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Why Successful People Plan Their Lives 90 Days at a Time

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A few years ago, I read Mastering the Rockefeller Habits by Verne Harnish, who advocated planning primarily on a ninety day time frame or on a three to five year time frame.

I remember thinking: “That seems a little extreme Verne. Really, you only plan quarterly?”

There is a large class of activities, however for which the “middle” route is the worst place to fall.

Research show that when you exercise, you want to either go for long rambling walks or do quick intense workouts. It’s the long, moderate amounts of activity that get people in trouble.

Marketing is another non-middle-way activity—you either go all at once in thunderclaps, or at a steady drip consistency.

The best marketers seem to know this intuitively, even if they don’t make it explicit. Seth Godin publishes one short blog post every single day (drip, drip), then does a big book or product launch where he shows up on every podcast and blog over the course of a couple weeks. Tim Ferriss does the same, posting a blog post or podcast every week or two and then a huge flurry around his product launches.

When you live in a city, you want to live in the middle of the action downtown, or way out in the country where it’s calm and relaxing. But you don’t want to get caught in suburban purgatory.

If you’re giving a presentation, either move fast and keep it tactical, like “my five step process for going viral on Facebook,” or keep it broad and inspirational—“why today is the best day ever to market on Facebook.” The worst talks are always ones where they fall in the middle. “We do a lot of social media marketing. Facebook is the best for social media marketing.” Wow, thanks for that. For what kind of business? How often do you post? What do you post about? What size image do you use? Those would be helpful things to know.

Physical items you own, like clothes and bags, are a middle-way-is-the-worst-way phenomenon as well. You typically either want really nice stuff you’ll keep for years or really cheap stuff you won’t mind throwing away.

Gary Vaynerchuk of VaynerMedia and Wine Library TV has identified the same phenomenon, calling it the Clouds and the Dirt. He’s either thinking in the day-to-day minutia of exactly how to post on Facebook—how many words should the post be? or how to buy the New York Jets (where is marketing going over the next decade? How are we positioned for it?

I recently re-read Marc Andreessen’s “Guide to Career Planning,” and his number one piece of advice on the topic?

Don’t.

The first rule of career planning: Do not plan your career.

The world is an incredibly complex place and everything is changing all the time. You can’t plan your career because you have no idea what’s going to happen in the future… Trying to plan your career is an exercise in futility that will only serve to frustrate you, and to blind you to the really significant opportunities that life will throw your way.
[…]
The second rule of career planning: Instead of planning your career, focus on developing skills and pursuing opportunities.

I laughed. I had just recently dug through an old email I’d sent to Justin Cooke from Empire Flippers when I was living in Brazil three years ago and thinking about trying out this “internet” thing.

Times change—when we’re talking in years, it changes five to ten times faster than you think.

Research Roy Amara noted this in his formulation of what’s come to be called Amara’s Law:

We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.

The same is true of ourselves. We dramatically underestimate how much we can get done in two or three years, but overestimate how much we can get done in a day or a week.

Most entrepreneurs overestimate themselves on daily and weekly goals while selling themselves short on three- and five-year goals.

Where’s the sweet spot?

Successful People Plan 90 Days at a Time

From my experience and from businesses I’ve worked with, Verne Harnish was about spot on for planning: 90 days seems to be the range where ambition and planning actually fall reasonably close together.

Looking ninety days out, you have a good idea of what you can actually get done in that time frame, so your capacity estimations are about right and yet you can make some very substantial progress towards a big goal.

It leads to moving faster without compromising strategy – being more agile. Having goals and visions for three or five years down the line is valuable, but it’s often not very helpful to try and plan out concrete steps—there’s just too much that has to get done which feels overwhelming and leads to inaction.

However, you probably have a pretty good idea of what opportunities are on your plate right now and how you can capitalize on them in the next 90 days. Once you do, new opportunities will pop up, and you can look at those in 90 days and reassess whether they’re heading in the right direction or not.

