A two-hour exercise to begin prototyping your life.
If writing New Year’s resolutions feels futile during the pandemic, you are not alone. With the rollercoaster of 2020 behind us, it can feel strange to set goals for the next 12 months, when you can’t even predict what will happen next month. As someone who finds value in self-reflection and setting intentions, there’s a happy medium that has served me well: Quarterly Life Planning.
I started Quarterly Life Planning when a close friend introduced me to “The Wheel of Life” exercise, created by Paul Meyer. We used it to create New Year’s resolutions for 2016. Little did I know that 2016 would be one of those years where nothing goes according to plan; it included the breakup of an important romantic relationship, the end of my dream job, and the gut-wrenching experience of working on Hilary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Life was changing too quickly. To take stock and ground myself through all these ups and downs, I started doing the Wheel of Life exercise every three months.
Five years later, I have completed this exercise twenty times. I prefer the shorter time period because I have a clearer picture of the next three months than the whole year, and it allows me to set smaller, more realistic goals. In addition to the Wheel of Life, I’ve added some “behavioral hacks” to help turn my intentions into actions.
For those in the tech industry, this may sound like OKRs for your personal life. I’ll be the first to admit there are similarities in setting goals within a set timeframe. Unlike OKRS, the primary purpose for me is not achieving goals. Rather, the value comes from the process of trying things out (prototyping) and evaluating how they affect my overall wellbeing. Quarterly Life Planning also shares similarities with retrospectives — reflecting on what worked, what didn’t, and why, in order to highlight opportunities for change. Ultimately, these incremental changes allow me to make larger improvements in my life.
For me, the purpose for Quarterly Life Planning is to:
1. Reflect on each area of my life to identify what needs more focus, and what needs less.
2. Develop habits and start new projects.
3. Repeat to continue “prototyping” my life.
So if that appeals to you and you have 2 hours, let’s get started!
0. Get yourself ready
- Find an accountabilibuddy.
You can do this alone, but I like doing it with 1–2 people. This can be a vulnerable activity, so I recommend doing it people you feel safe opening up to. I’ve done this with roommates, close friends, and my romantic partner.
- Block off 2 hours.
I like to do this in the morning or early afternoon on a day off.
- Print out a copy for each person.
If you don’t have a printer, feel free to draw it out yourself. Here is a template you can download.
- Find a comfortable, quiet place to write and talk.
It can be nice to do this outside of your home so you are free from distractions, and get some distance from your daily life. Make a cup of tea, bring snacks, and put on some relaxing music. You are going to be here for 1–2 hours. Make yourself comfortable.
- Pick categories for your Wheel of Life.
You will be reflecting on and setting intentions around these areas of your life. Here are the eight I use, but feel free to adapt them to your values. There are more examples here.
Friends & family e.g. parents, siblings, close friends, long-distance friends
Significant other / romance e.g. intimacy, sexuality, love
Work e.g. career, profession, studies
Fun & recreation e.g. play, relaxation, adventure, hobbies, sports
Health e.g. physical & mental, energy, exercise, nutrition, sleep
Money e.g. personal finances, financial planning, investing, debt management
Physical environment e.g. home, workspace, neighborhood
Personal growth e.g. learning, challenge, self-development
Other categories to consider: spirituality, religion, community, mindfulness
1. Reflect back on the previous quarter
- For each area, reflect on what you’ve done in the past 3 months.
Write down 3–5 bullets on what happened for each area. If you use a calendar or planner, it can help to look back at how you’ve spent your time. If you take a lot of photos, review your recent photos to remind yourself of your picture-worthy occasions. If you’re someone who can spend hours reflecting, consider setting a 20 minute timer for this part.
- Rate each area on a scale of 1–10.
This scale is intentionally ambiguous and subjective — it’s only purpose is to aid you in reflecting and comparing across areas and over time. Personally, I use this scale to answer the question “How satisfied am I in this area of my life?” (with a 1 being completely empty, 10 being over the top, and 6 being the midpoint, satisfied). However, my partner uses this as a measure of where he has been spending his time and energy, and likes to set a “budget” for his total score. Pick what resonates most to you.
- Take turns sharing your reflections and ratings with your accountabilibuddy.
After you’ve taken time to capture your thoughts, it’s time to share. Practice active listening by giving the speaker your undivided attention and avoiding judgement. Take extra care when sharing friendship ratings with friends and romance ratings with significant others. You may want to “parking-lot” difficult conversations for later.
- Update your ratings and map them on the wheel.
After verbally processing you may want to change some of your ratings. When you are ready, draw them on the wheel.
2. Plan for next quarter
• Write down everything you want to do.
This should be an exhaustive list. Get all those nagging “should-do’s” out of your head; I find this very cathartic. Here are some examples I’ve written over the years:
Health e.g. Find a primary care doctor. Establish a workout routine 3x/week. Do a sugar detox.
Friends & Family e.g. Visit two long distance friends. Spend more quality time with my brother. Invest in making new friends.
Significant other / Romance e.g. Plan quality date nights 2x a month. Listen to John Gottman’s book together.
Work e.g. Kick ass in the first three months of my new job. Write reflections about being a PM. Apply to 3 artist residencies.
Fun & Recreation e.g. Plan two vacations with friends. Read two books for fun. Prepare for Burning Man. Find a volleyball team.
