There’s no denying that goals are necessary. After all, they give life meaning and purpose. But goals don’t simply achieve themselves — you need an action plan to help you reach your goals.
With an action plan, you’ll have a clear idea of how to get where you want to go, what it will take to get there, and how you’ll find the motivation to keep driving forward. Without a plan to stick to, it’s too easy to waver and get distracted. It’s why many people fail to keep their New Year’s resolutions or launch a much-wanted side hustle. Without a plan to work, things have a way of not working out.
With that in mind, here’s how you can create an action plan that will help you achieve any personal goal you’ve set.
1. Determine Your “Why”
Here’s a quick experiment for you to try right now: Reflect on the goals you’ve set before. Now, think about the goals you reached and those you didn’t. Hopefully, you’ll notice a common theme here. The goals you were successful in achieving had a purpose. Those goals you failed to accomplish did not. In other words, you knew why you put these goals in place, which motivated you to follow through.
Simon Sinek, author of Find Your Why: A Practical Guide for Finding Purpose for You and Your Team, explains:
“Once you understand your WHY, you’ll be able to clearly articulate what makes you feel fulfilled and to better understand what drives your behavior when you’re at your natural best. When you can do that, you’ll have a point of reference for everything you do going forward.”
That, in turn, enables better decision-making and clearer choices. Sinek says:
“You’ll be able to make more intentional choices for your business, your career and your life. You’ll be able to inspire others to buy from you, work with you and join your cause.”
I’ll share with you a recent example of this in my life. Earlier this year, I decided to make my health a bigger priority, specifically losing weight. I set this goal because it gave me more energy at work, improved my sleep, and helped me be a better father — I really didn’t care for all that wheezing every time I played with my kids. Those factors all gave me a long-term purpose, not a superficial short-term goal like wanting to look good for an event.
Before you start creating an action plan, think about why you’re setting a new goal. Doing so will guide you forward on this journey and give you a North Star to point to when things get hard (and they inevitably will).
2. Write down Your Goal
Now that you have a goal in mind, it’s time to get it out of your head and on a piece of paper. While you can also do this electronically through an app, research has found that you’re 42% more likely to achieve your goal if it’s written down. This is especially true for business owners, if they don’t schedule their time, it’ll be scheduled for them.((Calendar.com: The Problem of Efficient Time Keeping))
The reason for this is: It’s how the brain works. When you physically write down a goal, you’re accessing the left side of the brain, which is the literal, logical side. As a result, this communicates to your brain that this is something you seriously want to do. It will even encourage you to open up your subconscious so you can develop ideas for making the goal come to fruition.
3. Set a SMART Goal
A SMART goal pulls on a popular system in business management. That’s because it ensures the goal you’ve set is both realistic and achievable. It can also be used as a reference to guide you through your action plan. By establishing a SMART goal, you can begin to brainstorm the steps, tasks, and tools you’ll need to make your actions effective.
- Specific: You need to have specific ideas about what you want to accomplish. To get started, answer the “W” questions: who, what, where, when, and why.
- Measurable: To make sure you’re meeting the goal, establish tangible metrics to measure your progress. Identify how you’ll collect the data.
- Achievable: Think about the tools or skills needed to reach your goal. If you don’t possess them, figure out how you can attain them. Can you take an online class? Shadow a friend? Watch YouTube videos while you practice?
- Relevant: Why does the goal matter to you? Does it align with other goals? These types of questions can help you determine the goal’s true objective — and whether it’s worth pursuing.
- Time-bound: Whether it’s a daily, weekly, or monthly target, deadlines can motivate us to take action sooner than later.
Learn more about setting a SMRT goal here: How to Set SMART Goal to Make Lasting Changes in Life
4. Take One Step at a Time
Have you ever taken a road trip? You most likely had to use a map — whether it was an old-school paper map or an app on your phone — to navigate from Point A to Point B. The same idea can be applied to an action plan.
Like a map, your action plan needs to include step-by-step instructions on how you’ll reach your goal. In other words, these are smaller goals that help you get where you need to go.
