How to have your most productive year ever

Imagine it’s 12 months from now and you’re looking back at a year’s worth of professional achievements. Perhaps you’ve found new customers, added some names to your payroll or set up a different branch of the business. Whatever your predictions, if you were able to gaze into a crystal ball, what would you most like to see?

This concept is known as a ‘forward-looking performance review’ and was created by time management expert Laura Vanderkam. In her 2016 TED Talk, she proposed that a futuristic (albeit fictional) review of this kind is more effective than a retrospective one, as it encourages us to identify our priorities and make time for them.

Vanderkam’s strategy is simple: pretend it’s been an amazing year at work, then ask yourself what three to five things you did that made it such a success. Returning to the present day, break your goals down into do-able steps and slot them into your schedule.

“Even if we are busy, we have time for what matters,” Vanderkam explained of her approach to performance reviews. “When we focus on what matters, we can build the lives we want in the time we’ve got.”

Entrepreneur and founder of Do The Things, Fiona Adler, says beginning with this ‘big-picture’ vision in mind not only improves our productivity and time-management skills – it also makes us more proactive. “Having a clear idea of where you want to be in a year's time helps you recognise what the important things are to focus on,” she explains. “It forces you to be intentional, rather than just let things happen.”

If you want to conduct your own forward-looking review, Adler recommends thinking about what worked in your imaginary year, as well as what didn't. “Reflect on what you’re most proud of and what you wish you’d done,” she says. Here are six other steps to remember:

1. Put a limit on your priorities

Adler often sees people with too many vague goals on the go at once. “When you map out your priorities, it suddenly becomes very clear what the most important things are and what you're going to have to let go of,” she says. “You could start 10 projects and have them all 20 per cent done by the end of the year, or you could focus on two projects and really kick some goals. Sheryl Sandberg [Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer] calls it ‘ruthless prioritisation’. Forget the things that are less important and focus really hard on a couple of key areas.”

2. Determine how you want to feel

It’s all very well to want to attract new customers, clients or projects, and make more money, but future-looking reviews should also take into account how you want to feel at the end of the year, says life coach Dr Lara Corr from Set Me Free Coaching. “Ask yourself what feelings would be the most motivating and fulfilling when thinking [of yourself and your role in] the business,” she suggests. “Do you want to feel proud, satisfied, excited or energised? When you’re thinking about what you want to achieve, make sure it maps to those key feelings.”

Dr Corr explains that by connecting each priority to a feeling, we get a different type of anchor to check in on our progress. “So many aspects of business are about persistent effort,” she says, “and a set of core desired feelings can keep us motivated and make sure we are on track through monthly, weekly or even daily check-ins with how we feel.”

3. Move beyond the ‘what’ to the ‘how’

According to Adler, your futuristic review should include some details of how you’ve reached your goals. “Imagine yourself one year forward and talking to someone like a mentor,” she says. “What would you like to be telling them you’ve accomplished in the past year? What has been your focus area? What results did you see? And what strategies did you use to achieve them?”

Adding to this idea, Dr Corr believes it can be beneficial to anticipate problems that could arise over the next year and how you might be able to solve them. “Write down all the ways it could work, all the ways it absolutely wouldn’t work and all the people you could talk to about it or where you might go for help,” she recommends. “That way, you’re not just relying on the same cognitive processes over and over; you can make sure you're spreading out and talking to new people about these problems.”

4. Translate your goals into daily actions

Think about what you did each day of your amazing year to realise your ambitions. Like Julia Bickerstaff’s 100 Day Challenge, Adler believes it’s best to break big projects down into daily tasks. “You should plan to do three-to-five small but meaningful things each day that somehow work towards getting your big goals done,” she says. “It might be calling three prospects or drafting a proposal. People underestimate the impact these daily tasks have over time.”

5. Make yourself accountable

When you were kicking goals in your imaginary 12 months, who was it that gave you a nudge along when you needed it? With so many business owners and employees are preoccupied with day-to-day operations, Adler says it pays to find people that will hold you accountable for your ‘big-picture’ endeavours. “If you don’t have a boss, you need a team around you or some mentors that you can report back to about the progress you’re making,” she says.

Dr Corr agrees, explaining that people should look for support in other areas as well. “Goal-setting in itself is fairly simple,” she says. “You set a goal, then make sure it’s mapped to something concrete. The follow-through is where people tend to go wrong. If it’s a mental issue – like you’re self-sabotaging or getting stuck – then business [or life] coaches are great resources. Or seek out someone who’s excelling in your area and ask them to become part of a community in which you support each other.”

6. Dare to dream

The premise of the forward-looking performance review is to think big – to visualise the great things you could accomplish and the effect they could have on your life.

With this in mind, Dr Corr encourages people to override those negative thoughts. “It's important to recognise that we are not our thoughts and that thoughts aren't facts,” she says. “A lot of the time, we can think ‘this is going to be a disaster’ or 'that will never work’. Those thoughts could stop us going down a particular path or solving a problem.”

Her advice? Give yourself some dreaming space. “People are so concerned with being realistic that they often don’t get any chance to dream,” says Dr Corr. “But it's in dreaming that we can come up with some really creative solutions or amazing new business ideas. Give yourself permission to daydream and think outside the box without any rules to see where your mind takes you.”

Reaching for the stars: Your performance review checklist

When conducting your forward-looking performance review, reflect on ‘the year that’s been’ by asking yourself these questions.
  • What worked this year and what didn’t?
  • What did I spend my time on?
  • What did I enjoy doing most?
  • What did I avoid and where did I feel stuck?
  • What did I feel relieved to let go of?
  • What changes did my customers see?
  • What does my team look like now?
  • What does my bank account look like now?
  • What made this year the best one ever for my business?
  • What resources did that require (time, money, people, products, services)?
  • What feeling(s) did I create?
  • What made me most proud?

Fiona Adler's Business Plan Template

Break your 12-month plan down into monthly targets and actions.