You wake up Monday morning, get your coffee and check your email. There are several that need attention, so you dive in. After the responses are sent, you get started on your to do list for the day. Halfway through (if you get that far), another email comes through; you answer it. Back to the to do list, then to the inbox; the to do list; the inbox. By the end of the day, you still have a few emails in your inbox to work on tomorrow, plus the remainder of your items from today AND tomorrow’s list.
Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday are the same. All day, every day, you’re busy fighting fires. For the most part you manage to stay on top of things — client work as well as running your business.
Weeks go by; all the same. Months. Years. But you never really get anything meaningful done. Maybe you start, but never truly finish the content you want to create, the email list you want to build (plus the newsletters you want to send), updating your own website, let alone any personal goals.
Enter the 12 Week Year
The 12 Week Year, by Brian P. Moran and Michael Lennington, can help. The book outlines a system by which you CAN make time for the things you want to accomplish, plus how to get there.
Before the authors dive in though, they talk about action. Knowledge alone won’t move the needle — it’s action that makes all the difference. “Execution is the single greatest market differentiator.”
So, use what you learn here and act on it.
How the 12 Week Year Works
The 12 Week Year is a simple system for setting goals and tasks and the authors show you exactly how to get there.
- Have a strong vision of where you want to go. There are questions in the book to get you started but think of all you want to have, do and be in your life. Break that aspirational vision down to a three-year vision as well.
- Break the year down into 12 week chunks and let each 12-week period stand alone. 12 weeks is long enough to get things done, but short enough to create a sense of urgency. Now, a year = a 12 week period, a month = a week and a week = a day.
- Each 12 week period is broken down into goals (where you want to go) and tactics (how you’ll get there). 2-3 goals per 12 week year is ideal. The tactics should be SMART — specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-based.
- Work from a plan as a plan reduces mistakes, saves time and provides focus. We all know what we need to be doing but simply knowing isn’t enough.
- Measure the progress by tallying your completed tasks; do this any time between Friday afternoon and Monday morning. Strive for 85%.
- Don’t go it alone. Weekly accountability groups or partners can help you stay on track.
- To get things done, break your time into blocks.
- A strategic block is one three-hour block of uninterrupted time scheduled into each week where you set distractions aside and focus all your energy on pre-planned tasks.
- Buffer blocks are designed to deal with unplanned and low-value activities like checking email. This could be anywhere from one, 30-minute block to two, 1-hour blocks per day.
- A breakout block is at least three hours long and spent on things other than work (but during normal work hours). Think of it as a period to recharge.
- At the end of 12 weeks, take time to review and plan the next year.
I won’t summarize the entire book here, but the authors make some points that I think are worth mentioning.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” – AristotleMy favorite quote, ever.
Annualized thinking is difficult for people because they think they have a long time to accomplish their goals. Then, near the end of the year, they realize they haven’t done what they wanted to do. (The authors think that at this point people make a big push to be productive and finish strong, but I think people just wait it out and “start fresh” the next year.)
If you can consistently execute the critical few tasks and strategies that most support your success, you will reach your goals and get where you want to go.
Let’s not forget that thinking —> actions —> results. What we think determines how we act which determines the results we get.
People often drop out when they don’t execute well and score poorly. Instead of quitting, use those poor scores to motivate you to do better next week.
You can’t hold someone else accountable; accountability isn’t something that can be imposed (that’s consequences). Accountability is ownership. We all have freedom of choice, which is the foundation for accountability. Try to approach tasks as something you choose to do instead of something you have to do. We can’t control what happens around us, but we can control what we do.
The difference between greatness and mediocrity on a daily basis is not always distinguishable. Have you ever heard of compounding or an exponential curve? Keep executing well each day and you’ll see BIG results down the road. (Also, check out The Compound Effect by Darren Hardy.)
The execution system consists of three principles — accountability (ownership), commitment (the personal promise you make to yourself) and greatness in the moment (those daily choices to do what is necessary to become great). The system also consists of five disciplines — vision (your clear picture of the future), planning (a written and effective plan that focuses on top priorities), process control (tools and events that align your daily actions with the critical plan actions), measurement (the lead and lag indicators that are the “anchor of reality”) and time use (have a clear intention and be in control of your time).
There are two great graphics in the book — one about the emotional cycle of change (my favorite is the valley of despair) and one about crafting your vision (from impossible to given) by asking questions such as what if? and how might I?
How to be Successful with the 12 Week Year
I’ve been using the 12 Week Year for four years now; here are my thoughts on how to make it work for you.
In all likelihood, your first attempt at the 12 Week Year will go up in flames. You probably have WAY too many tasks and can’t budget enough time to complete them all; alternatively, the goals and tactics you chose aren’t important enough to you OR you don’t believe you can actually accomplish them. When this happens, you have a few courses of action. Remove a few goals/tasks, then focus on the remaining ones until you get to the end of the year. Or, stop completely, regroup with a more simplified plan and start again.