Money e.g. Create a monthly budget. Consolidate 401k accounts. Create a long term financial plan.
Physical environment e.g. Nest in the new apartment. Fix broken things. Improve my work from home setup.
Personal growth e.g. Develop painting practice in Berlin. Explore getting a dog. Continue steady progress learning German.
- Rate from 1–10 where you want to be in 3 months
Consider your target score for each area. Finding balance doesn’t mean having a six on every section — some areas need more attention than others at different times of your life. You can decide to dedicate some time and energy to increasing your lower ratings, or accept their current state. You may choose to focus less on areas with high ratings, or try to maintain their current level.
- Take turns sharing your goals and ratings.
This can also be a time to brainstorm more goals. If your accountabilibuddy knows you well, they can remind you of things you may have forgotten.
- Map your ratings on the wheel.
Notice which areas you want to invest more, the same, or less time and energy into.
- Pick 3 goals for the next 3 months.
Look at your wheel, and identify the areas that need the most attention. Based on that, pick three goals that will help you start filling those gaps.
Tips to pick your goals
Create goals that improve at least two aspects of your life.
e.g. Health + Friends -> Go on a weekly run with a close friend.
Personal growth + Career -> Talk to 3 mentors about a potential career transition.
Give yourself credit for the big projects you have to do.
e.g. Significant other + Recreation -> Plan a fun and meaningful wedding.
Physical environment + Finance -> Find a new, affordable apartment.
Pick goals that need that extra motivation.
e.g. Finance + Significant other -> Make a 5-year financial plan with partner.
Be as specific as you can.
In three months, you should be clearly able to say if you did it or not.
Understand your limits.
I try to pick 3 goals that stretch me a little out of my comfort zone, but don’t feel overwhelming. Focusing on 3 helps me accept that I can’t do everything.
- Take turns sharing your top 3 goals.
Some questions to discuss: Are these too ambitious? How can I make them more tangible or realistic? How can we support each other in achieving each other’s goals?
3. Turn your goals into actions
- Put them in a public space.
I write mine on a post-it note and put it on my fridge so I can see it every day. This also builds in some accountability — people who come over can read them and ask how I’m tracking.
- Categorize your goals as habits or projects.
I’ve found that most goals are either an ongoing habit (a daily or weekly routine) or a one-time project that needs dedicated time to make progress.
- Map out your “ideal week” and build habit loops.
Start by mapping out what your typical week looks like. Sometimes you need to move things around to find time for a new habit. For example, “read 3 books” required moving my bedtime routine an hour earlier. “Cook dinner with brother” meant scheduling time to pick up groceries on Sunday morning, so I could cook with my brother in the evening.
Try building a habit loop with a cue (triggers your brain to do it), routine (the behavior you want to do) and reward (the prize that follows). For example, I scheduled my daily walk (routine) after my late morning standup meeting (cue), and rewarded myself with a yummy lunch afterwards (reward).
I developed this Google sheets template to get a bird’s eye view of how I spend my time and design my “ideal week.” Make a copy and try it yourself.
- Schedule time to start your projects.
To make progress on projects, the hardest part for me is finding the activation energy to get started. Social accountability can help here. Oftentimes I’ll recruit someone to join my project; just make it clear who is driving it. For example, for my goals to “plan a trip to decide where to move to Europe,” I asked my partner to support me, but made it clear I could push it forward this quarter. I immediately blocked off a few Sunday afternoons to work on it. You have momentum right now– capitalize on that!
4. Get ready to do it again
- Schedule another time in 3 months with your accountabilibuddy.
I literally send a calendar invite for three months from now. At the start of the next session, bring the paper from the previous quarter and start by discussing how you did.
Quarterly Life Planning has helped me develop lasting habits and accomplish big life goals. After the unexpected break up, it helped me invent a new life plan and learn that I was more resilient than I thought. It helped me map out career goals like transitioning to product management, as well as recognize that I didn’t like being a product manager after three quarters of low career satisfaction ratings. It even helped my now partner and I breakdown our lofty ambition to move to Europe by making progress over several quarters.
Quarterly Life Planning has also taught me which areas of my life I need to pay constant attention to. It has not magically made me into a workout junkie — I still have to have an exercise goal every quarter if I want to stay in shape. And even if I do put effort into an area, I’ve learned to accept that there are always things out of my control. Visit three new countries? That didn’t happen in a pandemic.
There are some quarters I accomplish all three goals, and others none at all. That’s not the point though. Experimenting with small, incremental changes allows me to iteratively refine myself — adapting to new challenges and focusing on areas for self-improvement. I will continue Quarterly Life Planning because it helps me intentionally move my life into a more meaningful, fulfilling, and joyful direction — three months at a time.
Still want a longer year-end reflection activity?
While I find Quarterly Life Planning to be a more actionable activity, I also enjoy stepping back to take a higher level perspective at the end of the year. Here are some tools that put less focus on setting goals, and more on taking stock and reflecting.
- The Year Ahead by Year Compass
I’ve done this for two years. It is very comprehensive, but can feel a bit long, so I skip a few parts.
- The Ultimate Annual Review by Steve Schlafman
I haven’t tried this yet, but it was recommended by a friend.
- Designing your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans
I generally subscribe to this overall approach to actively designing a meaningful life.