The French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery once said, “A goal without a plan is just a wish, a hope likely to fail and impossible to attain. Give passionate dreaming a structure, and reality moves to the tips of your fingers faster than you can click your heels and say, ‘there’s no dream like mine.’”
You’ve taken the time to figure out your dreams and turn those dreams into specific goals. Now it’s time to turn those goals into a plan. This is where you’ll meet your first significant challenge and begin to feel the first real doubts about your ability to achieve your goals. Don’t overthink things here, just keep it simple.
THIS is where life truly takes incremental shape. You’ve already taken the time to write out your goals and determined your destination, as well as worked on crafting a goal that allows for measurability and actionability. Your task is to now look at what you’ve written out and shape it into a plan.
Dave Ramsey has helped millions of people break free from debt and find financial freedom through his seven Baby Steps. He’s taken a dream and broken it down into smaller goals with actionable steps all along the way. You can do the same thing by answering a few specific questions.
- What’s my target deadline? When do you want to achieve my goal? (To answer these questions, you may have to work backwards, which you’ll see in my example below.)
- What are the actions I need to take to get me to my goal?
- What actions will I take DAILY that move me toward my goal?
- How will I measure those actions?
- How often will I measure those actions?
- How can I keep myself accountable?
- Are there incremental rewards I can give myself along the way?
Get started by answering those questions, then set up the tools you’ll need to track your progress. Set your target date on something like Google Calendar, and then set it to send you regular prompts along your new timeline. Set up some sort of to-do list that breaks your action plan into daily and weekly increments—action items that represent some sort of forward motion. If a step in your action plan doesn’t produce action, take it out. And set up how you’re going to keep yourself accountable, which may mean giving someone else permission to track your progress and lovingly get in your face when you get off track.
My mantra for good action plans is this: A good action plan is simple, specific, incremental, and effective.
Crafting a Plan of Action
Let’s take my weight loss method as an example. I’ve found great success in the past with this method, and I’m using it again right now:
My ultimate goal is to lose 35 pounds. My incremental goal is to lose 2 pounds per week. That breaks down to 17.5 weeks—assuming I keep myself on track. I’m going to give myself a few extra days of wiggle room and call it an even 18 weeks, which takes me out to February 28, 2015 as my ultimate time-limit for my goal.
OK, so I have a concrete goal and a time-line—the what—but now I need to craft the how. The plan that gave me great success in the past is simple:
- Set a daily calorie limit using LoseIt.com. (This is calculated by my current weight, my weight goal, my age, and height, etc.)
- Track my daily calorie intake with LoseIt.com.
- Track my daily calories burned through exercise with LoseIt.com.
- Get up early at least 5 days per week and walk/jog for 30-45 minutes, burning 450-600 calories.
- Weigh myself each day immediately after exercise and track my daily weight on LoseIt.com.
- Allow myself to “cheat” on my calorie intake each Saturday if I’m on track for the week.
What makes this plan work is that it’s not only a simple and direct path from where I am to where I want to be, but each and every step is actionable. I have an incremental goal (2 pounds/week) to keep me on track and help me measure short-term progress. In addition, there are multiple ways of measuring my progress on a daily and weekly basis (calorie intake, calorie burn, exercise time, daily weigh-in).
Notice that I reward myself by giving myself a cheat day once a week. This reward is not automatic. I’m only allowed to have it if I’ve not only behaved myself by working the plan, but also if I’ve achieved my weekly weight loss goal of 2 pounds. If both are not true, then I don’t get a cheat day.
Are Your Goals Too Big?
If your action plan for reaching your goal becomes huge and complex, your goal is probably too big. I’m not saying your dream is too big, or that you should dream smaller—absolutely not! However, your incremental goals that will move you toward your dream may need to be broken down into even smaller pieces until your action plans to reach each of those goals is simple and workable.
Look at Dave Ramsey’s Baby Steps again. The ultimate dream is huge—financial peace—a term that encompasses a broad array of goals including debt freedom, financial responsibility, retirement and college preparedness, giving, and more. There are seven steps to Dave’s method, each one designed to take you toward a single, specific goal. Each one of these Baby Steps has a simple action plan to get you to that goal, and you don’t tackle goal #2 until you’ve completed goal #1. It’s a simple, specific, incremental, and effective method to work you toward a giant, and frankly audacious, dream.
A Marathon, Not a Sprint
The thing you need to realize about reaching a goal is that you’re most likely changing a habits along the way. You’re also likely radically changing something about yourself or your circumstances. These things take time, so you need to approach your goals like you’re training for a marathon. If you can sprint to your goal then your goal wasn’t big enough.
Think big and dream big! Go back and answer the question, “who do I want to become?”
So what’s your goal? Becoming debt free? Losing weight? Writing a book? Getting organized? Share it and your action steps with us in the comments.
I’m Jeff M. Miller, and I help ordinary people who are stuck in a rut change their behaviors so they can be extraordinary. I’m an entrepreneur who retired from my full-time job in my early 40s to work from home. I’m a financial counselor, life coach, graphic designer, and passionate believer in helping others improve their lives a little more each day.