Getting ahead by knowing where you're going

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I've gone through some major life changes recently and just concluded my year planning which I wanted to share with a dear friend and partner of adventures AP.

I'm not trying to map every single move, far from it, however the same way a startup proceeding incrementally won't succeed without a vision, when I've given myself a place to go to I greatly benefited from it even if I never got there.

Doing year planning should help you to:

  • make it easier to choose what to do and especially what not to do
  • verify how strong your vision is
  • learn more from the experience

Time can be your friend

There are times in life when there's no getting ahead, only getting around. In those times it's ok to play by ear, explore and let things guide you through unexpected paths.

There are other times however when you're trying to do something specific, like a startup for example. In those cases you are more likely to succeed if you give yourself a bit of structure. And mind you, I used to run away from any structure as I felt it was confining, the calendar was my arch-enemy. Now it is my best friend.

It is largely a problem of perspective and control: things are literally that, things, you can let them control you or you can control them.

Calendars used to represent the imposition of a deadline, the death march of time. Now they help me defining a pace to measure my progress and give me a reference to reflect on what I'm doing.

Go wide: what makes up your life?

If you stop for a moment and think there's likely two or three main things in your life right now. The classics are family and work, but I'd encourage you to think a bit broader and toward outcomes.

For example, family time is not really just about spending time with family, it's more about making happy the people you love. As you look at work, sure, food needs to show up on your table at least a couple times a day, but ultimately is that why you are in your current job?

How about personal growth, be a better engineer, designer, farmer, builder - creating great things that someone else will benefit from.

So what is it that you are trying to do and why?

Another great way to look for those things is to look for patterns in the year that just went by. What did you do? Did you have goals? How did those turn out?

It's totally ok to put some of those goals back on the map for this year, in fact more often than not some stuff requires much longer than 12 months to be successful at.

Put them on the wall

Whatever you figured out from the previous section you should transfer to post-its or something you can stick on the wall.

This seems trivial and something you can easily rationalize as not necessary or too much hassle, but if you haven't tried before working on a wall makes a huge difference.

You shouldn't have more than three or four themes for your coming year or it's just going to be messy. Personally I have identified four main topics:

  1. Working on the mind
  2. Family and friends
  3. Helping people succeed in their business
  4. Continuing my work on the Lean Startup Peer to Peer Circle (LSP2PC)

Family and friends is actually an important one that you may have decided to take for granted and therefore not put on the board. I'd invite you to reconsider and expand on it - can you do something to be a better father, mother, husband, wife, son or daughter?

Go deep: what makes up those themes?

I try to use smaller sticky notes or pieces of paper so that I keep things short. When you wrote down those themes you were probably thinking about specific things like spend more time with my kids or get to write that ebook or travel to Asia.

One by one go over each theme and start adding items to the board based on ideas you think are essential to feel like you fulfilled that theme. For example for the Lean Startup Peer to Peer Circle I put down:

  • Online hangouts
  • Phone interviews
  • Documentation
  • Emails & Comms
  • Product Development

These are the major components I expect to be involved with over the next year of working on the LSP2PC. There's obviously a lot more details I could add and probably things will change as I work with the other folks.

This list however quickly shows to my team what's on my mind and how I think I can contribute to the project based on everything else I have going on.

Remember, this isn't about planning every single breath you take, this is just about giving yourself direction so that you can easily figure if it makes sense to engage with something or not.

Define impact and pick some metrics

The value of this exercise is largely two-fold:

  1. Give yourself a vision to work toward
  2. Enable yourself to learn from your past experiences more effectively by having something to compare the outcomes against.

By now you're done with 1. and need to take care of 2. , the metrics. As for picking metrics in a startup context this is a hard exercise and often you will feel like it's not possible to come up with something meaningful. No matter what, you must be drawing a line in the sand or all the work up to know will be largely in vain.

For me, picking a metrics also a great way to focus on outcomes. For example, going back to my P2PC example, I know I'll be probably hosting some of our online hangouts, but what's the goal? The goal is to help the group's members and deliver the goods - can we put that in numbers?

This obviously gets very specific to the project, but in this case retention is really what we care about so I'm drawing a line in the sand and say that I'm hoping 70% of the people I host meet ups for will attend at least half of the 6 consecutive sessions.

For "Emails and Comms" I could aim to have a response time of <24hrs to 80% of the emails I receive throughout the year inquiring about the P2PC. And so on.

To give you an example about something that appears to be harder to pick a metric for, my first theme was working on my mind which largely means meditating regularly and practicing mindfulness. Right now for me sitting in meditation is hard so I've set as a metric for end of year 2014 that I will be able to sit quietly without moving for one hour.

Work your way backwards

The last part of this exercise is to work your way backwards from the end of the year to today.

Did you say that your new landing page will have collected 5K emails by EOY? how likely is it that you will succeed if by September you have got only 5 subscribers?

Obviously guessing your acquisition rates now is a futile exercise, but again having that number on the wall means that when the time comes you will be at least having a conversation about it.

Personally I'd recommend to put down a number for each of the 4 quarters, so if you want 5K by December 2014 would it be reasonable to have a third of those by June? Assuming some ramp up time and so forth.

I don't know what works in your specific case, but you should be able to write something down and even if it will turn out to be be completely off it will still be worth it in the measure of having to explain why it was off (either in positive or negative) and learn to make better predictions (if you are familiar with Agile this is largely what happens with story estimation)

Write these metrics on more post-its or whatever you're using and put them up next to the cards they refer to with a note of which quarter they apply to (I just mark them Q1, Q2, Q3 and Q4)

Hang it somewhere and review it frequently

Once you're done you can either snap a picture and set it as your desktop background or keep it there on the wall if you can. Alternatively you can convert it to a mind map, but whatever you do make sure you're reviewing it frequently and the choices you make are aligned with it. Failing to review it will make it largely useless.

What's your favorite process?

If you have a different way to do planning and make sure you hit your targets I'd love to know, please leave a comment.

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