Professional Focus Planning for the New Year

A desk with a plant, coffee, and a notebook

A few years ago, I was feeling overwhelmed at work, as most of us do. I sought help from a mentor who graciously advised me to sit down and develop a shortlist of what I wanted to focus on for the year. This is far from a to-do list but instead meant to focus on the year’s significant initiatives. I have been iterating on my list for the past three years now and have found it tremendously helpful at keeping me organized, focused, and easing the sensation of overwhelm.

Each new year brings renewed focus, personally and professionally. I am not big into New Year’s resolutions, but I do draw out a professional plan of attack for the new year.

My plan of attack document is divided into five short categories: “Themes,” “Do Now,” “3–6 months”, “6–12 months”, and “12+ months”. I’ll dive into specifics of each category when to create this list and when to call them done.

Redacted screenshot of my 2019 Plan of Attack Document.

Themes

The themes section comprises 2–5 short sentences of how I’d like to prioritize my time in the new year. Frequently, themes may repeat from the previous year if I feel like I need to continue to work on them. A couple of examples of my 2019 themes are: “More time for strategy, curiosity, and critical thinking” and “Reason from first principles, start with what is true, not from intuition.” Themes are meant to be high-level and serve as my compass for the year.

I often-times have specific percentage estimates on how I’d like to divide and spend my time; this is the appropriate section to list these out. You can easily automate the process of measuring this by using a tool like RescueTime and assigning buckets according to how you plan to divide your time, for example, between deep work, communications, learning, etc.

Do Now

As the name implies, I am to complete these items early in the year. Many of the initiatives here are leftover from the previous year. Examples on my 2019 list include: “Improve recruiting assignments for engineering candidates,” and “Establish ways for tech-leads within my organization to grow their sphere of influence.” As you can tell by now, the items on the list as reasonably involved, and therefore I try to max out each section at 8–10 items at most.

3–6 and 6–12 Months

There is nothing significantly distinguished about the topics under these two sections aside from timing. We are bad at estimating most tasks, and therefore this is likely where most of the re-arranging of items will happen throughout the year.

12+ Months

The view towards twelve months in the future is cloudy, as it should be. I tend to use this section mostly for reminders of multi-quarter initiatives that depend on many of the previous sections’ items. Another topic that comes up pretty often within this section is long-term business and team goals and scheduled deep dives into currently immature technologies or processes.

Timing

For me, the most opportune time to tidy up the plan of attack for the following year is the last two weeks of December. By this time, I know what we’ve accomplished, what needs to be scratched off, and what needs to be carried over for the next year.

I say tidy up because I begin collecting items for the next year’s document in the last quarter of each year. As things float to the top repeatedly, I write it down — this has the added benefit of separating the important from the urgent — allowing me to focus on things of substance, rather than running around putting out fires.

I tend to review the document every other week to ensure my internal compass aligns with my longer-term goals and check off items on the list periodically as they are completed. A simple Calendar reminder keeps me honest.

Only Me

A critical aspect that my mentor taught me years ago is to mark items with a label of “Only Me.” These are items that I presume to be on nobody else’s radar but my own. It doesn’t necessarily mean I will do them all-by-myself, but it does mean that if I don’t take the initiative, it likely will not happen. I typically limit the number of items marked as “Only Me” to a handful. Labeling too many items as “Only Me” is a good indication I need to delegate ownership and empower others.

There is no magic bullet, but I hope you can take away a few insights and apply them to your yearly planning.

Thanks for reading 🤗

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