Annual Planning That Works

After we quit Christmas 12 years ago, my husband and I started traveling to Mexico every December. And in place of all the holiday rituals we left behind (decorating, parties, baking, shopping, etc….), we created a brand new ritual of our own. We call it our “annual retreat”.

I’ll warn you now, it’s intense!

I’m going to describe it in detail here for anyone looking for ideas about alternative ways to end the year, a reflective process for annual goal setting, or simply a model of how a married couple engages in life-design.

A few caveats up front:

  • We’re not perfect, our life isn’t perfect, and this process isn’t perfect. But it’s worked incredibly well for us and it’s led to some amazing things (like quitting our jobs, starting and growing 2 successful companies, developing a mobile lifestyle, retiring early, staying fit, and keeping our marriage thriving).
  • We greatly enjoy this process so we take two weeks to go through it. We do little bits, one afternoon at a time, with plenty of space in between the steps to allow new insights to occur, internal conflicts to emerge, and innovative ideas to break through. It doesn’t have to take this long and you don’t have to do every step. This is simply a description of what works for us.
  • This process is designed to be no-tech! All it requires is a pen and paper. In fact, we use the same journal every year to document our annual retreat processing (we call it “the big book”). The main requirement is to be fully present with focused attention: that means no phones, computers, screens, notifications, or electronic interruptions.

Okay, on to the planning!

Step #1: Evaluate the Previous Year

We always start by pulling out our goals from the previous year and asking ourselves the following questions about each goal:

  1. did we meet the goal? and
  2. if not, why not?

Like most couples, we have both individual goals and collective family goals. So we go through each one and celebrate the goals we met. For those we didn’t meet, there’s no judgment or shame. We simply take it as an opportunity to learn from the “why not”.

Once we’ve reviewed the goals, we pause to name – and write down – all of the unexpected blessings that occurred in our lives during the past year. This is my favorite part because we often fill several pages of our “big book” with unexpected blessings! If we didn’t pause to name them at the end of the year, they would likely slide into our past without notice or being recorded. This practice allows us to conjure up collective gratitude for the many mini-miracles that occur in our lives throughout the year.

We don’t complete our year-end reflection by reviewing our goals and unexpected blessings. We go on to answer a few additional questions separately: What worked in our lives this year? What didn’t work? This is a bit more open -ended, but never ceases to pull up some gems when we compare our answers! Some years we are in total agreement when we compare our lists. Other years, what worked for one person is on the “didn’t work” list for the other. And inevitably, the things on the “didn’t work” list are readily fixable in the new year.

We end this first step by taking a little time to identify our “peak experiences” from the previous year and why they fit in that category. We write them out separately, compare lists, and then take a few moments to  consider: 1) what didn’t make the list and 2) what are the patterns that underlie our peak experiences. Knowing what the common characteristics are to what we consider a peak experience helps us make decisions when it’s time to set up goals for the year.

I realize that’s a lot of reflection for one step, but there’s so much to learn from the previous year. Taking our time to slow down and thoughtfully consider what has happened in the previous 12 months is the key to effectively planning the next 12 months (at least for us!).

Step #2: Pick A Framework

Most people tend to think of their lives as divided into two domains: 1) work and 2) home. It that works for you, keep doing it.

But we think of our lives more holistically. Specifically, we think of our lives as consisting of four domains.

  1. Health (including physical, emotional, spiritual health)
  2. Relationships (including our family, friends, and community)
  3. Purpose (including our work, legacy, and money)
  4. Growth (including our intellectual, experiential, and creative growth)

I’m not sure it matters what framework you use, just pick one that everyone planning can agree on and stick with it through the rest of the process. We’ve tried several different frameworks over the years (you can google “areas of life” if you want to choose your own) but we settled on the 4 domains framework and it has worked well for us.

Step #3: What do you desire?

Having a clear map for our life domains allows us to go through each one and write down what we desire for this area. This question is not specific to the upcoming year, it’s a general visioning question that invites you to tap into your inner wisdom and imagine what optimal _______ looks like (e.g., optimal physical health, optimal emotional health, optimal spiritual health).

life domains

We come up with a brief statement for each sub-domain. Sometimes it’s a sentence or two and sometimes it’s a paragraph. The only thing that matters is that it captures the essence of what we truly desire for our life in that area if there were no boundaries or constraints whatsoever.

This is extraordinarily personal work so we do it separately before sharing it with one another.

It takes some time to visualize what we desire for each of the 12 subdomains and we typically need a night (or two) to sleep on it. We revise regularly before sharing it with one another. And when we do share, we ask each other clarifying questions:

  • Is that really true?
  • Is that what you truly desire or what you think you should desire?
  • Is that the safe version or the real version?
  • What would happen if we 10x that safe version?
  • Do you actually know what you want or is it unclear?

