First Published: January 12, 2021 | Last Updated: December 11, 2022

The gist: The Work Brighter-verse has less tolerance than ever for high intensity, pressure-filled goal setting and planning guides. For expectations to "crush your goals in the year" and "plan out every minute in advanced."

The Practical Planning approach is an alternative to help you set goals and make plans with the right balance of optimism and realism. To create a plan you can stick to even when life happens. Here’s how to use it to plan your year.

We don't have the time, energy, or patience for that ish this year.

Just kidding, because in the Work Brighter-verse we are all about non-violent imagery for success. 😉

In reality, I'll just win them over to our side with witty pop culture references and sarcastic remarks or something.

Today I want to talk to you about planning a new year the practical way.

How I Used to Plan and Set Goals

If you're a member of our community, you know that my whole approach to productivity, planning, and personal development was shaken up around 2016, when my chronic illnesses and mental health were so bad that work became almost impossible.

(And if you're not a part of our community, subscribe to our newsletter to join us.)

Back then, I loved planning and totally nerded out over it, as I always have. 🤓

I set goals the way most people do, the way most people are taught:

  • Pick a goal or project you want to accomplish.
  • Decide when you want to finish it by.
  • List out all the steps you need to do to.
  • Work backwards from the finish date to assign and evenly space out all the broken down steps.

But eventually I realized, I was objectively bad at planning when I did it that way.

Because I wasn't creating plans that I kept.

They weren't anywhere near what was realistic or doable for me at the time.

I was physically capable of working 20 hours of week at most. But the work I planned in these elaborate, jam-packed, color coded plans, added up to like 60 hours per week of work.

Those plans were setting me up for failure, no matter how beautifully color-coded they were.

theyre color coded for gods sake

What’s Wrong With Traditional Goal-Setting

The problem with that approach to planning and goal-setting is that what you want to do and what you have the capacity to do are probably pretty different.

We’re told to “think big,” “reach for the stars,” and “imagine our best lives” and start from there, instead of what our year is actually going to look like.

So then when you start the process with choosing what you want to do and when you want to do it by, it’s so easy to choose a goal that’s too big and a deadline that’s too soon.

And then if you continue with the process and start assigning yourself tasks and due dates based on those unrealistic goals, you end up over-planning your schedule. Then, when you inevitably fall behind on it (because it was impossible to follow to begin with) it ruins your motivation and causes overwhelm, exhaustion, or even burnout.

Because never, in the traditional goal planning process, are you prompted to consider how much time, energy, and other resources you actually have to work on these goals.

That’s why it doesn't work.

Practical Planning: the Realistic Alternative

A lot of people give up on planning and goal-setting altogether once they realize the traditional method doesn't work.

But since I do love planning, and I am Type A all the way, and my deepest dream is to have a planning party with Amy Santiago and Leslie Knope...

When I realized my planning process wasn't working, instead of ditching planning altogether, I found a new approach.

That approach is what's now called the Practical Planning Process, and I firmly believe it's the only planning mindset worth paying attention to this year.

Practical planning is a realistic and empathetic approach to planning that recognizes what your real life is like and what your time and energy limitations are.

Like the traditional planning process, it has 4 steps, but you approach your goals in a very different order:

  • Creating containers based on your real capacity
  • Building in time for your existing commitments, and
  • Planning just as much as the container fits
  • Breaking big projects down based on Snowman Project Planning

Let's dig into each.

After 2020, this year calls for drastically empathetic and realistic planning, and that's what Practical Planning is.

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This year calls for drastically empathetic, forgiving, and realistic planning and productivity. And that is what practical planning is.

Step 1: Define Your Containers

First, you want to look at your plan as a container. The size or capacity of that container based on your ACTUAL capacity for work or other commitments.

A big mistake with planning, especially when we're feeling all motivated and optimistic at the beginning of the year, is drastically overestimating how much we can do in a given time period.

As a result, we overcommit ourselves and don't pace ourselves and end up burning out by mid-February. I've also talked about this in my video on overplanning.

So the first phase of practical planning is to revisit how much time you actually have for different areas of your life.

In our Practical Planning workshops, everything starts with a Time Audit exercise.

