If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.
Components of an Effective Plan of Action
When most people think about planning, they envision an arduous process that involves a lot of time and effort. Yes, of course, they have goals they would like to achieve, however, their goals come without plans. These people believe that over time they will chip-away and eventually reach those goals. Planning just tends to slow them down; it makes pursuing their goal more cumbersome and rigid. Instead, they want to be flexible and free to change their course and direction at any time.
Of course, having the flexibility to change your course of action is of great importance. However, this flexibility naturally comes along with a well-built plan that takes numerous scenarios into account. Therefore, the argument that “you don’t need a plan”, just doesn’t stand up.
You need to plan because planning provides you with control over your outcomes. It provides you with a sense of certainty and confidence that your desired goals can and will be achieved. And it’s this confidence that propels you forward through the challenges and problems that you might face along the way.
To test this theory, take some time to outline a goal that you would like to achieve, then ask yourself the following set of questions:
Can I start working on this goal right now? How?
Can I maintain working on this goal in both the short and long-term?
How much of this goal is under my direct control?
What factors of this goal are somewhat within my control?
What factors are not within my control?
What must I do to bring these things under my control?
What could other people potentially do for me to help me attain this goal?
Who will assist me specifically with this goal?
What can I offer other people to get their assistance?
How will I know if I am on course toward achieving my goal?
How will I measure my progress?
What specifically will I measure?
How will I know when my outcome has been achieved?
These questions provide you with a rough foundation for a plan of action for the attainment of your goal. It might of course not seem like a plan, however, what is a plan really? A plan is something measurable that provides you with a direction. And that’s exactly what these questions do. They provide you with a sense of direction; a map of sorts that guides you to your treasure.
Without these questions, it would be akin to having knowledge that the treasure exists, but no understanding of how to get there. However, with these questions in mind, it is very much like having a map in your hands that you can actively follow and use to get to your treasure.
Yes, of course, things might go wrong. You might, for instance, enter an unexpected swamp along your journey that wasn’t highlighted on the map. This is where you need to be flexible and rethink the path you have taken. This may require adjusting your course slightly, or simply plowing through the swamp. It doesn’t really matter what you do, as long as you do something that makes sense in the moment. And that is what flexibility is all about. It’s about making adjustments along your journey while keeping your plan clearly in mind.
In the end, planning is all about encouraging forward movement. Yes, of course, you might at times need to take a couple of steps back. However, with a plan, you know and understand where your treasure lies. And because of this “understanding”, you always find your way back on track.
It’s however important to note that planning isn’t something that you should just throw together in the spur of the moment. Planning must come with a little thought and attention to detail. For instance, your plan must be congruent with your personal standards, values, and beliefs. There’s no point in creating a plan of action that you don’t believe in. There is also no point in creating a plan that isn’t consistent with your values. In such instances, your priorities will be out of sync and you will struggle to follow-through with your actions.
Likewise, there is no point building a plan that isn’t aligned with your personal standards. You might, for instance, be aiming too high, however, your standards are at a level below this plan. This means that you will either need to make some sacrifices and raise your personal standards to achieve your goal, or you must change your goal or the time-frame you outlined for the attainment of that goal.
It’s important to remind yourself that every plan of action requires something from you. It requires that you make certain and specific sacrifices. It requires that you re-prioritize certain things. And it requires that you adopt specific beliefs that are required to bring this plan of action to fruition.
For instance, your plan of action must be within your capabilities. The experience, skills, and knowledge you have must be aligned with the plan you set in motion. You must, therefore, be capable of following through with this plan. And for this to happen, your goal must be congruent with the person you are today. Ask yourself:
Is this goal in-keeping with who I am?
What will this goal really do for me?
Do I feel comfortable with this?
If your goal isn’t in keeping with your beliefs, values and personal standards, then you will struggle to follow-through with your plan. And if you’re unable to follow-through, then you have absolutely no hope in the world of achieving your goal. After all, you can’t just “wing-it”. Things don’t just happen randomly. Things happen when there is a purpose and a plan for each and every action. And this purpose and plan only come to light when you take the time to clarify the goals you would like to achieve.
Clarify Your Goals
Before you lay down any kind of plan, it’s absolutely paramount that you specify what exactly it is that you would like to achieve. After all, you can’t specify a course of action if you have no specific destination in mind.
