My planning process (or the list of lists)

img_1973One of the best parts of writing about productivity is that I have a good excuse for studying other people's strategies. Then I can take what I think sounds smart, try these strategies in my life, and keep what works best.

As I was making a list of strategies for this post, I realized that almost everything involved a list. So this is a list of lists. Because lists are awesome! Here are the ones I make, how I use them, and why they work for me.

The List of 100 Dreams. This is a real 30,000 foot type list of anything I want to do or have in life. I don't really look at it that often, but every few years I make a new one as certain things come to pass (I now own a bike and a garden) or pass out of my interest zone (I no longer have any interest in co-authoring/ghosting books, whereas in a past phase of my professional life I was. Re-reading the 2015 list I see that it already feels dated too).

Quarterly goals. Lots of people make New Year's resolutions. I do too, but I structure them as quarterly goals. Toward the end of the calendar year, I set intentions for Q1, Q2, Q3, Q4 in three categories: career, relationships, self. Here is my list for 2016. Some are happening, some are not. Some moved to different quarters. Some are good to be reminded of (I wanted to play Linus & Lucy on the piano? Guess I better get the sheet music!) One good exercise to try brainstorming this list is to think about what you'd like to say in next year's performance review (for the career stuff) and next year's "family holiday letter" (for the personal stuff -- just please do not actually send this letter!). Quarterly goals allow you to accomplish a lot without thinking you need to do it all at once.

Weekly priority list. This is my real workhorse list. It's the one where intentions meet reality. Every Friday, I make a list of priorities for the next week in the categories of career, relationships, self. So for instance, this week I started editing the novel, followed up on some TED business, got my monthly newsletter out, have written several blog posts, and turned in an article. On the relationships side, I took the kids trick or treating, went to a first grade parents social, started organizing this party I won at a high end bra store (!), booked the house for my parents'  50th wedding anniversary week this summer, and we'll go to the Night of 1000 Lights at Longwood this weekend. On the self side, I wanted to bike the Lehigh Gorge, run 4 times, and get some snacks that involved vegetables.  I think roughly about when each of these things should happen.

Daily + weekend list. I pull items off the weekly priority list and put them on each day's list. If the week is really full I'll create the full week's daily lists (or at least M-W -- Thurs/Fri tend to be more mop up days for what didn't get done). If the week is less full, I'll make Monday's list, and maybe Tuesday, and then make each subsequent day's list the day before (so Wed on Tues, Thurs on Wed, etc.). By mid-week (generally by Wednesday), I take a look at what's on the weekend calendar, and make a rough outline of when the have-to-dos and want-to-dos should happen.

Seasonal fun lists. In my effort to make sure I'm doing enjoyable things in my life, and that I don't feel like I "missed out" on anything that makes a holiday special for me, I make seasonal fun lists. So far, I've generally just done Summer Fun Lists, and Christmas Fun Lists. This fall, though, I also had a loose list of autumn fun stuff. This was actually a pretty good fall for this, considering how much travel I did. I went camping, went hiking in the Poconos, went biking in Lehigh Gorge/visited Jim Thorpe, went apple picking (more of a late summer activity, really, to get the kinds I like), and will be going to the chrysanthemum thing and to a Eagles game with my 7-year-old. I don't really have lists for spring or non-holiday winter. Maybe I just don't like those seasons as much. Stuff from these lists often just gets pulled onto the weekly priority lists, but occasionally I need to think farther ahead (the holiday list has some elements of that: breakfast w/Santa tix go fast in October!)

The project list (someday/maybe). This is where I park various things that occur to me but are often more "should" dos than fun stuff. (David Allen fans will recognize this as a version of the someday/maybe list). For instance, I desperately need some new bras. Good thing I won that party! Also, I need new glasses, and to clean out my office filing cabinet. None of this stuff is urgent, but I try to keep pulling stuff off this list, ideally at a rate of roughly one item per week.

What kinds of lists do you make?

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19 Responses to My planning process (or the list of lists)


  1. Meghan says:

    I love lists — I even have a not-so-regular-anymore TinyLetter that’s done in lists. I use a bullet journal, but not in any special/fancy way (it’s basically just a blank notebook filled with lists). Each week I have a page with my lists by category, and each month I just list all the events by date. I’ve not been so great at the quarterly goals, but want to keep trying, and should add a seasonal fun list, too.
    *
    One thing that’s helped me immensely is your “plan the weekend” idea. I pick one item from three of my lists — errands, home chore, “big” fun — and if I get all three done, the weekend feels like a success. It’s not all drudgery, though it seems weighted that way, since home chore could be something like baking banana bread or digging in the garden.
    *
    I’m curious about the personalities of those with intense listing habits. I’m an Upholder in Gretchen Rubin’s Tendency rubric, and wonder if that type runs toward lists (lists towards lists 🙂 ).

    • @Meghan – I definitely list toward lists! I can see how some of us might like them more than others, but they seem to be quite necessary for anyone who has more going on than they can reasonably keep in their head. So there may be some group of people who don’t like lists…and also keep them.

