Making progress towards goals requires good planning

Overview: When working towards our goals, it is important to have plans in place. But often our plans aren’t robust enough to move us meaningfully towards our goals – good goal, bad plan. In this post, I include a number of questions you can ask yourself about your plans to help improve them. Reading time ~ 7 minutes.

All of us have goals – get our degree, get healthy, meet someone special, build a business, travel overseas, learn to play guitar…….

In pursuing our goals we develop formal and informal plans – descriptions of how we intend to achieve the goal.

The quality of our plans varies widely. I might have a very detailed and analytical plan for my overseas trip, but a really imprecise and vague plan about how to look after my health.

Failure to achieve goals is often not the result of us being flawed human beings, but rather not investing enough thought into the planning process.

In this post (which accompanies a new workshop I am developing on behaviour change), I outline a number of reflection questions you can ask yourself to determine where your planning might be going wrong. The questions were developed based on the COM-B model of behaviour change that is widely used in my field (psychology) to help health professionals develop better behaviour change interventions.

Is your plan precise enough?

Have you clearly articulated the who, what, when, where, why, how often of the plan? Is there enough detail in your plan that someone else could carry it out were they to read your plan?

Do you have the necessary knowledge and skills to carry out the plan?

Your plan might be excellent but if you don’t have the knowledge and skills to carry it out, you may need to do some additional learning first.

Do you have the time?

Can you allocate the necessary time to the different parts of the plan? If not, you’ll need to audit your time and find ways of freeing the necessary time.

Do you have the energy?

Goal pursuit requires energy and this is found through good nutrition, sleep and physical activity. Maybe focus on these first if energy levels are low.

Can you afford it?

You’ll have to develop a plan that is within your resources to carry out, or find a way to accumulate more resources.

Do you have the necessary social supports?

Are there people in your life that can help and support you to carry out your plan?

Have you set up suitable prompts and reminders?

New behaviours require regular prompting and reminders until they become habits. Have you set up these reminders and prompts?

Do you have ways to track your implementation of the plan and its impacts?

If you can’t quantify and measure the implementation of your plan or its intended benefits, then you will have a hard time working out if you are making progress.

Are there other things that need to be done first before activating your plan?

Having developed your plan, you may realise other things need changing first. Consider adding those steps into the plan.

Do you need to make changes to your environment?

The places we work, live and play exert a powerful impact on our behaviour. Do you need to modify your workspace or home in some way to make the plan easier to follow?

What barriers keep getting in the way?

Take note of the barriers (structural, physical, psychological) that keep popping up when try to enact your plan. Take time to problem solve each of those barriers and include those solutions in the plan.

Does this plan conflict with another plan you might have?

It is possible to have conflicting goals and sometimes we don’t realise that until trying to reach them in parallel.

Do you think it is a good plan? Do you think it will work?

Just because we have a plan doesn’t mean we are convinced it is a good one or that it will work. What is your honest opinion of your plan? If you have doubts, consider doing some more research or consulting an expert.

How confident are you that you can carry out the plan?

We may think we have a great plan, but lack confidence to carry it out. Perhaps you need to bite off smaller chunks of the plan in the early stages to start building some confidence.

Is the plan consistent with your values?

Both the goal and the plan need to be in alignment with your values (what you think is most important in life) or else you’ll struggle to stay committed. Is the goal/plan truly yours or might you have inherited it from someone else thinking you ‘should’ do it.

Is the plan consistent with cultural or social norms to which you are exposed?

We live in families and communities that have expectations about what are appropriate goals and behaviour. Is there a conflict between your goals and that of the people amongst whom you live? It may be that conflict that needs to be addressed first.

What are the pros and cons of the plan?

You might think a plan is great but when you analyse the pros/cons, costs/benefits, advantages/disadvantages, you realise the plan isn’t as good as you thought.

Is the plan sufficiently graded and stepped?

Big goals generally need to be broken up into smaller goals so that we can get started on them and not feel overwhelmed.

What rewards and incentives do you have built into the plan?

Achievement of the goal itself could be argued as the ‘ultimate reward’ but generally, to stay committed to a course of action, we need to find ways to be rewarded in the short- and medium-term as we progress towards our goals.

What impulses, emotions, patterns, innate drives keep getting in the way?

Our conscious ‘self’ might be very committed to the plan, but our unconscious ‘self’ not so much. What contradictory behaviours do you find yourself doing instead of the plan? Managing those may need to be part of the plan

Did you give yourself suitable time and space to practice/experiment with the different parts of the plan first?

Sometimes it is worth experimenting with aspects of the plan first before settling on a final plan. There are many things that can only be learned through trying, so a practice/experimental phase might be appropriate

When we fail to make progress towards things we want, we can easily fall into the trap of criticising ourselves and believing that we must be fundamentally flawed in some way. Often however it is simply that the way we are going about pursuing our goals (our plan) has some faulty or unworkable elements. Before turning on yourself, spend time diagnosing whether there are problems with the plan that can be fixed or changed.

You can also use these questions to analyse the plans of others. Perhaps you are working with a client or a company who is trying to make change. Perhaps they are experiencing difficulty sticking with or activating their plan. These questions may help you troubleshoot what is going wrong.

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Psychological Tools

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