Warning: This is long – 4 times as long as most of my articles – If you don’t have time to read the whole thing right now, bookmark it and come back when you do. If you want to understand my strategy for getting the very most out of my life, it’s worth the read.
Here’s an idea: rather than waiting the rest of your life to write your biography, why not start now? Sounds odd, right? I’m fine with that. Odd is what I’m all about.
Truth is, if you don’t start pre-writing your biography right now, you probably won’t have much to actually write when it comes time to.
Even though some of the most interesting and accomplished people on Earth lived for the moment, they also held a strong vision of who they could become. They knew what they wanted to do, and then they went out and did it.
Look at Oprah Winfrey. She was staging interviews with her corncob dolls and the crows that sat on her fence before she even started school.
Look at Bob Dylan. He was glued to the radio by the age of 5 and formed at least 3 bands by the time he graduated from high school.
Look at Debbi Fields, famous for Mrs. Fields Bakeries. She was obsessed with cookie making for years before she opened her business and made her first dollar.
Sometimes, making a plan feels like a lot of work, but in the grand scheme of things it’s not much more than a blink of the eye. By spending what amounts to just a tiny fraction of your time on it, you can lay the foundation for massive accomplishments in your life.
Hell, you could even write your whole biography right now, in advance, and then start living it out. Why not?
Really though, the plan that follows is what I created over the course of a weekend to answer my own question:
What do I really want to do with my life and how can I do it?
By the time I finished, I realized that I’d created something that could potentially be useful to a lot of people, so I sat down and wrote it out. This is the complete blueprint of how I’ve decided to structure my life (ie. write my biography) and how you can do something similar with what amounts to very little effort.
And, of course, it all starts with…
The Master Plan
To begin, you need to set the stage for what the rest of your life is going to look like with a master plan. Think of this as the table of contents of your biography – a rough outline of what you’d expect to see as you dig deeper and deeper.
Most people are terribly frightened by this concept, but I think that’s just because most people really have no clue what they actually want to do for the rest of their lives. The thought of planning out a life they end up not enjoying is a frightening idea.
And that’s totally okay. I don’t have a crystal clear picture of exactly what I want to do for the entire duration of my life. I don’t think anyone should.
But I always say it’s better to aim for something even if you’re not sure it’s what it should be because if you aim for nothing, that’s exactly what you’ll hit.
[shareable]By laying out a master plan for your entire life, you set sail towards a defined destination.[/shareable]
If you decide six months down the road that you don’t like the course you’re on, change it. If you spend 20 years going after something only to realize you don’t want it anymore, same story. Give up and try again.
That’s all we can expect out of life. There aren’t really any big secrets or shortcuts. You just work on big goals and if they turn out to be wrong for you, you change them.
If you’re younger like me, I don’t really think you need to master plan the next 70 years of your life, but taking a look at the distant future is important.
There’s also no need to get very detailed with any of your planning at this stage. Think in themes and decades instead of tasks and specific dates. And don’t give yourself too much time. That’s hard to do, but it’s better to be ambitious and miss a few things than to drag it out and end up missing a lot. You never know how much time you have ahead of you, so don’t overestimate.
To start off, you need to make your list. Some people call it a life list, some call it a bucket list, I went a slightly different direction with mine and decided to call it the 1% Club because it’s my list of things I want to accomplish that less than 1% of the world will do.
There’s no right or wrong way to go about creating it, really, but it doesn’t hurt to use an old author’s trick: write first, edit later.
When you’re writing your list, don’t hesitate to add an idea or a detail. You want as much information as possible to work with. When you edit, don’t hesitate to cut something out.
That’s how I constructed the 1% Club and it’s why there aren’t hundreds of little things on it like most bucket lists. Of course, over my life, I’ll be doing lots of other important things that aren’t on my list, but the 1% Club gives me a short list of the most important things that I need to be constantly working on and thinking about because they’re too big to accomplish in a day, week, or in a lot of cases, a year.
