In January 2020, I wrote down my goals for the year on a piece of post-it note, used the classical elements framework to check if they were balanced, and laminated it to hang it on my wall so I accomplish them.
And, never looked at them again for the rest of the year.
Okay, to be fair, I did look at them occasionally, but less so as a task manager that helped me plan my daily tasks and more so as a piece of colorful art that I created.
This piece of art that I spent hours creating turned out to be useless in planning my day-to-day. And I did not achieve most of the goals I wrote down.
Because I stopped at step 1. I put a lot of thought into what I envisioned from the upcoming year, offloaded it from my brain, and even ensured it was (reasonably) balanced. But that was it.
I did not work on the following steps to go from resolution to results:
- Breaking down these yearly goals into actionable next steps,
- Connecting larger goals to daily tasks, and mainly
- Build a system around it such that I actually looked at it on a weekly basis to reflect and act upon.
This is also why, in my opinion, most New Year resolutions fail.
Not because the resolutions were too far-fetched.
But because it was set up for failure from the beginning without building a system to achieve them.
Over the past 2 years, I’ve experimented with various planning methodologies, including Getting Things Done by David Allen. While a lot GTD’s principles have been transformational, it too has shortcomings (which I talk about towards the end of this article).
So, I came up with my own framework.
In this article, I will introduce a new framework to you — The Life Garden framework — that I came up with accidentally about a year ago, which has helped me go from resolutions to results in 2021 for all of my important goals, and will help you too if you’re willing to read till the end and start from today.
Alright, let’s dive in!
I. Introducing: The Life Garden Framework
Imagine that you are standing in front of three beautiful gardens.
These three gardens represent the three spheres that complete your life.
The garden to your left represents everything in your life related to you and your personal growth.
The garden to your right represents all the relationships in your life — your parents, children, friends, mentors, relatives, and more.
The garden right in front of you represents the world at large and your contribution to this world — in the form of your job, research, side-hustle, volunteering, and more.
Now, take a short stroll into the “You” garden to your left that is all about you and your personal growth.
As you walk in, you notice that the “You” garden is filled with beautiful, green, luscious trees.
You find trees that represent your mental health, physical fitness, spiritual health, hobbies, traveling, and more. All the areas that you are working on and want to be working on to grow yourself.
As you walk closer to the tree on mental health, you notice that the tree contains branches that represent the projects you’re working on to grow that tree.
You notice branches that read: Meditate for 5/7 days a week, Attend therapy session biweekly, Attend a course on compassion meditation.
These are result-oriented projects that you’re working on to continue growing your tree on mental health and in turn your personal growth garden.
Finally, as you walk even closer to the tree on mental health and peer into one of the branches, you notice some sprouting leaves on them that represent the daily and weekly tasks you’re performing to grow that branch.
The branch — Attend a course on compassion meditation — has leave that say, “Research and finalize on an online course”, “Attend module #1 and take notes”, “Organize an informal meetup with the other students”, and soon.
Slowly, begin walking back, step by step, until all the trees in the garden come into your view.
Continue walking back until you walk out of the “You” garden and are back to your original spot, watching your three beautiful gardens and marveling at the complexity and multidimensionality of your life.
Side Note: Thanks to Oindrilla for creating the beautiful illustrations above. <3
II. Planning With The Life Garden Framework
We all live a very multidimensional life. At any point in time, we are not just focusing on our career or relationships or mental health. We are focusing on all of them, and more.
I walked you through the visualization for one garden, one tree, and one branch. Now, imagine if you could do this for every garden, every tree, and every branch in your life.
And, if you could offload them all from your head into an external system that connects them together and takes care of everything for you: from tracking progress on each project to letting you know when you should focus on a particular task. From telling you how you’re spending your time to showing what tasks energize you vs what tasks drain you.
A life where your mind is used for creativity and critical thinking. Not remembering tasks and constantly shifting from one to another mindlessly.
This is possible.
As long as you are willing to sit down and invest time to build your garden, and tend to it for an hour every week.
