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How to use a simple "night-before" Q&A checklist to tackle major life goals

There's a lot to do in one day, but drilling down to one "key thing" has been crucial to this blogger's success.
Image: Writing checklist
The checklist starts with your long-term goals and drills down into the shorter-term priorities you needs to achieve them. Wutthichai Luemuang / EyeEm - Getty Images/

Every morning, writer and illustrator Alex Mathers starts his day by going over a checklist of his top priorities.

He says his simple “night-before” questions checklist helps him consider how the tasks he needs to tackle today will help him achieve his long-term aspirations tomorrow and beyond.

The checklist starts with his long-term goals and drills down into the shorter-term priorities he needs to achieve them:

  • What will I make happen within five years? (ONE major goal)
  • What will I make happen within one year? (ONE major goal)
  • What will I make happen within 30 days? (ONE thing)
  • What will I make happen within seven days? (ONE thing)
  • What will I do to start this day positively? (Doing something other than what I usually do out of habit)
  • What must get done today that develops my main craft? (Daily work on a craft leads to mastery)
  • What three extra tasks must get done today if any? (Streamline your to-do list to what matters)
  • Who will I contact today to generate opportunities and good will? (Nourish your relationships)
  • What will I do today that scares me? (Keep me stretching, building confidence and character)
  • What will I do today to benefit my health?
  • What will I do today to expand my extra-curricular world? (Such as 30 minutes of learning a language, or reading)
  • What was yesterday’s key inch? (Most crucial metric, such as new subscribers added, money made, and so on.)

“It ranges from stuff like ‘What goals do I have over the next five years?’ all the way down to the present day to-do list,” Mathers tells NBC News BETTER.

It all comes down to two things, according to the blogger: What matters the most and what is the rough plan for the day?

“I just find it a lot more easy to visualize what needs to be done if I can see the long-term goal right now on the same page, because it effectively dictates what needs to be done today so I know that what I’m doing today matters because it has an effect in the long run,” he explains.

Drill your responses down to “one key thing”

Each day, Mathers sits down to answer the questions on his checklist. Often, he says, the responses are the same day-to-day, but over time, they evolve. He says the answers should be short, succinct and drilled down to “one key thing.”

“A lot of people struggle with overloading themselves with options, and when you’re overloaded with different opportunities and different choices it can cause — I found this certainly myself — it causes the inability to do anything,” says Mathews.

If you overcomplicate your responses with too many goals, you’re more likely to feel overwhelmed.

Let’s use the first question as an example, i.e., “What will I make happen within five years? Your goal might be to write a book, own a house or start your own business.

If you overcomplicate your responses with too many goals, you’re more likely to feel overwhelmed, explains Mathers.

“If you whittle things down to the ‘one thing,’ I found, it’s very, very useful to help you focus on what is key, and it’s a lot easier for you to visualize what you need to be doing,” he explains.

Get over your “busyness mindset”

The checklist empowers you to prioritize what’s important to you instead of focusing on busywork that has little personal value, says Mathers.

“You get this sense that you should be doing stuff, and everyone talks about having to hustle and having to work hard and all this stuff,” he says.

The checklist empowers you to prioritize what’s important to you instead of focusing on busywork that has little personal value.

To be truly productive, he says, you need to separate the busy work — tasks that have short-term value — from what’s important to your long-term goals. For instance, you may spend your entire morning responding to emails, Mathers says.

“Whereas what you really should be doing with that time maybe early on in the day when you’re kind of more fresh, when your creative juices are running, you really need to be spending that key time on stuff that’s going to be good for you in the long term,” he says.

Tasks that have long-term value include working on a novel, for example, or exercising to improve your health, he says.

“All of that stuff needs to take precedence, I think, over the urgent stuff, which will inevitably end up getting lost into the ether,” Mathers says.

What’s your “key inch”?

The last question on Mathers’ list — “What was yesterday’s key inch?” — helps the artist measure his progress. He describes it as “any sort of statistic or measure of some momentum that represents a fairly obvious step forward in your life.”

For Mathers, this “key inch” is the number of people who subscribe to his newsletter each day, but he says it will be different for everyone.

“It’s the crucial metric — one statistic out of all of them — that matters the most, going back to that theme of prioritizing that one key thing,” says Mathers.

Mathers says focusing on his “key inch” has helped him gain more followers to his blog the Red Lemon Club.

“I’ve been able to expand on my writing and gain a lot more followers with my writing and stuff because it’s just simply reminded me to sit down and smash out 2,000 words,” Mathers says, “whereas I probably wouldn’t have done that with the same amount of clarity without that question.”

How it works:

  • Go over the checklist every day: Each morning before you start your day, go over the checklist. Keep your answers succinct and focus on “one key thing,” or big-picture goal, for each.
  • Get over your busyness mindset: Being busy all the time often prevents us from focusing on our big goals. The checklist encourages you to focus on the daily, short-term to-do’s that will help you achieve your long-term aspirations, whether it’s writing a novel or owning your own home.
  • Ask yourself what your “key inch” is: The last question on the checklist — What was yesterday’s key inch? — will help you measure progress towards your long-term goals. Maybe you banged out 500 words for your novel, or saved an additional $100 for a down payment on your future home. Focusing on yesterday’s “key inch” will keep you motivated by focusing on your short-term successes.


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