It’s 2021 at last!
I don’t know about you, but for me 2020 hasn’t been very exciting. The whole year just flew by. But at the same time, every month felt like an eternity that never ends.
Since I returned from my 3-month trip from Brazil in May, I’ve spent all my time in Austria. Which is actually not what I had in mind when I started my journey to become location independent in 2019…
What I’ve learned in the last year is that I need more flexibility in my life. Because really, every day feels the same. I actually want to finish something and feel like I’ve accomplished something. I need projects that I can finish. If I’m working on something for three months, like a quarterly goal, it feels like an eternity right now.
Right now, it’s very difficult for me to predict the next few months. Everything just changes so fast, there are no rules to rely on. So I had to make some adjustments.
I also created a video on my YouTube channel about this topic.
The evolution of my productivity system
About 10 years ago, I was a big fan of bullet journaling. But for planning, that system is too inflexible for me, and I hated having to constantly rewrite things. Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of bullet journals and I love having a physical notebook. But when you have a lot of things on your plate, I think a bullet journal can quickly reach its limits.
In hindsight, I don’t like that there’s a lot of “useless” information mixed in with important notes. For example, a reminder to buy tampons is right next to a business project idea. Right now, I’m in the process of decluttering my apartment. We’re planning to give it up and switch to full-time travel. So I don’t like having a big pile of old notebooks lying around, and I don’t want to pay for storage space while we’re gone. So right now I have to go through all the bullet journals and pick out the information I want to keep.
Over the past few years, I think I’ve tried every task management method and app available. I haven’t found one system that has really worked for me in the long run. But I’ve always picked what worked for me and tried to create my perfect productivity system.
My current system is an odd mix of all the systems, ideas, and apps I’ve come across over the years. It’s evolved over the years and is still a work in progress. I’m always tweaking it and improving it.
So what I ended up with is a minimal productivity system. That’s one of my main requirements because when I travel for months at a time, I only have a small backpack with me. I don’t have the space to lug around heavy notebooks. I need a system that is easily acessible. I need to be able to quickly add tasks no matter where I am, whether I’m sitting at my desk at home or rushing through an airport.
Step 1: Set Long-Term Goals
What I like best about my method is that I can start whenever I want.
It doesn’t have to be the beginning of the year or the month. So if your New Year’s resolutions have failed, you can always try this.
For many years, I took the more traditional approach to goal setting. I chose my goals at the beginning of the year and then divided them into quarterly and monthly goals. This method doesn’t seem to work for me.
For example, I don’t like the monthly planning. I usually sit down every Sunday to plan out my week. And when the month was over during the week, I was left with these weird “half weeks” that I didn’t really know what to do with.
I also don’t like rigid yearly planning. Life can change so much within a year, and how am I supposed to know what I want to do in November? For example, when we give up our apartment in the summer, a lot of things will change.
So I need more flexibility in my life.
So my long term goals mostly look like this:
- Have a month where I earn more than 5k in passive income.
- I want to be happy and healthy.
- I want to start traveling full-time this summer.
As you can see, these goals are very vague. They are definitely not SMART goals.
It’s nice that I want to make more than 5k, but how will I achieve that?
Happy and healthy sounds good, but… But how?
And to start a full time journey, there’s a lot to do, right? Like declutter my house, sell all my stuff, and make some changes to my business structure.
My long-term goals are intentionally vague. I don’t like rigid and inflexible goals. They are there to give me direction. They serve as a compass for me, not a plan set in stone. And that’s exactly what I need.
What happens when I achieve one of my goals? If it was a yearly goal, I’d probably pat myself on the back and congratulate myself for making it, and focus on the other goals from then on. Then, at the end of the year, I would set new goals.
The way I do it now is that if I were to reach my goal of 5k in May, I just set a new goal, like reaching 6k as soon as possible. For me, that’s much more motivating.
Step 2: Commit to Focus Period
In this step, I turn my vague long-term goals into a plan.
I’m a big fan of the 12-week year concept, where you basically plan 12 weeks at a time instead of 12 months. But I’ve found this year that it feels much better for me to plan in even shorter time frames.
I call these time frames my focus periods, and again, they are very flexible in length and what I want to do. I usually try to keep them somewhere between three and eight weeks. For each period, I decide what I’m going to do to achieve my goals. And once I decide what I’m going to do, I stay true to those decisions.
I prefer to do my goal planning in a notebook. For some reason, I plan better with pen and paper. In a simple Cahier Notebook from Moleskine, I record my goals and track a few KPIs for my business. One of these little books usually lasts me a year or two.
However, since the last focus period, I’ve started experimenting with a digital notebook. After all, it’s one less thing I have to take with me when I travel.
But the process of how I plan is exactly the same in both the digital and analog notebooks. I basically just write lists.
In the beginning, I try to decide how long my next focus period should be. My focus periods are always full weeks. I look at my calendar and what’s happening in the next few weeks. Then I decide what would be a good time frame.
For example, my last focus period was six weeks long and ended on Sunday before Christmas. I knew I wanted to spend some quality time with my family over the holidays. And ending my focus period a few days early gave me some buffer to actually get the tasks done. At least with me, things always take a little more time than expected.