Let me take you through how I use the Life Garden framework to live my life.
2.1. Building Your Garden
First off, you need to build your garden consisting of trees, branches, and leaves.
Let’s start with trees first.
2.1.1. Building Your Trees
Trees are the major areas of your life under each of your gardens.
Before talking about building trees, let’s talk about something called The Life Wheel.
The Life Wheel is a famous tool used by personal coaches to help you get a helicopter view of all the areas of your life and assess what is off balance. It is a two-dimensional wheel that contains all the important areas of your life where you’re asked to rate where you currently stand, on a scale of 1 to 10.
I got introduced to The Life Wheel by someone who mentored for me 6 months in 2020 and played a major role in helping me live a balanced life: Dr. Rhonda Farrell. Thank you for everything, Rhonda!
Figure: An example of a filled life wheel.
“The Wheel of Life is powerful because it gives you a vivid visual representation of the way your life is currently, compared with the way you’d ideally like it to be. It is called the “Wheel of Life” because each area of your life is mapped on a circle, like the spoke of a wheel. The concept was originally created by Paul J. Meyer, founder of Success Motivation® Institute, Inc.”
To build the trees in your garden, you begin with first building your life wheel, with areas that are customized to you. You do this by:
- Writing down all the areas under the three spheres of your life that you can think of. In the image below, I have mentioned some common areas that come under most people’s spheres. However, I recommend customizing this to suit your life. For e.g., if I were to customize this to my life, the areas under the “Your contribution” sphere for me would be: Content creation, Building a startup, Building communities, and Passive income.
- Picking between two to four areas under each sphere to then construct your life wheel. I say at least two to ensure that you don’t disregard that sphere from your life. The maximum cap of four is a soft requirement so that you don’t end up with a life wheel containing 12+ areas, making it harder to track progress and time. The reason for this will become clearer as you begin building this on Notion.
Figure: How to build your custom life wheel.
Once you’ve constructed your life wheel, you’re done building your trees. The areas in the life wheel essentially equate to the trees in your garden.
Note: The one exception here worth calling out is to add an extra tree that encompasses all the operational tasks you perform on a weekly basis. I have a tree in my garden titled “RTB” which expands to “Run The Business”, a jargon I picked up at Salesforce while working there as a Product Manager. To me, RTB encompasses all the work I do to keep running my life, such as, e.g. booking dental appointment, buying groceries, filing taxes, going to the doctor, etc.
2.1.2. Building Your Branches
Branches are the projects that you’re working on under a specific tree (area).
Every tree should have at least one branch under it.
A common mistake I see most people make while planning: They approach planning from a narrow lens, wherein they consciously plan only for the part of their life that is deemed “work” or “career.” The Life Garden framework ensures that this is not the case and that you think about every area in your life, including your mental health, hobbies, relationships, and more.
I recommend going through the following thought experiment to build the branches for each of your trees.
- First, visualize what a 10/10 would look like for each tree. 10 being the ideal case scenario, what would a 10/10 look like for you in your career? relationships? finances? health? Write down whatever comes to mind in the following format: “I am” and “I .”
- E.g. For me, a 10/10 for my mental health would be the following: I am compassionate towards myself and those around me. I am present. I practice good habits and have no addictions. I listen empathetically. I don’t compare. I know how to take care of myself.
- Second, rate each of your trees on a scale of 1 to 10. Now that you know what a 10/10 looks like, what would you rate yourself as you stand today? This is an entirely subjective rating and does not need to make sense to anyone else except you. So don’t overthink it. Think of 5/10 as, “I am doing a good job in this area, but I have a reasonable distance to walk before I reach my destination.”
- E.g. In my case, I gave myself a 5/10 for the “Inner Circle” tree consisting of people who are close to me outside my family. Why? Because I know I do a good job of keeping in touch with a few people consistently and growing my relationship with them, but I also have people I have not spoken to in a while & people with who I’d like to form a close relationship from the ground up.