The Master Time Line
Of course, no master plan would be complete without a master time line. A dream without a deadline will remain a dream until you have a compelling reason to act on it.
At this stage though, we’re not really setting deadlines – more like organizing themes. At 25, there’s no point in saying, “On March 18, 2050, I will complete this task.”
That’s silly. Instead, I’ve found it a lot more helpful to just focus on a major theme for each decade of life. By looking at the list you just made, you can get a pretty good feel for how you should organize yourself.
Don’t worry too much about getting the order right at this point. Remember, we’re staying conceptual here. Focus on starting off with whatever is most exciting to you right now and building on it for each new decade. This is where we figure out our “flow,”or how all the pieces should fit together over time.
I just did this exercise myself and built a graphic time line that gives me something to look at, something real that I can reference as I make decisions about what to work on and when. Here it is. Feel free to borrow it and construct your own:
This is the outline of my eventual history. As you can see, I stopped after 4 decades. That’s as far ahead as I can conceive right now, so that’s where I quit planning. Perhaps in a few years I’ll come back to it and see a clearer path into the future or revise it entirely and start over. No need to get caught up at this stage.
Could it all change? Yes, of course it could. In fact, I know it will. But, by setting a target, I’m at least moving in a direction that feels good right now and has a clear pathway. I have plenty of time to change the details as I go.
Now we’re going to drill down to the next level.
First Decade Plan
Now that you’ve completed your master time line, it’s time to take the next step to making it happen. This is where ideas get a little clearer, and you can actually start building a kind of road map.
Remember that time line we just made? Well, we’re going to forget about it, but not entirely. For now, lets just focus on the very first decade. The idea here is that we’ll slowly move backwards from vague to actionable so that we end up with a list of things we can do today that are directly connected to what we want to have accomplished in life. We’re still not there yet, but this is the next step in my process.
If the master plan is your table of contents, then the 1st decade plan is your very 1stchapter. Start fleshing it out.
Let’s go back to the list you made. Look it over for the things that match up with the theme you gave to your first decade on the time line. Set everything else aside for the moment and focus just on those. A few tips though:
- You can accomplish a phenomenal amount of stuff in a decade. Far more than you think you can. Don’t be too conservative about what you include at this point. Pile it on.
- Make sure you include your biggest and most difficult goals from the beginning. Don’t wait to start on these because they seem too far off. It’s critical that you get a leg up as soon as possible.
Now, take a few seconds to prioritize the new list you just made. What do you want to give your attention to first?
Remember, the easiest way to turn this whole concept into reality is to focus your energy on things you actually want to be working on. If you see something on your list that makes you cringe (it’ll happen eventually) get rid of it fast. Don’t be a slave to self-imposed responsibility.
[shareable]Life is too short to work on things you don’t care about, and it’s certainly too short to spend it planning out how to work on things that don’t matter to you.[/shareable]
Since my 1% club is a relatively small list of really important things, pretty much all of them will be getting some form of attention from the get go.
This is where things start to get even more realistic. Now that you have a list of things you want to work on and a rough idea of what order, it’s time to figure out how you’re actually going to fit them into your life.
For that, we’re going to build a schedule. Don’t worry if that sounds a little intimidating, it doesn’t have to be anything complex. I love building schedules because they’re great visual tools that help me see exactly how a complex project with lots of moving parts can fit together.
I love wandering around, but when I have something important to work on, I build a schedule for it. Here’s what my rough schedule looked like for the last 5 years
Lay out your projects in separate rows and then use the columns to indicate the time you plan to spend working on them. Again, no need to get super detailed, you’re just building the framework here.
At any given time you can look down your list and see what you should be working on to stay on schedule.
I use Microsoft Excel to build my schedules. Google Docs or Open Office work just as well. You don’t need any fancy software to do this.
As we keep drilling down like this, it’s important to remember not to think in too much of a linear fashion. Goals are completed much faster when you attack them from a lot of different angles instead of doing one thing at a time.
Instead of thinking like this:
Try thinking like this:
The whole point of building a schedule is to be able to see how multiple projects and tasks overlap. They can help you find synchronicity when there are a lot of different things going on.
