December 5, 2022

I Used the 12 Week Year for 90 Days: Review

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I first discovered the book 12 Week Year in early 2021 when someone mentioned it in the Full Focus Planner Facebook group. I immediately borrowed it from the library.

And then I borrowed it again. And again...

For the past year and a half I've been experimenting with different aspects of the system and I've had a lot of thoughts about it: what works, what doesn't, and how it compares to previous systems I've used.


Summary review of the 12 Week Year System

Pros

  • Flexibility of implementation 
  • Simplicity gives confidence to achieve
  • System is independent of planner

Cons

  • Me, setting too many 12-week goals
  • Tactics don't always translate to results
  • Isn't a complete task management system

Preferences

  • Can use with desired planner

Why I decided to move from the Full Focus Planner to a 12 Week Year system

If you're familiar with the Full Focus Planner, you'll notice a lot of similarities in 12 Week Year system:

  • Focus on one block of 90 days for goal-planning;
  • Use of weekly and quarterly reflections;
  • Emphasis on actionable to-dos, broken down from quarterly to weekly to daily items that move a larger needle

While I learned a lot by using the Full Focus Planner (and I'm still a fan of the Focus On This Podcast, and I enjoy being in the Facebook group), there were a few reasons why I wanted to try out the 12 Week Year system instead.

Implementing an independent 90 Day System

I appreciate a planner with prompts and daily structure. But when it came down to practicality for me, the Full Focus Planner was too rigid. I wanted a system where I didn't feel like I was wasting paper on days I wasn't working, or weekly reflections on holidays (Christmas, etc).

The idea that I could "condense" a "year's" worth of achievements into a tidy 90-day year resonated with me deeply. A year in 90 days? Yes, please.

Ever since playing around with the system, I keep coming back to this idea of short bursts of productivity and (attempting to) limit my scope by limiting the focus of my planning.

Focussing on Tactics

The 12 Week Year system helps you break down larger tasks into manageable, weekly chunks that are scored and reflected upon at the end of the week. These scorable tasks are called tactics (more on that below).

I wanted to know if tactics could be applied to my writing and freelance work, as well as other areas of my life.

Creating my own spreads

I wanted the freedom to create my own spreads for the days I actually worked and to implement questions and prompts that were tailored for me. The 12 Week Year system seemed to allow me to do that, as it's a system independent of a planner.

So, after devouring the 12 Week Year book (multiple times), I started to use the system itself...with some interesting results.

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Hey there! Welcome! My name is Clare, I’m the author-publisher behind the young adult science fiction & fantasy publisher, Faery Ink Press. 

Each month I blog about a specific behind-the-scenes project or campaign I carry out on my very real publishing company—and share all the messy feelings and results with you, the creative reader.

**Important Note:**  It seems like the authors are selling a course/have live trainings about the 12 Week Year system, so to be clear: I'm not reviewing any courses, I'm reviewing and implementing the system discussed in the book, 12 Week Year. Which you can get wherever you get books. It's an older code sir, but it still checks out. 🙂

What is the 12 Week Year?

The 12 Week Year: Get More Done in 12 Weeks Than Others Do In 12 Months is a book written by Brian P. Morgan and Michael Lemmington. It was published in 2013 by Wiley. The book contains a complete system for planning and executing on large but achievable goals in 12 weeks.

How does it work?

Here is a quick overview of the 12 Week Year Planning System.

Identifying goals by quarter

The basic idea of the 12 Week Year system is: it's hard to plan annual goals because a lot can change in 12 months.

I resonated with this idea completely. My work is ever-changing, my projects differ vastly in skills and depth, and I am sometimes called upon to create quick changes or fix technical issues at the drop of a hat. This disrupts not only my day, but my feelings about my day.

Restricting my goals (and let's be honest, my projects) to 90 day cycles, in theory, allows me to think more reasonably about what I want to achieve. And how I can achieve it.

The 12 Week Year also makes the distinction between quarterly planning and 12-week planning. Quarters are part of a greater year, while each 12 Week Year stands alone.


Creating tactics from goals

As noted in the book, your vision must be connected to your daily actions. It does you no good to make goals without considering your larger plan AND what is possible for you to achieve.

Tactics are actions you can take based on your greater goals. Some tactics are daily or repeatable, like, "Spend one hour on your novel every day." Some are one-off, like "Come up with five marketing ideas for the upcoming launch campaign by Friday." Ideally, they're binary: they have a fixed end state where you can ask yourself, "Is this done?"

To create tactics for the 12 Week Year system, consider the steps or actions needed to realize the goal. Break your goal down into individual actions. Tactics should be actionable: meaning, they're steps YOU take to see progress.

Each of your goals should have its own set of tactics. Ideally, if you undertake and complete tactics in a timely manner, before or on their due date, you will make progress towards your 12 Week Year goal.


Assigning tactics to weeks

Just as you consider your goals when creating tactics, you should consider your schedule when trying to assign tasks to your calendar.

