The New Year offers a sense of potential, and if we’re smart we’ll grab that offer with both hands. Never decline an invitation to see fresh possibilities.

With us humans, though, fresh possibilities can become brown bananas. I’ve been thinking about an approach to capturing and keeping that sense of potential in our professional and personal planning. It uses barbells.

Stick with me for a moment.

Our smartest colleagues have done their 2018 planning long ago; they already knew the best time to plant an oak tree. But let’s embrace the second-best time—today—and sit down with our favorite computing device or simply pen and paper.

For me, there’s the rub. My own list making—er, I mean strategic planning—usually begins as an outpoured mixture of hopes and fears, guilt and grandeur, seemingly dictated by a chattering monkey for whom no hyperthought is unworthy of being recorded. (It’s interesting but not helpful that this list looks like a vitamixture of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats from a traditional SWOT analysis.)

Eventually the discipline of selection and execution takes hold, and my plans take shape. I apply the important filter of deciding what not to do, identifying what Peter Drucker called the “posteriorities.”

But until then it’s a dizzying spectacle: every chore, responsibility, and dream that could be imagined.

Such an exercise has its benefits, in exorcizing anxieties and in creating a cosmic inventory. But it sure feels like a long walk. Could we reduce time to clarity?

Answer “A,” of course, is “yes.” (Remember, today is a new day—the new day, actually.)

The core problem with the first draft of the list is about time; the unspoken questions are simply “what could I do?” and “what should I do?” without any timing guidance.

And if we apply the traditional timing of “near term,” “mid-term” and “long-term,” we still invite long-form chaos because that “mid-term” box becomes huge, filled with things we know are too difficult to do right now but that we’re not willing to put off for “long.”

Here’s where the barbells come in. The barbell metaphor refers to two extreme opposites with nothing in between, such as an investment strategy that includes only super-safe and super-risky bets. Let’s give our planning process similar extremes, and ask just two questions:

What is the best use of my time right at this moment?
What do I want to accomplish before I die?

When we reduce the questions to just these two, something interesting happens: they’re easier to answer.

This doesn’t make the tasks themselves any easier. It’s still no fun to clean the bathroom or do this month’s billings. It’s still painful to stop procrastinating that professional project that scares you. It’s still a big leap to call the parent/child/sibling you’re estranged from.

But the items on the list are clearer—and fewer.

The mid-term actions needed in your actual plan will make themselves known later: the new options created by the “right this minute” actions and the pre-work needed for the “before I die” goals.

For now, though, there are just those two sets of answers. The list has gone from being incomprehensible to simply hard. With a built-in invitation to begin.

And what a gift that is, to ourselves or to our teams. What a nice New Year’s gift that is.