The One-Year Plan
Ok, now we’re really getting down to it. This is the point where things start to hit home. Why is that? Because they are! One year is something that most people can actually relate to, something they can actually visualize. Each year is a like a sentence in your biography. It has a very clear starting point and an end that draws you along to the next one.
That’s what makes this part of the process so incredibly important. One year is a long time and it still feels a little vague – there are a lot of opportunities that can come up – yet, it passes by quickly.
You know how you usually wake up one morning and notice that, “Oh, Fall is here. Where did Summer go?” or, “When did it stop raining? Where did Spring go”?
I’ve definitely had that feeling before and the answer is that it didn’t go anywhere. You did. While you were out wandering around, the world passed by. Four times and that’s a year.
Sometimes it’s a good feeling when you look back and see all you accomplished and sometimes it’s a bit of a wake up call to get it together before the sun sets on your big plans.
It makes a lot of sense to focus on your one-year plan. The goals and projects you’re working on need to get a lot more specific and actionable. This is where you have to start actually figuring out how to do the things you’ve been planning.
I take almost an entire week every year to make sure I give plenty of focus to my one-year plan. The format I use to do comes from Chris Guillebeau. He has a great explanation on how to perform your own personal annual review.
Don’t worry, it’s a lot more fun and certainly more meaningful than the one you go through each year at work.
The One-Year Chart
If you haven’t figured it out by now, I love visual aids, and one thing I like to add to the annual review process is my “energy chart.” At this stage of the game, it’s still a bit vague for a useful schedule, so instead I make a simple pie chart that basically says, “Okay, here’s how much of my energy I’m going to devote to each of my goals this year.”
When things get busy and my world feels like it’s spinning around, it’s very grounding to be able to glance at my chart and remember what the most important things are that I need to be working on.
Here’s what my one-year chart looks like this year:
Of course, if you find over time that you gravitate away from one thing and towards another, that’s completely fine. Listen to what you really want and adjust accordingly. Don’t let a chart guide your life.
The Project Plan
Ok, let’s take one more step down the rabbit hole to the project plan. Each project that you complete on the way to your bigger goals is like a single word of your biography that builds up to the sentence you’re creating. By now you should see an obvious hierarchy here:
Table of contents (Master Plan) ––> Chapter (1st Decade) ––> Sentence (1 Year) ––> Word (Project)
I used to put together project plans sporadically and only for really big events, but lately, I’ve started creating them for almost anything I do that will take longer than a week.
Maybe that’s overkill for you, but it’s worked beautifully for me. By putting together plans for short duration projects, I’ve found all kinds of ways to better use my time and produce higher quality results in the challenges I take on.
I still do plenty of “wingin’ it,” but when I have a high stakes project I want to make shine, spending a half-hour putting all the pieces together allows me to do a much better job executing it because I’m not constantly worrying that I forgot an important piece of the puzzle.
Here’s an example of the schedule I made when I decided to launch Riskology.co:
(Click on image to see full size)
You can see it’s nothing terribly fancy, but it is comprehensive. My project schedule is one of the most important pieces of paper I have by my side when I’m working on something big. This particular schedule was posted on my window directly in front of my face for a month as I worked on the site.
I have a tendency to wander and add scope to projects, so it keeps me in line when deadlines get tight and makes sure I focus on the most important tasks. In other words, not freaking out about details that no one will ever notice.
The Critical Path
See the red lines in the launch schedule above? That’s what’s called the critical path and when you’re building a schedule with a deadline (I highly recommend deadlines), it’s what shows you the absolute, most important tasks to complete to finish on time.
You can see the critical path in your schedule by working backwards from the deadline and looking for any single task that could derail the project if it’s not done on time.
In any schedule, there’ll be tasks that can float around and fill up free time and there’ll be tasks that must be completed by a certain date in order to move onto the next phase and finish on time. Those are what create your critical path. Work on those things first!
