At the start of any project, whether it’s a creative work, a major household reorganization, or setting up a new bullet journal, I create a magna carta. This is an idea adapted from No Plot? No Problem, the “bible” of National Novel Writing Month. You sit down with a piece of paper and make two lists. The first is all of the things you feel a good novel needs — what you enjoy reading, basically. The second is a list of the things that you don’t like and want to avoid in your own work. It’s really a brainstorming exercise, but it becomes a touchstone that you can refer back to as you’re writing your novel.

It’s similar to some exercises I’ve done while working on vision and mission statements. What I like about the magna carta concept is that it not only captures what your ideal desired state should look like, it makes you think about what you expressly do not want. If you’re willing to dig a little deeper, you can ponder why you do and don’t want the things on your lists but that, again, is a whole other exercise.

When I create magna cartas for purposes other than writing projects, the steps are essentially the same. What do I like about the household organization projects I’ve done in the past, or read about, that I think will work well for this effort? What methodologies for simplification and minimalizing have I seen or done that I want to avoid like the plague? Are there bullet journal spread that I’m excited to try, and others that just rub me the wrong way for some practical or aesthetic reasons?

Rather than just write simple lists, I try to use the ideas I’ve captured while brainstorming as fodder for a SMART goal. A SMART Magna Carta, if you will. That way, the ideas that I come up with get folded into an solid plan that will actually be completed.

What is a SMART Goal?

SMART is just a mnemonic acronym that can help you remember the important elements of a goal. Without these pieces, you just have a wish, a hope, or a good intention. Defining the elements of a SMART goal will help you to get it done. It’s what elevates an intention to an actual, executable plan.

The five letters stand for specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, and time-bound. Some people swap out the letters for other things — meaningful for measurable, as an example, or assignable for attainable — so you can pretty much customize it any way you’d like. As with any other productivity tool, it’s a matter of what gets you the results you’re looking for rather than strict adherence to what someone else came up with. I mean, seriously, I cannibalize and remix ideas all the time to suit my needs. That’s what this whole article is about!

Specific

What exactly is this project about? Clearly state the problem that you’re solving for? What is the intended outcome? This often ends up being something akin to a mission statement. It doesn’t have to be long or involved. A sentence will often suffice. It can take up as much room as you’d like, though. Expand or contract to meet your needs.

  • I will write and publish a book on [topic].
  • I will reorganize the kitchen, getting rid of things I don’t need.
  • My bullet journal will be set up so that it supports my personal self-care needs, my creative projects, and my professional development efforts.

Measurable

How will you measure success? Obviously the project will be completed, but hold off on assigning deadlines — that comes below, under “time-bound”. Although you could fold some of this into the “specific” statement, it often helps to keep it separate.

  • The book will be 45,000 words, 12 point type, single spaced, for a total of 100 pages.
  • The result of the kitchen reorganization will be more counter space, with the items I use most in easy reach.
  • Trackers will allow me to measure progress toward personal, professional, and business goals.

Actionable

How does this translate into tasks? Here’s where more brainstorming will be required. What steps are required to accomplish the goal? Write down as many things as you can think of. You can then combine similar tasks, order them according to dependencies (you can’t do task B until after you’ve done task A), and so on.

A lot of people bag on to-do lists, but I think they’re essential. You need visibility to all of the moving parts. If you’re not aware of the full scope of what you’re setting out to do, then you’re not going to be able to complete the next two steps of setting up SMART goal: Is is realistic, and how is it time-bound?

Realistic

Can I accomplish this goal, given the resources at my disposal? Do I have enough to time to do this before some event collides with my life? Will this cost more money than I can commit to the project right now? How much space will it take up, and can I give up that room temporarily without creating other problems?

When looking at whether a project is realistic, there’s one element that’s painful to assess. Do I have the skill to do this? For some things it won’t matter. You can learn as you go, or you can just budget more time because it will take you longer. For other things, well, can you really do a good job installing new kitchen cabinets yourself, or should you hire a professional? Is it a bit delusional to think you can write a whole book on a thin premise, or a topic you don’t know much about?

