How to Write and Create Action Plans and Reach Your Goals

Achieving our goals can be hard, but having a good action plan helps make our goals more attainable. The first component to a strong action plan is to break things down into small, manageable steps.

But even taking things one step at a time, we can still get stuck, because we run into barriers that slow down our progress or even lead us to give up on our goals altogether. So a good action plan anticipates difficulties that may arise, and includes strategies to help us overcome them.

And even with a detailed action plan, our goals can be challenging to reach. So the more committed we are to these goals, and the more willingness we have to accept certain unpleasant experiences along the way, the more likely we are to achieve our goals.

How to Reach Your Goals

This transcription was auto-generated by YouTube. I’ve only added minimal editing, so I apologize for any errors, run-on sentences, etc.

So we’ve set a goal to make a change in our lives. Now we need to come up with an action plan to help us get there. And if you’re still working on setting some goals, I have a video that can help with that. And in this video we’ll learn how to create effective action plans, and how to manage barriers that can get in the way of us reaching our goals. And you can download an action plan worksheet from the link in the description.

Now an action plan is a series of steps that helps us achieve our goals. And each step is sort of a mini goal along the way. And like goals the steps and our action plans need to be specific and time bound, we say exactly what we’re going to do and when we’re going to do it.

And measurable at least to some extent so we can tell whether or not we’ve completed that step. The steps need to be relevant to reaching our goals. And they need to be attainable, and the more attainable the better. We want our steps to be small and manageable and as easy to attain as possible. If we make some steps so trivial that we can do a few of them at once that’s fine, but we want to avoid making any steps so big that we get stuck on one of them and stop making progress.

And related to attainable, in acceptance and commitment therapy the r in smart stands for realistic. And that’s really the key. Our overall plans and each step of the plan needs to be realistic: something we have the capacity to do and the willingness to do.

So let’s say our goal is to get a new job. For some people this doesn’t require much of an action. Plan look for jobs; apply for jobs; go to interviews.

But for a lot of us that simple plan isn’t going to work, because we’re going to get stuck on at least one of these steps, because the steps may seem relatively small, but they’re often much bigger than they look.

Maybe we’re getting stuck at the apply for jobs part, because we haven’t updated our resumes in a while, and so we need to add that step. But when we go to update our resumes we get stuck because maybe there’s a gap in our resumes we don’t know how to address, so whenever we try to update it we don’t know what to do.

And so we need to add a step figure out what to do about the gap in our resumes. And that might be more than just one step. And so maybe we need to actually set a goal of updating our resumes, and come up with a plan to help us do that, and then that goal acts as one of the steps in our overall goal of finding a new job.

So anytime we find ourselves getting stuck on one of our steps, the first thing to do is ask ourselves, is there any way I can break this step down into smaller steps? And we make them as small as possible, the smaller the better. No step is too small or too simple if it’s going to help us get unstuck. And then at least we’re making some progress towards our goals. And often once we get unstuck and take a small step or two we’re then able to keep going.

Now once we do start progressing towards our goals we’re often going to run into barriers that make it hard to continue. And sometimes we can anticipate the sorts of barriers we’re likely to face in advance and build steps into our plans to help us overcome these barriers if they do arise.

So if we’re trying to reduce our drinking or drug use we can probably anticipate that there’ll be times when we’re going to be tempted to drink or use drugs. So we build that into the plan, maybe something like, if we get a craving to have a drink or use drugs we go to the gym instead. Or we meet up with a friend for coffee. Or if we’re in a 12-step program the plan is probably attend a meeting or reach out to our sponsors.

Or for example if our goal is to lose weight or reduce our drinking or drug use, a common barrier is that when we’re depressed or stressed or having a bad day we may tend to eat or drink or use drugs to help us cope. And so if that’s the case we need to account for this in our plans, and have a strategy in place to help us overcome this barrier, and develop alternative ways to manage stress and regulate our emotions, or we’re going to keep resorting to eating or drinking or using drugs as a way of coping, which is going to make it really hard for us to reach our goals.

Now making changes is hard and can require a lot of effort and sacrifice. And so we often try to start off with plans that offer the least resistance, something like, when I go to the bar with my friends to watch the game, I’ll just take enough cash for one drink and won’t bring my debit or credit cards so I won’t be able to drink any more than that.

Now that’s probably not going to work. If we decide we want to keep drinking one of our friends will buy us drinks. And even if we don’t want to keep drinking there’s a good chance someone will try to buy us a drink anyway. And we’re going to end up drinking as much or almost as much as we always do.

But it makes sense that we try to start off with a plan that offers as little disruption to our lives as possible, rather than a plan like: I want to reduce my drinking so if my friends invite me to go to the bar and watch the game with them, I’m not going to go. Because if that’s something we really like to do, we’re going to try to come up with a plan that allows us to keep doing it.

And that’s fine. Most of the time we try to make changes our initial plans aren’t successful. So if the plan doesn’t work, instead of getting discouraged and giving up, we need to regard our plans as just hypotheses. We tested out the hypothesis that we could go to the bar with our friends without drinking a lot and it didn’t work out. So now we need to come up with a new hypothesis or plan that takes what we’ve just learned into consideration. So maybe this time we include something about avoiding triggers for drinking and now this makes it more likely our next plan will be successful.

