I love the start of a new month. That fresh, blank-page feeling of starting over. I especially love the start of a new month when it’s also the start of a new quarter, because I absolutely love planning and brainstorming and setting goals.
I used to use my bullet journal to plan out my month, but over the past few months I’ve switched to Trello instead. There’s a mobile app, so I always have it with me, and because it’s digital it’s more flexible; I can move, edit and delete things without making a mess.
The information I provide in this post, however, can be adapted to any planning method, whether you use a digital service like Trello or Asana or a pen-and-paper method like a bullet journal or a traditional diary.
The key aspect of my monthly planning is reflection. Looking back at what I’ve done is crucial for looking forward towards what I want to do next. That’s why I like to set some time aside right at the end of each month to look back at what went well and what could do with a new approach.
There are five lists on my monthly board, and I go through each in turn, considering the past month as I migrate tasks and notes to the upcoming month.
I don’t expect 100% compliance for most of my habits. I usually have one, maybe two, in my habit list that I’m trying to make truly automatic, the way I brush my teeth before going to bed no matter how tired I am or what else happened that day, but the rest of the list are things that I just want to make sure I’m doing on a regular basis.
The first step here is to look at my habits for the previous month and assess how consistent I was with each of them. Generally-speaking, I consider myself to be doing well if I performed these habits 80% of the time, or on about 24 days. Where I’ve missed that goal, I consider why.
It might be that I wasn’t really committed to the habit. It might also be that I was too ambitious, trying to write for an hour every single day when some days I just didn’t have the time.
If none of my habits hit the 80% mark, however, then the problem is most likely that I’m just trying to do too many things at once. My mind can’t focus on all of these and they end up being dropped and abandoned. The solution here is obvious: pick the ones that are the highest priority right now, and work on establishing those habits first before working on the other ones.
I have a very, very long TBR, or to-read list. I usually gravitate towards novels, particularly fantasy, but this year I’m trying to read more non-fiction and short stories/poetry. For the first couple of months of the year the operative word there was ‘trying’ – without much success.
Two things helped change that. First of all, I started reading non-fiction and short fiction in the mornings before work and on my lunch break. This leaves my evenings, when my brain is less engaged, for whatever novel I’m currently reading.
Secondly, I started creating a monthly TBR where I select 1 book each from the non-fiction and short fiction categories and 2 books from the novel category. This is a deliberately small list so I don’t get stressed about finishing everything, and so there’s space for if my library holds come in. If I finish all my selections for a category, then I just pick another one from my master list.
As I mentioned in my post on decluttering, I’m trying to prevent impulse purchases by giving myself some time between deciding I want or need something and actually buying it. And I find the easiest way to do this is just to have a ‘To Buy’ list on my monthly board, where I can add a card for anything I want to buy, with links and information in the description, giving me time to reflect and reconsider before making a purchase.
When it comes to migrating cards from one month to the next, the process is quite straightforward. I ask myself why I haven’t bought it yet, and if the answer is ‘Eh, I don’t really care about it’, then I just archive the card and don’t bother moving it to the new month’s board.
In other cases, however, it’s something I do want to buy, but I haven’t found the right item, or haven’t had the chance to go and look in person. For instance, I have ‘grey cardigan’ on my March board. I’ve since moved it to my April board. I’ve looked online but haven’t found what I want, and I haven’t had a chance to go to a mall and try to find one in person (but I really must do that in early April or the shops will all have gotten rid of their warm clothing). I migrated it, rather than archiving it, because I only have one cardigan and find myself wearing it quite a lot now that it’s too warm for jumpers.
This section is probably quite self-explanatory. I keep track of my appointments in Google Calendar, so when I set up my board for each month all I have to do is check my calendar and add in all the fixed appointments. I don’t have many, so there’s no need for any complicated system here.
As with my To Buy list, I start with copying over tasks from the previous month, assessing each individual. I ask myself questions like: Why didn’t I do this? What information or tools do I need to get it done? Does it need to be done at all?
Sometimes I might need my husband’s input before following up on something, or I need to do some research before diving in. In these cases, I create a checklist on the card for these intermediate steps, breaking it down into distinct stages.
The next step is to check my backlog board for anything that needs to be done that month. I don’t have many tasks with specific monthly deadlines, but I always check as there are a few each year.
At this point, I may also migrate some other tasks from my backlog, based on how many tasks and appointments are already on my board. Depending on the size of the tasks, I typically start my month with anywhere from 10-20 tasks, assuming that many more will be added as the month goes on. If I already have that many from the previous month, or if I have more appointments than usual that month, then I’ll migrate fewer from the backlog than I would in a month where I’m starting with nothing.
This list is entirely optional and completely unnecessary, but I like it. Whenever I finish anything on another list, instead of just archiving the card, it moves here. This way, when I start to feel stressed about the size of my task list, I can look at my Done list and remind myself of how much I’ve already completed this month. It’s a great motivator and a good way to keep perspective.
A Final Note
It’s hard to say how long this process takes, as I often start thinking about it towards the end of the previous month, adding tasks here and there as I think of them, but I’d say it’s no more than 15-20 minutes to finish up at the end of the month. All the emphasis on reflection makes it sound like I’m spending ages journalling, but a lot of the time it’s as simple as, ‘I’ve been putting X off because I hate it.’
I hope this insight into my process helps you with your monthly planning!