Optimizing Planning and Taking Action

There’s a story I’ve heard before about a man who was all set to jump off a bridge only to stop and realize that if he was ready to kill himself, that he might as well treat the rest of his life as an experiment. If he was willing to give it up anyway, then there was no reason not to stop caring and just experiment.

The framework: thinking of everything as an experiment with data collection and data analysis is helpful, and we can skip the bridge jumping precursor.

Not sure what to do to reach a big goal or milestone? That’s probably a data collection collection problem. You need to go do something and get some more data.

If I do have enough data, then I need to sit down and think about it.

I plan my day based on how everything is going that week. That’s data analysis. Then what I need to get done is clear, so I go in and do it. Even if I have second thoughts about what I’m working on during the day, barring major catastrophe, I always ship my most important tasks. That’s data collection.

Building in Weekly, Monthly, and Quarterly reviews makes it easy to keep moving without overthinking things as I know there will be time set aside to do that when I have more data.

Definition is Usually the Problem

The other thing I’ve learned over and over is that most lack of progress is usually a result of lack of definition. I got stuck working through the book chapter I was editing because I didn’t clearly define what I needed to be doing in that edit.

So I made a list.

While reading through each chapter:

  1. Restructure the chapter
    1. Cut out the weaving in and out narrative
    2. Chapters all start with a clear narrative story then data then explanation – be super formulaic.
      1. Break down the explanations to be super clear and legible, e.g., don’t say you’re going to work 80 hours a week—tell a story of someone working 80 hours in a week.
    3. Address all feedback from Early Readers and Editor
      1. Is this important or can I delete it? Do I need to do further research?
    4. Clarify the concepts and Define Terms and Rewrite into my language, including re-writing chapter Title and Subheads to be more marketable
      1. Would a target reader understand this? What would a target reader say?
    5. Add More actionable next steps
      1. Direct questions at the reader for them to ask themselves and honestly reflect on
      2. In each chapter, put some sort of question/exercise for people to ask themselves and then collate these into a separate worksheet document.
        1. Some sort of customized document or worksheet
      3. Add any footnotes including interviews with dates I interviewed them on (look up in Skype)

At this point, it’s much clearer what needs to get done, and when I sit down to work on the draft, I have a definite “hit list.”

This same thing is true when doing larger scale planning. Once the project it’s clearly articulated and broken down into specific tasks, it’s pretty obvious what to do.

I re-did my annual planning process for Q2 and realized it was actually a much better planning template for a quarter than it was for a whole year.

I got a lot of good feedback from the annual planning process, so I wanted to share my most recent planning process when I mapped out Q2 Goals specifically for this site and my book, and also go over how to distill them down from quarterly to daily.

Q2 Publishing Business

Review and Update Your “Perfect Day.” If you could do anything without chance of failure, what would you do? What would a perfect day look like? What would make you most excited to wake up and do tomorrow?

I’ve found that it’s not very helpful to “plan”—break things down into action steps— on a longer time frame, but keeping the destination in mind when I review and plan lets me manage my motivation and goals more effectively. I can see how everything I do on a day-to-day basis is taking me towards where I want to go or if they aren’t taking me there, stop doing them!

Quarterly Review

The purpose of the review is to force yourself to re-orient and most importantly “get real” with the way things are moving. Denial is not just a river in Egypt, it’s also a good a way to avoid doing the work that matters.

