Most people never achieve their goals.
According to research from the University of Scranton, 92 percent of New Year’s resolutions go unrealized.
This trend extends beyond our end-of-year aspirations. Why?
“Work Harder, Not Smarter”
It’s because often, when we have a goal or outcome in mind, we have an impulse to work very hard at the first tasks we can think of – and we jump right in. It’s an emotional impulse. It feels good. It can even create feelings of euphoria. We become immediate victims of the false belief that “Working hard, long hours is the key to success.”
It’s a deeply ingrained societal prejudice, which is all the more powerful for having a kernel of truth.
Hard work can help to reach a goal, but it’s not enough. Furthermore, hard work is not always necessary. It can even prevent good results.
How can hard work possibly prevent good results?
It can hold us back through burnout. Or working in the wrong direction. Or preventing us, through sheer exhaustion and distraction, from seeing valuable opportunities or dangerous risks to achieving the goal.
All because we didn’t pause long enough to make a plan.
Working long, hard hours might result in success. But it often results in failure, too. The truth is that the longest, hardest hours of work possible can’t get a person or a team an inch closer to success without a good plan.
“Just Do It” and Goethe
Often, when we’re eager to tackle an objective, we assume that diving in quickly is better than delaying action.
“Just Do It” may be the most famous advertising slogan of the last few decades.
And most famous literary version of it is certainly the one which for centuries has been plucked from Goethe’s Faust:
“Whatever you can do, or dream you can—begin it; Boldness has genius, power, magic in it.”
But planning is also an action. Even learning how to make a plan is another form of action.
It’s worth remembering that, besides being a great poet and playwright, Goethe was also an able government administrator at times. You can bet that “Just Do It” was always part of corporate systems involving massive amounts of planning.
Why a lack of planning limits actions’ effectiveness
Despite the best of intentions, this lack of planning tends to limit our success.
You could probably write a longer list of reasons why than this one.
Lack of planning means …
What are one or two items you could add to this list?
Why planning is the best action you can take at first
The truth is, taking the time to create an action plan rarely hinders progress.
The advantages of planning include the opposites of the disadvantages which were listed in the section above. Here they are:
What one or two items can you add to this list of advantages of planning?
Planning creates emotional strengths of resolve and momentum
Perhaps most important, from the emotional stance in which we’re tempted to glide past the planning stage, is how planning creates and stores enormous reserves of positive energy.
Once you know how to plan effectively, devising and following a plan of action will improve your resolve and provide the momentum needed to see things through.
And when you need a boost of energy, a renewal of faith that you can persevere and reach your goal, you can read over the plan again. You can see the road map leading to where you want to be.
To help, this article outlines how to make a plan in five steps.
Making an effective action plan starts with defining and documenting the end goal.
According to research from Dominican University, people who write their goals down accomplish significantly more than those who don’t.
Beyond increasing the odds of success, putting your goals in writing will also force you to consider the process required—not just the desired outcome.
This is especially helpful when trying to define goals that might be vague, lofty, or unformed.
First, the power of asking the right question
Einstein famously said,
“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”
Although that’s an overstatement for effect, the principle is true for making any plan, coming up with any solution, reaching any goal.
Making a perfect plan to reach a goal that is purposeless would be a mistake. Crafting the best plan to achieve an outcome that is damaging is a tragedy.
So as you define your goal, we suggest spending a good amount of time asking what it is that you really want. Why do you want it? What is the fundamental question you’re trying to answer.
To give an illustration quickly grasped, in order to easily reveal the concept, these are two possibly related questions, each requiring a different plan:
“How can I lose weight?”
A boxer or wrestler may need to answer this question, in order to fight in a desired weight class. If a fighter is too heavy, disqualification follows. So if a boxer is too heavy for a desired weight class, it’s imperative to ask this question.
Now let’s consider a different question, often related to or confused with “How can I lose weight?”
“How can I become more healthy?”
Almost everyone may need to answer this question at some point in life. It’s clearly different from the question above, often confused with it. (“How can I lose weight?”)
Losing excess weight might be a part of becoming more healthy, depending on a person’s circumstances and physician’s recommendations.
But losing weight may also be a danger to health.
Or it could be irrelevant, depending on circumstances.
It’s easy to see the importance of asking the right question, when we look at this clear example. Depending on the question a person chose to answer, the goal, and the plan, and the tasks, could differ wildly.
If a person asked the wrong question (e.g., “How can I lose weight?” when the correct question was “How can I become more healthy?”, then a massive failure could follow.