    • Caitlin says:

      I love lists too! I’m a Questioner, so sometimes I’ll put something on there and then ask why I need to bother doing it 🙂 But I think it helps get it out of my head and sometimes it doesn’t need to get done, so it’s nice to have the in-between step of getting it on paper.

      I love the suggestion of structuring weekend goals into errands, home chore, big fun!

  2. Lauren says:

    You may have addressed this in an earlier post, but where/how do you keep these lists? Paper, electronic, or a combination? I love lists, but am always looking for the most efficient and useful ways to keep them.

    • @Lauren – pretty much on paper. The longer lists (100 dreams, quarterly goals) exist in their final form mostly on this blog – that’s where I post them when I write them! But the weekly/daily/project ones are in notebooks. I like to have certain kinds of notebooks — ones that lie flat, non-spiral, though, with covers with a bit of tooth to them (I don’t want them to fall apart). Plus big enough to list stuff.

      • ekaterina rotman says:

        That answer left me pretty curious as to which notebooks do you prefer 🙂 And which pens, too 🙂

  3. Shu says:

    I’m going to do a whole post inspired by this one, but we are very very similar in the list realm 🙂

  4. Susan says:

    –Daily list ALWAYS since I get more done.
    –Time for the 100 list. I will do it tonight.
    –Maybe quarter goals. I have done well with New Year Goal’s though.
    –I do decade goals.
    20–Learn to speak fluent Spanish.
    30–First marathon.
    40–First triathlon.
    50–Still thinking (5 years to go)

    • @Susan – how fun to do decade goals! I certainly hadn’t thought of framing it that way, though some of them are probably addressed in the list of 100 dreams.

  5. Chelsea says:

    I find it fascinating that you don’t like holiday letters (I guess because I really like getting them and even read ones from people I don’t know that are sent to my parents). Do you also not read other people’s personal blogs? To me a holiday letter is like a yearly blog post from people who don’t have a digital presence. I guess I always figured that people who didn’t like receiving them just tossed them out – no harm done.

    • @Chelsea- I tend not to mind them, it’s just a very easy genre of literature to do badly. People tend to go on about how busy they are. We’ve written and sent them in the past (less so in recent years though).

  6. Marie says:

    You inspired me to do seasonal lists after I missed the ticket deadline for the Nutcracker one year. I do one for literally each season now. My non-winter holiday list exists *because* I don’t like that time of year, so I put in a few things like museum trips and “take kids sledding at least once” so that I have things to look forward to and do not just have to endure those months. Thanks much for the idea.

    I keep my lists in my Google Drive so I have access to them all the time and can add or cross off on a whim.

    • @Marie- thank you – and you reminded me that I should make that holiday list now if I want to go to the Nutcracker…

  7. Lindsay says:

    I have bounced in and out of the concept of pulling projects off my Someday/Maybe list and scheduling them. Some have worked really well, like clearing out my RSS feed reader once per week (to zero) and reading some things I’ve put in Pocket (usually from the feed reader) on a different day each week. When I didn’t schedule those, they piled up! Other things, like making regular progress on project with a definite end: those seem to get pushed aside. Do you have any specific suggestions for how to schedule those type of “take the next step on this project” tasks?

    • @Lindsay – good question. I think one approach would be to break projects on the someday/maybe list down into doable steps, and then schedule each of those steps. Or if it’s unclear what the next step is going to be, at least designate a time when you ponder it and see if now is a good time to make progress or not.

      • Lindsay says:

        You know, I just moved one of the “big rocks” in my Sunday schedule recently, which leaves me with open time that I’ve never had before. I’ve been struggling with how to use it efficiently, and project pondering time might be just the right rock to put there. Thank you for the suggestion!

  8. Amy says:

    Catching up on this post late as had a very busy couple of weeks. Inspired by your blog, I bought a paper diary (!) and have been setting various bucket lists – a summer wish list, a 2016 list that was quite aspirational and do more regular short lists. The aspirational goals of 2016 were achieved, somehow flipping open my diary and seeing that list (“buy new house”) was a silent push. I also find that having the list of short term, often dull, goals, that gets ticked off makes me satisfied and content. I suspect I always got around to doing this admin – forgotten stuff that is important – but I now get to pat myself on the back about getting it done!

    • @Amy- I love crossing things off my lists. Possibly too much! Sooo satisfying.

  9. Maureen says:

    I have a main list (ToodleDo) that I look at. Items with no due date are the “someday.” Everything else has a due date. I go over it weekly to plan and then update daily — I never seem to get everything done. The items are categorized by subject/goals, and recently I’ve made an effort to start looking at them by their contribution areas. I can get a lot done, but it’s not necessarily the things that make true contributions to my life-long goals. I’ve removed some goals (taking away their due dates) to help focus, but I find myself still struggling with my personal scrapbook project. The larger review I usually do in January and again at the start of the school year (when schedules change).

    For school vacations/holiday seasons I make list of things we want to do as a family.

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