You do this by making a Weekly Plan.

Weekly Plans are derivative of 12 Week Plans. It's not a to-do list per se, but rather a strategic list of actions to take to remain on track with your 12 Week Year goal. It's not a list of urgent tasks. It's populated with actions/tactics that are due that week.

Also helpful for assigning tactics to weeks is creating a Sample Week (like an Ideal Week in the Full Focus Planner) and blocking off how much time you'll devote to each tactic or goal.

Knowing how much time each tactic might take was invaluable when creating my Weekly Plan, and when creating my overarching projects and goals.


Weekly scoring & reflection

At the end of the week (which for me, is Sunday), I would tally up how many tactics I successfully completed versus how many I didn't. This became my weekly score.

The weekly scorecard functions as hard evidence of work done. After all, completed tactics are the actions you took this week. The authors advise the reader to strive for 85% completion of a Weekly Plan, but a score of 60% to 70% isn't terrible so long as you don't give up.

If you fall short, it's time for some reflection: do you need to assign yourself less work? What got in the way of taking action? Turning your reflection into learning and applying it to next week's plan is also paramount to success.


Lag vs Lead Indicators

This one took me a while to wrap my head around, and honestly I don't even know if it's helpful or if it just adds more confusion to the system.

According to 12 Week Year, lag indicators are end results. Most often, it's the goal I'm tracking.

Lead indicators are the tactics YOU do to achieve results. They're within your control. Effective lead indicators can be your weekly scoring metrics.

So, if I understand this correctly: 2,000 words written on a novel is a lag indicator. However, a tactic of writing 500 words a day is a lead indicator. If I write 500 words Monday to Friday, I will likely achieve my end result, which is 2,000+ words written on the novel.


Using the 12 Week Year in practice

I've tried the 12 Week Year system in earnest at least two times in two separate 90 day periods. Here's what I got out of it.

Big Picture Use: Defining The Future

Tucked away in the back of the 12 Week Year book in Chapter 13 is an exercise in defining your really long-term goals, or your "aspirational vision."

This involves casting your mind to fifteen, ten, and five years into the future to see where you'd like your life to be. This is reminiscent of Michael Hyatt's Life Plan, with a more focussed, systematic feel and approach (in my opinion).

Once you've imagined your far-future, it's time to create the near-future with your three-year vision. The three-year vision is like the aspirational vision, but a more concrete picture, based on what you believe you can achieve in the next three (calendar) years.

The point of this exercise is to divide your goals into far-future (aspirational), near-future (in three calendar years), and near-present (12 Week Year) categories.

While this may seem unnecessary, it helped me realize that some aspirations would likely not be achieved in three years, or even five. In fact, looking back at what I bullet-pointed for the three-year vision, A LOT of what I wrote is extremely aspirational. I could afford to cut it in half, or maybe quarter it.


Daily Use: Ideal/Sample Weeks Finally Made Sense

Ideal Weeks in the Full Focus Planner never struck the right chord with me. I have so many different tasks and projects on the go, it seemed a waste of time to create an Ideal Week.

It took the 12 Week Year system to make ideal week planning CLICK for me.

If I couldn't fit the projects into the calendar, then it wasn't physically possible to complete those projects or tasks in that week.

Seems so obvious, right? But such an easy point to ignore when you've got a lot on your plate.

This realization was a wash of relief. I've been piling on task after task onto myself, wondering why I could only achieve 3-5 tasks a day while staring at everything left undone.

Looming over a hypothetical weekly schedule and trying to fit work blocks into place, before the week began? I had solved the puzzle and my prize was freedom.

Now I could plan my work blocks, with realistic expectations of what I wanted to get done.

Weekly Plan & Reflection

The Weekly Plan takes tactics from the 12 Week Plan. It's not just a to-do list (but, it kinda is): it is strategic to-dos directly related to your long term vision that you're going to accomplish this week.

In theory, the Weekly Plan resonated with me. A list of actionable items I could complete and score! Hurray!

In practice, I I didn't follow through on the Weekly Plan in the strongest way. In both the creation of the plan and the execution. Ultimately, I jammed way too many things into one week and I didn't pay enough attention to the reflection questions as I reassessed for the upcoming week.

This was compounded by the fact that 12 Week Year goal-planning isn't a complete task management system, and sometimes more urgent priorities had to take hold of time I'd reserved for my goals.


Valley of Despair is Too Real

In Chapter 12, the authors discuss "The Emotional Cycle of Change" based on psychologists Don Kelley and Daryl Connor's work. In the context of the 12 Week Year system, it's a U-shaped graph depicting the emotional cycle of setting and achieving a goal, starting high with "Uniformed Optimism" and ending high with "Success and Fulfillment"...but in the middle, we have "Valley of Despair."

As the 12 Week Year states, the Valley of Despair is where, halfway to achieving their vision, people give up. For me, Valley of Despair is where I suddenly realize I've overcommitted and I have to readjust my expectations in the face of reality.

