From the idealistic to the pragmatic: Priorities -> Goals -> Tasks

In the previous two weeks, I wrote about identifying your unique priorities and creating goals in order to make those priorities a reality. Now, it’s time to get very specific and identify tasks that will allow you to reach your goals, so you can live according to your priorities.

Once you identify important goals in your life, it’s time to break them down into actionable steps. What tasks can bring you closer to your goal?

If you want to learn to play piano, a suitable aim may be to play piano 3 times per week for 30 minutes. If you want to spend more time with friends, you can make it a goal to meet up with a friend for dinner or lunch once a week. Then, go ahead and make arrangements with your friends to that end. The key here is to make the steps actionable, so it’s clear what you need to do to move closer to your goal.

Next, you should put the action you’ve identified on your calendar and/or to-do list. Put it somewhere where you won’t forget about the activity, you’ll be reminded of it, and you’ll be able to review it. My calendar and my to-do list (both digital) are my best friends in this regard because they are always by my side (on my phone).

It’s very important to be practical and to plan your activities in detail. Multiple studies have shown the “when, then” approach extremely effective in modifying behavior: for instance, “when I come home from work, I will play piano for 30 minutes. Thus, identify when exactly you will do your new behavior, and decide on what exactly you will do. Be as specific as possible.

We should aim to break down our big goals into small, manageable steps and plan when and how we will carry those out. This is the way to make our goals happen.

Be specific with your priorities: Set goals

Last week, I wrote about how you can identify what’s truly important to you in your life. Now, let’s get specific, so we can make your vision a reality.

Now that you’ve reflected on the main categories of your life, we’re going to set goals to reflect where you’d like to be regarding each category.

In some of these areas, you may already be living life as you’d like it to be, and in other areas, there may be a mismatch between what you’d like your life to look like and what it currently is. In this exercise, you’ll gain awareness of where you are now and where you’d like to be.

  1. What goals and projects (activities, responsibilities, things you do) do you have in each category?
  2. Do you feel fulfilled by the combination of goals and projects listed here? Does the list feel “complete”?
  3. In an ideal world, would you remove any goals and/or projects from this category, i.e., would you take anything off your list?
  4. In an ideal world, would you add any goals and/or projects to this list? Is there anything that you feel is missing that you’d like to add?

Run through this exercise for each of the 10 priorities categories. You’re finished when each category feels fulfilling to you.

Now, try to take in the 10 categories together. Do they make for a fulfilling, purposeful life? It may be difficult to hold everything you’ve written in mind at the same time, but allow your gut feeling to guide you here. Does your intuition tell you something is missing? Or does this feel like a pretty good life?

What is most important to you? Identify your priorities

One of the biggest stressors in an otherwise fortunate life is to not be living the life you want. It may sound like your life is great, but unless it reflects your idea of what’s important, it may not feel fulfilling to you.

But how can you identify your unique priorities? There are so many things to think about and so many things you find important in life, you may not even know where to start.

In order to make identifying your priorities feel less overwhelming, I invite you to consider the main categories of your life:

  1. Work & Mission
  2. Learning
  3. Finances
  4. Health
  5. Family
  6. Friends
  7. Care
  8. Relaxing & Fun
  9. Spirituality
  10. Purpose & Fulfillment

What is important to you in each category? What would you like to add in (some of) these categories to make them feel more in alignment with how you’d like to live your life?

What responsibilities are you carrying in (some of) these categories that do not feel authentic to you? Are you able to spend less time on those, delegate them to someone else, or simply not do them? What can you remove from your life, so you can have more time and energy for what matters to you?

Note: These 10 main categories of life are loosely based on Brendon Burchard‘s work, but the ones listed here have been adapted by me.

My Monthly Review took me 12 minutes

When I talk about my Review System to others, people often ask, “Doesn’t it all take too long?”

In fact, it doesn’t. Setting up a new system for the first time may be an investment of time, but maintaining it is quick.

This morning, I did my Monthly Review for May. I timed myself, and it took me 12 minutes. Literally! I almost felt disappointed there was nothing more to do. I love the Monthly Review, and when the time comes for it (once a month, duh!), I want to savor it and enjoy it. But after 12 minutes, it was done.

What is the Monthly Review?

