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Quarterly Planning – What You Need to Know to Be Successful

A reader has asked some great questions about quarterly planning. How does 90 day planning work at a high level, and what habits are needed to make it successful?

Today, I’ll dive into the benefits of planning 13 weeks at a time. You will also learn how the popular quarterly planning methods are all composed of five phases. And finally, I will get into some specifics about how to use your plan to make daily decisions.

Before I started doing any planning and goal setting, I was drifting around, letting others decide my priorities. Even after accomplishing a massive number of tasks, it was never satisfying and never done. That’s because I was mainly doing what mattered to other people, especially at work. It was never done because success wasn’t defined concretely.

I tried New Year’s resolutions and yearly goal setting. It started with big ambitions. By March I had forgotten my resolutions, and by July, I felt like a failure.

There ARE ways to set annual goals and break them down into manageable chunks, and I tried that, too. The problem I encountered was that the planning process felt onerous and inflexible. How are we supposed to know where we’ll be in a year?

Based on my testing of different planning methods, I’ve settled on planning in 13-week blocks. That’s 12 weeks to reach a goal and one week of rest and recovery.

What’s So Special About Quarterly Planning?

The benefit of quarterly planning is that you get to make goals you will be proud of and then step through the process to accomplish them. Examples of things I’ve accomplished using quarterly goals: relaunch a website, increase income by a specific amount per month, and set up outsourcing for my most time-consuming business task.

The reason most cited for doing planning on a quarterly basis is that the 90-day time horizon is ideal for setting appropriately sized goals. We overestimate what we can accomplish in a short time frame like a day or week, and we underestimate what we can do in a long time-frame, like a year.

The practical benefit of the quarter time horizon is that it’s an approachable segment of time for setting up goals. A quarter is easy to break into smaller chunks – 3 months and 12-13 weeks, where you can set up milestones to stay on track. Because of the time frame, and the weekly milestones, it gives you an advantage against procrastination.

Quarterly planning has the major advantage over yearly planning in that you set achievable goals and celebrate wins along the way. That keeps you on track and motivated.

Plans change, too. If I stayed on track with what I planned at the beginning of last year, I wouldn’t be writing this right now. Quarterly planning gives you the freedom to change course at regular checkpoints.

Also, don’t underestimate the power of identifying what’s important to you and writing it down. People who write down their goals are more likely to achieve them.

Quarterly Planning for Business and Personal Goals

My introduction to 90 day planning was when I started a new job a few years ago. It was a new role for the company, and it was important to establish it carefully. I borrowed a 30-60-90 day plan template from a friend who had been to business school and was in a similar job role.

The best part? It clearly set out what I could do in the first 90 days to show my value immediately. AND it communicated that plan to my boss and the company, so everyone knew what to expect. A manager of another department liked the plan so much, he required that his new employees create their own 30-60-90 day plans.

Because of that plan, I accomplished what I set out to do and established important business relationships along the way.

So, quarterly planning works for business goals. What about personal goals?

Any goal can be appropriate for quarterly planning as long as you can define success criteria and can break the goal down into milestones. Exercising, weight loss, getting involved in volunteer work – all of these activities work with the quarterly planning framework.

The 5 Phases of Quarterly Planning

All the quarterly planning methods I’ve researched have five phases in common. The first phase happens once at the beginning, and you can revise it annually or when big changes occur. The repeating quarterly process is to cycle through the second through fifth phases every quarter.

Phase 1: Define your vision. Think about and write down an overarching theme or direction, based on your values. There are many right ways to do this. The important thing is that you’re looking far into the future and at what you truly value in the long term. Without this, you could end up pursuing goals that won’t make you happy.

Phase 2: Situational awareness. Assess where you are in your life or work. Review what has been done in the past quarter. Identify your current pain points.

Phase 3: Goal definition. Brainstorm your goal ideas. Ask yourself, Where do I want to be in 90 days? Refine the goal and write it down. Write down why it’s important to you to achieve that goal.

Phase 4: Break goals down into pieces that can be accomplished. This is usually daily actions and/or weekly and monthly milestones.

Phase 5: Execute and monitor progress. Maintain accountability and track progress to see if adjustments are needed. Celebrate wins along the way.

How Long Does the Planning Process Take?

The quarterly planning process can take as little as a day or as much as a few hours a day spread over a week.

You definitely don’t want to rush this process. Having well-constructed milestones is critical to your success.

Even though it’s sometimes called quarterly planning, you can start anytime during the year. Just define the start and end dates that work for your situation.

Using Your Plan to Make Day-to-Day Decisions

Having a plan helps you make the right choices on a daily basis. When competing priorities arise, you can turn back to your plan and remind yourself why you committed to it. That’s why it’s so important to write down your plan and the reasons why you want to stick to it.

When a question of priorities comes up, look back at your goal, read your reason why, and decide to do the thing that moves you toward your goal. Then ignore what competes with your goal.

When a task seems urgent, stop and ask what will happen if you don’t do it today. Probably nothing will happen. If it must be done this week but not today, then schedule it for tomorrow. Complete your own plan for the day before working on other people’s priorities.

You know what else helps me? Keeping a “not to do” list. For me, that’s a specific list, kept with my plan. Tempting activities that don’t move me closer to my stated goal go on that list. When I start thinking I should really be working on something that’s not related to my goal, my “not to do” list keeps me on track.

Habits to Cultivate for Sustained Change

You will need to commit to a few habits to maintain the quarterly planning system.

When you plan your most important tasks for the day, include one that will move you toward your goal. Do that action first, or schedule it on your calendar.

Notice when an obligation competes with your goal. When you notice that happening, stop and refer back to your plan.

Review your plan at the beginning of every week, and ideally as soon as you sit down to work each day. I find it helpful to post a summary over my desk or in a planner. The full goal and milestones should be kept where you’ll refer to it easily and often. A note keeping system like Evernote works well for this.

Keep records for personal accountability and measuring your progress. A visual record of your progress will motivate you and keep you accountable to yourself. It becomes clear whether you worked on your goal. Wall calendars and habit trackers are two ways that work.

Review your progress each month and at the end of the 3 month period. Record your findings and use them to improve your process during the next period.

Take a week off at the end to rest. This can be hard if you’re very driven, but it’s an essential part of the process. Taking a break from goal seeking gives you the mental space to step back and think about where you want to go next.

Where to Start with 90 Day Planning

I believe in starting small and racking up some wins. Start with a single goal and a simple process. Build on that each quarter as you see increasing success.

Read How to Set Quarterly Goals for my 5 step process.

For a guided process to start, I recommend using a goal journal. It will walk you through every step of creating a goal. It then helps you break it down into actions you can do weekly to get there. I’ve used the SELF Journal, and in my review I list a few similar ones. Pick the one that you connect with and will follow through.

You don’t need to read about all the different quarterly planning systems. They all have the same basic elements. The important thing is to pick one and start!