- Finally, write down what projects you can work on within the next year to reach that 10. If you were to only focus on that one tree for the next year, what projects would you work on to reach your ideal vision, from wherever you stand today? Write down at least 2-3 that come to mind.
- E.g. For my “Physical Health” tree, I gave myself a 4/10 and wrote down the following projects: Sign up for and spend 5/7 days per week rockclimbing, Take a course on nutrition, and Participate in a bike marathon. These projects arose from a goal of wanting to inculcate exercise into my daily routine, eating healthy, and pushing my limits occasionally.
Once you’ve done this exercise for all of your trees, you should have a list of 25-35 branches (projects) for the upcoming year.
Before we move on to talking about leaves (tasks), here are a few pointers to keep in mind.
Ensure that your branches are measurable and result-oriented. If your branch is titled “Improve health”, it might as well not be there. Because that title is useless in actually taking action on. You need to give a title that is measurable and result-oriented.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, that’s okay. If you’ve followed so far, I know you’re probably feeling overwhelmed. It’s okay. You’re meant to. What you’ve done so far is essentially offload everything you want to accomplish in your life in all the areas you care about. It’s supposed to be overwhelming.
Finally, you’re not working on all the branches at once. Even though I had ~40 branches in 2021, at any one point, I’m only working on 8-10 of them, including branches related to my hobbies, personal growth, and relationships.
Now, let’s move on to the last piece in this puzzle: leaves.
2.1.3. Building Your Leaves
Leaves are the daily and weekly tasks that you’re working on under a specific branch (project).
There’s a good chance you already have a task manager that has a list of leaves you’re working on / hope to work on.
So the leaves for your garden will come from two sources,
- Leaves you already have based on your current task manager/system: Whether it be a post-it note, bullet journal, Todoist, Trello, EverNote, or OneNote, you must have a list of tasks strewn across one or more places in your life today. Collect all of them and bring it together. We will soon begin putting all this into Notion.
- Leaves you create based on the branches you’ve created: Look through the branches you’ve created and ask yourself, “What is one actionable task I can accomplish to get a little closer to the result of this branch?” Below are some examples.
Once you’ve gathered 25+ leaves from all of your sources, you’re ready to begin connecting your garden.
2.2. Connecting Your Garden (with Notion)
So far, you’ve built your garden, trees, branches, and leaves. But, they are (a) not centralized, and (b) not fully connected to each other.
Let’s solve both these issues with Notion, an all-in-one productivity tool.
I use Notion to do all of my planning. No other tool. Just one.
I got introduced to it in March 2019 thanks to my friend Rishabh and have since loved experimenting with it to build interesting use cases, one of which is the Life Garden framework.
Note: For starters, please create an account on it if you haven’t yet, and play around with the tool a little. If you have a .edu email address, I recommend using that to create the account so you can get a free upgrade to their Pro plan.
My Life Garden Free Template
The key to building your Life Garden on Notion is relational databases.
Your gardens, trees, branches, and leaves become a database of their own, and are connected with each other through the Relation properly on Notion.
To make things easier for you, I’ve created a template on Notion consisting of four tables that are connected to each other, with some pre-filled fields.
Sit down and fill in the rows of each database with your gardens, trees, branches, and leaves respectively. Once you’ve filled it in, begin connecting leaves to branches, branches to trees, and trees to gardens.
A few things to keep in mind as you centralize and connect your garden,
- Each leaf, branch, and tree should only be connected to one branch, tree, and garden respectively. While it is possible that a leaf can belong to two branches, or a branch can belong to two trees, I recommend adding the most appropriate branch or tree to avoid double-counting later on when you track your time and progress.
- Create new branches if needed. Or delete the leaves. You might come across a few leaves that don’t really have a branch that you can connect it to. There are two paths you can follow here.
- Create a new branch if you notice that many of your leaves fall under the same umbrella and need a branch for the same.
- Ask yourself if you need that leaf. Chances are, this is a leaf that is not important and is not contributing to an important goal. It’s okay to weed it out.
