A System for Both Long-term Goals and Daily Productivity

  • December 1, 2009 by Corbett Barr
  • 24 Comments

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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’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?

Let me know in the comments!

photo by Carlo Nicora

Written by . Corbett is cofounder of Fizzle, a place for creative entrepreneurs, writers, makers, coders and artists, all working to support themselves doing what they love independently on the Internet. Follow Corbett on on Twitter.


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Ross Collicutt December 1, 2009 at 12:26 am

Awesome post Corbett. I’ve been experimenting with different systems lately. I’m currently using a combination of toodledo, google calendar and google docs to organize my life(and the corresponding apps on my iPhone). It works well although it can get a little scattered sometimes and takes a little re-organizing. My must-have in an organization system is speed when inputting a new tasks. If it takes too long, I won’t do it.

Corbett Barr December 1, 2009 at 5:06 pm

I hadn’t heard of Toodledo before, thanks for the tip. I would love to have an integrated tool that works with the type of system that I set up, but it would probably have to be custom (and not worth the effort for me). I change tools once in a while based on whatever I find easy and convenient.

Carmen December 1, 2009 at 1:13 am

I like this post, Corbett. I’m the kind of person who learns best when things are just spelled out step by step which is what you have done here, showing us how you organize yourself. To be honest, as a coach, I have tried and studied, and coached others on several types of organizational systems and I have never stuck with one myself. Somehow the complication of the system itself become more of a task than just simply doing what I need to do. And yet – I know a good system should help. I guess the perfect system for me has just not developed yet. I’ll keep tweaking!

Corbett Barr December 1, 2009 at 5:09 pm

I know what you mean about the complication of the system getting in the way. That’s why I review the system itself regularly and dump anything that is cumbersome or that isn’t providing value. Also, sometimes in the middle of a big project, I’ll purposefully stop using aspects of the system for a while because what I need to do is clear and just needs some extended heads-down work for a while.

Colin Wright December 1, 2009 at 5:16 am

Wow, really focused and orderly. I wish I could say my systems looked so neat, but in reality they tend to take the form of idea webs and handwritten ‘let’s give this a shot’ lists. Do you find it’s easy to change course with something like this? Is it modular enough to swap out a piece without making the whole structure wobbly?

Corbett Barr December 1, 2009 at 5:12 pm

The parts of the system that most likely might need swapping out would be at the bottom (like daily task setting). The stuff that’s higher up like goals and areas don’t really change for me that often. It’s really the tools and day-to-day productivity that I change and tweak more frequently, and that hasn’t seemed to be a problem.

This whole thing might sound focused and orderly, but I suspect that’s just because it’s written down. If you wrote down your methods for getting things done and making goals happen, it might appear more orderly than you think. In reality, this entire system lives in a notebook, and parts of it migrate to docs and calendars from time to time.

Melissa Gorzelanczyk December 1, 2009 at 6:21 am

Good ideas, especially about having a fixed work schedule. When your work is never “done,” its so easy to let it interfere with other important things like hobbies, friends and family time.
Thanks for the helpful post! Just what I needed today.

Corbett Barr December 1, 2009 at 5:13 pm

Thanks, Melissa. Yes, work never being “done” is a terrible way to live.

Robert December 1, 2009 at 7:04 am

Colin, I bet it really is easy to change focus’s with this system. I can say that because I use something very very similar and I just detailed the process at my project site.

It’s ironic Corbett, I just did a very similar writing with my take on workflow. I dug further into what you’ve clarified as “Setting up a System” but I identify with everything you have here, it’s encouraging!

You’ve described a mental reboot (taking life’s priorities, turning them into timed goals, then turning those into tasks) and the system for actually working through those tasks in one post, very eloquent!

On top of that, something I’ve just started doing in the last 4 months or so was a monthly goal review, and then task tweaking on my calendar. Vital!

Along with all the lifestyle design efficiency tactics like batching, block working (fixed work schedule) singular focus, 80/20 strategies and a clearly defined workflow to perform them on, I’ve been in streamlined work heaven!….it’s really exciting to see someone else finding/using that too. If you get a chance I’d love to hear your thoughts on my system, check out my latest post if you get a chance. Thanks for this Corbett!

Corbett Barr December 1, 2009 at 5:14 pm

Thanks, Robert. I’ll take a look at your system and comment over there. I’m glad you enjoyed this post.