  1. Define the Key Role (If you name the role well, that’s almost half the work; try to get as detailed and specific as possible)
    1. I am an entrepreneur and author.
  1. What would I do in the next twelve weeks if I had no momentum and couldn’t fail? (i.e. If you could start from scratch, what would you do? momentum matters, but only if it’s moving you in the right direction. To quote Peter Drucker, “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.”)
    1. I would write an Amazon bestselling book about entrepreneurship as a platform builder and see what optionality came off the backend.
  1. Take stock—Where am I? (This is where you can start to incorporate momentum as well as figuring out where you need to course correct and what just needs to get flat out dropped.)
    1. What went well? What were three things I did right and should do more of next year?
      1. Writing consistently.
      2. Shipping the writing earlier than felt comfortable to alpha and beta readers.
    2. What went badly? What were the biggest mistakes I made? Why didn’t I achieve what I set out to achieve?
      1. I don’t have a final draft of the book done, about two weeks behind schedule.
      2. I’m off pace in terms of email subscribers given projected growth rate.
    3. What are the three least valuable things I’m doing? What am I doing to avoid the Resistance?
      1. Everything not dramatically increasing traffic and conversions in terms of tinkering with the site.
      2. Writing more than twice a month on my own site is useless without the marketing to support it; better to focus on other platforms with more momentum.
      3. Still don’t have a clearly defined brand promise for people to rally behind, writing and brand promise is all over the place.
  1. The Goal: Where do I want to be 12 weeks from now? If I am reading this 12 from today, what has to have happened for me to feel happy with my progress? (Here I’m trying to figure out what the right level of ambition for a goal is. Because ninety days seems to be the sweet spot in terms of estimating ambition and capacity, this is usually something that feels challenging, yet achievable. Once I figure out what that is, I define criteria around it that will hold me accountable.)
    1. Where do I really want to be in twelve weeks, but I’m too embarrassed to say it out loud?
      1. Twelve weeks from now, I want to have a bestselling book launched on Amazon.
    2. Clearly Define a Goal and KPIs Maximum of 3 KPIs for each role, though one is best. These must be either a clearly defined, falsifiable result (e.g. Published a book, have 5k email subscribers)
      1. Publish a Book on Amazon
      2. Double Email List Size
  1. The Why – Why do I want to be there? What’s the importance? (The goal isn’t important—it’s what it lets you do. The “why” is also what gets you to emotionally commit, so it has to be big, vibrant, and clear. I try to be completely honest with myself. If it’s a vanity-based thing that gets me excited, I’ll say that. Going through the “why” section will typically force me to go up and edit the goal if they don’t feel properly aligned. It’s sort of like doubling the price on a proposal before sending it (also a fun exercise)—I have to go back and make darn sure it’s justified given I’m planning on spending a year working on it.)
    1. I think we’re at a unique moment in human history where power is dispersing from organizations to individuals. I believe that the opportunity in technology (mainly that the internet has brought) is that it has distributed power to the individuals in a way no one ever imagined was possible, and once people realize that and see how to seize it, we can realize the 4th economy. I think the book can help push that forward. I want to create freedom and opportunity for myself to invest more in my writing. I want to shape a generational conversation around entrepreneurship and be respected as a thought leader. I want to launch a product and better understand running a product as opposed to a consulting business.
  1. The How – How do I get there? Specifically: (This is where I’m bridging the gap and starting to get into what the details that really need to get taken care of are.)
    1. What dangers do you have now that need to be eliminated?
      1. The biggest dangers I have that I need to eliminate are creating things that are not value innovation. Technological or idea innovation are valuable only when it can be translated into value innovation. Some of the writing is overly philosophical and unhelpful when it needs to be more prescriptive and actionable.
      2. The other big danger I see myself falling into is over focusing on product and under focusing on marketing distribution. Until the platform gets substantially larger, I need to be spending at least as much effort on distribution and outreach to larger platforms as I am to my own platform.
    2. What opportunities need to be captured?
      1. The biggest opportunities I see that need to be captured are guest posting, podcasting interviews,, and syndication through more established platforms. Basically: marketing and outreach.
      2. I think there’s also a very real opportunity to position and market the book in such a way as to draft off of larger, more established platforms that share the vision/mission of the book, and then turning that expanded field into more outreach, speaking, consulting in line with the book vision.
    3. What strengths need to be maximized?
      1. The biggest strengths I have that need to be maximized are my existing network and personal connections as well as SOPs and other systems I have built out internally that I can use to add value.
    4. What does the day-to-day life of someone that has already achieved this goal look like?
      1. On an average day, someone that has achieved this goal prioritizes marketing and outreach and distribution over product and done over good. They don’t over think; they focus on confronting the Resistance and shipping. They prioritize the emotional work and let the rest fall off the edges.