Ah, I’m so glad you asked. The Monthly Review is a periodic review of the past month and a preview of the upcoming month. I like to do this towards the end of each month. Here, I’ll be describing the Monthly Review for the end of May 2021.

Continue reading “My Monthly Review took me 12 minutes”

Find what works for you! Try this: Daily intention-and-implementation setting

I get a slight gagging feeling when I read about “add these 5 habits to your morning routine to become extremely productive.” These may be great habits, but they’re not all necessities for everyone. In fact, in my workshop on priorities & productivity, I emphasize that different things work for different people. The best thing we can do is to try out different ideas, figure out what works for us, and implement that consistently.

There’s no point in trying to change ourselves. You may think that getting up early is a great idea, but if you’re an evening person, that may not be the best approach for you. Or you may think that it’s great to be able to follow your own to-do list, but if external accountability is what you need, you’d be wasting precious time trying to change yourself instead of doing what works for you.

Continue reading “Find what works for you! Try this: Daily intention-and-implementation setting”

Yearly Review in these strange times

Happy New Year, everybody! You might think that in these strange times where so much is unpredictable there’s not much of a point in doing a yearly review. But I’ve come to tell you that every year is suited for a yearly review!

If you think about it, life is always unpredictable. 2020 has brought us particularly unexpected circumstances, but it is a fact of life that you can never predict everything that happens. The goal of the yearly review is not to try to control everything that happens to us but rather to reflect on what we’d like in our lives and go about making it happen.

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The Joy of the Annual Review

One of my favorite events of the year just took place: Are you thinking of New Year’s Eve? Well, you almost got it…

My eternal love goes to the Annual Review. This is the wonderful time of year when I look back on the year that just passed and then look forward to the year that is to come. It’s a time for reflection on the recent past and crafting of the future.

The structure of the Annual Review

The Annual Review consists of three main parts:

  1. What went well this year?
  2. What didn’t go so well this year?
  3. What would I like for next year?

Reflect on the past year

I make a list for each point. Often we forget many of the things we did over the course of a year, so I remind myself of what has happened over the past 12 months. I look through my calendar and at the outputs of my Monthly Reviews. I also look at my list of goals for 2018 which resulted from my previous Annual Review.

For instance, some things that went well for me this year were:

  • Publication of my first paper (yay!)
  • Completed a Dutch course
  • Completed three strength training programs
  • Completed my 2019 Reading Challenge
  • Got engaged (yay!!!)

There are also things that didn’t go so well for me, for example:

  • Didn’t meditate consistently every day (went off track sometimes)
  • Got stressed and didn’t see things in perspective at times

I should note that I add to both lists as I think of stuff. It’s helpful to first think about things that went well and then about things that didn’t go so well, but it’s also fine to add things to either list as they come up in your mind. After all, it’s an organic process.

Reflection is just like fireworks: glamorous and awesome.
Photo by
Javon Swaby from Pexels

Plan the upcoming year

Then, I move on to planning the upcoming year. Again, I look at the calendar and think about what I will do when, approximately, and how the year would unfold. Most importantly, I think about what I’d like to focus on at different times throughout the year (e.g., different work projects, quality time with family, skill development, or travel).

I make a list of the things I’d like to accomplish during the upcoming year. My list for 2019 contains, among others:

  • Write a paper for my second project (now completed)
  • Begin third project (new)
  • Give bootcamp on Personal Organization
  • Play the piano at least 3 times per week
  • Meditate every day, even if only for 1 minute
  • Get married!

Review your list once a month

Once you make your list, make sure you review it often, around once per month. I do this as a part of my Monthly Review, but you could also do it if you put your list above your desk or on your fridge door. In this way, you will come back to the goals you set for yourself, and they will actually be useful.

The first time I did an Annual Review (in 2014), I made a to do list for 2015, and guess when I looked at it? At my 2015 Annual Review. Needless to say, that wasn’t super useful. While I had accomplished many of the items on it, I had completely forgotten about others. That’s why I recommend checking the list more often.

Reflect and plan based on priorities

As a part of my Annual Review, I consider my priorities. I reflect on the extent to which I’ve acted according to my priorities during the past year. In thinking about the upcoming year, I consider what actions I can introduce or adapt to in order to better fit my priorities.

