3 keys to success, review, adapt, brain dump

As you start organizing your life, you no doubt want to know what are the keys to success? While people may claim different things, I have found that there are three main things that contribute to continuous improvement. First there is reviewing your work.  I know, I hated it when I was younger as well.  However, it is one of the keys to giving yourself credit for all that you’re doing well, and figuring out what you can do better, and how to do better.

The second of the keys to success is to find or create a brain dump system that allows you to keep track of important details, plans, notes etc. without having to intentionally remember them. 

Finally, the third key to success is having a dedicated planning practice where you can put all these steps together.  Learn from your successes and failures, know that all the important things are on your calendar, and plan to take advantage of opportunities, while avoiding the worst obstacles. As you implement these three keys, you will see your success rates improve.

Key to success #1 
Review = Reflection + Assessment


The very first of the keys to having any kind of success is to periodically review how things are going for you.  This can be very informal, and you start with generally how you feel things have been going.  Once you’ve have a chance to give yourself an overview, or big picture thoughts about the previous period of time, then move on to more specifics with reflection and assessment.


For your reflection, look at what your wins were in the previous period.  Where can you point to and say that something went well.  What tasks did you accomplish? Where did you beat a previous best? Or try something new?

You also take a look at your misses for the previous period.  Where did you fail to do something, you had planned to do?  When did you try something, and it didn’t work out the way you thought that it would? While wins make you feel good about what you’re doing, misses help you figure out what isn’t working for you and why.  So that you can plan to do things differently next time.  Identifying misses helps to keep you from repeating the same mistakes over and over again. It’s not about beating yourself up, or anything negative.  You want to figure out how you can improve.  It’s about identifying the obstacles that you might not see in the moment, or that are too familiar. 


The second part of Reviewing is assessment.  This flows pretty naturally from your reflection.  Basically, it’s asking yourself, what worked and what failed?  Assessment is more process oriented, while reflection is more task and goal oriented. What parts of your days are working for you? What parts of your projects are bringing you joy? Where are you making progress, and what is contributing to the progress? Also, what didn’t work? What parts of your day and projects are just not hitting?  Where do you feel like a train wreck?

What Is and Isn’t Working, and Why?

Identifying what things are working for you gives you ideas that you might be able to apply to other parts of your day, or other projects. Identifying what is failing for you gives you information about what else you might need.  It lets you know what you need to look at something more closely and figure out what’s going on.  It also gives you information about what you need to stop doing because it just isn’t working for you. And stopping doing things that aren’t working for you gives you so much freedom and returns energy to you that you can spend on things that are working for you.  Or at least on things that have a higher likelihood of working for you.

Brain Dump

The second of the keys to success is a Brain Dump, or Second Brain.  This idea is basically that you will free up your brain power if you don’t have to constantly remind yourself about things.  Once you write things down, you know that you can come back to them during planning time and make sure that they get assigned a time to be done. 

One of the big keys to effective brain dumping is that you have ONE consistent place where you write everything down.  If your current system is a million sticky notes, or the back of napkins and receipts, it’s time to up your game.  Pretty much everyone has a smart phone, and it’s almost always on you.  You can use your phone as your brain dump.  Again, don’t create random notes all over the place.  Have one consistent place where you always write down the things that you need to remember. 

99% of What You Need to Remember

Actually, I would suggest 2 places.  If a things needs to get done at a future point, put it on your calendar at approximately the point where you will need to plan to do it.  If the thing is something that you need to buy, put it on your shopping list.  You can have a two sections of your shopping list.  One section is for things that you need to purchase within the next week.  The other section is for things that you need to purchase at some future point.  Pretty much all of life is either things you need to do, or things you need to buy. 

99% of everything that you need to remember belongs on either your calendar or shopping list

So, what goes into your Brain Dump areas? Tasks always go there until they are organized to where they belong.  Currently, I like to plan my weeks on Saturday mornings.  I plan Sunday through Saturday of the upcoming week.  If I know that a particular task needs to get done during a certain week, but I’m not sure when exactly I’ll do it.  I will drop it on Sunday as a placeholder.  Then, when I plan that week, I’ll make sure that I plan time for that task. 

What Goes on Your Calendar?

Goals / projects can go on your calendar as well.  Make sure that you divide the goal or project into its component tasks and assign each task an amount of time to work on it.  Any task that doesn’t have an amount of time assigned to it and blocked on your calendar, isn’t going to get done.  If you just have an idea for a goal or project, get the idea on your calendar on the planning date nearest to when you will want to start on it.  You don’t need to plan the whole project when you have the idea.  Just get the idea on your calendar so you can plan it during your planning time.

Shopping Lists

Lists are another important brain dump item. A shopping list is essential.  If you have multiple people in your household, make sure that everyone can access and will agree to use the list. It can be as old school as a paper list on the refrigerator, or a cloud based list such as Google Keep. 