This goal that you are about to set must, however, be in keeping with who you are. It must be aligned with your beliefs, values, lifestyle, and personal legend (your life’s purpose). Furthermore, it must support the person you are today, while also being congruent with the person you seek to become.
There are a number of things that must be taken into consideration when setting your goal. All of these things will help clarify in your mind whether or not this goal is right for you at this very moment. If not, then you will need to set a different goal that is more congruent with who you are and the person you are seeking to become. Ask yourself:
What goal would I like to achieve?
What are my priorities, values and guiding principles for life?
Is this goal congruent with who I am?
Does this goal fit into my current lifestyle?
Will my current lifestyle contribute to the achievement of this goal, or will it be of hindrance?
Does this goal align with my personal standards?
Is this goal in conflict with any other goals I have set? How is this of significance?
Is this goal consistent with my expectations?
Is this goal believable and achievable? Do I have any doubts?
Is this goal aligned with my core values?
Is this goal aligned with my personal legend? (my life’s purpose)
Is this goal aligned with what I care about most?
Is this goal congruent with the person I seek to become?
It’s important that you don’t waste your time chasing a goal that isn’t right for you. Don’t even bother spending time drawing up a plan of action to achieve this goal. It will simply be a waste of your precious time. Instead, take the time to outline a different goal that ticks all these boxes.
Alternatively, you can, of course, upgrade your values, beliefs, standards, personal legend, etc. However, this will take some work and effort. But it can certainly be worthwhile if the goal takes preference.
Only once you have reached a state of congruence between your goal, your life, and your psyche, should you progress forward and begin to formulate your plan of action.
Understand Your Outcome
You might have clarified your goal, however, there is a big difference between clarifying your goal and actually understanding the outcome you would like to achieve.
At the moment you undoubtedly have a goal in sight. Although this goal is sitting right at the top of a mountain and it’s covered in thick fog. Yes, you know it’s there, however, you have very little understanding of how to get there. You could of course just start climbing the mountain in this thick fog, however you don’t have the necessary resources and tools with you. This could be very dangerous because without mountain climbing gear the journey could be extremely treacherous. Who really knows what kind of challenges await? One slip, one loose rock, or one false step could completely derail your efforts and push you back down the mountain. You could lose hope, and all your prior efforts might be of little value.
Without truly understanding your outcome you are climbing blind up the mountain through the thick fog. Who knows, you might even be climbing up the steepest and most difficult part of the mountain. Little do you realize that there might actually be a path you could walk on. Yes, this path might take you the long way around, however, this is the safest and surest way to reach your goal. But, you don’t realize this because you have absolutely no understanding of what it will take to reach your goal.
And so you will continue doing things haphazardly until the mountain eventually defeats you. You’ll eventually tell yourself that it just wasn’t meant to be and that the goal was simply too hard to reach. This at least makes you feel a little better. However, little did you realize at the time that the goal was always within your reach. You simply reached the wrong way. But who could blame you? You never took the time to study the mountain, to study the weather patterns, and to study the different routes up the mountain. And that became your downfall.
This is obviously a very grim outcome. However, things don’t need to be this way. They can be very different, however for things to be different you must take the time to truly understand the outcome you are wanting to achieve. And this understanding begins with a little research.
To get a clear understanding of this mountain, you will undertake three very important tasks. The first is a future pacing process that helps further clarify your goal, the second is a reverse engineering process that helps shed some light on the mountain, while the third is an ecological analysis that will provide you with a realistic view of what it will take to climb this mountain and achieve your goal.
The Future Pacing Process
Future pacing involves an exploration of the future as you visualize yourself having already achieved your goal with full sensory involvement. This basically means absorbing yourself within your goal by seeing it, hearing it, feeling it, tasting it, and smelling it. It’s all about getting a sense of what it would be like to have already achieved your goal in the present moment.
To help you out with this process, spend some time asking yourself the following set of questions:
What goal have I achieved?
Where am I?
Who is there?
What is happening?
What exactly am I seeing and hearing?
What am I thinking and feeling?
What specifically am I doing?
How am I doing things?