(Note: I’ve included a download for all these templates at the bottom of this post or you can go ahead and snag them now.)

Q2 Big Initiatives

Once I’ve gone through and done the review and started to break it down into a hot, I break it out into a document (usually in Evernote) that I can reference throughout the quarter for monthly and weekly planning to carry the “review” content into action steps.

Become a Best-Selling Author (copied from Question 1 of the review)

  1. Why (copied from question 5 of the review): I think we’re at a unique moment in human history where power is dispersing from organizations to individuals. I believe that the opportunity in technology (mainly that the internet has brought) is that it has distributed power to the individuals in a way no one ever imagined was possible, and once people realize that and see how to seize it, we can realize the 4th Economy. I think the book can help push that forward. I want to create freedom and opportunity for myself to invest more in my writing. I want to shape a generational conversation around entrepreneurship and be respected as a thought leader. I want to launch a product and better understand running a product as opposed to a consulting business.
  2. How (copied from question 6 and converted into phrases that start action verbs):
    1. Launch new opt-in
      1. Introduction
      2. Toolkit
    2. Review and update draft of book based on exclusive early reader feedback
    3. Execute book marketing
      1. Reach Out To People in Network with Book Marketing Experience to finalize marketing plan
      2. Aggressively schedule guest posts and podcast interview
    4. Actively Prioritize “Done” over “Good” and Distribution over Product
  3. Result/KPIs (copied from question 4 and something I look at daily):
    1. Books Sold/Product Revenue
    2. Email Subscribers

April Big Initiatives

Now that you’ve got the quarter roughly planned out, take the major quarterly goals and break them down into smaller action steps for the next month.

Send Final Content Edit to Kimberly

  1. Why (copied again from the review):  I think we’re at a unique moment in human history where power is dispersing from organizations to individuals. I believe that the opportunity in technology (mainly that the internet has brought) is that it has distributed power to the individuals in a way no one ever imagined was possible, and once people realize that and see how to seize it, we can realize the 4th Economy. I think the book can help push that forward. I want to create freedom and opportunity for myself to invest more in my writing. I want to shape a generational conversation around entrepreneurship and be respected as a thought leader. I want to launch a product and better understand running a product as opposed to a consulting business.
  2. How (What actions would make everything else easier or unnecessary? What actions need to get done first?):
    1. Publish and Promote 2 Blog Posts
    2. Get pre-launch group into a Facebook group and set-up a plan to consistently add value to group
    3. Line up guest posts and podcast interviews for launch in June
    4. Put together opt-ins/giveaways on website
    5. Get research interviews edited and uploaded to libsyn to launch as a podcast
    6. Launch new opt-in with book intro and tools
    7. Review early reader feedback and map out next draft vision and hit list for editing
    8. Hire an editor
    9. Final content revision
  3. Result/KPI:
    1. Final content revision sent to editor
    2. Twenty confirmed podcast/guest posts for launch period
    3. Intro/toolkit ppt-in launched

Weekly Planning

Now, repeat the exact same process for the monthly goals and break them down into weekly.

Finish final content edit of Section 1 and 2 of The End of Jobs Manuscript

  1. Why (copied again from the review): I think we’re at a unique moment in human history where power is dispersing from organizations to individuals. I believe that the opportunity in technology (mainly that the internet has brought) is that it has distributed power to the individuals in a way no one ever imagined was possible, and once people realize that and see how to seize it, we can realize the 4th Economy. I think the book can help push that forward. I want to create freedom and opportunity for myself to invest more in my writing. I want to shape a generational conversation around entrepreneurship and be respected as a thought leader. I want to launch a product and better understand running a product as opposed to a consulting business.
  2. How: (Try and sort them into 2-3 hour chunks and assign 2-3 to each day since that’s realistically how much work you’re going to do over the course of the week.)
    1. Monday
      1. Revise section 1 according to early reader feedback synthesis
      2. Define User flow and for marketing on site and for opt-ins post-launch
  • Team meeting and management
  1. Tuesday
    1. Revise Section 2 Part 1 according to Early Reader Feedback Synthesis
    2. document
  • Talk to Tom and finalize book marketing
  1. Consulting/coaching
  1. Wednesday
    1. Draft planning system article and send to Kimberly to edit
    2. Send podcast episodes and updated SOP to podcast editor
  • Consulting/coaching
  1. Thursday
    1. Revise planning system post and send to Marissa to upload
    2. Consulting/coaching
  2. Friday
    1. Revise Section 2 Part 2  according to Early Reader Feedback Synthesis document
    2. Finalize article for this week
  • Do something to add value in facebook group
  1. Results/KPIs (These are the definitive tasks to have done at the end of the week to judge by):
    1. Finished Content Edit of Section 1 and 2 sent to editors
    2. Send Podcasts to Editor
    3. Define/Finalize Marketing Plan and week by week timelines
    4. Next Steps with Consulting Work