So sometimes the barriers we face are practical or situational problems, like how do I update my resume when I haven’t worked in over a year? What do I do when I’m trying to cut back on my drinking and my friends invite me out to the bar to watch the game? But sometimes there’s more to it than that.

Maybe when we go to update our resumes we start thinking, wow I can’t believe how pathetic this is. How can I be so far behind all my friends in my career? I’m such a loser. And we feel ashamed and depressed for the rest of the day. And maybe just the thought of updating our resumes makes us feel this way. And so we try to avoid even thinking about looking for a new job because of all the unpleasant thoughts and uncomfortable feelings that go along with it.

Or let’s say our goal is to be in a relationship. So we’ve joined a dating site and everything’s going fine until we get to the go out on a date step. And then we get stuck because we’re too afraid of rejection. Or because we have social anxiety and are scared of meeting up with someone because we don’t know what we’d say, and we think we’re boring and we’d be a terrible date, and it would just be awkward and uncomfortable and we’d embarrass ourselves. And we become so anxious just thinking about it we get a feeling of tightness in our chests. And so we decide not to even try going on any dates because we just can’t stand feeling this way.

So what can we do when uncomfortable thoughts, memories or worries, or unpleasant feelings and emotions and body sensations are the barriers that are getting in our ways and preventing us from moving on to the next steps? Well we can use cognitive behavioral therapy to help manage these sorts of barriers and modify our thinking and behaviors to reduce negative emotions enough that we’re able to carry on with our plans. Or we can go the acceptance and commitment therapy route.

Acceptance and commitment therapy incorporates the concept of willingness into action plans. Often we get stuck because we’re trying to avoid having certain negative unpleasant or uncomfortable experiences. So when coming up with our plans we need to consider what uncomfortable or unpleasant thoughts and memories, feelings and emotions, and body sensations and urges we’re willing to make room for and accept in order to allow us to reach our goals.

If we want to start dating, we need to be willing to experience some rejection. If our goal is to lose weight, we’re going to need to be willing to experience some hunger and pass up on some higher calorie foods or meals or cut out snacking for example, and be willing to experience cravings and urges to eat without acting on them.

And similarly if our goal is to reduce drinking or drug use we need to be willing to experience cravings or urges to drink or use drugs without acting on them. And we might need to be willing to give up some social activities that are associated with drinking or drug use. And if we don’t have the willingness to experience these things or make these sacrifices then we’re probably not going to be able to do what it takes in order for us to reach our goals.

Now change and growth usually involves some discomfort, some stepping outside of our comfort zones. So part of creating an action plan is predicting in advance the types of discomfort we’re likely to experience, and have a plan in place to help us navigate this discomfort so that we don’t get stuck and can keep moving forward.

So one way to approach this is with cognitive behavioral therapy. When I start having negative thoughts about going on dates like they’re not going to like me, I’m so boring, it’s just going to be awkward and uncomfortable and embarrassing, I’ll tell myself it’s completely natural to have these sorts of thoughts about going on a date and most people feel this way to some extent. And it probably won’t be as bad as I’m worrying it will be. But even if it is it’s not going to last that long; it’ll be uncomfortable for a while and then it’ll be over and I’ll be okay.

Values play an important role in acceptance and commitment therapy. And values refer to things like the importance we place on family or our careers or health or on being in a relationship. Now making any significant changes in our lives is difficult and takes a lot of commitment, and the more our goals reflect our values and what’s most important to us the more of a commitment we’re willing to make in order to attain them, which means not only do we work harder to achieve them, but we’re more willing to have certain uncomfortable or unpleasant experiences if that’s what it’s going to take in order for us to reach these goals.

And then our values and what’s important to us act as fuel that helps us move towards our goals, and as motivation to make us more willing to accept the discomfort we’re going to face along the road to reaching our goals. I’m willing to stop going to the bar to watch the game with my friends and to learn to manage stress and emotions without resorting to drinking if that’s what it’s going to take in order for me to be healthier and improve my relationship with my family.

And we can combine cbt and acceptance and commitment therapy: use some cbt techniques to reduce our negative thinking and negative emotions; and then be willing to make room for whatever negative thoughts and emotions remain, because achieving our goals and creating a meaningful life for ourselves is more important to us than avoiding discomfort.

And finally if we find ourselves getting stuck a lot or even having trouble getting started on our plans, often it has nothing to do with our plans themselves, but with the stage of change we find ourselves in. Sometimes we start making plans when we’re still in the contemplation stage (and if you don’t know what this refers to check out my video on the stages of change). But in the contemplation stage we’re still trying to decide whether or not we’re ready to make a change. Do we really want to leave our current jobs and start looking for something new or are we just contemplating it? Are we really ready to cut back on our drinking or just thinking about it?

If we try to embark on a plan when we’re still in the contemplation stage we’re unlikely to get very far, and instead we need to focus our efforts on progressing to the next stage of change, preparation, before we start thinking about a plan.

You can download the Commitment, Willingness and Action Plan Worksheet in PDF or Word format. If you have any questions or comments, please leave them on the YouTube video page.