The Sapling: Planning is necessary for high achievement and can be difficult if you've never done it before. Practice the steps mentioned in this post and you'll be well on your way to systematically achieving your goals!
To become more productive, you must do some sort of planning. Without plans, deadlines, and holding ourselves accountable we tend to fritter away time on activities that are less important than achieving our major goals. In this article I'll discuss a way to start the planning process and give you steps necessary to become a planning phenom! To begin you must view your activities at two levels: what you do each day (the bottom-up view) and your end results (the top-down view). I find that it's best to triage the immediate tasks in front of you and then move to the top-down view afterward. Once you have a solid grasp on your attention-grabbing tasks, then you can turn towards the results you'd like to achieve.
Step 0: Get a handle on the urgent.
Take a few minutes and brainstorm all the things you need to do "soon". If you don't have a system in place to keep track of these, then now is a great time to start one. Write down everything you can think of for the near-term. Some common things that can help jog your memory are oil changes, your taxes, and booking vacations. Do the best you can and then put the list to the side. Keep it close, though, because you'll certainly think of more tasks as you this exercise. If you do, in fact, come up with more, then make sure to get them out of your head and onto paper. If you keep this practice up, then you'll be much more effective, even if you never move into the later steps of this exercise.
Step 1: We'll quickly shift gears and look to the highest level next.
Imagine it's now a year into the future, what is true now that wasn't true before. Have you purchased a home? Have you achieved a fitness or health goal? What do your finances look like? Keep dreaming and thinking about what you want to be true just one year from now. On a separate piece of paper, list what these are. The beauty of this exercise is the fact that it becomes easier each time you do it. Don't be too concerned with missing something, you can always go back and add more goals later.
Step 2: Take your goals and break them down into monthly milestones.
If you want to earn an extra $1,200 per month at the end of next year, then you might attempt to earn an extra $100 per month in the first month, an extra $200 in the second month, and so on. Don't commit to your first idea too quickly, though. You may try to earn just an extra $50 in the first month, $100 in the second month, $200 in the third month, and so on. You want the first monthly milestone to be achievable, so you can build habits and momentum. As you find success, you'll have a better idea of how to reach the next level. You may also find that your end goal was too low or high. If that's the case then you can adjust your timeline to better align with what you've learned. Persistence here is key, keep taking guesses at what will work and see if you were right. Remember, being right eventually is the goal. It could happen on the fifth try or the fiftieth and you won't know until you're there.
Step 3: Now that you have monthly milestones, it's time to turn them into weekly and daily action plans.
If your goal is to lose a certain amount of weight, your action plan may include the action: "create a weekly meal plan". I find that splitting recurring actions into separate tasks (e.g. create a weekly plan for the first week of April) makes it easier to get past inevitable slip-ups. If you miss week one, then cross it out and get busy winning on week two. With weekly action plans in place you can move into daily actions. Sunday might have actions to: "buy groceries for the week" and "prepare lunches for the week". What's important is to get started. Get into the mindset where you can say "I am a planner". Once you have a plan in place, it's much easier to adjust when reality comes into the picture.
Step 4: Take good notes and review them periodically.
When you stumble upon actions that are highly effective (and fun), you should strive to do them more often. If playing tennis gets you out and active, then you can add it to your plans regularly. You should then stop doing those activities that are ineffective. After a relatively short period of time, your actions will trend towards more enjoyable and/or effective activities. You'll find that you're systematically achieving your goals according to the plans you've created. It doesn't take many iterations before you realize you're achieving things you never before thought possible!