June 22, 2018

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Creating Action Plans That Work

In order to create great Action Plans, we need to talk about momentum. When we transition into the work world as staffing and recruiting professionals, we're often taught that 'To Do' lists and 'Time Management' techniques will help us keep track of what we need to get accomplished and help us achieve our goals. My message to you today is 'HOGWASH.'

As hard as I've tried, I finally figured out that you can't 'manage time' every minute still has 60 seconds, no matter how often I've wished it had 65. What you can manage are the choices you make in the actions you will take every day. And in more than 20 years of study on productivity and project management, the only thing I've found that sort of works as a 'to do list' might be your weekly grocery shopping inventory. And how many of us stick strictly to that list? We typically come home with something that we hadn't specifically planned to buy, forget to buy something that we did write down, or fail to write down something really important, which causes a second trip to the market. Is the rest of our life so different?

Lists don't work in building and maintaining momentum, but plans do. We make plans for things that are important to us, that help us meet those bigger goals and fulfill our values-driven needs. So what's the difference between a 'to do list' and a plan?

Action Plans are different from 'to do lists' in a number of fundamental ways:

  • Action Plans are based on meeting specific goals; to do lists are more often single-focus items.

  • Action Plans are cohesive, sequential approaches to meeting a specific outcome; to do lists are typically a collection of unrelated or unfocused activities.

  • Action Plans take into account a range of factors, alternatives, and resources in planning for 'next actions' while to do lists are more reactionary.

  • Action Plans build in milestones and checkpoints to ensure that projects or plan-based activities stay on the right track; to do lists focus on 'today's' need rather than tomorrow's plan.

The Steps to Creating an Action Plan

Creating an Action Plan is not difficult; it is deliberate and requires serious commitment to forward momentum. Here are the steps to follow:

  1. You have written your goal statements based on my previous article: Creating Well-Defined Goals. Now it's time for a few questions to lay out the parameters of what you'll need to accomplish this goal:

    a. What information do I need that I don't have now?

    b. What resources are available to me?

    c. Who can I ask for help or guidance?

    d. What alternatives, options, and approaches can I consider?

    e. What are the major components of this goal/plan?

    f. How will I evaluate my progress?

    g. At what point would I consider renegotiating the goal/plan and its parameters?

    • Research (What 'homework' will I do to ensure I have all the facts, foundations, and opinions I need?)
    • Budget or financial considerations (What will this 'cost' me or my organization; what will the return on investment be; how will this cost be financed?) Note: Remember that 'cost' is not strictly a function of money. Take into account things like existing materials, resources, and manpower.
    • Communication (Who needs to know about various elements, execution, and results of this plan and when? What is the best way to keep them informed and involved?)
    • Documentation (What tracking, notes, or records should I create or maintain to help me understand my progress, challenges, and next steps?)
    • Logistics (What are the practical considerations that will have impact on this plan, such as movement of people or materials, technical or equipment requirements, etc.?)
    • Timelines and milestones (Will I use time-based or event-based criteria or both to measure my progress and move to next phases? What are the best time intervals for evaluation of the progress of this plan?)
  2. Don't just think about this stuff write it down! You can't hold yourself accountable if there is no way to check your progress against a documented commitment. (This is true whether it's a personal plan or one for your professional role.)

  3. Ask yourself a very simple question What is the very first thing I need to do to make forward progress on this plan? Then do it.

  4. Once that item is complete, ask yourself: What's my next physical action to move forward on this plan? and do that next physical thing. Keep asking and answering that question until you reach a milestone or checkpoint that you have pre-selected.

Staying Flexible

Plans aren't about laying out the entire course of what you want to do from beginning to end. That's usually not possible and/or practical, and it feels utterly overwhelming the number one cause of people giving up on a planning or goal-setting process.

Circumstances and results of previous actions will have an impact at every stage of what you do. That doesn't mean you don't lay out what you think the course might look like, but that is not your Action Plan. Actions keep you moving. You have the power to choose your actions and reactions every minute of every day. It's up to you whether they will be in support of your goals, plans, and values or if they will become a 'go with the flow' quagmire.

Look at your important goals each day. Most people will have about three or four more than that gets overwhelming and splits your focus into too many areas. Before you do anything else, ask yourself: What is my next physical action to move forward? Follow that up with: Is this the best use of my time right now? If you do this every day, for every goal, you will find that you eliminate the frustrations of 'drift' and success comes more easily and quickly than you imagined possible.

- Paula Roy

Paula Roy ( is the Vice President of Learning and Development of StaffingU, a global provider of training, coaching, and consulting services for staffing and recruiting professionals. For information on StaffingU's programs and services, including TeleClasses (live telephone-based classes), Virtual StaffingU (web-based courses), individual and group coaching, on-site training and speaking, and management consulting visit or call 866-SU-WORKS (789-6757). Paula Roy is a recognized expert in behavioral interviewing and in developing comprehensive selection strategies. Using a comprehensive project management system, Paula has developed the productivity and effectiveness of sales teams, project teams, and executives. She earned her degree in communication and management and has completed extensive study and research in adult learning theory and methodology.