Laura Berlinsky-Schine

You probably have many personal and professional goals for how you want your life to go. Depending on your life stage, you will probably have different plans and objectives for your future at various points throughout your life and adjust them based on past experiences. For instance, if you are a student, you're probably thinking acing your courses, meeting your graduation requirements, and landing a job that pays well, uses your skills, and challenges you. If you're already a working professional, your priorities may shift to excelling in your chosen career and getting that promotion. People at a later stage in their lives may have their eye on retirement and earning enough income to support their lifestyles after they take the plunge.

We all have short-term goals and long-term goals. Some may be realistic, while other may be a little more difficult to achieve. Whatever dreams you have about how you want your life to go, the most important part is that you develop strategies for making sure you achieve some—if not all—of your desired outcomes.

That's where an action plan comes in. An action plan is a roadmap for how you will achieve your goals. There are many types of action plans for individuals and larger organizations, but they all share the same purpose: to help you achieve your desired outcomes.

Creating a general action plan

Regardless of the specific type of action plan you use, you should make sure it contains certain features and addresses specific topics. These features will ensure that you have a clear vision for what you want to achieve, how you will achieve it, and what success looks like to you.

• Clearly define your objectives.

What do you hope to gain from the plan? Think if this as your mission statement. You are striving toward something, and you need to keep your eyes on the prize.

For example, if you want to receive more responsibilities at work toward the ultimate goal of a promotion, be specific about what responsibilities you would like to take on. If you work in marketing, for instance, that might mean being the main marketing contact for a specific project or being able to develop marketing plans with or without guidance.

• Be specific.

"Being successful" is not very specific. It's also not measurable. Rather than using vague terms and concepts, use specific language when creating an action plan.

Think about what success means to you. If you're a student, it might mean getting the most out of your education and being able to use it in a job that fits your interests. Be specific about what that job is. "Become a medical doctor" is much more specific, for instance, than "be successful."

• Create steps that are—again—specific.

Achieving a larger goal requires incremental steps. If you want to be a doctor, as in the previous example, there are many steps you'll need to take to get there. You'll need to start with your undergraduate education, earning a high enough GPA to get into med school, the next step. And so on.

Be specific when creating your steps, and make sure the outcomes are measurable. That way you'll klnow when you have accomplished each step. Some goals are clear-cut—for instance, you'll either get into med school, or you won't—while others are a bit more vague. If you want to make more money, for example, think about how much you want to make. How much money do you need to earn to reach that goal? Do you want to earn it all at once in a single lump sum, or would you prefer that you earn a better annual salary? These are the kinds of questions you need to ask yourself to make sure you're being specific about your steps and overall goals.

• Have a schedule.

Provide deadlines and dates for when you want to accomplish certain steps. Make sure you implement specific strategies by a specific date—and specify that date in your action plan. You might, for example, state that you want to gather together certain resources that will help you achieve your objectives by the end of the year.

It's a good idea to mark these deadlines in a calendar or planner, if you have one. It will provide another reminder that your deadline is approaching and prompt you to stay on top of your program.

• Identify people who can help you achieve your goal.

If you want a promotion, you can't do it alone. You'll need the help and support of management and possibly your coworkers to get there.

That's true of many goals and objectives. Identify the people who can support you and offer resources to help you succeed, and include them as key figures in your action plan.

• Create sub-goals.

For long-term goals, identify markers and milestones that will help you along the way. For instance, if you have your eye on leading a team, and you're currently working as an assistant, it's not going to happen overnight. Instead, set sub-goals or short-term goals that will help you achieve your overarching objective.

In this example, short-term objectives might include taking over a specific responsibility. You could also identify holes in your team's current processes and take it upon yourself to fix them. Achieving these short-term objectives will move you toward eventually achieving your larger management goal.

• Determine your endgame.

After you realized your vision, what comes next? Don't just rest on your laurels. (Depending on what your goal is, you probably won't have that option, anyway.) Decide what you're going to do afterward.

What will you do once you achieve your goal of leading a team? Think abut what kind of manager you'll be. How will you work with your employees? Are there any strategies or programs you want to implement?

Think about these kinds of questions as they pertain to your specific goal before you achieve it, so you have an idea for how your life will go later.

Structuring an action plan

There are many ways to structure your action plan. One common method is using SMART goals.

What are SMART goals? The acronym is as follows:

Specific: Define your overarching goal.
Measureable: Quantify your goal. Be able to measure the outcome.
Attainable: Make sure your goal is possible and achievable. Don't frustrate yourself by dreaming too big (although you should strive to challenge yourself).
Relevant: Your goal should fit in with your personal plans.
Time: Give yourself a deadline to achieve it.

You don't have to use the SMART system, but it does make planning easier. There are also plenty of action plan templates you can download to help organize your action plan. You could even sort the steps into a Google calendar.

What's most important is that you create your plan and follow through. It's your personal program for success, after all.