How to Make a Plan and Stick to It
One of my teachers in high school had a poster on the wall that said, “If you can DREAM it, you can ACHIEVE it.” Honestly, it didn’t make much of an impression on me at the time—other than giving me something to look at while she lectured. But now when I look back, I think that poster was only half right.
You definitely need to start with a dream; otherwise, you wouldn’t ever have a goal. But like author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote, “A goal without a plan is just a wish.”
Dream Big. Plan Small.
I believe in dreaming big. To be fair, I believe in dreaming small, too. I believe in dreaming any damn thing you want to dream, and then going after that dream in a big way. But when you do, I suggest that you plan small.
Planning small is really what you (hopefully) do whenever you have a major project. Essentially, you:
- Decide on your ultimate goal
- Estimate how long it will take you to obtain that goal
- Create a bunch of mini-plans to get you there.
Let’s say you want to run a marathon, but the only time you ever go for a run is when someone is chasing you (i.e., basically never). Your goal is achievable, however, if you break it down into doable chunks. For instance, your mini-plans might include:
- Researching how long it might take to go from 0 to 26 miles
- Setting a monthly mileage goal to build up endurance
- Learning what role nutrition will play in your ability to reach your goal
- Joining a group to help keep you motivated
- Signing up for shorter distance races to get used to running with a crowd
Breaking up the big plan into these smaller strategies not only keeps you from getting overwhelmed, but they give you clear benchmarks you can keep moving towards.
Set SMART Goals
While I am a fan of setting goals of any size, I do recommend being SMART about the type of goals you set. You’ve probably seen this before, but SMART stands for:
- Specific: You want to be very clear about what you’re trying to achieve and what you need to achieve it.
- Measurable: Having some way to assess your progress can help keep you motivated.
- Achievable: Be careful with this one. You don’t want to use it as a way of talking yourself out of what you really want to do, but you do want to set goals that are realistic and in your control.
- Relevant: Pick goals that matter to you! (I mean, duh, right? But you’d be surprised how many people decide to run a marathon simply because it seems like a goal every athlete goes after.)
- Time-bound: I don’t know about you, but there’s little that gets me moving faster than a deadline! Just remember to make your deadline realistic. There’s nothing wrong with going slow, in fact—it’s often preferable.
The marathon goal—assuming it’s something you want to do—fits this pretty nicely. But what if your goal is something more nebulous, like “I want to live a healthier lifestyle?”
You can still make that work, but it’s going to take some more thinking, particularly when it comes to making your goal specific. You might start by asking yourself why you want to be healthier. Is it because you want to have more energy? Lose weight? Feel stronger? Each of these may point you towards a slightly different goal, and subsequently, a slightly different plan.
So You’ve Got a Plan, Now What?
You know what you want to do, why you want to do it, and even how you’re going to get it done. So why is it so hard to stick to your plan?
The best answer I have for you is because you’re human. Goals can feel like they’re a long way off, and you (like most people) have more pressing needs to take care of in the here and now. Plus, change—even good change—is scary. Take that marathon example again. Sure, it would be great to finish 26 miles, but will I be able to do it? Will it hurt? What if I fail?
I can’t tell you that you will for sure achieve your goal, but I can give you some ideas for sticking to your plan. At the very least, these will get you a long way towards success:
- Get your mind right: You need to know why you’re setting your goal. Identify why it matters to you, and perhaps more importantly, why you’ve struggled with it in the past. Maybe you looked for support in the wrong places. Maybe you hoped things would change on their own. Whatever it is, name it. That’s the first step to overcoming it.
- Be intentional: At least one study has shown that people see more success when they were explicit about their plans. So don’t just think through your plan. Write it down and include the specific steps you’re going to take and when you’re going to take them.
- Keep Your Goal Top of Mind: I know a yoga teacher who is fond of saying, “where your attention goes, your energy flows.” She’s not wrong, but it can be really hard to keep your attention on something that you hope to achieve somewhere down the road. I suggest finding a way to keep your goal in front of you.
- Track Your Progress: Do you have a to-do list? I write one every day, and I love checking items off as I complete them. It just feels good to have accomplished something, even if it’s just a small step towards your bigger aim. Actually, a to-do list on your office wall or refrigerator could be a good way to keep your mind on your long-term goal.
Final Tip? Be Flexible!
This last tip is so important, I think it deserves its own section: Be flexible. Your goal isn’t written in stone. Neither is your plan, for that matter. I’m not suggesting you give up on your dream just because things got tough. But desires change. Injuries happen. Life can sideline you and there’s not much you can do about it. It just means you may have to adjust your plan, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Remember: If you can dream it, you CAN achieve it. You just have to put in the work.