This opens up powerful conversations about where we are aligned, where we differ, and how we can co-create a vision of life that works for both of us. It typically takes several drafts but when we’re clear about the vision of how we want to live in the world, that vision becomes the foundation for our goal setting.

Step #4: What would stop us from having what we desire?

Whenever we start to get creative, proactive and intentional about what we really want, that part of us that wants to keep us safe (by not changing anything) starts to get triggered. We’ve been doing this long enough to know that our internal resistance is a far greater obstacle to change than any external constraint. So we build that into the process.

Specifically, before we move from big vision to annual goal-setting we ask: what would stop us from having what we desire? We choose to focus on the things that are under our control (as opposed to the myriad factors out of our control). And for us, it’s always the same: a wide range of fears and limiting beliefs.

So we each (separately) make a list at least 50 limiting beliefs that would keep us from having what we want in the various domains of our lives. For me this is fun, because I have so many limiting beliefs, an enormous range of free floating fears, and a loquacious inner critic. I can bang out 50 statements in 15 minutes flat because they are right at the surface! If you’ve never tried it before, it may take more time.

When we’re done writing out the limiting beliefs, we read them out loud to each other. Inevitably, we end up either groaning or giggling. Why? Because those beliefs that seem so big and powerful in the darkness of our minds sound downright silly when spoken out loud to another human being. And if nothing else, they sound irrational, extreme, and disconnected from the evidence of effective problem-solving in our lives. So we finish up this step by taking time to re-write each limiting belief as an empowering belief and we do so side-by-side as a comparison (so we can return to it if those beliefs pop back up throughout the year).

Step #5: Goal Time!

By the time we’ve gotten to this step, we’re feeling confident about what we want, we’ve got our resistance exercised and relaxed, and we’re chomping at the bit to get concrete. Now – and only now – are we ready to generate SMART goals for each sub-domain that will move us toward the full life we desire.

This typically results in a list of 12-15 concrete goals for the upcoming 12 months (one in each sub-domain).

Step #6: Set up A Daily Practice

There’s no point in doing annual planning unless you have a structure in place to bring the document to life throughout the year. I’ll describe in a later blog post how we break down our annual goals into 90-day plans and our weekly household meetings. But for the purpose of annual planning, we wrap it up by drafting three affirmations to use daily that summarize the energy of our plan and how we want to move through the next year.

Step #7: Pick One Word

To wrap up the process we step back and pick our ONE WORD for the year. We both love doing this because it becomes part of our daily practice. I write my one word at the top of my daily planner every morning for the next 365 days to keep it present in my daily life. That word becomes my anchor and inspiration for the year to come. And by the time we’ve been through the previous 6 steps, it’s obvious what the one word will be.

I know, it’s a lot of time, energy and processing. But for us, it’s worth every bit of the effort because it strengthens our sense of who we are as individuals and what we can create as a couple. It reduces conflicts during the year because we have clear and explicit priorities that we’ve agreed upon. And most importantly, it allows us to move forward strategically into the new year (instead of just flipping the calendar and continuing on with business as usual).

No matter how you choose to plan for 2019, I’m wishing you a year full of everything you truly desire!


27 Replies to “Annual Planning That Works”

  1. Amazing process! So grateful to know how to do a thorough evaluation and planning for the upcoming year. Excited to try this with my boo! Thank you for sharing.

  2. Hi there! Former NCFDD FSP alum here! Love reading about how other people do their planning. I stumbled across your post as I was finishing up a post on my own blog ( on my process for setting a yearly intention. So interesting to see the similarities/differences – esp. love incorporating the ‘what would stop you’ piece – not something I currently do but can definitely see adding it. Looking forward to following along on your journey!

  3. Love this process. We’ve found a similar rhythm where we go through many of the same concepts. You’ve done it with much more detail and intentionality.

    We haven’t even thought of the “one word” portion. We just did our process last weekend – I’ll be checking to see if TFI thinks the one word step would be a good addition.

    1. Great question Christopher. I haven’t thought about it but I’ve been getting lots of requests 🙂

  4. This is incredible! I’m on the edge of my seat eagerly awaiting your blog on how to break down annual goals into 90-day plans and your weekly household meetings.

  5. “our internal resistance is a far greater obstacle to change than any external constraint”

    Great freakin’ insight, Runningintofire. Lot of wisdom in this post. And a lot of ways to help people do planning right. Best of luck in 2019. Cheers.

  6. Kerry Ann, this is amazing stuff. Mike and I just did the very outer edges of a planning process for the year and I see how much deeper we can go with this structure. Interestingly, for better or worse, we each found our “word” pretty effortlessly and I think it would have remained the same for us (mine is “intimacy” and his is “Leadership” — seems to merit a capital “L”. Anyway, this whole blog and your strategy is just what I need to see and read TODAY. And I am very inspired. I hope this brings you more JOY! Much love to you and Bill.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.