It’s that time of the year again. While some are frantically trying to recollect their goals for 2018, some others (like me) have given up on them and started planning for the next year. Well, aren’t we supposed to think about our future instead of dwelling on our past?
“How are we doing on our goals for 2018?”
This was the first question thrown at us at a session last week. It was ironical that the ice-breaker question made many of us noticeably uncomfortable. The loud silence that ensued was comforting. After all, I wasn’t the only one who had almost given up on my goals for the year. Later that day, I recollected the goals I’d set and wanted to reflect on my progress. To be honest, I wasn’t doing as bad as I thought I was, but there was a lot left to do. To find out where I lagged, I used the most effective system for analysis that has always worked for me– the good old excel sheet. I decided to write everything I did in 2018. I choose 2 columns – one for Life and one for Work. Surprisingly the work list had a good number of tasks I’d accomplished than the Life column. I thought it was understandable because I’d moved to a different country and while my life (column) took a back seat, my work could not and did not (of course, how else could I afford the new iPhone). Nonetheless, my productivity at work has been decent and I was surprised at how well I was placed there.
It didn’t take me long enough to figure out that my productivity at work was because of Jira. For the uninitiated, Jira is an agile project management tool. It provides you with the big picture and goes all the way down to the minute details of a project. You can break down the project outcomes or goals into Epics, Stories/Tasks, and Sub-Tasks with a clear definition of done. Epics are the high-level requirements to achieve your goals (for example, building an app) and are then broken down into Stories/Task. Stories/Tasks go a level deeper in details and constitute the tasks which make the epic functional. Similarly, Stories/Tasks are broken into sub-tasks and they constitute activities which make the Story functional. By breaking down a big piece of work into small chunks, you make it easier to identify all the activities that need to be worked on and track them. Never underestimate the power of clear, actionable tasks with reasonable deadlines.
To measure progress, the duration of the project is divided into sprints. Before a sprint begins, you decide the epics/stories that need to be completed by the end of the sprint. After the sprint ends, you review the progress and plan for the next sprint.
Jira helps you prepare a comprehensive plan for your project and provides great visibility of the progress at any point in time.
As complicated as this can get, for someone like me who likes to keep my work organized, Jira is a boon. I can plan my work, understand the priority and check if I’m on track. Of course, things always don’t go as per plan. There will be last-minute, high-priority tasks that will make their way in. But having a clear idea of what’s on my plate will help me plan where I can accommodate ad-hoc tasks and what can be deprioritized. Jira helps me remain flexible to keep with the evolving priorities of the project, while at the same time it gives me a solid structure to work on. This way, I spend time doing the work than wondering what to do.
Considering how well the Jira system worked for me at work, I wanted to apply this concept to accomplish my life goals as well.
With Jira in mind, I looked at the goals I’d planned for 2018. One look at the 5 bullet points (I might have been over-ambitious) made me realize what was hampering my progress. My goals were neither specific nor measurable, I wasn’t clear about the end state I wished to achieve. There wasn’t any plan of action. I compared this with my clearly defined actions, with a detailed plan and deadlines for my work tasks. There was a world of a difference between them. Since my goals weren’t clear, I did not know what to measure. I did not review my goals to check if I was on track. I didn’t do anything other than writing them down and pray that they would magically work by themselves.
It was time to bring Jira into my (non-work) life.
I started with my first goal – to improve my fitness. I listed the different aspects of fitness that would help me achieve my goal.
Goal -> Epic: To improve fitness
Story 1 – To work-out regularly
Story 2 – To eat healthier meals every day
Story 3 – To measure progress regularly
Story 4 – To find ways to tackle Stress
This looked good. The actions were clear. But was this good enough? Well, not really.
I’ve identified the actions to work on, but the stories are vague. Working out regularly is good – but what is the definition of regular? 5 days a week of 3 days a week? Eating healthier meals is good, but what exactly can you do for it? This is where the importance of being specific and realistic comes into picture. If the goal is not challenging, we might not see the results we wish to achieve. If it is too challenging, we would give it up easily. It’s all about striking the right balance.
To define my goals clearly, I had to be practical. So, I rewrote my stories.
