“A goal without a plan is just a wish.” ~Antoine de Saint Exupéry
Action planning is one of the most powerful tools that you can use to turn knowledge into real change. Many studies have shown this to be true in both theory1 and practice.2,3 No matter what type of change you want to make in your life or in society, action planning techniques can be very useful. There are usually eight steps in the action planning process. This page explains each step and uses examples related to improving your self-esteem.
Step 1: Set a Goal
Setting a goal is an important first step. It helps provide focus and direction for your action planning efforts. As you practice using action planning techniques, you may find that you pick a different topic each time. One week you might write a plan about losing weight. The next you may decide you can’t make any progress until you organize the clutter that has gathered on your dining table. If you slip into a pattern of constantly finding different things that need to change, it would be like using the high beams on your car, lighting up everything. In the case of heavy fog, like not knowing where to start, it’s better to use the low beams to focus the light so you can move forward on your path. Write your action plans, so they focus on one goal and work on them until you reach that goal.
Goals should be about you, not about others. They should use positive, affirmative language. It should be possible to measure your progress toward reaching the goal. It is best to identify a goal that is not too broad and not too far in the future. “I will be a better person” is too vague and very hard to measure. “I will be more positive” is more specific. You could measure your progress toward that goal in many ways. For example, you could count the number of times you pay someone a compliment in a day or ask family members if they notice any difference in how you talk with them.
A goal should not be too lofty or hard to reach. A small victory will help you feel encouraged. “I will become the director of the city’s new center for people with disabilities” is a pretty high goal. You may have no power to control some important parts of the appointment process for that position. A more realistic goal would be “I will make new connections in the disability community.” Among the many things you could do to reach this goal is to start conversations with people you see often but don’t know very well or join an advocacy group on a topic you care about.
When You Are Ready to Practice Action Planning …
If you are comfortable doing so, close your eyes. Take a couple of deep breaths and see if some goals come to mind that would improve your life. Create a new document, paper or electronic, and write, type, or dictate three goals you would like to work on. Highlight one to work on during the next month or so. If you think it would help move you forward, share your goals with someone you trust.
Step 2: Decide on a Specific Action Plan
To achieve our long-term or short-term goals, it is helpful to make an action plan. An action plan asks for a specific action that we can realistically accomplish within a certain amount of time.
We recommend making an action plan for one week at a time. When we first start thinking about what action we want to take, to work toward achieving our goals, it helps to identify what we want to accomplish as well as the types of barriers or obstacles that could get in the way.
Step 3: Decide When and How to Act
It is important to be very specific and clearly state the action plan. First, decide what you will do this coming week. Remember, the action plan must be something you really want to do and believe that you can do. Be sure that your plan focuses on a specific behavior.
For example, if your goal is to reduce stress, you might choose to listen to relaxation recordings three days this week or sit quietly on your front porch for fifteen minutes four evenings this week. Or, if you would like to increase your physical fitness, you might decide to make three telephone calls during the week to learn about which exercise facilities are accessible for you.
- What you are going to do
- When you are going to do it
- How often or how much or how many times you will do it
Remember to start out slowly and allow for some days when you do not have to work on your plan.
Step 4: Determine What You Need to Follow Your Plan
Your plan may require transportation, extra personal assistance, or the purchase of materials that will help you in your new activity, such as notebooks, sticky notes, colored pens, a dry erase board, and the like. If you need extra assistance, it may take some negotiating to get your assistant or caregiver to support you as you work on making changes. If it looks like the resources, you need would be impossible to get, you might consider another approach to reaching your goal.
Think about the benefits of reaching your goal. Would it make you and those around you feel better physically or mentally? The value of that change may encourage you to put in the effort to get the things you need to carry out your action plan.
Step 5: Identify Roadblocks
Expect roadblocks or obstacles to pop up. Some may surprise you. For example, consider a woman with cerebral palsy who wants to become more independent by learning how to use public transportation. People around her may talk about how dangerous that could be. For example, they may say, “What would you do if [fill in the blank]?” It takes a lot of courage to respond to such questions without too much emotion and say, “I’m confident I would be able to [list your problem-solving skills].”
One big roadblock is thinking you can’t work on your action plan until you do something else first. Most of the time, this is a distraction and a delaying tactic. Consider the example mentioned earlier of the woman who couldn’t work on changing her diet until she cleaned off her dining table. These two tasks may have an emotional connection. Some people are really bothered by clutter but not enough to clean it up. Practically speaking, however, there is no reason she couldn’t do both at the same time—eat a healthy breakfast and reserve 10 minutes afterwards for cleaning up one part of the mess. Beware of excuses!
Step 6: Think of Ways to Make Your Success More Likely
There are many strategies for making your success more likely. Here are just a few.
- Announce your action plan to those around you and talk in specific terms about how they could support you.
- Each morning before you get out of bed, go over your action plan for the day in your mind. Use confidence-building statements that start with “I will…”
- Set an alarm clock on your cellphone as a reminder.
- Use sticky notes to put encouraging messages on mirrors or other surfaces where you spend a lot of your time.
- Promise yourself a reward if you complete your action for the day. Instead of a food reward, make it something you really enjoy doing but never find time to do. Give yourself permission to do something fun!
- Team up with one or more women with disabilities and agree to have weekly meet-ups (face-to-face, over the internet, or by phone) to talk about how things are going with your action plans. It may be helpful to agree to meet on a few times while working on your action plans and then decide how or if you want to continue.
Step 7: Rate How Sure You Are That You Can Follow Your Plan on a Scale of 1 to 10.
Finally, it is important that you determine how confident you are that you will complete your entire action plan. Ask yourself the following question:
On a scale of 0 to 10, with 10 being “completely confident” and 0 “completely lacking confidence,” how confident am I that I can complete this action plan?
If you rate your confidence level below 7, consider modifying your action plan. Adjust how much attention you plan to give to practicing your new behavior, or reduce the number of times per week, until your confidence level is 7 or above. If you're still having trouble, it might help to reconsider what you plan to do or change the number of times or other specifics so that your plan is more reasonable to achieve in a week's time.
Step 8: Evaluate Your Progress
At the end of the week, rate your success in carrying out your action plan. Use a scale of 0% to 100% with 100% representing full accomplishment of your action plan. If the rating is low, think about how your action plan for the next week could be more realistic and doable. Plan to use other strategies for dealing with roadblocks and increasing the likelihood of success.
Remember, if you were not successful in completing your action plan, it doesn’t mean that you failed! It often takes more than one week to change a behavior, so perhaps it would help to work on your action plan for another week. Or, perhaps your action plan was not the best plan for you. If so, consider creating a new, more realistic action plan for the next week. Action planning is a skill that improves with practice!
- Bandura A. Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review 1977;84:191-215.
- Lorig K. Action Planning: A Call To Action. J Am Board Fam Med. 2006;19(3):324-325.
- Lorig K, Laurent DD, Plant K, Krishnan E, Ritter PL. The components of action planning and their associations with behavior and health outcomes. Chronic illness. 2014;10(1):50-59.