- Your garden only needs to make sense to you. It’s worth reiterating this point. If you’ve reached this far, it means you’re fully invested in getting till the end. Kudos to you. At times, if you’re facing questions such as, “Should I do x or y?”, just keep telling yourself that this only needs to make sense to you.
With that, we’re done with building and connecting our life garden on Notion! Now, it’s time to make it useful.
2.3. Making Your Garden Useful
While you now have a garden fully built and connected on Notion, it’s not useful until you add metadata to your tables, and sit down to conduct a weekly review where you reflect on the past week and plan for the next.
2.3.1 Adding Metadata
Metadata is the data providing information about the data at hand.
Metadata is what makes the data at hand useful.
A Books Tracker is a lot more useful when you have data on when you began reading the book, the genre, and what status it’s at now, rating on 5, etc.
Similarly, to make your garden useful, you need to add metadata to your Branches and Leaves table.
- Metadata for Branches: Status, Started Date, Completion Date, Current Progress, Target Progress, Progress %, Total Hours, Total Days, and (optionally) Energy Spent.
- I calculate the Total Hours and Total Days by using the Rollup feature in Notion based on the Leaves table.
- Metadata for Leaves: Status, Planned Hours, Actual Hours, Week No., Due Date, Days, and other optional fields.
- I add the Days column since I like to assign the days I’m working on a particular task (leaf). This then shows up in my weekly dashboard, which we will get to in the next section.
My recommendation is to begin with adding minimal metadata, only the fields you absolutely require, and then slowly adding more on an as-needed basis.
2.3.2 Weekly Review
Once you have four tables with all the critical metadata, what do you do next?
You create a “space” for yourself to conduct weekly reviews to review what got done and plan for the week ahead.
I conduct a weekly review that spans 60-90 minutes every Sunday night, before I begin a new week. I sit in a specific location in my house, listen to the same playlist I’ve been listening to for almost a year now (!), and go through a checklist of things, which now is second nature to me.
I won’t go into too much detail about my weekly review here, rather give you a high-level overview.
My weekly review involves me asking myself the following questions,
- Have I cleared all the tasks off my weekly dashboard?
- Who all did I meet the past week?
- Did I follow through on my daily habits?
- What tasks did I complete last week? How much time did I spend across my gardens?
- What are 3 wins from last week? What are 3 priorities for the next week?
- What branches do I want to work on for the week ahead?
- What leaves do I want to work on under those branches?
- Finally, what does my weekly dashboard look like for the upcoming week?
Although that might seem like many questions, the system I’ve set up ensures that I don’t need to do anything except look at the data shown to me, reflect, and make decisions. The answers to all the above questions are pre-filled in a template I created using linked databases, views, filters, and sorts. The video below walks you through the template I created that helps me answer all those questions.
And once I go through my weekly review, I get three rewards:
Peace of mind in knowing that nothing important is being forgotten,
Joy from seeing all the progress I’m making every week,
And, confidence that I am continuing to make incremental changes in my life to improve it.
By the way, if what you’re reading so far resonates with you, come join my course “More Time Everyday” where you will learn to build your Life Garden in Notion (and much more!) in 4 weeks, with a community of hgih-energy people. We cover weekly review in the 4th live class of the course in-depth.
III. Merits of The Life Garden
I see three major merits with The Life Garden framework.
Going back to my 2020 goal-setting article, I realize one aspect of it has stayed true until now: acknowledging the importance of balance.
“Having recorded my daily habits for over a year, I knew the importance of having a balance in my every day life. When I have a long day sitting at the office, I have the need to stretch my legs and go for a run. When I spend an evening at a bombastic event filled with people and music, I just want to go home, sit in a quiet place, and close my eyes. We are all physiologically trained to reach this momentary sense of balance every day. Isn’t it only sensible to incorporate this into my yearly goals as well? So I took out a few post-it notes and began scribbling away.”
One of my favorite articles written on journaling describes balance using this image below.