My next period started on December 28, which is after Christmas. This way, I give myself a relaxing, guilt-free holiday period. I do the same thing with travel.
Last year, I left for a three-month trip to Brazil at the end of January. So my focus period ended a week before my trip. That gave me enough time to get things done and prepare for my trip. And during my time in Brazil, I had the next focus period, with different goals. Because, of course, I do different types of work when I’m at home and when I travel.
What happens if I don’t get a project done during my focus period? I usually schedule a buffer at the end of the focus period. If there’s still a lot to do, I just carry the unfinished tasks over to the next period.
Next, I try to figure out how much time I actually have to work on my goals. I check my calendar to see what events and appointments I have planned for the next period.
Once I figure out a good time frame, I decide which projects or parts of a project I want to work on.
I always have a long list of potential projects that I put on the back burner. So I go through that list and decide what I want to do. If it’s a longer project, I decide what first milestone I want to hit in that focus period.
For example, for my income goal, I’ve decided on a few projects I want to complete. I want to finish the first draft of the book and publish another Skillshare course.
For my health goal, I’ve set an exercise regimen for the next few weeks and decided that I’m finally going to do that health check I’ve been putting off for a long time.
And for my long-term travel goal, I’ve resolved to clear all the books and magazines out of my apartment and learn Portuguese every day.
You get the idea.
The beauty of it is that every time a new focus period begins, I set my sights on new projects that will help me achieve my goals. This way, it doesn’t get boring.
I could never commit to one workout routine for the entire year. The way I do it , I can just decide what I enjoy every few weeks. And then I try to stick with it.
This process helps me not get distracted by the next shiny thing. When I come across something I really want to do, instead of giving in and starting the project right away because it would be more fun, I put it on the idea backlog.
And when the next focus period starts and I’m still all excited about it, I can always do it.
The goal of this step is to end up with a timeframe for my focus period and a list of projects and tasks I want to do.
Step 3: Weekly planning in Todoist
Every Sunday I sit down and make a weekly plan.
The first step is to brain dump everything I want to do that week to accomplish my goals. I do this in a notebook because it helps me think better. I don’t worry about actionable steps yet. I just create a rough outline of everything I want to do.
When a new focus starts, I decide what I need to do on a regular basis to achieve the goals. For example, an exercise plan or learning Portuguese every day.
I also go through my calendar and write down everything I need to do or prepare.
Next, I transfer everything to my inbox in Todoist, the app I use to organize my tasks (not my life!). Once that’s done, I sort them into my projects in Todoist.
I only have a few project folders in Todoist that match my long-term goals. For work-related goals, I might divide them into subfolders.
In each project, I created a section called / This Week.
I quickly go through all my projects and drag what I actually want to do that week into the This Week section.
If they are very large tasks, this is when I finally break them down into smaller, actionable steps.
This is where I try to decide if it’s a one-time task or something that will take several days to complete. I don’t assign dates yet. I only do that if it’s a task I need to repeat, like learning Portuguese every day.
This sounds a lot more complicated than it is, in fact it only takes me five minutes each week. And I have a reason for doing this.
I created a filter called “This Week” that collects all the tasks I put in ALL “This Week” section in each project. Thanks to this filter, I have a fantastic overview of EVERYTHING that I want to get done this week, sorted by project. And this is the list I work with every day.
Step 4: Daily Planning in Todoist
The night before, I usually look in the “This Week” filter and plan what I want to do the next day. Then I finally assign a date to the tasks.
Then I pick a few tasks that I ABSOLUTELY need to do that day. I don’t like long, overwhelming lists. And it makes me feel good to do the tasks I really need to do today. So I keep this list short.
I also create a MAYBE list. Once I’m done with my priorities, I can start doing tasks from my MAYBE list. But they are not a requirement, I just do them when I feel like it and have time. Once I get my priorities done, it’s already been a good day. Anything else is then just the cherry on top.
I also add any chores or recurring tasks. This is usually done automatically. Todoist reminds me when I need to clean the toilet or water the flowers. Since I work from home, I can do the tasks during my breaks. I prefer that because then I don’t need a cleaning marathon on the weekend. And a little bit every day makes a big difference.
And when I make my list for the next day, I usually print it out or write it in a little notebook or on a piece of paper.
Even though I can quickly view my to-do list on my phone and other devices, I try to stay away from them as much as possible. More than once, I just wanted to quickly check my to-do list and resurfaced two hours later from a YouTube marathon…
At the end of the day, I reset my to-do lists.
I check the inbox folder for anything I added during the day and sort it.
I also carry over any unfinished tasks to the next day. This way I get to zero in the to do list each day. I don’t like overdue tasks piling up.
I go to my This Week filter and decide which tasks I want to do tomorrow and prioritize them.
Step 5: Weekly Review
At the end of the week, I check to see if there are any unfinished tasks.
Then I look at the next week, figure out how much time I’ll have, and then add more tasks to complete.
And then the cycle starts all over again.
You do you.
I’ve watched a lot of productivity and goal setting videos over the years, and it seems everyone does it a little differently than I do. That’s normal, because everyone has to find a system that works for them. But I thought it might be of interest to some of you to see how I do it.