90 Days to Tick Just 5 “To Dos”… and I Improved My Life Tenfold

Chip Colquhoun
20 min readFeb 22, 2021

90 Days Back

I’m returning here to tell my story, because this is where it began — or this part of it at least. In November, 90 days ago, I’d just had one of those crisis moments that seemed to effortlessly blend the original Greek meaning of the word — “turning point” — with the more recent DC Comics interpretation — “utter universe-shattering devastation where someone has to die”.

I’m not gonna go into details here; 2020 was a stupendously challenging year for pretty much everybody. Besides, so much happened that I’d almost definitely end up leaving out something of importance. Plus I’d risk downplaying some really huge positives that came out of last year too — such as my dad winning his battle with cancer, meeting my American cousins for the first time (albeit digitally), and my fiancée and I still feeling completely together and in love despite the financial and other pressures of these pandemonious times.

But November held the bleakest moment of our 2020 experience, and ended with a story worth telling for two reasons. First, it puts the rest of this new blog in context.

And second? Looking back, it’s actually pretty darn hilarious.

I’d been storytelling professionally since 2007, and became passionate about its potential for improving education as early as 2008 when a school reported how the kids who attended our storytelling club had started to score higher in maths as well as literacy. My childhood ambition of being a prolific novelist was placed on the shelf while I focused on training teachers to use stories in their classrooms, for the betterment of their children’s test scores, confidence, and mental well-being.

No school was buying teacher training during the pandemic, though, even if the technique could both support learning and keep life enjoyable during a nationwide lockdown; schools just didn’t have the time for it. As a result, I hadn’t made any money for nearly 8 months. But, in that same time, I’d been churning out resources to support schools for free instead — leaving the financial situation pretty dire. Since my dad was retired and critically vulnerable, my fiancée had needed to give up her public-facing job too — and for reasons that are still being investigated by the financial ombudsman, our bank’s computers had blocked our access to the government’s Covid support.

So at the start of November, I had an emergency meeting with one of my company’s co-directors, who happens to also be a headteacher and a National Leader of Education. Together we concocted a last ditch plan to save our business: four free sample training sessions, short enough to take place over lunch, leaving teachers with something powerful and instantly useful. We’d then ask them to sign up for training to begin in spring 2021, and secure loans against those invoices to keep us going over Christmas.

Our company had a pretty decent social media following, but my co-director is definitely an influencer — she now has upwards of 20k Twitter followers, and connections with several key education mailing lists. All told, our promotion for these free webinars must’ve been seen by a minimum of 51,000 teachers from the UK and US.

In the end, we had 20 bookings across the four sessions — and of those, 11 weren’t even from our target market. I absolutely didn’t mind Indian teachers joining the sessions — as far as I’s concerned, the further afield these techniques are used the better — but almost all of those 11 were names I recognised from free webinars I’d already given for some Indian organisations at the start of the pandemic. So I knew they were individual tutors, not schools, and therefore wouldn’t be paying for our training packages — not the kind that would keep us going over Christmas, anyhoo.

Still, I dived into delivering the first session, determined to give my best to the teachers who had made the time. In that first session there were around 7 attendees, of which 2 were from the UK — but in the chat feed, the only interaction I had was from the Indian tutors. It was encouraging to see their enthusiasm… but I couldn’t help wondering where our UK colleagues were?

My confidence was back ready for the second session, which was almost 100% British. In this one, though, the chat feed was completely empty. It was only after the webinar that I saw the stats from Vimeo — of the 45min I’d presented to my webcam, my Internet had only connected for 7. All the viewers had probably just given up without comment.

The third session was barely subscribed, so I came close to cancelling it — but there was a sudden influx of UK and US teachers at the last moment, nearly doubling our total for the week. So, excitedly, I went ahead. Even so, it was again the Indian contingent who were the sole contributors to the chat feed.

In the gap between the third and final session, I had a Zoom with an accountability group on Facebook, the majority of whom are American. Most of the others couldn’t make it, so it ended up being just me and Aaron Griffin, a life coach. Amazingly and generously, Aaron took the opportunity to give me a free coaching session. He really built me up; I felt thoroughly empowered. I chose to go ahead with my final session of 6, and felt further buoyed when I saw the attendee number had risen again to 11.

Aaron’s advice totally worked! The first 90sec of that presentation were the best 90sec of an introduction I’d ever given; I was on fire! And that fire was stoked when I began seeing responses in the chat feed… from all the UK and US participants! We were finally on a roll…!