While undertaking this process don’t concern yourself with how you achieved this goal, instead, just spend a few minutes just basking in the glory of having achieved it. Visualize this goal in your mind and fully absorb yourself within the emotions you are experiencing.
The Reverse Engineering Process
Now that you have some clarity about what it will feel like to achieve this goal, it’s time for you to undertake a reverse engineering process, which is a form of backward planning. The process of reverse engineering will allow you to design a solid plan of action working from your goal all the way back to the present moment.
As you begin this process, keep your goal in mind and take one step backward. Ask yourself:
What was the last step (task) I took before I achieved this goal?
What specifically did I do and think as I took this step?
Did I utilize any specific resources, skills or tools to take this step?
Where did I take this step?
Why did I take this step?
Did I face any challenges undertaking this step? If so, what were they?
Now take yourself back even further to the step that came before that step and ask yourself:
What was the next-to-last step (task) I took before I achieved this goal?
What did I do the step before that?
And what did I do the step before that step?
Keep moving backward step-by-step until you reach the present moment. However, be sure not to focus on anything else but on the process of achievement — these are the steps you took, the tasks you completed, and the activities you participated in.
As you come back to the present moment, you should now have a very clear understanding of the steps you took to achieve this goal. This now becomes the foundation of your plan moving forward. What you must now do is write this plan down on paper and outline the specific details of every step. Think about what you did, how you did it, where you did it when you did it, and why you did it.
Now, of course, thinking about what you did and actually doing these things are very different propositions. You might very well confront unexpected problems and setbacks along the way that you hadn’t considered as you worked through the process of reverse engineering. And that’s perfectly fine. It’s certainly bound to happen. As such, it’s absolutely paramount that you keep your plan flexible and mouldable to changing conditions and circumstances.
Your plan isn’t something that you will ever set-in-stone. It is instead something that must be adapted and changed as you gain new experiences and acquire more knowledge and information along the way. In fact, if anything changes along your journey, then quickly go back through your imagination and reverse engineer a new path towards your goal. This will help you to stay focused and on track.
The Ecological Analysis Process
Before putting your plan to action, it is recommended that you run through an ecology check. This is a life coaching term used for the purpose of checking the likely effects of change. In other words, you are searching for the effects that achieving this goal will have on your life.
As you work through this process keep in mind both positive and negative consequences of achieving this goal. Consider also the time and effort that will be required on your part to achieve this goal and how that might affect other aspects of your life. Ask yourself:
Who will be affected by this outcome?
How might others be affected by this outcome?
What must I sacrifice in order to achieve this outcome?
What must I sacrifice in terms of my time, effort, resources, etc?
How will achieving this outcomes affect my roles, other goals, and my priorities?
What adjustments might I be forced to make?
How is this outcome likely to change me? Do I like these changes?
What are the negative consequences of achieving this outcome?
What are the positive consequences of achieving this outcome?
Given what I now know, is pursuing this goal still of value?
Having gone through the ecology check, you may now realize that pursuing this goal might not actually be in your best interests. As such, the goal might need to be modified slightly, or you might simply need to set another goal that will be more consistent and congruent with your life and circumstances. Either way, you will now have the certainty you need to decide whether or not you will pursue this goal and bring your reverse engineered plan to fruition.
If after undertaking this ecological analysis process you feel as though there is some resistance to moving forward with your plan, then it’s possible that this resistance is stemming from some form of discomfort. This discomfort could be a result of a resistance to change. If that’s the case, then it might be worthwhile looking at what is good about your current circumstances that you would like to keep as-is as you move forward towards your desired outcome. This is important because sometimes resistance comes from the fact that we are losing something. And this “loss” hurts us, thereby preventing forward movement. Ask yourself:
What is good about my present situation?
What would I like to keep as is?
Will achieving this outcome allow me to keep these things?
Could I potentially hold onto these things?
If I can’t hold onto them, then will I be willing and able to let them go?
Sometimes you might be able to hold onto these things, while other times you will need to let them go. This is all about opportunity costs, and your willingness to make the necessary sacrifices to move on with your life in a better direction. However, some things will certainly not be easy to let go of. In that case, it is highly recommended that you have a read through How to Embrace Change.
