Imagine you woke up one day and decided to build yourself a house.
How would you begin? Grab a hammer and some nails and just go for it? Or draw up blueprints, clear the ground, and prepare a solid foundation first?
If the thought of starting without a plan sounds ridiculous, you’re right. It’s a recipe for disaster—or at least a very unstable structure. But it’s exactly what you’re doing if you’re not creating an action plan for your life.
To be clear, having a plan is different than having a goal. Many people have goals, such as finding a new job, making more money, or losing weight. But without a plan for achieving those goals, research says 92 percent of them will ultimately fail.
What do the eight percent who succeed understand that the rest of us (apparently) don’t? They’ve learned that “A goal without a plan is just a wish.”
The benefits of planning
Creating a plan may seem like an inconvenience when you want your journey to a better life to begin now. But traversing new territory is easier when you have a map—whether that’s taking a vacation, earning a promotion, or starting a new business.
Here are four specific benefits of planning:
- Improved productivity. When you know how to get from one place to another, you’re less likely to suffer from “paralysis by analysis.” Planning prevents you from wasting your energy on unnecessary tasks and, as author Brian Tracy says, “every minute spent in planning saves as many as ten minutes in execution.”
- Increased focus. Planning helps you focus on the task at hand—you know what you need to do today, and why. This helps you feel more in control, by showing you what you can change and what is outside your control.
- Greater self-confidence. If your goals have always been just beyond your grasp, it may be because you’ve never created an effective plan for reaching them. Once you have a plan in place, you’ll be surprised by how much you’re able to accomplish.
- Greater self-awareness. To create a plan is to begin to understand yourself. It helps uncover your passions and priorities, and whether they reflect your true values. You come to learn about your personal tendencies, inclinations, and aversions—and how to overcome them!
When you make a plan, you’re creating the blueprint to get from where you are now to where you want to be in the future. It takes your goal out of the world of fantasy, and into reality.
How To Plan Effectively and Quickly
Now that the importance of having a plan is clear, here are four steps you can take to create your own foundation for action.
Step 1: Write down your goal
Once you’ve decided on your goal, write it down. Dr. Gail Matthews of Dominican University of California found that simply writing down a goal increases your likelihood of achieving it by 42 percent.
Begin by picturing your goal. See it in your mind… feel it, taste it. Now capture it in as much detail as you possibly can, using the S.M.A.R.T. formula:
- Specific. This is the “who, what, when, where, and why” of your goal. Describe exactly how you define success, and the actions you’re willing to take to achieve it.
- Measurable. How will you measure your progress? For example, if your goal is to save money, by how much would you need to cut your spending? As writer Paulo Coelho says, “No one can hit their target with their eyes closed.”
- Achievable. Do you have the skills you need to reach your goal? If not, can you acquire them? This is not meant to discourage you; rather, it should motivate you to set realistic goals, and seek out help if needed.
- Relevant. Is this goal really what you want? Does it fit with your broader ambitions? Creating a ‘life map’ using the Swiss PDP Approach can help you recognize what truly matters to you.
- Time-bound. When will you complete your goal? Without a deadline, there’ll always be more time, so there’s no sense of urgency. Setting a time limit motivates you to act now, before it’s too late.
- Once you’ve decided on a goal, capture it with Evernote’s Yearly Goals template. Or if you’ve written it down on paper, scan it into Evernote so you can refer back to it at any time.
- Use Web Clipper to save any content you find online that motivates you and helps you get closer to your goal.
Step 2: Create a plan by dividing your goal into chunks
Identifying your goal is a crucial first step. But big goals can be overwhelming, and it may seem like you just don’t know how to get there. Sadly, this is where many people give up.
Instead, now that you know where you want to finish, break it down into chunks. If your goal is to have a successful business in two years, where do you need to be in one year? Six months? Next week?
Create a plan that divides your goal into small, incremental steps. Write down each step and set a deadline for its completion. That way, you’re not overwhelmed by the mountain you’re climbing, you’re just putting one foot in front of the other. Each morning when you get up, you know what you need to do that day and why.
- Use Evernote’s Daily Planner and Weekly Planner templates to break down your goal into manageable chunks. Create an entry for each step you need to take—and don’t forget to reward yourself for the progress you make along the way!
Step 3: Review your plan daily
A blueprint is no good if you never look at it. To stay on track, be sure to review it regularly—daily if possible.
Read your goal aloud every day, preferably as soon as you get up in the morning. It’s a great way to set your intention for the day and keep your focus where it belongs: on the plan you’ve developed, and the specific actions that will move you closer to your goal.
- Set a reminder on your goal for the same time each day. When you get the reminder, take a moment to review your note and ask yourself what can do that day to make progress on your plan.
- Add your plan to your shortcuts in Evernote. That way, it’ll always be visible near the top of the list on the left side of your screen.
Step 4: Stay on target
If your goal is big enough, you’ll need to stay focused to reach it—after all, we’re talking about a plan for life.
As you complete each ‘chunk’ of your plan, take a moment to recognize the milestone. It’s an opportunity to celebrate your progress and reevaluate your plan: Is it still practical? Are there any adjustments you need to make? Refocusing on your goal will remind you of why you started in the first place, and give you a much-needed boost of energy.
- Share your plan with a friend. Having someone to hold you accountable can help you stay motivated when it might be tempting to give up, and gives you someone to support you through the tough times.
- Along with your goal, review your daily and weekly planners every day to ensure you’re making the most of your valuable time.
A lifetime of accomplishment doesn’t happen by accident; it’s the result of careful planning and a determination to succeed. Once you create a solid plan for reaching your goals, you’ll be surprised at how your motivation increases. Accomplishment, then, is only a matter of time.
Author’s note: Although I haven’t quoted it in this article, I’m indebted to Napoleon Hill’s classic book, “Think and Grow Rich” for inspiration. Despite being written in 1937, many of the principles he identified as being essential for accomplishment remain valid today. The language may be anachronistic by modern standards, but viewed through the lens of its time it’s still a great guide on how to plan your life for success.