A time audit is basically looking at your past month or so of time and figuring out how much time you spent on different areas of your life.

From taking care of yourself, to taking care of your family, your house, your business, your relationships, and so on. 

Get as specific as you can from memory.

This helps you see how much of your time is already accounted for, or "taken," when you start planning new projects.

This helps to stop you from creating plans based on over-exaggerated estimates of how much time or energy you have.

Like I said, I used to accidentally plan myself 60-hour weeks that were impossible to follow, just because I wasn't accounting for how much time I actually had when making those plans.

And I'm not the only one.

Clubhouse members almost always realize their estimates were way off base when we do this exercise.

It helps you realize how large or small your daily, weekly, and monthly containers really are. Once you've done that, you're more prepared to make a plan you can follow without burning out.

But there's another prep step first: building in time for your existing commitments.

Do you know how you REALLY spend your time?

Figure out how much space you have in your time containers with our free Time Audit worksheet!

Step 2: Define Your Existing Commitments

This step is where you start building a plan for the future based on your time audit, using those containers as limits for yourself.

And the beauty of Practical Planning is that it can be adapted to use for any time period: annual, quarterly, monthly, or weekly.

But before you start slotting in tasks for new ideas and projects, you want to schedule in existing commitments.

We're creatures of habit, and so much of our lives revolve around routine.

That's not a bad thing if they're enjoyable, intentional routines, so our goal is to have as many of those as possible.

Start thinking about the different routines you can schedule to accomplish recurring tasks.

Take the things like checking email, cleaning your physical space, content creation, ongoing meetings with people, time blocked off for talking to friends and family.

Decide how long you need to spend doing them over the next quarter or so, and when you're going to do them.

Add those into your containers from step 1, and move onto step 3.

Step 3: Figure Out Your Container's Blank Space

Step 3 is planning as much as your containers fit, and that is all.

No more! Remember why most plans fail in the first place.

This step is where you start slotting in new ideas and projects you're going to work on.

And note how different this is from most planning strategies found in Hustle Culture.

A lot of processes have you come up with an arbitrary deadline or due date based on when you WANT to finish something.

But more likely than not, that want is totally unrealistic, between how bad we are at estimating time (thanks to the planning fallacy) and how prone we are to overwhelming ourselves.

Practical Planning is about being realistic so your plans are actually helpful.

So we start with how much time we have, then figure out a workable project plan and deadline based on that.

You can combine your container or time limits from step 1, and your routines from step 2, to figure out how much time you have for new projects.

After that, it's time to build a snowman.

Do you know how you REALLY spend your time?

Figure out how much space you have in your time containers with our free Time Audit worksheet!

Step 4: Schedule Tasks with Snowman Project Planning

Step 4 is using Work Brighter's Snowman Method of project planning.

The Snowman project planning method is about looking at the projects you build as delicate, artful snow sculptures.

Aka snowmen.

The big things you want to accomplish, like starting a business or moving to a new city, are snowmen made up of multiple parts, like different sized snowballs and accessories.

The most essential projects you need to complete to accomplish those big things?

Those are the snow balls.

You won't have the full finished picture without them.

For starting a business, that might be things like creating your first product or launching your website.

For moving, my snow balls have been things like finding an apartment, moving, furnishing, and moving admin.

Then those projects, those snowballs, are made up of individual tasks or snowflakes.

Those are the tiny to-dos like filing the form to forward my mail, changing my address in online shopping accounts, and stuff like that for moving admin. 

For creating a product it might be stuff like booking, having, and analyzing customer interviews for research.

Finally, you have the accessories like the carrot nose, twig arms, and top hat. A snow man is so much better with a top hat.

They're not as essential to a snow man as the actual snow, not the most urgent things, but you want to get them done if you have time.

They make the finished picture better.

Practical Plans Get Adjusted

Finally, part of Practical Planning and Practical Productivity is knowing that your plans aren't set in stone.

That's why adjusting your plans based on reality is built into the rest of the Practical Productivity process during weekly and daily reviews.

Do you know how you REALLY spend your time?

Figure out how much space you have in your time containers with our free Time Audit worksheet!