…and then my camera froze.

Not the Internet, mind; everyone could still hear me at first. I could actually leave my seat, check the viewfinder of my £3,000 webcam, and still see myself sat in my storytelling chair.

And that’s when the Internet started to wobble.

At least some of the participants apologised before they gave up. For the few who remained, I apologised on behalf of the technology, and offered an on-the-spot small group training session by Zoom instead. Three of the participants jumped at that; so I asked them to expect an email with the Zoom link, and said I’d join them there in just a few minutes after I’d restarted my equipment (and switched to my more basic £100 webcam).

Before doing this, I sent that Zoom link via Eventbrite.

After the restart, Eventbrite still hadn’t sent the Zoom link.

I hurriedly copied and pasted each email address individually into my Gmail account to get the Zoom link out there, opened Zoom, and waited for my guests to join me. I was still buzzing; I was ready to share with them some of the life-changing tips that I’d used to see children get over a lifetime stutter within a day, pick up pens they had a phobia of touching, or understand maths that they’d grappled with for yonks.

By the time I’d finished reading a Superman comic, I was still alone in my Zoom room.

That was it. First, the promotion supported by a National Leader of Education had floundered. Then, my ability to enthuse anyone new had flopped. Next, my Internet had failed. And when I’d recovered myself from all of that, returned and given an extra 10,000%, and finally engaged our target audience… my camera had randomly f****d!

I decided the message of the Universe was finally loud and clear: my days as a storyteller trying to support teachers and children were over. With a heavy heart, I went downstairs and let my family know that I was shutting up shop.

Just to hammer the nail, Eventbrite sent that email the following morning. It received no replies.

And to hammer the nail even further, the following week a research team from Bath University made headlines with a study proving that storytelling is the best teaching approach — a bittersweet read, since I’d always known that, and been trying desperately since 2015 to get funding for an academic study that would prove the point. I’d actually just partnered with the School of Education in Durham to begin that study — in February 2020, so it never quite got off the ground.

It was in the days after that experience, then, that I was trying to figure out where to go from there. If I couldn’t use my gifts to inspire or support others, and if those same gifts weren’t able to support my family… what was I good for?

What was the point of me?

The 90-Day Plan

Like most modern soul searches, mine began online; and, like most online searches, it devolved almost immediately into scrolling through social feeds. But on one such browse on Facebook, I came across an intriguing post by a good friend I’d acquired back in the days when groups of strangers could still meet in person: actor Mark Hampton, who linked to his post right here on Medium entitled his “90 Day Check-Up”. In this, he presented the results of his soul search, that had been inspired by another Medium article: How to Change Your Life Every 90 Days by Benjamin Hardy.

The concept seemed simple:

  1. think of how much your life has changed over the last 90 days;
  2. think of where you are now;
  3. think of what you’re most excited about for the next 90 days; and finally,
  4. think of just 5 achievements for the next 90 days that would have you looking back and saying, “Yes, I’m in a better place now than I was 90 days ago.”

On the face of it, it looked very similar to one of those “Imagine where you want to be in a year/5 years/10 years” kinda deals. But the points that intrigued me were those I’ve italicised in points 3 and 4.

“…what you’re most excited about…” — Well. That was a focusing thought. There’ve been plenty of projects in the past that I’ve been excited about, often several concurrently. But most? Plus: “excited”. Excitement is, I think, an often overlooked emotion. We usually associate it with positive experiences, but it involves a lot of the same physical features of terror: adrenaline, tension, high energy, restlessness. It’s a real action-driver.

Sure, one could be happy about 90 days ahead filled with relaxing saunas, opening a savings account, reading, working out, etc. But would those really be exciting?

And then there’s the “5 achievements”. Again, it’s calling you to be specific. Not just in terms of quantity, but in terms of things you’ve already managed to do. It’s not, “In 5 years I’ll be a commercially published author living with Mr/s X on my own personal island.” Too much of a phrase like that doesn’t actually involve you: it requires a commercial publisher to act, an island to be up for sale, and another person to agree to be with you.

But if you say “I’ll have written a novel, asked out X on a date, and set aside £X for a deposit on a place of my own…” Well, there’s nothing there that’s not entirely down to your volition. And whether a publisher buys it, X accepts, or a suitable island comes on the market, you can feel you’ve achieved — and improved.

On top of all that, 90 days seemed like a nice amount — not so long that it’d feel too much like a dream, not so close that the ambition would be choked by pressure. And if I could improve four times a year by just a little, come the end of the entire year I’d be rockin’ — right?

