Meet Gregory, a writer and the brains behind Face Dragons. He's the go-to guy for getting things done. Gregory's been living the digital nomad life in Asia for as long as anyone can remember, helping clients smash their goals. He writes on topics like software, personal knowledge management (PKM), and personal development. When he's not writing, you'll catch him at the local MMA gym, nose buried in a book, or just chilling with the family.
Could 2022 have been more productive? Could you have gotten more done? Completed more goals or started something new? Try quarterly planning this year and make a run at completing those projects and getting closer to the life you want.
This simple 12 week cycle is easy to implement and you only need to think about it four times per year.
What is Quarterly Planning?
Quarterly planning is a brief session you hold either alone or with others, such as colleagues or family, in which you create goals and a plan of action for the next three months. Once completed, you should have the following:
- A list of completed goals from the previous period
- A list of goals to achieve in the next three months
- A basic plan for each goal
- A list of tasks for each plan
Why is Quarterly Planning A Good Choice?
Quarterly planning is often seen in business, but you can also do personal quarterly planning sessions. Most people opt for annual planning sessions (such as at the new year) or long term-short term planning sessions (usually when a significant change is afoot.)
If you are doing regular planning sessions, for example, every weekend, it’s probable that you are repeating the same things week after week. This is because your life stays mostly the same from week to week. Even David Allen, the author of Getting Things Done, who recommends doing a weekly review, says that he doesn’t do it every week.
Doing a single annual planning session is also problematic. You want to avoid getting to the end of the year before realizing that you were focused on the wrong thing. Our lives change, and what was true at the start of the year may not be at the end of it.
A quarterly planning cycle solves these problems. 12 weeks is short enough to be flexible and long enough to allow you to make real progress on your projects.
There is a vast difference between setting a goal you want to complete in the next five years and one you want to complete in three months. A quarterly goal is urgent. It requires action starting now. It has to be realistic and achievable.
Before You Start Quarterly Planning: The Setup
Step One: Create a Quarterly Planning Calendar
You don’t have to start on January first! Although it may satisfy the nerd in you, you don’t have to start your first quarterly planning session on Jan 1. Instead, start where you are.
Add three months to today’s date and repeat it three more times.
So if today is May 14th, 2023
- May 14th
- Aug 14th
- Nov 14th
- Feb 14th
Those dates will fall on different days of the week. So if you’re like me and like to plan on a particular day (I like Sundays), look up those dates and note the nearest Sunday instead. For me, they would look like this.
- Sunday, May 14th
- Sunday, Aug 13th
- Sunday, Nov 12th
- Sunday, Feb 11th (2024)
Mark these dates on your calendar, set a reminder on your phone, write them down in your bullet journal or do something to ensure you remember them.
You now have your quarterly planning calendar.
Step Two: Create a Planning Checklist
Having a checklist you can follow will make your planning sessions go faster and smoother and ensure you get all the essential things.
Sometimes you’ll feel motivated to do some planning and set some goals. But when you sit down to do a quarterly planning session, you realize you need to figure out what to do. A checklist comes in handy here.
You don’t need to redesign the wheel, though. Instead, use the checklist below as a starting point and add anything specific to your workflow.
- Perform a brain dump
- Review last quarter’s goals
- Identify problems and solutions
- Make goals for this quarter
- Create a plan for each goal
- Make a list of tasks for each goal
This quarterly planning process may seem like a lot to get through in one session, but you may only need to do some of it every quarter. For example, you may not have encountered any problems this quarter, so you skip step three.
It’s important to add (or remove) the things that make sense for you and what you are trying to achieve. For example, you might want to include a session with a professional life coach or therapist as part of your quarterly planning, or you might add a clearout of your productivity system. Add whatever you think will work for you, and try it out. If it doesn’t work, you can always change it next quarter.
Once you’ve found a process that works for you, a quarterly planning session will become much more efficient. So pull out your checklist and get going.
Start a Quarterly Planning Session
All you need to do now is go through the steps you outlined in your checklist.
Step One: Brain Dump
A brain dump should always be the first thing you do before any planning session. It increases clarity of thought and gets everything out of your head for use in the following steps.
To perform a brain dump, take a pen and paper or your favorite software, and write down anything that pops into your mind. It’s just like brainstorming but write everything down, even if it’s not related.