As you try to push a heavy boulder up a hill, life tries to bring it down as soon as it reaches the top. While we all can achieve momentary balance, making it a way of life takes some effort.
To me, the end goal is not to achieve perfect balance every day. Rather, it is to be aware of the imbalance and strive to make incremental changes to continue living a more balanced life that increases your happiness quotient.
The Life Garden and the system I built on top of Notion helps me achieve this by letting me,
Plan for all areas of my life,
Be aware of how I spend my time every week,
Know what brings me joy vs what deprives me of it.
3.2. Daily Tasks Connected To Bigger Areas
Based on my observation, most people plan for the “work” part of their life, and assume that the other parts — hobbies, friendships, mental health — will be taken care of.
That’s not been the case for me. It was only after I began investing in the areas that had been ignored for a while did I see a shift in the happiness quotient in my life. This included actively picking up hobbies, spending time with friends, organizing events, taking up meditation, and going to the gym.
However, without a system that connected these daily tasks to the bigger areas in my life, it would have felt overwhelming to plan my week, given just how multidimensional all of our lives area. Now, connecting my leaves (tasks) to branches (projects) to trees (areas) to gardens, I am able to see the impact of my daily tasks on my life as a whole.
The way I have implemented the Life Garden framework requires Notion to be a part of it, which means, I don’t need to stop with using Notion only for planning. I can also extend this and use it for other use cases such as:
- Tracking my daily habits
- Keeping track of interactions with people
- Keeping track of books I read
- Writing project specs, etc.
So instead of needing to switch between 10 different apps everyday, you spend most of your time in 1 or 2.
Side Note: I do not use Notion for certain forms of writing, such as journaling, writing down ideas, and writing articles like this one. I use Roam Research for that.
IV. Life Garden Framework’s Shortcomings
The biggest shortcoming of The Life Garden framework is that it requires you to sit down and invest a huge upfront cost in setting up your garden. And it’s very easy for a lot of people who begin to give up before setting up their garden. And that’s okay. What matters is that you tried.
The second big shortcoming is that the system I’ve described in this article and have in place is tied to Notion as the tool. Having never invested so much time in another productivity tool — such as EverNote, Trello, or Todoist — I don’t know how you can implement this in those tools, or if it’s even possible.
Finally, and honestly speaking, the return from setting up your garden will not be seen for a while. In the beginning, it might feel like you’re putting in a lot of time to enter data into Notion. However, this is when you need to persevere. Just like persevering through the phase of learning a guitar when your fingers begin to bleed. Once you get through the hump, you will get to a state where the system becomes your best friend, the life garden becomes a way of life, and balance is no more a far-fetched dream, rather an achievable daily goal. 🙂
V. Let’s Talk About GTD
Of course, I can’t talk about the Life Garden framework without mentioning the most famous planning framework that was introduced in the past few decades: Getting Things Done.
GTD refers to Gettings Things Done, a term made popular by David Allen, through his book… well, Getting Things Done. The premise of the concept is to free up your limited mental energy by externalizing all the work you need to do in actionable chunks and ensuring that you do them.
David Allen helps you get things done using by asking you to follow a five-step framework.
Figure: The 5 steps in GTD. Source: Praveen Anuraj.
- Capture: Capture is where you literally offload everything off your brain into the system. Every piece of commitment, idea, deadline, and task you have right now.
- Clarify: Clarify is about processing everything you collected in the Capture phase. Because you don’t want to simply offload and forget about them, right? This is where you decide whether something is actionable or can be moved to trash.
- Organize: So you’ve captured and clarified your tasks. Now, you need to organize them into various buckets. For e.g. if a task has a due date, you add it to the calendar. If something requires waiting on someone, you put them under the “Waiting” bucket.
- Reflect: Reflect is about making sure you work hand in hand with your system. If you don’t reflect on your system each week and keep it updated, it will soon start to be not very useful.
- Engage: This is where you begin to truly act on your tasks, with the help of your new system. This is also where you begin to ask questions like, How should I prioritize my tasks? What do I do when something new is added during the week?
