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How to make an action plan to achieve your goals and follow it

November 23, 2022 - 15 min read

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What’s the purpose of an action plan?

It starts with SMART goals

What does an action plan look like?

Sample action plan

Push yourself across the finish line

Here’s a statistic that may surprise you: 92% of people fail to achieve their goals. Despite the popular belief that goals are vital to success, most people rarely make it across the finish line.

There could be many reasons for this. If you regularly set targets but rarely hit them, you may not have leveraged the correct intrinsic or extrinsic motivators. You may also have an underlying fear of failure or success that’s holding you back. 

But most likely, it’s because you don’t create strong action plans.

An action plan is your roadmap to achieving your goal. Without one, you risk succumbing to pressures like procrastination or self-doubt that pull you away from reaching your full potential. 

Here’s a practical example. You may want to train for an upcoming marathon. You start strong, spending every weeknight on the treadmill. But, due to the excitement, you push too hard and feel sore and tired. So you skip one day, then another. Eventually, enough time elapses that it’s too late to restart. You’re behind in your training and decide not to register.

Training for a marathon is difficult, but that’s not why you failed. Had you created clear action steps, you could have performed more consistently without hurting yourself. In this case, you were the obstacle standing between you and your goal. 

If this example resonates with you, don’t beat yourself up. As we said earlier, most people don’t reach the milestones they set for themselves. But if you can learn how to make an action plan to achieve your goals, you can beat the odds. Here’s how.

What’s the purpose of an action plan?

An action plan is a document that lays out the steps or tasks you must complete to achieve a goal. Like an instruction manual, each item builds on the last, inching you toward a finish line.

In the business world, this is a fundamental strategic planning and project management tool that keeps teams on task. You’d assign a team member to each item and give them a clear due date to ensure everyone is working on a specific task to move the project forward. 

In your personal life, an action plan can help you meet your goals related to your well-being or self-improvement. But instead of having a team to back you up, you're responsible for completing each item on your own. 

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It starts with SMART goals

The nature of your goal is the biggest determinant of whether you will reach it. You have to ensure your targets are SMART, meaning they have each of these qualities:

  • Specific: What does success look like? Make sure you have a clear vision that’s beyond misinterpretation. Instead of, “I want to improve my sleep hygiene,” you can try, “I want to sleep for eight hours for 30 nights straight.”

  • Measurable: What metric will you use to track progress? In the example above, the number of nights slept for eight hours would be a clear and appropriate measurement. Using a sleep tracker could help you track the data. 

  • Attainable: Can you reach your goal with your current resources? If you have a toddler who regularly cries in the middle of the night, eight hours of sleep may be an unreasonable goal. Aim for something smaller instead, like six hours a night and an afternoon nap.

  • Relevant: Does your goal fit within your wider life ambitions? Eight hours of sleep is a noble target, but you will likely fail unless you have a clear “why.” A good reason would be “to give me more energy to excel at work and improve my work-life balance.”

  • Time-bound: What’s your deadline? You may be unable to sleep for 30 nights straight away. A more reasonable target would be to achieve this goal within the next six months. This would give you time to make the necessary lifestyle changes and develop healthy habits, like going to sleep earlier and getting more exercise.

Businessman-sitting-at-workstation-of-startup-office-working-on-project-on-laptop-how-to-make-an-action-plan-to-achieve-goals

It’s normal to have several SMART goals in your life. You might have a long-term professional goal of becoming a manager and a short-term personal goal of learning one song on the guitar. Both are valid, and both benefit from action plans. 

Try listing and saving all your goals in one place to constantly remind you what you’re working toward.

What does an action plan look like?

Now that you have your targets, it’s time to take action. Open a document or notebook and prepare to create a step-by-step task list for achieving your goals.

Here’s what to do.

1. Focus on one goal at a time

Taking on too much too fast dooms you to failure. Review your list of goals and choose one to focus on in each area of your life. Try putting your energy into a short-term goal that feels most valuable right now or inch you toward one of your long-term goals. 

For example, in your personal life, you might prioritize finishing a book in your free time rather than learning a new instrument. At work, you could choose to learn a new skill in service of your wider ambition of earning a promotion.

This is more reasonable than trying to learn to code, improve your leadership skills, and take on extra projects to get noticed by upper management all at once.

Portrait-of-female-small-business-owner-in-her-store-how-to-make-an-action-plan-to-achieve-goals

2. Do your research

Study as much as you can about how to achieve your goal. Read blogs, listen to informative podcasts, and talk to people who have done it before. This will help you define the important steps necessary for hitting your targets. If you want to become an entrepreneur, who better to ask than people who have successfully launched their own businesses? 