Epic – To improve fitness in 1 year
Story 1 – To eat well-balanced meals every day, with 2 cheat meals a week.
Story 2 – To work-out 4 days a week.
Story 3 – To measure progress (weight/measurements/BMI/Fat%) on the 1st of every month.
Story 4 – To meditate/doodle/write/read (or any activity that helps you destress) 15 minutes every day.
This gives me a much better idea of what to do.
Now that I’ve defined ‘what’ to do, I had to tackle ‘how’ to implement these stories. These are the tasks I would need to do on a daily basis and it is important to define them clearly, weave them into my schedule and be consistent. After all, consistency determines our outcomes.
Story 1 – To eat well-balanced meals every day, with 2 cheat meals a week.
Sub-Task 1 – Prepare a weekly meal plan every Friday, for the following week.
Sub-Task 2 – Plan your Grocery shopping depending on the meal plans
Sub-Task 3 – Do the Grocery Shopping every Saturday
Sub-Task 4 – Devise a strategy – meal prep on weekends or cook one meal a day (whatever suits you)
Sub Task 5– Complete meal prep every Sunday (or) Prepare meals at 7 pm every day.
Now, does this look like a well-thought-out plan?
The plan does seem all right. But the effectiveness of the plan depends on how well it works. The only way to check if a plan works is to track it diligently. We assume we fare much better than we actually do, so recording how consistent we are is important. This will help us analyze our habits which in turn will help us achieve results. Yes, there are bound to be urgent, ad-hoc issues to look into and they might eat into our schedule. That’s fine as long as we remember to get back on track the next day, instead of feeling guilty about missing a routine and then giving it up altogether. I remember the words of a popular fitness trainer who said, ‘You will not become skinny by eating one salad. You will not get fat if you have one ‘bad’ meal. Progress, both forward and backward, takes time & consistency’. What matters is the collective efforts of many days. It’s ok if we slack occasionally.
When I looked at the list of activities, I was happy. It wasn’t just a goal anymore, I had a set of guidelines to get me where I wanted. After breaking down my fitness goals for 2018 into epics, stories, and tasks, I proceeded to do the same for my other goals. I spent an hour working on my priorities and ensured I found time in my daily schedule to accommodate the tasks. Luckily, my work doesn’t extend beyond certain hours, so that leaves me with enough time to take care of the household chores as well as my hobbies.
To check if this plan was right for me, I tried to follow the schedule for a week. This pilot run helped me learn a lot about myself and how well I could stick to a plan. I thought I would be able to stick to the plan all the time, but in reality, I could stick to my schedule only for 70% of the time. So I reworked on my tasks and made them more reasonable. I also realized that I did loads better when I planned my day ahead, instead of leaving the decisions till the last minute. So, instead of trying to make good decisions multiple times in a day, I got them done once. For instance, I would take my gym bag with me every morning when I left for work. This way, I would complete my workout after work and just before getting back home. I avoided taking a decision about the workout after getting back from a tired day at work. This way I eliminated many bad decisions I was likely to make. I didn’t overwhelm myself by trying to do all the tasks in a single day. I started with a few tasks on day 1 and gradually introduced the other tasks during the week. After the pilot run, I was optimistic about the plan I’d prepared for the next year.
The biggest lesson I learned was – Always, always, always have a plan. Take one goal, brainstorm and break it down into as many components it may have and detail a plan for each of the components. Pay attention to the prerequisites of your tasks as it might have a substantial impact on your work. Depending on how critical it is to your life, decide the frequency – if it’s something you want to do daily, weekly or monthly. Do it at the same time every day/week/month to get into the habit of doing it even without being reminded to. Track your progress to analyze your habits to see if you’re heading the right way. If you aren’t, tweak your plan to make them work. It might seem overwhelming at first, but if you take it one step at a time you will be able to figure it out.
So, the next time you take up a resolution, don’t blame the resolutions for not working out by themselves. As important as it is to have goals, we need a plan that will help us work towards the goals. A feasible plan that we will be able to work on even after the initial motivation wades off. You need a strong intention and a stronger plan to see you through.
Is this a lot of work? Yes. Nothing comes easy. But, is it worth the effort? Absolutely!
Image Courtesy: Pixabay