In this article, I discuss a tool you can use to set and achieve your goals.
I’m sure you’re aware that many people fail to keep their New Year’s resolutions. People are typically full of excitement when they make these resolutions and often maintain their enthusiasm in the initial stages of following through. For many of these people, their enthusiasm will then wane and with it goes the motivation to stick to their resolutions. In this column, I will discuss a simple but effective tool I have used myself and with many clients in my practice as a Calgary psychologist and a Cochrane psychologist. Using this tool makes it much easier to stick to resolutions in the New Year and at any other time. This tool is the action plan.
WHAT IS AN ACTION PLAN?
An action plan is a tool designed to make it more likely you will take the steps necessary to achieve your goals or resolutions. Its main features include a clear and specific statement of the goal you want to achieve, a breakdown of the goal into specific steps or actions leading to the goal, specific days and times to perform each action, possible obstacles you may encounter in performing each action, strategies to help you overcome these obstacles, and recording progress toward your goal each time you perform the actions. I will now explain each of these parts of the action plan so that you can use this tool to achieve your goals.
THE FIRST STEP IN CREATING AN ACTION PLAN: IDENTIFY A SPECIFIC GOAL YOU WANT TO ACHIEVE
For an action plan to help you achieve your goal, you must begin by stating your goal in specific terms. If your goal is too general or vague, it will be difficult for you to identify the actions you need to take to make progress. Use the SMART acronym to help you state your goal in terms which will allow you to move forward. SMART refers to the following criteria of a properly-stated goal: (1) Specific—State your goal in specific rather than general terms; (2) Measurable—State your goal so that you can measure progress toward it. Without your goal being measurable, you won’t know whether you are making progress; (3) Achievable/Attainable—Your goal should be within your ability to achieve if you perform the steps in the action plan. If your goal is beyond your capability to achieve, you will quickly give up as you find yourself unable to perform the actions in your plan; (4) Relevant—Choose a goal that is relevant or important to you. If you do, you’ll have the motivation and excitement you need to perform the actions needed to achieve your goal. If your goal is not relevant, it will be more difficult for you to be motivated to perform these actions; (5) Time-limited—Set a time by which you plan to achieve your goal. This will make it more likely that you schedule the actions necessary to achieve your goal in a timely manner. Without a time-limit, you are more likely to procrastinate in scheduling and performing these actions which will delay your achieving your goal.
THE SECOND STEP IN CREATING AN ACTION PLAN: BREAK YOUR GOAL INTO SPECIFIC STEPS OR ACTIONS
This step is critical to making progress on your goal as it is only with actions or steps you can perform that you will move toward your goal. You should make sure to include all the actions you will need to take to achieve your goal. For example, if your goal is to increase the amount of social interaction in your life, you may choose to include as actions the following: Signing up for a class in your area of interest; contacting friends to set up coffee or lunch meetings; and reading articles on improving your social skills. If your goal is to write a term paper for university, you may want to include as actions writing each section of the paper and doing research for them. Don’t worry if you initially fail to include in your plan a necessary action. In most instances, it will become apparent to you at some point that you must perform this action and you can include it in your plan at that point.
THE THIRD STEP IN CREATING AN ACTION PLAN: SCHEDULE DAYS AND TIMES TO PERFORM EACH ACTION
Once you’ve identified the actions you need to take to achieve your goal, you will obviously need to perform these actions. Accomplishing this part of your task is often easier said than done given that you will likely be attempting to perform these actions in the midst of an already busy schedule. Scheduling specific days and times to perform each action will help you to take the necessary actions to accomplish your goal despite being busy with other life tasks. One benefit of scheduling is that it helps you to organize the actions into your available time. Knowing that you are to perform one action Tuesday, the next action on Wednesday and the third action on Thursday gives you confidence that you will move toward your goal. Scheduling days and times for specific actions is also the most effective weapon to use against one of the primary obstacles to people sticking to their resolutions or goals—procrastination. Scheduling the specific day and time to perform an action makes it much more likely you will overcome procrastination and perform it compared to your having the task on your ‘to-do list’ without a specific day and time scheduled for it. If the items are on your to-do list without a specific day and time, you are more likely to tell yourself that you will ‘do it tomorrow,’ often because you may be already tired from having performed many other tasks that day. This procrastination will delay you in moving toward your goal and may result in your giving up completely. So schedule the days and times for every action to prevent procrastination.
THE FOURTH STEP IN CREATING AN ACTION PLAN: IDENTIFY POSSIBLE OBSTACLES TO PERFORMING ACTIONS AND STRATEGIES TO OVERCOME THEM
Obstacles will often arise to your performing the actions in your plan. Anticipating these obstacles and preparing strategies to overcome them will make it more likely you will perform the actions and stay on track toward your goal. For example, if your goal is to exercise three days a week you may find on a day you’ve scheduled to exercise that other important matters demand your attention so that you cannot exercise that day. You could have a strategy to overcome this obstacle a plan to exercise on a different day that week or to reduce the length of your workout that day. If you plan to exercise at a workout facility on a given day after work, you might anticipate the obstacle of working so late that the facility is closed. In this instance, you might consider doing your workout the following day or do a different type of workout at your home or outside if weather permits. Sometimes lack of motivation is an obstacle to performing an action. Strategies to increase your motivation such as talking with a supportive person or doing a thought record would help you to overcome this obstacle to taking action.
THE FINAL STEP IN CREATING AN ACTION PLAN: PREPARE TO TRACK YOUR PROGRESS AS YOU PERFORM EACH ACTION
Be prepared to record each time you perform an action in your plan. As you do so, note your progress toward your goal. In some instances, moving toward your goal may require you to add to your plan one or more new actions to be performed after you have performed the initial actions. Noting your progress each time you perform an action not only directs you where to go next in taking actions and adding new actions to your plan, it also gives you a feeling of accomplishment and builds your confidence that you have what it takes to move toward your goal. The positive expectations you thus create can build on themselves by instilling a positive self-fulfilling prophecy. That is, once you successfully perform several actions from your plan and see the progress you’re making, your belief that you will reach your goal provides added motivation for you to perform the remaining actions necessary for you to achieve it.
THE LAST WORD ON ACTION PLANS: SEEK HELP IN CREATING AND/OR IMPLEMENTING THEM IF YOU NEED IT
Although in principle action plans are relatively straightforward in terms of their components and how to implement them, in practice they can be a challenging tool to use. You may therefore find it helpful to meet with a psychologist or other professional. They can help you with both the creation and execution of your plan. In the latter regard, many people find it easier to perform the actions in their plans if they are accountable to their therapist or someone else. You may also find it helpful to read more about action plans in the section discussing them in the book Mind over Mood. Whether you use this tool on your own or with the help of a professional, action plans should help you in the pursuit of your goals…including your New Year’s resolutions.
May you plan the actions necessary to achieve your goals,