Effective Planning Suggestions
In order to develop the habit of planning your life on purpose, it might be helpful to take on board some of the following suggestions. These guidelines are designed to help you develop the necessary mindset and habits required to take control of your choices, decisions, and actions, thereby putting you in the driver’s seat of your life.
Plan with a Purpose
Whenever you plan, you must plan with a purpose. In fact, every plan you set in motion has to have a purpose behind it that moves you forward and inspires you to take action.
There is no point laying down a plan of action that doesn’t stir your emotions in a positive way. An uninspired plan is as good as having no plan at all. Therefore if your plan doesn’t motivate you to get out of bed in the morning and move closer to your desired outcomes, then you need to find more “reasons” to pursue your outcomes. Without these reasons, you will constantly distract yourself with irrelevant tasks and activities that will derail your efforts.
A plan with a purpose is always optimized in such a way that every decision you make and action you take encourages you to utilize your time to the best of your knowledge and ability. Furthermore, this plan has concrete deadlines in place for all tasks and activities and also takes into account potential obstacles that you might face along your journey. However, all this can be difficult if you have many things to do, and a limited time to do them. As such, it might be worthwhile to break your tasks down into smaller chunks to make them more manageable and achievable.
Understand Your Limits
We all have limits in terms of our time, knowledge, experience, energy, funds, etc. These limits provide us with a ceiling of sorts that limits our capacity to do specific things to a certain level. It’s therefore important to understand these limits because they provide you with insight into what might be possible to do at any one moment in time. Ask yourself:
What are the limitations on my personal time, and the time I can give to achieving this outcome?
What knowledge and experience am I lacking that I might need to achieve this outcome?
How are my energy levels? Do I have enough motivation to achieve this outcome within the deadlines I’ve set?
What about my funds? Do I have enough funds to bring all this to fruition?
What other limitations or weaknesses might I have that could prevent me from following-through with my plan?
Understanding your personal limitations means that you will lay down more realistic and achievable plans. However, at times you need to look beyond your personal limits and seek out ways you can potentially leverage your time to overcome these limitations. Ask yourself:
How can I potentially overcome these limitations?
How could I gain the knowledge I need?
How could I find more motivation and inspiration?
How could I potentially boost my energy levels?
How could I gain an extra couple of hours throughout the day?
How could I bring my expenses down?
How could I acquire the funds I need to make this work?
How could I potentially leverage my time?
How could I use other people’s expertise and knowledge to assist me?
As you take the time to think through these questions, you will probably realize that you do actually have a lot of options on the table. Therefore, if your plan of action seems somewhat overwhelming and difficult to grasp, then remind yourself that there is always a way to overcome your challenges, as long as you are open to the possibilities and honest with the assessment of your capabilities.
Utilize the 80/20 Principle
The 80/20 principle states that 20 percent of your actions will result in 80 percent of your desired outcomes. Likewise, 80 percent of your actions will result in 20 percent of your desired outcomes.
When it comes to planning, it’s never about perfection. It’s rather about doing things to a “good enough” level that will help you acquire the results you are after. And to get to those results as quickly as possible, it’s important to focus on the most important tasks and activities. These are the 20 percent of tasks and activities that will get you 80 percent of your results. Then only once you have completed these tasks and activities should you focus on the other 80 percent of tasks that will get you 20 percent of your results. However, if you’re a perfectionist or a procrastinator, then you probably have the 80/20 principle the other way around. Therefore, instead of focusing on the most important tasks, you dabble in the 80 percent of tasks that will only get you 20 percent of the results you are after. And this only wastes your time and derails your efforts.
In order to ensure that your plan of action is built upon the foundations of the 80/20 principle, ask yourself the following set of questions:
What are the 20 percent of activities/tasks that will get me 80 percent of the results I am after?
Where and when must I slot these tasks into my plan of action? Where will I schedule them?
How will I ensure that I stay focused on these tasks until they are completed?
These 20 percent of tasks are the BIG rocks, and the other 80 percent of tasks are the little pebbles. You must first get the big rocks out of the way before dealing with the pebbles. Only in this way will your plan of action be optimized to its full extent.