By breaking things down like this, you get much more concrete insights because the priorities are the different categories, or themes, of your life. If you wonder, “What would I like to improve next year?” this question may be too vague to prompt any meaningful insight. But if you ask, “How would I like to connect with my family more next year?” you may get much more specific, and thus useful, answers.

Concluding remarks

Reflect together with a friend

As an extra bonus, ask a close friend or significant other to join you in your Annual Review quest. While I’ve done this by myself in the past, this year I did it together with my fiancee. This turned out to be a lot of fun! We asked each other questions and in many ways enriched each other’s reflection and idea generation. It was very pleasant and eye-opening to reflect on the past year together with someone else.


I’m very grateful for information on the Annual Review by James Clear and Chris Guillebeau. Check out how they do their annual reviews for some slightly different implementations. James also includes a section called “What have I learned [from the past year]?” and Chris shares a cool spreadsheet where he tracks his progress towards his goals as the year progresses.

Until next year, my dear Annual Review…

And this is it for the annual review. While I wish I could do it more often because I enjoy this time of reflection so much, the annual review takes place once per year by definition. In the meantime, I’ll have to satisfy myself with mediocre Weekly Reviews and slightly special Monthly Reviews… *sigh*

If you have no idea what I’m talking about or would like to know more, you can check out my description of my Review System.

So, did you try to Annual Review? What insights did you reach? What are you planning for next year? And, most importantly, did you enjoy it?
Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

My Organization System: An Overview

Over the last two months, I explained my Organization System:

  1. Blog Post 1: Your Priorities
  2. Blog Post 2: Get More Specific
  3. Blog Post 3: Dealing with Tasks
  4. Blog Post 4: The Getting Things Done Approach
  5. Blog Post 5: Useful Tools for Personal Organization
  6. Blog Post 6: The Review System

And that’s it! Remember: break it down and write it down!

PrioritiesGoals → ProjectsTasks

Your best friends are your workflow tool and your calendar. They make life so much easier!

Use whatever tools you like to schedule tasks and keep track of your workflow.

Review your progress regularly and how that fits with your priorities. This will keep you on track and will you motivate you.

And one last tip: Schedule time for fun!

Whatever is on the calendar gets done. Whatever is not on the calendar does not get done.

So put it on your calendar, whatever your idea of fun is!

And let me know! How does this system work for you? What tips and tricks do you have? What tools do you use? I’d love to hear from you 🙂

The Review System

Any organizational system only works if… you actually use it. If you write down your priorities and never look at them again, that doesn’t help you much. If you make a list with all the tasks for a project and never go back to check your progress, that list is useless. Therefore, you need a good review system in place. How to do that?

The daily review

At the beginning of the day, I check my calendar and my Trello for the day. I also check Wunderlist. When I’m working on a task, I drag it to the “Doing Now” list on Trello. When I’m finished with the task, I move it to “Done Today.” At the end of the day, I look through the tasks in “Done Today,” and I mark those as done on my project management board. (See previous blog post for more details.) I also briefly think about what went well today, what didn’t go so well today, and what I learned today.

The weekly review

The weekly review is probably the most important to me. It has two parts: what I call the “Weekly Preview” (at the beginning of the week) and the “Weekly Review” (at the end of the week). In my weekly preview, I look at my calendar to see what I have scheduled for the upcoming week. I check what work deadlines I have. I also look at my project board to look what the next steps are on my projects. Then, I decide how I will distribute my time this week and what tasks I will work on each day. This saves lots of time during the week when I could be left wondering, “Okay, what do I do next?”

I also go through my goals and my priorities. I think about how what I’m going to do this week fits with my goals and priorities. If there is a discrepancy between what I want and what I am going to do, I can change things around and make sure that my daily activities reflect my priorities and are bringing me closer to achieving my goals.

At the end of the week, I do the weekly review: I look at what I’ve done this week by checking Trello and my calendar. I think about what went well, what didn’t go so well, and what I’ve learned. I assess whether the week has gone according to my priorities and if not, what I’d like to change in the future. Did I work too much? Did I get enough sleep? Did I talk to my family? Did I exercise?

I do a money review as well where I look at how much I’ve spent on what and how that fits into my budgets.

