You know how it goes.
You come up with a brilliant idea for a project you want to bring to fruition. You break it down into phases and tasks, and create a foolproof action plan with deadlines when everything needs to get done by.
And then weeks and months go by, and you’re constantly running behind. You move things around and postpone them, and then postpone again and again.
“What the hell is wrong with me?!” you think to yourself, despairing.
You have no clue why those Other People seem to have it all together and follow through on their goals. Life would be so much easier if you could just stick to your plan and do the things you wanted to do within the deadlines you set. If you could achieve your goals, instead of disappointing yourself.
Welcome to my world.
I love making plans. I’ll even say I’m pretty good at planning — it’s sticking to a plan that’s my issue. I have yet to encounter a productivity and planning system I couldn’t break.
When things go wrong, most people usually blame the plan.
If it was a really good plan, it would take everything into account, including your own shortcomings, and it would work. If you keep breaking your plan, that means the plan itself sucks.
Knowing myself, I shouldn’t even bother making plans, because they trigger my inner rebel into doing whatever I want, regardless of what Past Me decided to do, or what the Future Me would’ve wanted me to have done, so she can enjoy the benefits.
I look at all those lovely yearly, monthly, weekly and daily planners that are getting ever more colorful and illustrated so that they appeal to the creative person, and I think:
“That’s cute. I can only use them to wipe my ass.”
I used to be so frustrated by my inability to stick to a plan, whether it’s work, art projects, editorial calendar, marketing calendar… And then finally, I decided I was through with this. It occurred to me that maybe I need to stop looking for That Perfect System outside of myself that would solve my every issue, and see if there are any alternative solutions available.
And I mean really alternative solutions. Not a hippy colorful planner-workbook thingy (nothing against those, but I’ve tried a very popular one, and it’s not what I need).
When I say alternative, what I really mean is: tailored to me.
Not someone else’s idea of what planning should look like. Straight and neat or whimsical and colorful, blueprints are still blueprints.
That’s what I identified as the real reason for “plans not working” for some of us.
We suck at planning because we’ve been trying to use other people’s systems that don’t account for our own distinct needs.
We think that by plugging in our own goals and tasks into an existing system, we’ve made it “our own”, but I’ve found that it’s not the case. “What” is only one piece of the puzzle, and “how” is just as important.
I’ve already made a point that I believe individual, custom approach not only to what you do in your business, but also to the way you do it, is key to your success and happiness. I don’t believe in there being “the right way” and “the wrong way” to do anything, but I do think there’s a right and a wrong way for you, personally, and that you’re the only person who can tell what it is.
I’m aware that knowing this still doesn’t help you in finding what your right way to do anything is, if you’re not used to doing that and have no idea how to even start. That’s why I decided to open the curtains on one aspect of my unique approach to business to give you some ideas (with plans of doing more of this in the future).
I’ve had some success (by my measure, anyway) with a new system I’ve created. The system itself is so simple that on the surface it might not sound like anything special.
I bet I’m not the first person to come up with it, either — but I’ve based it on my own needs (hello, ADHD) and my own values, and that’s why it works for me. It’s stripped down to the very basics, and every part of the process serves a purpose.
This post is not meant as advice for what you should be doing, because the whole thing I’m about is encouraging you to find a way that works best for you, individually.
I hope to inspire you to look beyond the blueprints made by other people, look within for what’s missing, and try to figure out a way to bring it into your own process.
Goodbye plan, enter: intention
There’s something I’ve heard a teacher say to her student in response to her question about planning, which struck me so perfectly, I had to write it down immediately.
It remained in my sketchbook completely forgotten until I stumbled upon it again, and it got me thinking about how I might implement it.
I explored this idea further and came to what I now call my Intention Journal.
I bought a new spiral-bound sketchbook and over the course of a few days, I wrote my yearly, monthly and weekly intentions, and then continued to write my daily intentions every single morning.
I know popular productivity advice says you should plan your day the evening before, so you can jump in directly into your Most Important Tasks as soon as the smell of your morning cup of coffee hits your nostrils.
I’ve found that this doesn’t quite work for me for several reasons. One, I don’t drink coffee and I need about an hour or so to fully wake up so I could focus on my most important work. Two, I’m usually in a completely different mood and mindset in the morning, and my to-do list from the evening before looks unappealing and lifeless. I use my morning ritual to get myself into a positive and inspired mindset, and then decide what challenge I want to take on that day.
I want to follow the flow of my inspiration more, not just do the tasks the Past Me dumped on me.
I want to be open to the possibilities.
That’s not to say I throw everything down the well. My yearly intentions are informing my monthly intentions. My monthly intentions are broken down into my weekly intentions. And then every day, I look at my weekly intentions, and pick those that I feel most inspired to work with that very day.
If I happen not to “feel” any of those intentions because I’m having a crappy day, then I just pick the most important and urgent ones to work on (and do things to make myself feel less crappy).
If I get a completely new idea that is aligned with my overall goals and that I can put into practice in one day, I include it into my intentions for the day even though it wasn’t in my weekly plan.
I can’t wait until the next week to put it in my planner — that goes against my very core as a person, which is creative, flexible and free. Following my Muse is my first and foremost priority. The plans my Past Me had for me take the back seat in the light of new insights and inspiration I receive.