Whatever you use… Use It.  If you notice that the toothpaste is running low, add it to the shopping list.  If your friend recommends a new product to try, add it to the list. Even things that you don’t buy at the grocery store can be added to the list so that they aren’t forgotten. Tires? Coffee? Gym membership?  Whenever you need to buy, jot it down on your shopping list so that it’s out of your head, and somewhere that you will be able to take action on it when you are in shopping mode.

Important Dates and Appointments

A final thing that you should always add to your calendar is important dates.  Birthdays and anniversaries obviously should already be on your calendar.  Do you need to purchase cards or gifts?  Add that a couple weeks ahead of time to your calendar. Appointments should go on your calendar when you make them.  Don’t take the little business card and put it in your pocket.  Add the next appointment to your calendar while you’re standing there making the appointment.  You save a tree, and you won’t forget about the appointment, because it’s already on your calendar.

Which reminds me, use an electronic calendar. It’s 2024, it’s time to use an cloud based calendar. Yes, my mom has a paper monthly calendar on her fridge as well.  That does you no good these days.  If you like the pictures, that great, hang it up, and make your heart happy.  However, as far a planning goes, one of the major Keys to Success is having instant access to your calendar. 

Use an electronic calendar on your phone. 

They can be shared with family members so that everyone knows when the kids are off school or need to be picked up from piano and soccer.  You can easily move things around as you’re planning and figuring out how it all fits together. You can color code it.  There are just so many advantages to using an electronic calendar on your phone that refusing to do so counts as a way that you are making your life more difficult.

5 steps to productive planning

The third Key to Success is Adapting Your Plan.

Now that you have reviewed the previous time period and have a list of everything that you need to do, you can start planning for the upcoming time period.

What Do You Need to Do?

Based on your Brain Dump. Identify what you need to do in this upcoming time period.  Anything that doesn’t need to get done in this time period, you can move to its relevant starting point.

How Much Time Will It Take?

Now that you have a (hopefully manageable) list of what you need to do, if you haven’t already done so, assign an amount of time that you want to commit to each thing.  Short things, daily things and one off are easy, give them their amount of time and put them on the day they need to be done. 

Bigger projects you probably need to break into daily segments.  For example, if you want to spend 20 hours working on a project this week, you might do it all in one day.  Or you might start by putting a five hour block on each of four days.  As you are planning each day, you might realize that you can’t do five hours on one of the days, you can only do three hours that day.  So, you then take the other two hours and reassign them to days when you can work longer.  Or you take those floating two hours and put them on a fifth day.  In this way, you get to work for twenty hours on your project over the course of the week. 

Don’t forget to plan time for your habits and daily maintenance activities.  If you need to make dinner, make sure that you have that time blocked off on you calendar. Look at your recipes and make sure that you are starting at a time where you will be finished when you want to be eating dinner.  Or you might realize that dinner is just going to be late on a certain day, because you have other things going on.

Identify Your Obstacles

Which brings us to our next point.  As you are putting your week together, you will identify areas in your schedule where you have obstacles.  Just like we did when we were planning our year, knowing that an obstacle is coming up allows us to plan for how we will deal with it.  If you know that you have a very busy day and won’t get home until late, maybe that’s a day that you plan to get dinner out, or ask someone else to cook, use your crock pot, or a meal kit service.  The point is, if you know that something is coming up, that will be a challenge to navigate, you can plan for it.  There will, of course, be other obstacles that come up unexpectedly. However, you will do yourself an enormous favor by preplanning for obstacles that you know are coming. 

Keys to success - 5 steps to maintain and increase your productivity

Identify Your Opportunities

In a similar fashion, if there is an opportunity coming up, and you can plan to take advantage of that, you are also doing yourself a favor.  Maybe you know that a big boss will be a at work, and you want to look your best, and have all your work looking fabulous.  Maybe you know that the kids will all be at friend’s house and you, and your partner can have some quality time together.  Whatever it is, if you can identify an opportunity, and set yourself up to take advantage of it, you will make your life better and easier.

Don’t Reinvent the Wheel

One final note, don’t reinvent the wheel.  Always start your planning with what you know worked.  Or at least start with your last plan.  Delete anything that you figured out wasn’t working for you and try something else. 

As you are getting organized, it’s vitally important to remember these three keys to success. First is to always review your previous time period, whether it’s a day, a week, a month, a quarter or a year, look back and give yourself credit for all that you did.  Also, look back and figure out where things went sideways for you and what you can try to do differently to be more successful. 

Second, in the moment, use your Brain Dump calendar, shopping list etc. to get things out of your head and into a place where you can deal with them as part of your regular planning practice. Third, have a regular planning practice where you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. 

Start with what you know worked last time.  Add in the things that you know you need to do this time and make adjustments and prioritize as necessary. Recognize both your upcoming opportunities and obstacles, and plan for them appropriately.

What are your Keys to Success?

Drop a comment below and share your knowledge and life experience. These are the things that work for me, there are different things for different people. Did you try this out for a couple months? How did it go? Let us know in the comments below.

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