Thus inspired by my friend, I gave it a go. Here’s a summary of how it looked…

*My* 90-Day Plan

Step One: Spend 2min listing your personal and professional accomplishments from the past 90 days.

I took the “2min” verbatim, and set a timer for this activity; given how negative I felt at that point in time, I think the focus really helped. I think I divided the time equally between personal and professional — i.e. 1min on one, then the same on the other — but it was 90 days ago, so I can’t be sure. I’m saying this because the sentences look a lot shorter than what I wrote for my 90-Day Review yesterday — but that could actually be due to a lack of material…

On the personal side, I began by noting that my fiancée and I were still together despite the pressure cooker of lockdown with a critically vulnerable adult related solely to me, and a succession of cancelled wedding plans (including one that was cancelled at the start of that same month with just 6.5 days to go). I then moved on to strengthening ties with my mum, some great long-term friends, and making new friends via my accountability group.

Lots there about connecting with people then.

The professional side wasn’t that much different; I made mention of my colleagues, who had been as supportive as they were talented. I’d made some great contacts with my web series about the millennial of equal rights, despite none of them drawing the media interest we’d expected. Turns out filing your vlog with a Nobel human rights medalist, an award-winning children’s illustrator, several BBC presenters and others does not guarantee you any exposure or audience at all, even when your subject offers an antidote to all the civil unrest currently amok in the world — but it can leave you with some wonderful friends.

I was also proud of the fact I’d kept going, putting in the work to support the few followers among the teaching world that I had. I finished with the words, “An opportunity to make money came and I made it work” — which I think related to a request for tutoring I received via LinkedIn that turned out to be a financial godsend for the winter months.

All told, though, there was little there that felt new. Covid-related struggles aside, I could’ve said that about any 90-day stretch of my life.

Step Two: Spend 2min looking at what you’ve got going on today that’s making you the most confident.

On the personal side, I put here that I was “focused on getting focused”. My need to make money was next on the list, closely followed by my life-held ambition of writing a(t least one) novel. This could be under the “today” heading because I’d actually written the thing, and won a competition with it in 2018 that scored me a publishing contract. However, the publisher wanted me to make some major rewrites first — and those had been stalled by my focus on providing free storytelling resources for schools during the pandemic.

After that, though, was helping a friend to publish her book, and increasing quality time with my fiancée. Tagged on at the end was a fitness goal of running in the region of 12k a week.

I couldn’t really separate personal and professional here; there’s already a bit of the vocational in that desire to be a commercially published novelist. But I added my tutoring, and wondered whether my storytelling really was ready for burial.

Step Three: Looking ahead, spend 2min writing down all you’re excited about for the next quarter.

Benjamin Hardy recommended breaking these down into four bullets…

  1. What are the experiences you’re going to create?
  2. What are you going to learn and master?
  3. What are the achievements you’re going to have?
  4. What are the doors that are going to open?

…which I took quite literally, making a list of 4. With hindsight, I no longer think that’s what Hardy actually meant — but I also remember it being quite a struggle to hit 4. I put “get better with my guitar” as one of those points, and publishing my friend’s book — but the other two named specific people I wanted to do things with; I hadn’t yet nailed the requirement to “make sure it’s all possible with your own volition”…

Step Four: Spend 2min listing 5 “To Dos” that will make you feel like the next 90 days have been great, no matter what else happens.

So here’s where it got interesting. My original list came out as follows…

  1. Have a personal website I’m proud of — one that showcases me as a writer, performer, trainer, and creator, and includes something about my work for schools.
    A personal website is something I’d never got round to, but always felt I should have — especially when connections asked for it. I guess I’d always been more concerned about my company’s website, and hoped one day I’d have the money to pay someone else to make a personal website for me. Surely it could make all the difference to my prospects though…?
  2. Make some money from my writing.
    Again, I now realise I couldn’t be entirely responsible for this…
  3. Publish Jane’s book.
    …but this I could. I was helping a friend get her work out there.
  4. Send some completed chapters to my US editor on an agreed plan.
    This was half me; I had to put together a plan that the editor would actually like, and then complete some chapters for him. But I couldn’t control what he liked — heck, he didn’t even like the book that had won the competition — so I wasn’t making my life easy…
  5. Apply to Arts Council England for Life of the People.
    LotP was a pilot project I managed for the Museum of English Rural Life through 2018 — and while it had a small audience, the MERL, myself, and everyone else involved absolutely loved making it. It had been just one component of a larger project, and we felt it would stand more chance of success as the sole focus of a project — but I’d side-lined it in favour of the equal rights millennial. Now I was going independent again, I felt it could be the right time to bring it back…