Defining the problem correctly
The principle is true in creating a written plan for reaching any goal. When feeling out how to make a plan for a given goal, the first step is asking the right question. Another way of putting this is “defining the problem correctly.”
As the first step in building an action plan, we recommend using the SMART goals framework:
To qualify, a SMART goal must be:
Using this framework will enable you to remove ambiguity around a goal and craft an action plan that spells out exactly what you need to do.
Big goals are often so intimidating that people can quit before giving their best effort.
By focusing too much on the desired outcome, they wind up feeling stuck when it’s time to define how they plan to achieve it. They can also feel overwhelmed during their day to day actions and tasks. The lofty goal, in moments of low energy or emotion, can seem impossible.
But breaking a goal into discrete milestones helps the goal-setter worry less about the finish line and instead, treat each mini-goal as a necessary step towards realizing their plan.
Start from the end and work backward
It can be useful to start from the end goal and work backward, asking “What would I need to have accomplished before I reach this?
In this way, you can plan with the utmost efficiency. Most of the questions you ask are about needs to complete the plan at each stage. This can automatically filter out much unneeded activity.
For example, if a guitarist wanted to learn to fingerpick a song on the guitar, she might have the following brainstorming or journaling exercise prior to writing an official plan for learning the song:
Having identified the steps, she would then write a plan with a calendar for each step along the way.
When you have a roadmap that details what needs to happen, you’re more likely to stay motivated and committed throughout the process.
Any action plan that doesn’t account for resources is akin to a wishlist.
Whether you’re embarking on a solo project or working as a team, identifying the resources needed to successfully act on your plan will enable you to make informed decisions regarding its implementation.
Here are a few examples of resources you might identify in an action plan:
First principles resources
First principles thinking is descended from Aristotle and made famous by Elon Musk and other tech entrepreneurs solving previously unsolvable business problems such as how to build batteries for electric cars and how to land rockets after they’ve flown.
First principles thinking is not just for complex problems. It’s equally powerful for solving any ordinary problem or reaching any goal.
Here’s how: You reduce reaching a goal to its fundamental components and think rationally about how to assemble the resources.
As we’ve seen, different goals can benefit from different types of planning.
If you’re planning a new initiative, you might start by identifying where you are currently in relation to where you’d like to be.
If you’re solving an existing problem, you might use brainstorming to analyze the situation and explore potential solutions.
In either case, your action plan is more actionable when you prioritize each task.
Solo vs team effort prioritization
If you’re flying solo, prioritization will rely solely on effort and impact. When working in a group, you’ll need to both prioritize and assign tasks to track progress and inject accountability.
In either case, prioritizing tasks in the plan is highly consequential. Some prerequisite tasks must come before other tasks.
Also, despite all the efficiencies achieved by first principles thinking, most goals and answers aren’t 100% minimalistic.
Some parts of the goal are more important than other parts. A leader must be able to prioritize profit, for example, over expansion that would cause a high risk of the business running out of capital.
Or the decision could go the other way! It all depends on circumstances and individuals. The point is only that you must be able to rationally prioritize values according to the highest likelihood of achieving the success you desire.
Solo goal priorities
When your goal involves yourself alone, prioritization is relatively simple. You have only to prioritize with respect to the goal and your own values.
But when you’re prioritizing for a team, the job becomes more complex, more exciting, and more powerful.
Team goal priorities
When prioritizing tasks for a team, you’ll need to take into account everyone’s strengths and weaknesses, and how the team – and smaller groups of individuals within it – work together.
Some best practices include:
Creating an action plan is important, but remaining agile is crucial to success in the long-term.
An effective action plan isn’t static—it’s dynamic and subject to evolve as your organization and circumstances inevitably change.
According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report, technological and societal change result in rapid transformations in the workplace. At some point, these transformations will undoubtedly impact even seemingly bulletproof plans.
The best way to ensure your plan of action is still sound is to regularly review the plan. An ongoing review enables you to not only track progress against each task or mini-goal, it also empowers you to make necessary changes to meet the growing needs of your team or organization.
Keeping an open mind, seeing the view from 40,000 feet, is important even informally.
And there are also times when a good leader should formally review everything in the plan going forward:
When to formally review the plan
Planning well is in fact action. That reframing is often enough to convert an action-oriented individual into learning how to plan as well. This article offers an overview, with practical takeaways, for learning how to plan in order to reach goals more efficiently and effectively.
How to set personal and professional SMART goals: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Bound.
A downloadable checklist, plus tips for preparing for your next important meeting.