The following illustration explains this process well.
Figure: A rad illustration explaining GTD. Source: Hamberg.
GTD has been used by millions of people around the world in the past two decades since it was first published as a book in 2001.
But, personally, I have found it to have certain shortcomings that led me to develop the Life Garden framework.
VI. GTD’s Shortcomings
Before I share my opinion of GTD’s shortcomings, it’s worth saying: I have deep, deep respect for David Allen and what he has managed to accomplish in his life.
In fact, I interviewed him for a Q&A in the first cohort of my course, More Time Everyday (which back then was titled Mind Like Water). He was absolutely wonderful and I cherish that hour with him.
I’ve also read his book twice and began my journey into building my current system thanks to his ideologies.
However, I’ve spent enough time thinking about planning systems and experimenting with them over the past ~2 years to know that GTD too has its shortcomings.
And that it has room for improvement.
6.1. Looks At Your Life Bottom Up
GTD first asks you to offload all the low-level tasks that have been gnawing at your mind: all the “Oh I forgot to send that email”, “Did I send that meeting invite to my team?”, “I need to purchase groceries by Friday” that clog up your mental system preventing you from engaging in Deep Work.
Once you offload all of these tasks, you are then asked to consolidate and put them under projects with next actions on all of them.
But, in this model, the idea of balance is ignored.
I am a firm believer in planning for and spending your time across all the areas of your life; and not just the area that you call “work.”
Yet, if I use the GTD framework to go from the ground up, I will build an excellent system that is helpful in getting all the top of mind items out of the way related to my work, and perhaps even build a good system to accomplish my projects, but it will not give me a bird’s eye view of all the areas of my life — such as mental health, physical fitness, relationships, hobbies, traveling — and how balanced my life is across all of them.
6.2. Prioritizes Shallow Work > Deep Work
Cal Newport wrote an article criticizing the GTD methodology back in 2012.
“In Allen’s world, in other words, everything reduces to clear and easy-to-accomplish next actions. Whether the action is tied to a logistical annoyance (“buy more soap for the guest bathroom”) or tied to your deepest ambitions (“buy notebook to capture book ideas”) doesn’t matter. When you get down to the scale of execution, all actions are created equal.
This is part of what makes GTD so seductive. It tells you that if you organize your lists properly during your review, then you can tackle each day mechanically: mindlessly cranking through next actions like widgets, assured that not only will the little things get done, but also the big important life goals.”
I agree with Cal on his point that GTD does not distinguish between shallow and deep work. While this might not be obvious, there is certainly a bias towards quantity over quality in GTD. It’s possible for someone using the GTD method to get stuck into a spiral of checking things off as it gives them hits of dopamine every time they do that. This leads to them running behind a wrong goal. A goal of getting things done as opposed to working on meaningful things.
This is not a shortcoming of the framework specifically, rather just a concomitant outcome of it having been created at a time when the world was just introduced to the internet, email, and digital systems.
A lot of advice shared in the GTD book refers to a pen and paper system. Personally, I have evolved from that. Nothing can compare to the feeling you get putting a pen to paper, yes. However, as someone who likes tracking and observing progress, it seems too primitive for me, especially when there are vastly better digital solutions.
In the end, I don’t disagree with any of the core principles stated in GTD, such as (a) offloading things from your mind, (b) building a system, and (c) acting on it.
It’s the way the system is built that I don’t agree with. And believe the Life Garden framework is more useful and effective, and more suited for the 21st century.
VII. Closing Thoughts
Imagine doing a 10-foot deep dive into everything you learned in this article, along with a community of driven people, all of whom want what you probably want: more time everyday to do cool things. Start side hustles. Launch a podcast. Build rock-solid habits. Strengthen relationships. Build a network of high-achievers. And… well, whatever you want to do.
That’s what my course — More Time Everyday — is about. It’s a 4-week-long, live, cohort-based course.
What I shared in this article is the tip of the iceberg. Come join the course to see under the hood.