…but it was after chatting with Aaron Griffin again, about a month later, that I realised the flaw with the above list: goals 2 and 4 were lag indicators — things you’d hope to happen based on your actions, but too dependent on the actions of others. So, one month on, I replaced those with…

2. Start putting out regular writing content — 3 weeks minimum.

4. Complete at least 14 chapters of my novel.

90 Days of Results

I focused on these goals for the rest of 2020. Each week I set myself a maximum of 3 To Dos — a nice manageable number — which I felt would help me get closer to achieving these 90-Day tasks.

It began working pretty quickly. Before December was out, I’d published my friend’s book — something she’d been waiting on me to help her with for over 2 years.

By then I’d gone back to tutoring and job interviews, both of which felt necessary for income. But regularly checking my 90-Day goals to build my weekly goals kept me focused on my writing plans, and before I knew it I was following up on conversations with fellow authors that had again been side-lined for far too long.

And so? Come the end of January, I had something I’d dreamed about having since the age of 10: a literary agent.

Yes, that’s not an exaggeration; as young as 10 I knew I wanted to be a writer (I actually began my first novel at the age of 6), and had done enough research to know a literary agent would be a major help on that path. Even so, the few rejections I had as a teenager were the last I’d really thought about the subject until now. And here I was, now being “represented”!

One big result of this, though, was that I needed to get out of my US contract. There were a number of reasons for this. For starters, my new agent was convinced I’d get a better deal — and that’s with the novel I had now rather than the book my US editor seemed to be willing me to write. But more significantly, my agent looked at all my current projects and helped me pinpoint the one that I’m excited about now. This would become my priority, replacing that task in my 90-Day Plan.

I can’t say too much about that project here, as there’s now a publisher and some other agencies involved — but hopefully it won’t be long now…!

This impacted my second goal, though — that of putting out regular writing content for a minimum of 3 weeks. But like goal 4, goal 2 didn’t disappear — it morphed. Instead, I found myself working with that award-winning illustrator I mentioned earlier to put together a subscription plan in which we’d provide story lovers with 2 illustrated stories every month as both ebook and audio book.

This in turn impacted goal 1; instead of working on a personal website, I was now rescuing my company’s website in order to host our subscription service. This was made possible by two occurrences: first, I worked damn hard to learn WordPress in a short space of time to make it happen by myself — and yes, I’m pretty darn proud of the results. Compared to what we paid an experienced web developer for using Arts Council money at the start of Lockdown 1.0, it’s ever more slick and functional.

But the second occurrence was a sudden resurgence of interest in the work of my company. As soon as I began letting contacts know I was winding it up, so many came back with the determination to not let that happen! Within moments I had my first paid writing gig for some time; shortly after that, I was being paid to produce a training course in storytelling by a subsidiary of the Department for Education; and I’m writing this one day after finishing my first paid storytelling performance of the last 11 months — and the first one outside of a school for almost 2 years!

All of which, of course, put my company’s website higher on the agenda — but I didn’t feel this was a substitution so much as yet another transmutation, since the content of that website was now a lot more personal: it was promoting my regular writing, which is what the goal of a personal website would’ve been anyhoo.

Goal 5 morphed too; I didn’t apply to ACE for LotP, but I did make an application to the Society for Authors for support with my writing. I’ve had some collections of folklore published in the past, and now have strong interest in my next collection from a pretty high profile publisher (and, of course, I have an agent now…), so the SfA were able to take me seriously — and give me a grant so I could worry less about where the next pennies were coming from and focus more on my writing. So again — slightly altered wording on the goal, same-if-not-better results.

In summary, the focus provided by that “5 Goals in 90 Days” Plan led to my most profitable quarter since the start of the pandemic, my most successful quarter in yonks, and my happiest state of mind in living memory; I’m now under less stress, able to enjoy more quality time with my fiancée and our friends, and I have the literary agent I’ve yearned for since before I left primary school.

Oh — and remember how I mentioned my desire to run 12k a week and get better at the guitar? Well, I think I probably run around 10k a week; I’ve managed to hold a free handstand for 10 full seconds (another inspiration from Mark Hampton there); and I’ve improved my mastery with several songs in Rocksmith. $;-)

It’s not all “Win” though…

I didn’t complete Goal 4, even after altering it to account for my agent’s advice.