To accentuate that a goal is realistic, I sometimes write a motivational statement. It should pump you up and explain why the goal is attainable. You should also squash any chances to make excuses.

  • My mentor, who has done this many times, will be working with me as I write and publish this book to keep me motivated and on track.
  • This goal is realistic because I have successfully reorganized kitchens many times in the past, and know what is involved.
  • The examples of many bullet journal fanatics, and their numerous videos on YouTube, will provide me with inspiration throughout this project.

Time-Bound

This element is all about milestones and deadlines. Take the tasks you came up with under the “actionable” part of the SMART goal, put them in the order the need to be done chronologically. Stick due dates on them. Then add them to your calendar, put them into your planner, or add them to your bullet journal so you can see them, remember them, and get them done.

To me, this is the most important part of any goal. If I don’t firmly commit to doing a specific thing by a specific date and time, it won’t get done. If you don’t build a sense of urgency into it, you’ll never get around to it.

I stick to a 3-day deferment rule. If something comes up during the course of a day and a task has to be bumped, I try to bump the lowest-priority task. On the second day it becomes a higher priority, and I try to fit it in so my whole schedule doesn’t get thrown out of whack. If it gets deferred again, because seriously, stuff happens, on the third day it moves to the top. Because by day 3, that open loop is going to be causing problems. If it’s not, then it might be a task that doesn’t need to be done at all and can just be crossed off the list.

Putting It All Together

I take the specific, measurable, and realistic statement and work them into a single statement. When I’m tracking a project in my bullet journal, I write this at the top of one of the spread pages. Below the statement I write the task list, with the assigned deadlines. On the facing page, or below that task list if there’s room, I add my magna carta lists as “touchstones”. Taking what I knocked together as examples above, we get the following:

Writing Project

I will write and publish a book on [topic]. The book will be 45,000 words, 12 point type, single spaced, for a total of 100 pages. My mentor, who has done this many times, will be working with me as I write and publish this book to keep me motivated and on track.
(Task list and deadlines)
(Touchstones)

Kitchen Reorganization

I will reorganize the kitchen, getting rid of things I don’t need. The result of the kitchen reorganization will be more counter space, with the items I use most in easy reach. This goal is realistic because I have successfully reorganized kitchens many times in the past, and know what is involved.
(Task list and deadlines follow)
(Touchstones)

Bullet Journal Setup

My bullet journal will be set up so that it supports my personal self-care needs, my creative projects, and my professional development efforts. Trackers will allow me to measure progress toward personal, professional, and business goals. The examples of many bullet journal fanatics, and their numerous videos on YouTube, will provide me with inspiration throughout this project.
(Task list and deadlines follow)
(Touchstones)

These can be first drafts. I tend to take a few days to think about things, clean up my verbiage, add ideas that didn’t come to me until later, and rewrite until I’m happy. The first draft might be good enough to get you doing. It depends on how long and complicated the project is. The assumption is that if I’m taking the time to do this, the project is going to take a while, and the stakes for success are pretty high. I want the writing project to turn out well because I need the book to sell well, for example. The kitchen reorganization has to be done right, because I work in the kitchen ever single day. Because I live my life out of my bullet journal, it needs to be functional and help me in the areas where I truly need help.

What’s Your Planning Process?

Do you use magna cartas or SMART goals? How you found success with combinations of the two? Are there suggestions you’d like to make, or questions you’d like me to answer? Let’s talk about it in the comments below!

2 thoughts on “SMART Magna Cartas [Write It Down, Get It Done]

  1. I am a terrible planner and I suck at task-list-making. I know this, and I wish it was not so, even though repeated attempts at becoming one have failed. I recognize the value of it, which is why I keep wanting to become one. I’ve been forcing myself to do it to whatever extent I can lately because I need to in order to juggle the things I have to do with the things I want to do, especially in terms of creative projects. But in all honesty, it’s been a bust. I admire your methods and discipline, and one of the reasons I follow any post you write on the topic closely is because I hope your good habits rub off on me. So I keep at it.

  2. Well hang on then, brother, because this is every Thursday through at least September!

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