I also briefly go over what I will do over the weekend and next week.

The monthly review

Once a month, I do the monthly review in which I look at what I’ve done over the past month and what I’ll do during the next month (and possibly the next few months). I create a new Google Doc for each month where I write my main goals for the month, the main things I’d like to work on, and the things I’d like to spend time on. I also write down any fun trips or cool things I’m looking forward to.

To explain how this works, if today is March 1, I will review how February went. I will have written a list for February on February 1, and I will go through the items and briefly remark on how they went. Usually, this looks like, “yeah!!!,” yes, did that,” “yep,” “kind of,” “a little bit,” “not really,” “nope,” or “haha, right” for each item I had for the month. Then I will make a Google Doc with a list of items for March. On April 1, I will review the list for March, etc. I also make sure to implement those items on the monthly list in my project management tools, lists, and calendar. Then I know they will get done.

I reflect on how this month went. Did it fit my priorities? What went well, what didn’t go so well, and what have I learned? (You’re probably beginning to see a trend here.) Did I have a good balance going through the month? Did I make progress with my work? Did I get enough rest? Did I maintain a healthy sense of perspective? Did I have fun?

I also think about what habits I tried and succeeded or failed to establish. Did I respect my bedtime? Did I exercise regularly? Did I meditate regularly?

I check my spending for the month and see how that fits in my budgets and how it compares to other months.

During my monthly review, I also revisit my yearly goals.

The yearly review

Finally, we have the yearly review which (spoiler!) I do once a year, so it’s super exciting!!! People get excited about New Year’s Eve and parties and stuff, but I don’t care about that because how could you if you had The Yearly Review coming on January 1?!?!?! That’s so much more exciting!!!

At my yearly review, I look over my calendar and ask, “What big things did I do this year? What things happened to me?” I also think about what important habits I established and stuck with and what habits I struggled with.

I also do a yearly money review where I look at my spending over the year, how that fits with my budgets, and how it compares to other years.

Then, I go to the integral part: What went well this year? What didn’t go so well this year? What have I learned? What would I like to change and what would I like to keep the same and how? I actually write this out because that really forces me to think and dig deep.

Finally, I make a list of my goals for next year.

Then I usually stare at my calendar some more because I don’t want the yearly review to be over. It’s so much fun, so why does it only happen once a year? 😦 (Hint: Because it’s yearly by definition…)

Useful tools for personal organization

Technically, you could do everything I’ve explained here in a simple text document or even on paper, but there are some helpful tools that will make it much, much easier and more fun. I will list useful tools for each level of personal organization I outlined.

1. Priorities

This is the least technically complicated one and also the most important one because it guides all the rest. I literally have a note in Google Keep (pinned to the top) called “Priorities” which lists my priorities from #1 to #20 in my case.

Tools to use for this are Google Keep, Google Docs, Microsoft Word, or any other text processing software you may like to use. Or even pen and paper 🙂

Some people also use Mind Maps, but I never got into that myself.

2. Goals

For each priority, you should have a list of goals. I find it convenient to use Trello for this kind of thing. I have a board called “Goals,” and I make a list for each priority (e.g., PhD Project Goals). There I include a card for each goal. Conveniently, I can then add a description for each goal (i.e., card), and include a checklist of projects or tasks that belong to that goal. I can also include deadlines and labels for easy processing.

3. Projects

For each goal, there are one or more projects. A project consists of multiple tasks, so it’s useful to list those somewhere. I use Trello extensively for work projects and for home projects. Each project is a list, and I add cards for each task. Sometimes a task has sub-tasks, and I add those as a checklist on the card. I can check those off as I go along. When I complete a task, I mark the date on which I’ve completed it. In this way, it becomes green, and I know I’ve completed it. If something needs to be completed by a certain date, I give it a due date, and then Trello reminds me that the card is due soon. I personally use labels according to topics, but you could also use them to mark urgency (I do this for home-related tasks). Whatever works for you 🙂

Trello is a very useful project management tool. I’ve heard of other ones such as Microsoft Project but haven’t used them myself.