There are plenty of prompting questions you can use if you get stuck. Or a trigger list can be helpful. Remember, however, your goal here is to do a quarterly planning session, not a brain dump, so limit your brain dump time to about 15 minutes. Then, you can always return to it and do a more thorough brain dump later if needed.
Step Two: Review
If you have goals you set in the previous quarter or any other goal-setting session, take them out.
Check off the goals you have accomplished and ask yourself why you could not complete the others. Are they no longer relevant, and can they be discarded? Or is there something you need to do to ensure you meet them in the next quarter?
Step Three: Problems and Solutions
Problems are the stage that most people don’t like. It’s easy t bury your head in the sand here and ignore your problems, but you’d be missing out on a massive part of what quarterly planning has to offer.
Yes, we want to achieve new things, but we also want to make our lives better by solving our problems.
Perhaps you have an injury you’ve been ignoring, you hoped it would go away, but it hasn’t. You could solve this problem with a trip to a sports therapist or other professional.
You might have argued with a family member, and although it isn’t stopping you from achieving your goals, it is causing you unnecessary stress. Again, this is a problem you could note down. Is there a solution? Even if the relationship is too far gone to save, you may be able to get relief from talking to a therapist.
There are many solutions to our problems, and most are not so complicated to figure out. All it takes is to recognize the problem and commit to doing something about it.
Step Four: Set Goals
OK, this is the fun bit!
You have three months. What can you accomplish?
What do you want to have checked off in your next quarterly session?
Don’t overwhelm yourself here. It’s too easy to get overexcited and set 20 goals to achieve by the next quarter, but that isn’t realistic. You could be setting yourself up for failure if you try to do too much. Instead, first, figure out what a goal is.
There is a difference between tasks, projects, and goals.
- A task is an outcome you achieve with action
- A project is an outcome you achieve with tasks
- A goal is an outcome you achieve with projects
“Buy an iPhone” is a task you complete by performing an action.
“Decide on which phone to buy” is a project. You must do tasks (research online, ask friends, etc.) to complete them.
Save enough money for a new phone is a goal. It’s the outcome of many tasks and projects.
SMART Goals, Input Goals, and Output Goals
There are many different ideas on how to set goals. SMART goals, for example, should be:
- Relevant (or Relaistic)
Quarterly goals are SMART by default.
This is good advice for making goals, but it’s less critical if you make quarterly goals. If you’re writing down an objective to be checked off in three months, it’s already specific, measurable, and timely. As long as you don’t overreach, it will be achievable too.
You can use input or output goals to help motivate you, though.
- Input goals focus on what you do (e.g., do 50 workouts this quarter)
- Output goals focus on what you get (e.g., lose 10 lbs this quarter)
Best Practices for Setting Quarterly Goals
- Set goals in different areas of focus to keep balance in your life.
- Set 3-10 goals to avoid overwhelm and stress.
- Set a goal that solves a problem
- Set a goal that will lead to a bigger goal next quarter
Step Five: Make a Plan
By step five, you should have three to ten goals decided, so it’s time to make some plans.
You might think that your goals don’t need a plan outline, but you’re more likely to succeed with one. The number one reason people don’t do the things they tell themselves they should is not that they’re lazy. It’s because they have yet to decide how they will do it.
Goal: Start learning Spanish
Without a plan, you skip day one because you don’t know how to start or don’t have the books you need. So instead, create a plan of how you will learn Spanish. Are you going to follow a textbook? Get a teacher? Go to a class? Those things need to be organized before you start working on your goal.
A plan can be simple. It might be a single bullet point. Just ask yourself what you need to do to complete the goal, and can you do that?
These two questions may reveal that you need to do more research or buy something to start working on your goal.
Step Six: List Tasks
The last step of a quarterly planning session is listing your tasks.
A month into the next quarter, you don’t want to be pulling out your plans to figure out what you need to do next. Instead, all the tasks that need to be completed should be listed and added to a task management system.
You don’t need a fancy productivity system or a second brain to do this. A simple note application on your phone will be enough. Make sure they are accessible, so you have them when you need them. Prioritize your tasks if they need to be completed in order.
Now you have an action plan! All that’s left is to start doing those tasks day-to-day and get closer to accomplishing your goals.