Daily Planning

90-day

Morning

Instructions: Do this in a physical notebook at the start of the morning after looking at your weekly list.

I am Grateful For… (list a minimum of three things, nothing motivates more than gratitude)

  1. Better Understanding my own psychology
  2. The opportunities in Austin
  3. The book my Dad sent me

What Would Make Today Great is (List maximum of three things that push forward weekly Objectives)

  1. Send article to editor
  2. Review edits for sections 1 and 2  of book
  3. Finalize book marketing timeline

I am a great… (List minimum of three affirmations)

  1. Entrepreneur
  2. Author
  3. Strength Athlete
As you can see, handwriting is not my forte.

As you can see, handwriting is not my forte.

 

The Critical, Final Step

The critical final step is to put these in a place where you will look over them every single day. Far too many goal setting exercises leave people feeling great after they set goals but don’t force them to confront those goals and make the hard decisions required to achieve them on a day-to-day basis.

I personally like to put them in an Evernote note and save them to the shortcuts of my Evernote for daily review.

90-3

You can also print them out, but make sure to incorporate them into your morning ritual.

So that’s it. That’s the plan I use to go from long term goal and vision setting to breaking things down into daily to-dos and then holding myself accountable for getting those things done.

I’d like for your to be able to do the same thing, so I’m giving you a free copy of all my templates available for you to download

Download the 90 Day Goal Setting Action Step Template Here

Next Actions

Do you want to see more examples of our personal systems and workflows? We reveal them all on our Personal Systems seminar. It’s completely free and you’ll get to see the exact step-by-step systems and workflows that we personally use to be insanely productive. Register for the next available seminar here.


This is a guest post by Taylor Pearson. He writes at TaylorPearson.me about business philosophies and mindsets that yield disproportionately large results. He is currently promoting his new book, The End of Jobs and giving away sixty seven favorite books on Entrepreneurship valued at $1310 (including the Fourth Economy).

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11 Comments

Posted by Marina Schmidt  | June 17, 2015 at 4:12AM | Reply

Loved that article and the Peter Drucker quote is exactly what I needed! My journal in the morning is very very similar, Marie Forleo talked about a study where they meassured the impact of gratitude journaling. The biggest pay off got
1 thing I am greatful for
5 reasons why

Because it makes you think about it in further detail and makes sure that it is not superficial “I am grateful for being alife, for the weather and my bed”
But alternating the two is great to switch it up.

The process you worked out to edit chapters is amazing, I will use that for sure, probably even works for podcasting too.
I completely agree that often times it is a lack of clarity that makes one feel stuck when doing a project.

I am looking forward to your book!

Posted by Taylor  | June 22, 2015 at 6:14PM | Reply

Hey Marina,

I’ve had the same experience Re: Gratitude journaling. It makes a big difference when I really get clear on exactly what is I am grateful for.

The importance of clarity has been a theme I’ve been circling around for a long time and find more and more true. Have some more thoughts here (http://taylorpearson.me/definition/) if you’re interested.