Cultivate a Productive Mindset
Your plan of action must be built upon productivity principles that will help you maximize your choices, decisions, and actions. In fact, every part of your plan must be focused on the most important things that you must do in order to take the next step forward towards your desired outcome. However, in order to follow-through with a plan such as this, you will need to consistently cultivate a mindset that is disciplined, patient, flexible and persistent.
You need the discipline to stick with the plan without succumbing to distractions. You need the patience to work through difficult situations. You need the persistence to overcome obstacles. And you need to be flexible to alter your course of actions when unexpected situations or scenarios arise. That is, in essence, the mindset required to bring your plan to fruition. However, there is one more thing.
Above all else, you need belief in yourself and in your own ability that you can achieve your outcome. Without belief, you will crumble the moment something doesn’t go your way. However, with belief, you will always find a reason to keep moving forward despite the challenges, problems, and obstacles you face.
In order to determine if you have the necessary belief to achieve your desired outcome, take time now to read the following three statements:
I deserve to achieve this outcome…
I can achieve this outcome…
This outcome is achievable and possible…
If after reading through these statements you feel confident and comfortable internally, then this suggests that you do have the necessary beliefs in place to follow through on your plan and achieve this outcome. However, if while reading these three statements you felt somewhat uncomfortable and doubtful, then it’s very possible you might have some limiting beliefs in place that might prevent you from moving forward. In that case, it is highly recommended you read through How to Overcome Limiting Beliefs.
Gain Consistent Feedback
As you work through your plan of action you will, of course, make some progress, while at other times you will make mistakes that will take you off course. Either way, no matter what transpires it’s absolutely paramount that you gain consistent feedback about what is happening and about the progress you’re making.
Let’s take for example the role of an airplane pilot. While flying the plane he/she will constantly keep checking the instrument cluster to make sure that the plane is flying on course to its destination. If it is, then that’s great news. However, if it isn’t then the pilot must make the necessary adjustments to the flight plan. This becomes of particular importance when maneuvering around storm clouds.
In the same way as the pilot, you must also make the necessary adjustments to your plan of action as you work towards your outcome. Although to make these adjustments you will need to have a way of gathering feedback about your journey.
What initially made sense when you laid out your plan of action, might not make sense when unexpected obstacles and challenges arise. You might get so caught-up dealing with these problems and you lose track and start drifting off course. And unfortunately, you will continue drifting off course unless you have a means of tracking your progress.
In order to avoid this dilemma, it’s important that you undertake regular review sessions. These review sessions might be done on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. It’s really up to you. You might, for instance, do short review sessions daily, and longer review sessions weekly or monthly.
During these review sessions, spend some time reflecting on the decisions you made, the actions you took, and the results you acquired since the previous review session. Ask yourself:
What decisions did I make and actions did I take over the past week?
What results did I get?
Did I experience any breakthroughs? How? Why?
Did I make any mistakes? Why?
Have I taken a step closer to my desired outcome over the past week?
Am I moving in the right direction? Or do I need to make some adjustments?
What did I do well that I could continue doing next week?
What did I do poorly that I could improve on next week?
What opportunities did I potentially miss out on?
How could I ensure I don’t miss these opportunities the next time around?
What can I learn from my experience thus far?
How will I continue moving forward tomorrow?
The key here is to find cause-effect relationships between your actions and your results. One leads to the other. And therefore if something is working for you, then your review sessions will bring this to light. Likewise, if something is not working for you, then the review session will allow you to gain the clarity you need to adjust your course of action moving forward.
In the end, it’s important to stay flexible and to be vigilant and aware at all times. Only in this way will you gather the insights you need to make the necessary changes to your plan of action.
Time to Assimilate these Concepts
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Gain More Knowledge…
Here are some additional links and resources that will help you learn more about this topic:
- 5 Things that are Better than a Plan @ Life Optimizer
- 6 Steps to Plan Your Week @ Lifehack
- 6 Tips to Writing a Successful Life Plan @ Pick the Brain
- 7 Reasons Why You Need a Written Life Plan @ Michael Hyatt
- Action Plans: Small Scale Planning @ MindTools
- How Planning Less Can Set You Free @ Tiny Buddha
- How to Plan the Unexpected @ Think Simple Now
- Reverse Engineer the Best Time of Your Life @ Wise Bread
- The Flawlessness of Backwards Planning @ Under 30 CEO