When you drill down to this stage of the game, it’s a good idea to do a weekly check-in to make sure things stay on track. Once a month, pull out your annual review and compare it to where you’re at with your current projects.
- Do you need to speed something up?
- Cut something out completely?
- Change something around?
- Has anything become more important?
- Less important?
I keep a reminder on my Google Calendar that pops up once a week to remind me to check my progress. If everything looks good, I get an ice cream cone! If it doesn’t, I make whatever adjustments I need to and then go get an ice cream cone anyway.
Most Important! – Today’s 3×5 Card
Whenever I take someone’s advice or try out a system that someone else created, I rarely ever follow it to a tee. I try to take the best parts of it and apply it in a way that works for me.
I suggest you do the same. If you do, I also recommend you focus plenty of attention on this section – today’s plan. Today’s plan is the single, solitary letter that, by itself, means nothing, but without it, there’s no way to write your biography.
What you do today determines where you’ll be tomorrow. Where you are tomorrow determines how long it will take to get where you want to be in a year and where you are in a year is critical to your progress on your big, long-term goals.
For the rest of your life, “today” will be the most important day you’ll ever have to get where you want to go. Ignore it and there’s no reason to put together the rest of your plan.
Personally, I like to stay focused by keeping my daily tasks on a 3×5 note card that I keep in my back pocket at all times. If you want to use a notebook, go for it. If you want to use an organizer, have at it. If you want use your iPhone, more power to you.
If you put 10 people in a room and asked them for their theory on the best way to make a daily to-do list, you’d probably get about 11 answers. Funny colored note cards are what work for me.
I like to write down everything I plan to do in a day, even if it’s really minor, because I get motivation to keep going by checking easy stuff off the list. There’s just something satisfying about watering the plants. Don’t ask.
Here are a few other popular theories:
- Only put the top three things you’ll work on in a day on your list and do nothing else until those three things are finished.
- Only pick one thing to work on in a day and give it 100% of your attention all day.
- Use a rolling list. Things that don’t get done today move to the top of the list tomorrow.
- Don’t write a list. Pick one thing to work on in the morning, hold it in your mind, and don’t move on until it’s finished. Repeat.
If you’re not sure which one is best for you, why not try them all for a week at a time and see which one sticks?
Other Important Notes
Like I said earlier, this is a comprehensive system that works really well for me. You can follow it exactly if you like, but you’ll probably get more out of it if you just take the parts that work for you and leave the things you don’t like. I promise not to be offended.
Here are a few other things about a system like this that I’ve learned over time and I think are worth mentioning:
- Don’t try to compartmentalize. From the very beginning, pick your life’s themes and work on them all simultaneously. What I mean is that if you want to run a successful business and change the world through charity work, don’t focus on one first and the other later. Focus on how you can start doing both right now and build them up together. You never know how much time you have.
- This is a guide, not an instruction book. Never turn down a meaningful opportunity because it’s not in the plan. There’s no way to perfectly plan a week, let alone a lifetime. This is an exercise for your mind to make sure you’re moving in the right direction. Don’t turn it into a prison. Leave plenty of room for the unknown.
- Focus on long-term “themes,” not actions. Don’t stifle your creativity by deciding exactly what you’re going to do in 30 years. Decide on a good theme and let the specific actions materialize as you approach them.
- Revise, revise, revise. Your plan is going to change. Better get used to it. In fact, if it doesn’t you’re not doing this right. When something stops feeling right, stop doing it. It doesn’t matter how far down the road you are. Doing something wrong for 20 years is no excuse to do it for 21.
- Never sacrifice today for tomorrow. In my opinion, a successful life is filled with big dreams and big goals, but never at the expense of everyday happiness. If you have to toil in misery for years to get to where you think you’ll be happy, there’s a fatal flaw in the plan. The milestones along the way should bring you just as much joy as the destination.
Best of luck writing your own biography.
[guestpost]Tyler Tervooren explores social psychology and shares original research and insights about winning at life, work, and adventure by taking smarter risks. For more, join his Smart Riskologist Newsletter.[/guestpost]