Today’s Biz Ladies post is from German resident, graphic designer and e.m.papers co-founder, Eleanor. While establishing and managing a downloadable paper company, Eleanor learned how to effectively handle her time and plan for the future. Today she shares some tips for scheduling milestones in the year ahead. Thanks, Eleanor, for this wonderful post! — Stephanie
Read the full post after the jump . . .
The beginning of the year is a natural time to sit down and think about all the things you’d like to accomplish over the next 12 months. For some, a whirlwind of ideas, goals and tasks threaten to overwhelm. For others, nothing is more satisfying than creating mountains of lists or downloading the latest productivity app and filling it to the gills with every last task and subtask from January 1st to December 31st.
I propose a middle ground involving three steps to start the year off on the right foot. It centers on identifying and plotting out a series of milestones for the year.
“Milestones” are standard project management jargon. The original meaning of the term is a series of markers along a path to indicate progress. Milestones in project management refer to major achievements or events along the path leading to a pre-defined goal. For example, a milestone can be the completion of a project, or the “shipping” of a product. A milestone indicates when something starts or finishes and can also indicate one big event like “online store goes live.”
There are a couple steps to take before determining what your milestones are — namely, setting goals and defining the projects and activities required to accomplish those goals. Once you’ve figured out these two pieces, you can plot a series of milestones along a time line (a high-level plan) on which to base JIT (Just in Time) planning throughout the year.
Together, these three steps can make some sense out of the jumble of ideas swirling around in your head, as well as prevent overly detailed planning that will be obsolete by the end of January.
Each of these steps is part of the six basic steps that make up most project management methodologies shown here:
I’m leaving out the estimation step, so this is a bit of a shortcut recipe to get started.
Let’s look at these three steps in detail:
1. Set goals.
This is harder than it looks. Defining the right goals is foundational for staying on track for the rest of the year. It necessarily involves a lot of reflection and soul searching. Take some time to think in detail about what exactly you both need and want to accomplish, be or do.
Many of you may have heard of the SMART criteria for setting goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Timely). There is a reason so many people refer to this acronym when discussing goals: it works. I’d also like to go out on a limb and suggest that one criterion is more critical than the rest: relevance. I call this the “what gets you out of bed in the morning” criterion. For some folks, this may be a financial target; for others, it may be achieving a certain amount of creative recognition. Whatever it is, relevance is important because if your goals are relevant and resonate deeply with your personal values, they will keep you motivated and focused when the going gets rough.
When it comes to setting goals, don’t overdo it. Each goal will give rise to several projects. As a rule of thumb, I try to limit my goals to a maximum of five per year. I advise doing this in several sittings, rather than all at once.
2. Define projects.
Once you’ve defined your goals, the next logical step is figuring out how to accomplish them. This is also known as defining your scope; in other words, figuring out what projects and activities you’ll need to undertake to convert your goals into reality.
A simple way to do this is to brainstorm all the things you can do that will help you advance toward your goals. It’s important to think at the project level, rather than the task level. A project involves several steps and can take anywhere from a few days to several months. At this point in the process, you want to think very high level; don’t concern yourself with individual tasks and details, just the “big picture” items that need to be accomplished.
Do this for each of your goals. You may find that each goal has generated anywhere from one to five projects. If you have three goals, you may have anywhere from three to 15 projects for the year. Some of the projects may advance more than one goal; that’s normal and not a cause for concern. The important thing is just figuring out what they are and getting them captured in some format. Below is one example for someone who has set a goal of selling more jewelry online:
Again, don’t try to do this in one sitting. Jot this stuff down, let it sit for a week and come back to it later to review it and see if it still makes sense.
3. Plot your milestones onto a high-level plan.
Once you feel confident that you’ve got the right goals and projects in place, it’s time to create a high-level plan for the year.
To do this, review your projects. First you’ll have to determine if there are any dependencies between your projects, meaning that one project can’t get started until another is completed. Once you’ve noted any dependencies, you’ll want to plot some milestones in a logical sequence. Don’t plot all the tasks and activities that will happen onto your plan, just the big indications of progress, such as project start and completion dates, big events or dates you hope to have certain goals accomplished (e.g., 200 new email subscribers). Here’s an example of what the milestones would look like for our jewelry maker:
This is your blueprint to work with when doing more detailed planning. You can reference this plan each month to create a mid-level plan, which you can then reference each week to do more detailed planning. Not only does this collection of milestones serve as a blueprint, it also works as a map, helping you to continue moving in the right direction.
The benefit of waiting to plan only at the start of each month and week as it arises, rather than all at once, is that your plans will stay relevant and realistic. It’s an (annoying!) fact of life that things change. We may have to add, drop or alter projects as new realities emerge. Emergencies and opportunities that we didn’t plan for will arise, and plans will have to be altered. Incremental planning helps avoid having to go back and rework every minute detail.
The techniques outlined here are tool agnostic. You can use whatever suits you — pen and paper, a whiteboard over your desk, Basecamp, iCal or the app of your choice, whatever works. The most important point is making that “milestones view” easily accessible.
Good luck and happy planning!