biz ladiesLife & Business

biz ladies: planning a blueprint for the year

by Stephanie

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!

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  • Great post. I attended a seminar about making a living as an artist and they recommended once you set your goals, doing three small things every day to help you accomplish those seemingly impossible goals. It really does help to break those goals down into tiny steps.

  • Wonderful and so helpful, thank you. This is a “printable” post. I sometimes freeze up when overwhelmed so a well thought out plan broken down into smaller steps helps me keep focused.

  • I often use project management web software to plan out my steps and give myself the larger deadlines. Then, when it gets closer to a milestone, I break it down smaller. Be realistic about your time, don’t make deadlines too tight!

  • This post made me so exited about the goal list that I have set for the year! Thank you Elanor and thank you D*S for the biz ladies series, you are empowering lots of ladies (and men? idk…), myself included.

  • I’m inspired. I think this is a really helpful way to plan out a year. There are so many unknowns in my year ahead (such as still looking for permanent work), but I think there is some room in this model to account for that.

  • Oh this couldn’t have come at a better time! The aspect of relevance struck such a note with me, I think it’s a word that can be applied to even larger aspects of life. If it’s not relevant (or even better, resonant), it’s not worth your focus.

  • Thank you Eleanor, I’ve been trying to find an easier way of starting my forward planning for the year. this will be a tremendous help!

  • Thank you Eleanor! This sounds like a good way to plan ahead. I did something similar for last year, but much more detailled, so I only ever planned my projects for the first half of the year and then the second half felt like running through my fingers and unfocussed until I had time in october to plan the rest. So your advise to keep it simple and abstract enough to spread the projects/milestones over the year will be followed by me this year.

  • I’m not so much of a think ahead planner, so this is very helpful for me. I’ll start this week! Thanks for posting!

  • Thanks to Elenore for a great planning model. Sometimes we artists excel at creative endeavors, but do not work with plan in black and white. This three step model seems quite do-able and there for more likely to be implemented. I thank you for the direction.

  • Posts like this are one of the many reasons I truly love Design Sponge. The information is not only relevant and truly helpful, it is inspiring as well. After reading the post and visiting the wonderful e.m. papers website, I am ready to start my own 2012 scheduling planner. Thank you!

  • Just want to say thanks love the visuals I’m not great with pure text and it has really helped me ancor my plans. I have litrally been needing a post like this for a year as I really find it hard to plan when it seems to me that my business is soooooo vast where do I start (but this has really helped me).THANKS

  • Thank you! I have a million and one things in my head and this helps me with getting them onto paper and focussing on specific goals.

  • So timely! I feel like I spend just as much time planning and re-planning all the daily tasks as I do actually doing them. Thanks so much for making it so simple!

  • Post-it-Notes across my studio wall work really well for this process. It allows me to move sub goals when necessary and I like that my eyes are on them all of the time so I don’t lose sight of where I need to be putting my attention.

  • I really like the idea of creating a ‘high-level-plan’ as it leaves room to wander off and explore new territory but it will prevent me from getting lost in all that is possible to return to the high level plan, based on ‘what gets me out of bed in the morning’. Thanks for sharing!

  • I’ve only read the first half of this post and already I am fired up about creating a plan! It’s exactly what I needed to do for my business this week and I’ve been procrastinating. But you made it seem really practical and fun, thanks! (now, I’m off to read the rest of the post)