4. Lists

Sometimes you may want a simple but functional list tool, and I use Wunderlist for that. I use it very much for things like groceries lists or shopping lists. It’s very convenient that you can share lists with others. Many of the lists are shared with my boyfriend, so if I want him to buy, say, broccoli, I don’t have to message him and ask him to add it to his list. Instead, I can directly add it to our groceries list, and he will see it immediately or whenever he goes to the store to buy food. We have most of the items on our groceries list as recurring items, so we don’t have to add them every week.

We also have shopping lists for specific shops. For instance, I might want face cream from the cosmetics store I like, but I only go there once in a while. So I put it on that list, and if I go to that store a few weeks later to buy body lotion, I can just open up that list and remember that I also wanted to buy face cream.

You can also choose to add a reminder to an item on your list. For instance, we have a reminder every Tuesday evening to take out the trash.

Another useful feature is that you can group your lists within folders. All of our shopping lists are in the folder “Shopping”. That makes your lists look a bit more organized 🙂

Finally, the Today and Week feature is also quite useful. You can look at what items are due Today from all lists and also what items are due in the next week from all your lists. Quite nice.

There are many list tools out there, and Wunderlist is just one of them. I used to use Google Tasks, but that’s a bit primitive in terms of functionality, so I moved on to Wunderlist.

5. Calendar

Ah, my calendar! How I love it! It really is a work of art. I put appointments on there, obviously, but I also put blocks of time that I like to reserve for something like my morning routine. I won’t go into details on the usage of a calendar because many of us use that. I love recurring events because it’s easy to enter things like going to the gym or recurring meetings. I also value it because it allows me to block off time such as my “Wind Down” time. If I don’t explicitly block that off, I end up doing stuff the entire evening and don’t make time to just do something pleasant and relaxing. The calendar, if it is accurate, contains both the exciting and the drudgerous aspects of our lives. What a perfect representation of life!

I once again want to highlight the benefit of sharing calendars. At work, this makes it very easy to schedule meetings. In my personal life, having a shared calendar with my boyfriend eliminated the need for constant back-and-forth about “Are you free on this date and time to go there? To meet with these people? To go to the gym?” It saves so much time!

There are many calendar tools, and I personally use Google Calendar, but I suppose other tools are just as effective. Some people still use paper agendas, which I admire 🙂 I can imagine how pleasant it would be to have this baby in a beautiful notebook and on paper. But then wouldn’t it be a pain to add recurring events? And how ugly would it look when you have to cross things out and write over them? In my opinion, the digital calendar makes it so much easier to be flexible and to adapt to life as it happens. (Says me, the queen of flexibility… hahaha.)

6. Daily flow tool

Daily flow refers to how you do your work during the day. I start out with a list of things to do this week, then a list of things to do today, then a list of things I’m doing now (only one at a time!), then a list of things I’ve done today, and a list of things I’ve done this week. It looks like this:

At the beginning of the week the first column is the longest, and at the end of the week the last column is the longest (hopefully). At the end of the week, I archive the last list (Done this week). I can review it later if I wish, and it won’t crowd my daily flow for the next week.

I can’t emphasize how useful this is on a daily basis! At the start of the day, I know exactly what I need to do today and what I need to work on next. At the end of the day, I know what I’ve completed today, and I’m also ready for the next day. Tasks from different projects get included here, so I won’t forget about any one project. It’s fantastic!

I use Trello for this because I can conveniently copy cards from my project management board (see #3 above) to my daily flow board. Kanban Flow does something similar.

7. Pomodoro technique

Finally, I use the Pomodoro technique (or a modified version of it) when I’m working. This means that when I start working on a certain task, I set a timer for 25 minutes. Once it goes off, I take a break for 5 minutes. Then I work for another 25 minutes. Then I take a break again. I do this until I complete 4 25-minute work sessions, and then I take a 15 minute (or longer) break. This is extremely useful for keeping up concentration while working on difficult, attention-demanding tasks such as writing or learning a language.

If I’m doing a less demanding task, I may prolong these periods to 45 or 50 minutes with a 10 minute break afterwards. It depends on what I find best for the type of work. If the 25-minute work periods feel too short and like they’re breaking my concentration, I will prolong them to 45 or 50 minutes. But I don’t go any longer than that: After almost an hour of focused work and sitting, I need to get up, move around, and think about something else. If I try to keep going, I just get exhausted early, which in the end is counter-productive and unpleasant.