer program” on the annual list might become “Design curriculum for Business Building Writer program” on the monthly list. Or I might name a level of progress I want to achieve. “Earn 14 CCEUs” on the annual list might be “Earn 1.5 CCEUs” on the monthly list.

As with the goals/projects for the year, 25 is the upper limit for the number of activities I can list for any month. Sometimes I cheat and add a few more items, but I always regret it. This simply delays the point at which I must choose what won’t get done.

On the next page, I write “Jan 1-7” at the top (or whatever the dates are for the first Sunday-to-Saturday week in the year), and now I list which of the items on the monthly list I plan to tackle in the coming week. I might decide to accomplish an entire January project this week (e.g., “Design curriculum for Business Building Writer program”), or just a subset of it (e.g., “Outline first 3 sessions of Business Building Writer program”). The maximum number of activities I list per week is 20.

When my weekly list is made, I now turn to the computer. In my Google calendar, I enter either appointments or tasks for everything I want to work on in the coming week. If I want to make sure something happens at a specific time (getting together with a friend, for example), I’ll add an appointment to my calendar. To make sure it happens on a particular day (like setting aside some crafting time), I’ll create a task and assign it to that day. If it doesn’t matter what day I work on it as long as it’s sometime this week, I assign the task to Monday, then slide it to Tuesday, Wednesday, etc. until it gets done. My calendar and task list is also available (and synced) on my smartphone, so I can refer to it or update it from anywhere.

You might ask why I wait until this step before computerizing. After all, some of these items will simply be copied verbatim from one list to another. I could keep the lists in a Word doc and copy/paste. Or I could keep them in an Excel spreadsheet with columns assigned for data like category or date, and sort the items in different ways. Or I could use project/task management software specifically designed for this purpose.

All I can say is that I’ve tried those methods, and they didn’t work for me like this approach does. There is something tactile and intimate about re-writing the list at the beginning of each month and week that connects with my mind and spirit. I find that the lists form themselves into a coherent plan for my life when I write and re-write them by hand. Sitting down at a keyboard to copy/paste or enter data just doesn’t have the same effect — for me. But of course, it might work for you.

Throughout each week, I use the appointments and tasks in my Google calendar to guide what I do and don’t do, and where my energy goes. At the end of the week, I return to my notebook. I cross off everything on the weekly list that was completed. If I worked on it but didn’t complete it, I make check marks to acknowledge myself for progress. Getting on the treadmill only two times instead of three would deserve two check marks, for example. Then I return to the monthly list, and cross off whatever has been completed for the month. Now it’s time to make a new list for the coming week, based on whatever’s left on the monthly list.

At the end of the month, I also look at the yearly list, and cross off whatever has been completed there. I re-read my intentions for the year to get my head on straight. Then I make a new list for the month to come and start the process over. At the end of the year, I review all the lists — annual, monthly, and weekly — to see how I did and begin planning the new year.

In writing this system down for the first time, I notice that it probably sounds more complicated than it is. It’s really pretty quick and simple. Making the annual list and setting my intentions for the year probably takes two to three hours. Writing out the monthly list takes perhaps half an hour, and the weekly lists take about the same each time. Creating the appointments and tasks in my Google calendar each week takes about 15 minutes, and updating them every day takes no more than five minutes.

It also occurs to me that some might think this system is far too regimented. But I find it very freeing. For one thing, my notebook has activities like “take Sundays off” and “plan trip to Hawaii” in it. For another, if I have completed all the tasks listed for the day, and I have no more scheduled appointments, I can (and do) take a walk in the park, read a fantasy novel, go to a movie with Dave, or any other darn thing I please.

Before I had this system, I always had an endless, amorphous collection of “things to do” swimming around in my brain. I always felt like I was behind schedule, or forgetting something, or ignoring important issues. Now I don’t have to feel that way. Everything I need to do is captured in one place, and I’m paying attention to everything that I myself have declared to be important, on the schedule that I myself have set.

I also make a ritual out of updating my notebook each week. Every Sunday morning, I get up before Dave, make a cup of tea, turn on some mellow music, and wrap up in a blanket on the couch with my notebook. It’s a peaceful, nurturing, grounding time to focus completely on myself.

So I encourage you to develop your own life-in-a-notebook planning system, whatever it turns out to look like. You can only live your life going in one direction — forward. Why not make sure you know where you’re headed and what you want to do when you get there?

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