You may need a few rounds of the 12 Week Year to find your stride. Don’t be afraid to try a 10-week year or a 6-week year either.
In my experience, working on your tasks early in the month, early in the week and early in the day makes the system easier. If you wait until the end of the day, end of the week or end of the month, I bet you’ll find you don’t have enough time left.
I prefer to review and score my week and plan the next week on Fridays so I can hit the ground running on Mondays.
I like to break large tasks down into smaller subtasks, that way I can feel a sense of accomplishment as I complete (and check off) each smaller piece of a larger task.
Creating feels better than consuming. Yes, learning is great — read that book or take that course — but don’t forget to use what you learn and create something on the other end, for yourself, your family or your clients.
There’s a common misconception that this all happens in some sort of bubble. That in order to be successful, all the circumstances have to be right — client work at a regular (non-frantic) pace, no emergencies, no vacations or other plans (you get the point). But that’s not how life works. You can’t wait until things calm down before you start taking action. (Life pro tip — life is never going to calm down.) The trick is to figure out how to fit the important stuff in WHILE life is happening.
The 12 Week Year isn’t just about the tasks and goals — it’s about learning how to plan, how to execute and what works best for you. It’s like I tell my 7th grader — you’re not just learning about the Roman Empire or how to solve for x. You’re learning how to manage your time, how to study, how to ask for help and get support, how to fail, how to measure success, how to keep trying, how to get back up again and more.
Personal Sticking Points
As time went on, all of my goals ended up being professional ones. It’s like I forgot that there are other aspects of life as well — physical, mental, spiritual, financial and personal. The 12 Week Year isn’t just for business goals; it’s a system you can use to improve any area of your life.
I had largely forgotten about breakout blocks, but will look to add those back in going forward.
If I am going to complete my tasks, I can’t leave my inbox open all day, every day. I can turn notifications off, pause my inbox, only open my email at specific times of the day (hello buffer blocks) and/or get really vigorous with unsubscribing and filtering.
Not everything belongs on the list. I have a tendency to put all the things on the list, but the book really encourages you to think about the specific tasks that will help you reach your goals quickly. Throw out the rest.
12 Week Year Templates
The book (and free field guide below) use a Word (or Google) doc template for outlining goals and weekly tasks, but I like something that calculates scores automatically. Enter Google Sheets and ClickUp.
For the first three years, I used a Google Sheet to track my progress.
Here’s my template if you want to snag a copy. A few notes about the template:
- Fill in A1 with your quarter start and end dates
- Fill in C2:N2 with the end date of each week
- Add your goals in A3, A13 and A22
- Add your tactics in A4:12, A14:21 and A23:28 (feel free to add/remove rows as needed)
- If it’s a weekly task, highlight the appropriate row in C:N, just so you know a score is to be expected
- If it’s a task only due on a specific week or weeks, highlight the appropriate cell in C:N
- I break my tasks down into subtasks, but feel free to remove that if it doesn’t apply or doesn’t make sense to you
I also have a corresponding Trello board. Add the dates of your weeks to each list. Change the tasks to your tasks and the labels to your goals. Feel free to add due dates or assign tasks to yourself.
Here are a few of my past sheets, for reference. Just a note that these don’t all look like the template above. I’ve experimented with various layouts and formats over time!
This year I switched to ClickUp to track my 12 Week Year. So far, I like ClickUp better because you can check a task off and it’s very clearly done. (Checking a task off is the oldest productivity trick around.) You can also add a custom progress bar, assign tasks to yourself (so that you see them in your dashboard) AND assign a date. If you add the list to your calendar, you can also see your tasks there. This all works much better for me because the Google Sheet lived on an island and I would forget to update it. I’m in ClickUp managing my projects and other aspects of my business, so it made sense to keep it there.
- Remove all but two statuses – to do and complete
- Have each task be one week
- Add subtasks to each week, then add any additional subtasks as needed (if the action is a daily action)
- Add yourself as the assigned to
- Add due dates on each (and start dates if you want!)
- Add a custom field (progress bar) for measurement
- Add custom labels for goals and apply them to each task
- Add to the list to your calendar
Sign up for access to a free, 35-minute video on how I came up with my Q3 2021 goals and tactics and created my plan in Google Sheets and ClickUp.
Resources + Final Thoughts
Here are some additional resources related to the 12 Week Year.
- 12 Week Year Field Guide (free resources)
- 12 Week Year on Amazon
- 12 Week year summary on Blinkist
- 12 Week Year common mistakes from Asian Efficiency
- 12 Week Year beginner guide and template from Bigger Better Days
- Increasing productivity and self-confidence with the 12 Week Year from Tara Claeys
- How to squeeze a full year out of 12 weeks from Carrie Dils
- If you like book reviews, read my thoughts on Traction and The Revenue Growth Habit
- Also check out my WordCamp Santa Clarita presentation on Using The 12 Week Year to Effectively Set and Reach Your Goals