3. Lay out your steps in a timeline

Armed with the right information, you can start the planning process. The steps of an action plan act as mini goals toward your desired outcome. As SMART goals demand, each item should have the following:

  • A specific and clear result. If you’re learning a new song, your first step might be to master the chorus. Then you can move on to the next step, which is memorizing the verse and the bridge. Afterward, you can learn how to connect them together. By the end of your task list, you’ll have achieved multiple concrete outcomes that add up to the whole song.

  • Clear deadlines. Any good to-do list will have time frames for each item. Look at the deadline of your SMART goal and work backward from there. Can you reasonably complete each task item between now and then? If not, you may have to extend your deadline to give yourself some breathing room or divide this goal into several smaller ones.

 

The success of some items may depend on the completion of earlier ones. It’s important to order your to-do list based on what should be completed first and set your deadlines accordingly. You can’t run before you know how to walk.

4. Track your progress

The best part of having an effective action plan involves witnessing your progress. Once you set goals, brainstorm tasks, and put them in a document, print out your list and put it somewhere visible. As you complete each item, tick them off one by one. This helps you feel accomplished with each step. 

Alternatively, you could download an app that serves the same function. If you digitize your list of tasks, your smartphone can remind you of key deadlines before you reach them — a useful feature to encourage good time management.

5. Reward yourself

After working diligently toward your end goal, remember to treat yourself. Decide on a reward schedule and stick to it. You could eat your favorite snack after a week of running three miles every day or pay for a night out with your employees after collectively meeting your business goals.

6. Don’t give up!

Achieving goals is hard work. Creating an action will help you stay motivated, but that doesn’t mean the path will be easy. Sometimes, you’ll want to stay in bed rather than wake up to write another book chapter. It’s important to rest if you need it, but powering through could give you the second wind you need.

Cheerful-man-celebrating-victory-online-with-laptop-how-to-make-an-action-plan-to-achieve-goals

Sample action plan

As you work on your own action items, here’s an action plan example to inspire you. Here, we want to launch a personal website showcasing a creative portfolio. Pay attention to how the smaller tasks align with our big goal and how each deadline builds on the last.

GOAL: It’s currently September. I want to launch my personal creative website by mid-October.

To accomplish this goal, I need to:

  • Pick a web host and purchase a domain name (due September 5)

  • Curate the work I want to showcase on my website (due September 8)

  • Choose a website template that would be suitable for my work (due September 10)

  • Reach out to previous clients for testimonials about the quality of my work (due September 11)

  • Follow up with previous clients who haven’t yet sent their testimonials (due September 15)

  • Create a generic resume to feature on my website highlighting my biggest accomplishments (due September 15)

  • Draft descriptions for the videos I want to feature on my “Audio/Visual Production” page (due September 18)

  • Draft descriptions for the photos I want to feature on my “Photography” page (due September 18)

  • Create separate web pages titled “About Me,” “Resume,” “Photography,” “Writing,” “Audio/Visual Production,” and “Client testimonials” (due September 20)

  • Write the information for the “About Me” page (due September 23)

  • Upload my resume to my website’s “Resume” page and format it appropriately (due September 25)

  • Upload client testimonials to my “Client Testimonials” page (due September 25)

  • Upload my bio and a headshot to my “About Me” page (due September 25)

  • Upload and organize my photography to my “Photography” page (due September 25)

  • Upload and format my writing samples on my “Writing” page (due September 30)

  • Upload my videos and descriptions to my “Audio/Visual Production” page (due September 30)

  • Have a friend review my website privately for any typos, broken links, or other glaring errors (due October 10)

  • Launch website (due October 15)

Chinese-woman-standing-behind-glass-how-to-make-an-action-plan-to-achieve-goals

Push yourself across the finish line

Whether you’re shooting for a promotion or training for a marathon, learning how to make an action plan to achieve goals can ensure you succeed. A well-developed task list will help keep you motivated and accountable on days when you’d rather stay in bed.

An action plan isn’t a silver bullet. Your success will live or die based on whether you can overcome these obstacles: 

  • Procrastination

  • Self-criticism

  • Lack of confidence

  • Perfectionism

But if you remember to be kind to yourself, work hard, and set realistic goals, we’re confident you’ll succeed.

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Published November 23, 2022

Elizabeth Perry

Content Marketing Manager, ACC

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