Still, that just meant I already had a head start on creating my next list of 5 goals…

The Next 90 Days

Going forward, then, it’s much easier to see what I’m excited about. I definitely spent 2min on each of the personal and professional sections this time, though again there was lots of overlap. When it came to crafting my list of 5 “To Dos”, I was carrying one over (Goal 4) and resurrecting another (the original Goal 1) — but for the others, it was getting hard to narrow it down…!

I forced myself to do it, though, because the focus had clearly been the reason for the success of the last 90 days. That may seem contradictory, since there was nothing in my previous list of goals about getting more work training teachers, nor even continuing as an oral storyteller. But that focus had produced three circumstances:

  1. I wasn’t just looking for any old opportunity to make some pennies — I was looking for opportunities that fired me up.
    This is what led to me getting a literary agent, working on a project with a well-known and award-winning illustrator, and receiving the support of the Society for Authors — in other words, I found opportunities that bore the tastiest fruit.
  2. If another opportunity came along, I considered it carefully before accepting — especially taking a moment to consider where it fit with the rest of my goals.
    This meant I actually turned down some opportunities that I’d previously have jumped at, keeping my diary freer and my energy higher for the things I actually wanted to do. And I guess this meant that, when amazing opportunities presented themselves (like meeting a consultant for the Dept for Ed), I was more likely to attract the desired result (in that case, having them recommend me to the DfE to fund my training).
  3. I was driven by my own sense of purpose rather than external factors I couldn’t control, such as money, popularity, etc.
    That’s why, if it looked like my goal wouldn’t be achieved verbatim, it didn’t actually matter — I knew why I’d created the goal, and I remained focused on how to manifest that why.

This is one of the reasons why, for one of my next 90-Day goals, I wrote, “Finally book our wedding and reinvite our guests” — only to then cross it out. Yes, that’s a goal that would make me ever so happy in 90 days’ time — but it only needs a Covid resurgence, a venue’s unavailability, or my fiancée to decide she’d rather put the whole thing off until the pandemic’s a thing of the past, and my happiness would be curtailed.

So, again, my goals are again all 100% within my own power to achieve, and mine alone. There’s no guarantee that any fruit they bear will be positive and/or profitable — but, if the last 90 days are anything to go by, I feel justifiably confident that the harvest will be bountiful…

Here, then, are my commitments for the next 90 Days…

  1. Finish my current writing project.
    This is the one that my agent and I elected to be my focus for the foreseeable future, and which currently has a major publisher’s interest. It’s not quite finished, but with the help of the Society for Authors I’m determined to get it there within the next 3 months.
  2. Have a personal website I’m proud of.
    I’ve highlighted the personal — while I felt it sensible and expedient to prioritise the rescue of my company’s website in the last quarter in order to most quickly support my personal projects, I still feel it important that I have a personal presence that’s separate. If nothing else, this could open many more doors…
  3. Publish my mummy’s Christmas book.
    Now I’ve shown I can do it with the book of a good friend, I want to do the same job with an incredible children’s book written by my own mummy. It’ll bring me so much joy to see her delight in having her dream realised!
  4. Have established my subscription project with at least 6 stories by May.
    This is the one with the award-winning illustrator. Yes, it’s true that the illustrator has a role in this — but he also readily agreed to let me bring in “guest illustrators” when he’s not available, being as keen to support new talent as I am. So even if his circumstances change, our project will still go ahead.
  5. Be in a position to rehire at least one member of staff.
    I ummed and aarred about this one a little; again, there are potentially several interpretations of this goal that could be out of my control. But I’m not saying I will definitely hire anyone, still less anyone in particular — just that I’ll be in a position to. This means making sure I set aside enough of my earnings to do so — nothing more than that.
    And of course, even if I can’t reach that position due to Covid, recession, alien invasion whatever, striving to get there means I can’t fail to be in a better place than I am right now.

I’ve already started…

This foray into Medium is me building a foundation for Goal 2; I intend to blog here with my progress, as well as other items of interest that I feel may inspire and/or support others, which will provide good and regularly updating content for my new personal website when it gets off the ground.

Thank you for joining me on my journey — and do please let me know if you decide to give the 90-Day Plan a go yourself; I’ll stop by to lend my support. $;-)



Chip Colquhoun

A storyteller from birth (professionally since 2007), I'm happiest when I know I'm enriching the lives of others.