For example, if you wanted to lose weight, you’d consider smaller factors like calories consumed and burned, minutes exercised, number of steps walked, and quality of sleep. Each plays a role in weight loss, and you may even be inspired to look at other facets, like stress — because cortisol, the stress hormone, helps our body keep weight on, decreasing your stress levels can result in weight loss.
This may seem like a lot of work upfront, but it makes your action plan seem less overwhelming and more manageable. Most importantly, it helps you determine the specific actions you need to take — or what behaviors you’ll want to change — at each stage.
5. Order Your Tasks by Priority
With your action steps figured out, you’ll next want to review your list and place your tasks in the order that makes the most sense. This way, you’re kicking things off with the most important step to make the biggest impact.
For example, if you have a sedentary job and want to lose weight, the first step should be becoming even a little more active. From there, you can add more time to your workout plan. The next step could be changing your diet, like having a salad before dinner to avoid overeating or replacing soda with sparkling water.
Learn these tips to prioritize better: How to Prioritize Right in 10 Minutes and Work 10X Faster
6. Schedule Your Tasks
Setting a deadline for your goal is a must; it prevents you from delaying the start of your action plan. The key, however, is to be realistic. It’s highly unlikely, for example, that you’ll lose 20 pounds within two weeks. It’s even less likely that you’d keep it off.
What’s more, you should also set a start and end date for each action step you’ve created, as well as a timeline for when you’ll complete specific tasks. Adding them to your schedule ensures that you stay focused on these tasks when they need to happen, not letting anything else distract you. For example, if you schedule gym time, you won’t plan anything else during that time frame.
Beware the temptation to double-book yourself — some activities truly can be combined, like a run with talking to a friend, but some can’t. Don’t trick yourself into thinking you can both write and catch up on Netflix simultaneously.
While you can use a paper calendar or planner, an online calendar may be a better option. You can use it to set deadlines or reminders for when each step needs to be taken, and it can be shared with other people who need to be in the know (like your running buddy or your mentor).
7. Stay on Track with Healthy Habits
Without healthy habits, it’s going to be even more challenging to reach your goal. You could hit the gym five days a week, but if you’re grabbing burgers for lunch every day, you’re undoing all your hard work. You’d want to replace that fast food with a more nutritious meal to meet your weight loss goal.
Let’s say your goal is more career-oriented, like becoming a better public speaker. If you practice your speeches at Toastmasters meetings but avoid situations where you’ll need to be unrehearsed — like networking gatherings or community meetings — you’re not helping yourself. You have to think about what will help transform you into the person you want to be, not just what’s easiest or most comfortable.
8. Check off Items as You Go
You may think you’ve spent a lot of time creating lists. Not only do they help make your goals a reality, but lists also keep your action plan organized, create a sense of urgency, and give you the opportunity to track your progress. Because lists provide structure, they reduce anxiety — you know exactly what to do and when it needs to be done.
There’s something else special about lists. When you cross off a task in your action plan, your brain releases dopamine.((Psychology Today: The Science of Accomplishing Your Goals))
This reward makes you feel good, and you’ll want to repeat this feeling. If you crossed out on your calendar the days you went to the gym, you’d want to keep experiencing the satisfaction of each bold “X.” That means you’d keep going to the gym.
9. Review and Reset as Necessary
Achieving any personal goal is a process. Although it would be great if you could reach a goal overnight, it takes time. Along the way, you may experience setbacks. Instead of getting frustrated and giving up, schedule frequent reviews — daily, weekly, or monthly — to see how you’re progressing.
If you aren’t where you’d hoped to be, you may need to alter your action plan. Rework it so you’re able to reach the goal you’ve set.
The Bottom Line
No matter what you want to achieve in life — whether it’s losing weight, learning a new skill, or making more money — you need to create an action plan. It will guide you in establishing realistic steps and time frames to achieve your goal. Best of all, it will keep you on track when you stumble — and we all do.