Is there any wonder I couldn’t make any of the planning systems I tried to work for me?
My intention setting process
This process differs slightly for a year, month, week and day, but each of them consists of the same 3 essential parts.
1. The What
This is a part you’re already familiar with: goals and tasks.
I won’t go into detail because I suppose you know how this works. On a yearly and monthly basis, you write your big goals. Then on the weekly and daily basis, you break those goals apart into actionable steps, and put these on your to-do list.
I tested different numbers of daily tasks. I tried 3 because “3 MITs” (most important tasks) is a well known concept. I realized I rarely manage to complete all 3, and even when I do, I stay up on my computer long into the night, and that’s not how I want to live my life.
On most days one important task, with one less demanding task is more than enough. If I happen to have a lot of energy and the tasks don’t take that much time, I might add more.
At the beginning of my day, I copy these tasks from the journal onto the whiteboard in my office. As I’m finishing tasks throughout the day, I cross them off.
At the end of day, I wipe off all the tasks from the whiteboard, regardless of whether I completed them or not. This concludes my work day and signals to my mind that there’s nothing left to think about until we restart the cycle tomorrow.
2. The How
Up until now, my process doesn’t look any different from any other to-do list. Here comes the first twist.
I added a component that all my previous task lists and plans lacked: qualities.
Qualities are something I picked up from Havi Brooks, and I’ve been amazed how differently things start looking when you consciously invoke the qualities into your creative space.
I write how I want to approach work today so that I can be at my best. I note words like “focus”, “inspired”, “boundaries”, “fun”, “ease” etc. Then I figure out what’s it gonna take for me to actually ground those qualities practically.
For example, for the qualities of focus and boundaries, I only read e-mail after noon, and I will only respond to requests related to what I’m currently working on, and leave others for after I’ve finished my work.
I ask myself, how can I make this more… fun? …easy? …inspiring? and I write down what comes to mind.
This is the second twist, and a total game changer for me.
At the end of day, I’ll write a short 2-3 sentence review of what worked and what didn’t. I’ll write down my hypothesis why things didn’t work and note what I can improve. I’ll note all valuable insights about the way I work. I’ll note when I started and stopped working. I’ll note when I avoided working on the most important project the entire day, and did a thousand little unimportant things instead.
I read through these reviews regularly, and it helps me make better intentions for the future.
Those notes helped me realize that I have a tendency to overcommit, what intentions work well together and what don’t, what number of tasks is best for any given day, and what new rules I need to set in place in order to be most effective and successful.
For example, I discovered I absolutely cannot have meetings in the early afternoon, because it disrupts my entire day and I get home drained, unable to do any creative work for a few hours after that. I also found that I can’t have more than 2 in-person appointments per week without seriously sacrificing my work. I have proof of this in my journal, and now I can’t pretend I didn’t know this next time I set that third meeting.
Now that you know what goes into my process, you may be wondering…
Does this approach actually give results?
This of course depends on what you count as results.
Does everything I intended get done in the timeframe I intended? Of course not. That’s the whole point. I have a tendency to put too much on my plate, and it would be impossible to do all that no matter how productive I am.
However, I am beyond happy with how things are going. The reason is I don’t judge myself by the amount of check marks I’ve made by the end of the week.
I don’t evaluate the quantitative result, I evaluate the process.
This approach gives me exactly what it’s supposed to give me. I know what I want to accomplish at any given moment, and if I have difficulties achieving these goals, I examine and learn why.
My intention journal is not just for housing my intentions and tracking my progress on them. It has an even more important purpose: to learn more about myself and adapt my work life so that it serves me in the best way possible.
I get to experiment and play with these new findings in the upcoming weeks, to test my theories and refine my process until I see improvement. I know that if at any time this method stops working for me, I will be able to change it because I’m not married to the system. It’s alive and growing, like I am.
I’m no longer frustrated by postponing things, because now I approach this from a space of curiosity and ask myself “Why hasn’t it worked?” and “What can I do to make this better?”.
The tasks are just an indicator for the process. Getting a lot more work done is a pleasant side-effect of using my intention journal, but it’s not the main point.
The biggest benefit is something much more valuable — discovering more about myself and un-learning the unhealthy patterns I’ve picked up from the rest of the working world over the years. I didn’t have good role-models who valued their own health and happiness more than some arbitrary goals, so I thought that’s what’s needed to be a professional. I’m now realizing that other things are possible.
What does this spark for you?
Share with me in the comments — what have you already tried and it didn’t work for you?
Have you found a system that’s working perfectly for your needs? If not, do you have any ideas what might be missing from your process that would make it more effective?
If you’re still having trouble breaking your projects down into actionable steps and assigning deadlines, chapter 3 of my free ebook “Be A Creative Powerhouse” and the worksheet that’s included teach you how to do that.
About Nela Dunato
Artist, brand designer, teacher, and writer. Author of the book “The Human Centered Brand”. Owner of a boutique branding & design consultancy that helps experienced service-based businesses impress their dream clients.
On this blog I write about art, design, creativity, business, productivity and marketing, and share my creative process and tips. Read more about me...
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