John Bardos - JetSetCitizen December 1, 2009 at 7:19 am

I knew it! I knew you were a workaholic. :-)

(That was my sorry attempt at humor.)

Great post again Corbett. It is impressive how focused and systematic your approach to life is. I guess it is no secret why your achieving so much success.

Fixed work hours is something that would probably help me get my life in order as well. Definitely some good food for thought here.

You are a great role model.

Corbett Barr December 1, 2009 at 5:16 pm

That’s the thing, John. I can be a workaholic in certain situations, and the point of a system like this is to make sure work doesn’t take over my life. Really, I’ve found that work takes over when I’m doing something I really enjoy. If I’m working for someone else, it’s much easier to separate work from life and get more balance.

Nate December 1, 2009 at 10:25 am

I love this post, very useful stuff. The part I can appreciate the most is about the fixed work schedule. My “real” job actually allows me to work from home most of the time and I know how easy it is to get off track. I started using a very fixed schedule a while back and it’s really improved my productivity, meaning I’m done with my work for the day sooner and have time to work on things that actually mean something to me. Once again, really nice stuff.

Corbett Barr December 1, 2009 at 5:17 pm

It’s amazing what you can get done when you know you only have a certain amount of time, isn’t it?

RJ Weiss December 1, 2009 at 1:29 pm

Very nice detailed post.

Recently, I have been attempting to lay out my fixed day after reading the Power of Full Engagement. It was hard at first, but it’s getting a lot easier as time goes on.

Corbett Barr December 1, 2009 at 5:17 pm

Hey RJ, I haven’t heard of the Power of Full Engagement before, but I’ll check it out. Thanks.

Liz December 2, 2009 at 5:56 am

Reading this post gives me hope since I have a similar weakness:

“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”. yup, that’s me.

I seem to be good at planning using a top-down method similar to yours but executing on those long term goals, while constantly being derailed by present realities, requires tremendous strength and an iron will.

One thing that I plan to do different in the coming months is to try to follow Dave Navarro’s advice:

“Don’t worry about the 50 goals you can’t get to now. Pick one and commit to taking daily action on it for 30 days.” Easier said than done but I think this makes a lot more sense than diluting my focus into several projects.

Thanks for sharing your method. I think sticking to a fixed work schedule is crucial and it obviously has worked well for you.

Nate December 2, 2009 at 10:02 am

I really like this. A lot of people harp on systems and the GTD method…but I honestly think you use a lot of what’s in GTD as well as the seven habits of highly effective people.

The most important aspect of these systems (and GTD even talks to this) is to really establish on overall goal with your life, which you do. Everything then relates back to that.

I think too many people take a bottom up…and well, reactive approach. Too much time is focused on reacting to activities that there’s never enough time to focus on larger goals…and in fact the larger goals may not exist. I suppose people have different ways of doing things and some may think your structure is super orderly, but personally I think it’s a requirement to do this kind of goal setting in your life. It serves as a roadmap. If you think of your life as a road you’re driving down, you’ll be lost if you don’t have some sort of map of where you’re going. This system is essentially your map. Good stuff!

Andy Hayes | Travel Online Partners December 6, 2009 at 4:38 pm

Great post, Corbett – and I am definitely checking out Toodeldo right now!

Harry December 22, 2009 at 8:14 pm

Corbett,

Thanks for sharing your system. I used to have very similar system to what you described here. I used a formated PDF print-out to write down the short-terms goals at top, and listing all the tasks for it that I need to work on daily. One sheet a day, so I used a lot of those sheets.

But the one drawback of this kind of system is that it’s very hard to see your progress on your goals. I kept on working on tasks, but sometimes it would be really helpful and motivating if I could see the things I did would really contribute to the goal. That’s when I decided to create a software to move the entire paper-based system to the computer, cause I am a software developer anyway.

If you are interested, you can take at look at my system at http://www.goalsontrack.com. Sorry if this sounds like a sales pitch. It’s been working great for me. It may not be for any one else, but there are lots of screenshots on the site, so at least you could get some ideas if anyone is interested in this type of system.

Matthieu December 6, 2009 at 9:25 am

Corbett

I just read your post and found that your system resembles the system I use, for which I also use Toodledo. The system of goals and tasks is built in, and furthermore you can easily customize everything. I already tried a lot of apps, but this one is by far the most usable (for my system).

Corbett Barr December 6, 2009 at 1:32 pm

Two votes for Toodledo, now I have to check it out. Thanks for the recommendation!

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