The process definitely works for podcasting as well! I have a podcast editing SOP I use if you want to downlaod it (http://taylorpearson.me/toolkit/)

Posted by Yuko Sakurai  | June 24, 2015 at 1:55AM | Reply

The planning is important for not only professional but also personal goals. “90 Day Goal Step” is very detailed and clearly defined what I’m supposed to do everyday. I recently started to use Evernote, and this definitely be the good reminder for me too.

Posted by Camilla Hallstrom  | July 5, 2015 at 7:16AM | Reply

Woah – this post is thorough. Great takeaways, thanks! I hadn’t heard of the 90-day rule but it sounds like a good system to optimize outcomes. Awesome that day-to-day goal compliance is integrated in it.

Posted by Taylor  | July 11, 2015 at 9:09PM | Reply

@Camilla – Thank you and my pleasure!

@Yuko – Agreed. I strongly recommend 90 days as a time frame. Just reading “The Twelve Week Year” which is reinforcing my perspective.

Posted by Nancy Rathbone  | June 7, 2016 at 2:41PM | Reply

I also have read the 12 Week Year and am in the last month of my first 12 month period. I used their strategies and am experiencing my best quarter in a long time. Life does change much to quickly to bog yourself down with even Yearly Goals.

Posted by Janeson Keeley  | June 8, 2016 at 12:55PM | Reply

This post is an example of how important introductory remarks are and how inappropriate or extreme examples can weaken the impact of the post’s content.

What stuck in my mind after reading this was not the important points about the 12 week planning cycle, but the extreme and over-generalizations demonstrated in the following examples:

Quote: “When you live in a city, you want to live in the middle of the action downtown, or way out in the country where it’s calm and relaxing. But you don’t want to get caught in suburban purgatory.”

Many of us who live in the suburbs enjoy the “middle ground” between the hustle and bustle of the city and the quiet (and questionable Internet access) of a true country dwelling.

Quote: “Physical items you own, like clothes and bags, are a middle-way-is-the-worst-way phenomenon as well. You typically either want really nice stuff you’ll keep for years or really cheap stuff you won’t mind throwing away.”

It’s appropriate to buy things that are of the quality you need them to be. I hardly think that Chanel and Walmart are the only choices. Often “middle-of-the-road” choices are perfectly reasonable based on one’s expectations and price ranges.

Writers: Don’t offend your readers before you get to the important stuff.

Posted by Rhonda  | June 16, 2016 at 1:56PM | Reply

Haven’t heard of the 90-day plan until now, when Asian Efficiency put this out on social media. I got a kick out of the “middle ground” references. :)

I’ve downloaded the forms and I’m working through filling these out. I’m a systems person, and this seems like a good framework for me to use as a structure. I’m starting with this summer: both personal/family and freelance work that needs organized, planned, and completed. Thank you to Mr. Pearson for this information!

Posted by Alexandra  | June 30, 2016 at 6:29AM | Reply

At work, we all establish objectives to reach in 90-days time frames. After doing this for almost two years, I can say it really worked for us and improved our productivity and efficiency. It can be a little hard in the beginning, but definitively pays off.

Posted by Corey Tat  | July 19, 2016 at 9:30PM | Reply

Hi Taylor,

This is a great article. It really hit home the message for me.

As a fitness enthusiast and you are absolutely correct to plan in training cyles. If you plan too long, then people often lose motivation.

What I really liked about this article is by planning 90 days at a time. Too many things come up in a business, and I find by planning only 90 days in advance we can prepare for dynamic changes that are inevitable.

When I switched to 90 day planning cycles, I found that I was more focused and I was able to see how much more I was able to complete for my projects. It was close enough for me to really focus and keep my productivity levels high, but also just the right length to measure my progress.

I think I’m going to give evernote a try to plan my day-to-day after reading this article.

Thanks again for a great article!

Posted by Brittany Joiner  | August 26, 2016 at 3:33PM | Reply

What a great post. I came to this realization about a year ago and I thought I was crazy for a while, because I’ve grown up being taught you plan your life out as far as you can, at least 5-10 years out. When I realized that approach didn’t work and was doing more to stress me out and put pressure on me than it was helping me succeed and reach my goals and feel fulfilled. Thanks for sharing your thoughts here!

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