But the Valley of Despair is also where I question my self-worth and my creative work. This valley devastates my workflow. It's not just a stopping point between optimisms, it's a bottomless pit that I struggle to climb out of with every project, every month, sometimes on a weekly basis.

And guess what folks, willpower is not a sturdy enough rope or bridge to face this valley. I would even go as far to say that revisiting my grand vision isn't enough to pull me out, because it's the grand vision that has thrust me down here in the first place.

The only way out I've found is through. Noticing my doubts and imposter-syndrome-driven thoughts and doing my best to recognize them for what they are: thoughts.

But we all have our days where the doubt wins.

Once I'm able, I revisit impossible tasks and readjust as necessary and continue completing what I can to move the needle until I start to see traction, no matter how small. That's how I know I've made it through.


Pros and Cons of the 12 Week Year - Breakdown

The Pros: What I liked about the 12 week year system

Flexibility of Implementation

It didn't matter if I made my own bullet journal or used a digital journal. I could lay this system on top of my own planner. To me, this was huge. Binding yourself to another person's physical planning system can feel limiting.

Directness of approach

The conciseness and energy of the book's tone gave me confidence in my ability to achieve. I recommend giving the book a read, even if you're not sure about the system itself, because the book will invigorate you to perform. Well - that's the effect it had on me, at least!


The Pros: What the 12 Week Year system taught me

Focus on actionable goals - not results-oriented goals

A goal to "gain X subscribers to my email list" isn't actionable because that only happens by performing other activities. A more suitable goal to achieve a desired subscriber count might be, "Create XYZ Freebie to Entice More Sign ups" or "Promote my email newsletter in the next three social media posts."

Notice how these are all activities that I can do. If they increase subscribers, great, but only having a results-oriented goal doesn't inspire one to take action, as the steps aren't readily apparent.

The Ideal Week finally makes sense

Sometimes it takes the right explanation in a particular context to make a concept "click." The 12 Week Year viscerally showed me where I was feeling dissonance about time management and "trying to do it all."


Top Downsides or Notes of Improvement for Myself and this System

I can't narrow down my goals

This one's on me - I have too many goals.

All of my creative and professional pursuits feel interconnected and equally important, so it's hard to choose one or two aspects to focus and make progress on. This is an ongoing struggle that I wrestle with weekly, and I don't think any one system is going to solve that problem for me. Only I can decide what's important and how I can make progress.


Rigidness feels constraining 

The same problem came up when using the Full Focus Planner: something about the rigidity of the system design feels like I'm slamming against a wall.

I'm a human being and planners are not. Planners and planning systems don't account for how I might feel tomorrow or next week. They don't know when I'll feel fatigued because of a medical condition. We can plan the perfect day and that day can be destroyed or ruined through no fault of our own. Nothing can really fix this other than me practicing extreme forgiveness on myself.


"Other tasks"

Unfortunately not all aspects of life fit within our neatly defined goals. "Other tasks" on my to-do list that didn't fit into my goals needed a separate to-do list. This is a huge downside to the system. While it keeps you focused on moving the needle on what matters . . . sometimes what also matters is paying my credit cards and doing my laundry!


Closing thoughts

As usual, I trip myself up by being too ambitious AND by forgetting that, you know, life happens.

Here are some of the key takeaways from my experience with the 12 Week Year System.


Revisit goals at the half-way mark

Because of my ambitious nature, I have a heart-to-heart with myself halfway through any endeavor to ensure my goals are *actually* reasonable. Life can throw you curve balls and a lot can change in 90 days, so I should ensure I check in with myself often to ensure I'm on track, or if I need to lower my expectations to match reality.


12 Weeks Doesn't Have to Be 12 Weeks

Twelve weeks is an eternity and with some volatile and ever-changing workplaces, it's no more possible to plan for twelve weeks than it is for fifty-two.

I am going to experiment with 6 week or 4 week "years" because I think this may suit my creative and freelance goals far better, in addition to my constantly changing freelance schedule.

I do recommend the 12 Week Year if:

  • You want to condense your goals into 90 days
  • You want a system to lay on top of your planner
  • You have a concrete idea of the steps it will take to achieve your goal(s).
  • You want to achieve specific goals and don't have other conflicting interests that require separate, other to-do lists.
  • You have a one-off, time-sensitive goal


Will I continue to use this system?

I have incorporated a LOT of aspects of this system into something that works for me. Which I consider a success.

No one system is going to be a "cure-all." We have to look at what works and adapt accordingly. The 12 Week Year book is a resource I return to and receive new inspiration from every time I want to plan a large project.

After all, we are not the same person as we were 12 weeks ago. There is always something new to learn.

Have you tried out the 12 Week Year system? Let me know in the comments!

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Hey, I'm Clare!

Clare C. Marshall is the author/publisher behind Faery Ink Press. She blogs monthly about writing, publishing, marketing, and productivity at cmarshallpublishing.com.


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