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How to Create an Effective Action Plan

Four Parts:Creating Your PlanManaging Your TimeStaying MotivatedIdentifying Your Goals

Creating a powerful action plan always begins with having a clear purpose, vision or goal in mind. It is designed to take you from wherever you are right now directly to the accomplishment of your stated goal. With a well-designed plan, you can achieve virtually any goal you set out to accomplish.

Part 1
Creating Your Plan

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    Keep a record of everything. As you work through your action plan, keep notes of everything. You may find it helpful to have a binder with different tabs in it to section off different aspects of your planning process. Some examples of sections:
    • Ideas/Miscellaneous notes
    • Daily Schedules
    • Monthly Schedules
    • Milestones
    • Research
    • Follow-up
    • Individuals involved/Contacts
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    Know what you want to do. The less clear you are about what you want to do, the less effective your plan will be. Try to specifically define what you want to achieve as early as possible — preferably before starting your project.
    • Example: You are trying to complete your master’s thesis — basically a very long essay — which needs to be about 40,000 words. It will include an introduction, a literature review (in which you critically discuss other research that informs yours, and discuss your methodology), several chapters in which you put your ideas into practise using concrete examples, and a conclusion. You have 1 year to write it.
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    Be specific and realistic in your planning. Having a specific goal is just the beginning: you need to be specific and realistic in every aspect of your project — for example, by stating specific and achievable schedules, milestones, and final outcomes.
    • Being specific and realistic while planning a long project is all about pro-actively reducing stress that can accompany poorly planned projects such as missed deadlines and exhausting long hours.
    • Example: To finish your thesis on time, you need to write roughly 5,000 words per month, which will give you a couple of months at the end of your timeline to polish your ideas. Being realistic means not placing the expectation on yourself to write more than 5,000 words each month.
    • If you’re working as a teaching assistant for three of those months, you’ll need to consider that you may not be able to complete 15,000 words in that time, and you’ll need to spread that amount out over your other months.
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    Set measurable milestones. Milestones mark significant stages along the road to achieving your end goal. Create milestones easily by starting at the end (the accomplishment of the goal) and working your way backwards to your present day and circumstances.
    • Having milestones can help you — and if applicable, your team — stay motivated by breaking the work into smaller chunks and tangible goals so that you don’t need to wait until the project is completely finished to feel as though you’ve accomplished something.
    • Don’t leave too much time or too little time between milestones — spacing them two weeks apart has been found to be effective.[1]
    • Example: When writing your thesis, resist the urge to set milestones based on chapter completions, as this could be a matter of months. Instead, set smaller milestones — perhaps based on word counts — every two weeks, and reward yourself when you hit them.
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    Break large tasks into smaller, more manageable chunks. Some tasks or milestones may seem more daunting to achieve than others.
    • If you’re feeling overwhelmed by a large task, you can help ease your anxiety and make it feel more doable by breaking it down into smaller, more manageable chunks.
    • Example: The lit review is often the most difficult chapter to write, as it forms the foundation of your thesis. In order to complete your lit review, you need to do a significant amount of research and analysis before you can even begin writing.
    • You can break it into three smaller chunks: research, analysis, and writing. You can break it down even smaller by choosing specific articles and books that you need to read, and setting deadlines for analyzing them and writing about them.
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    Make scheduled lists. Make a list of tasks that you need to complete in order to hit your milestones. A list on its own will not be effective — you must write this list into a timeline associated with specific, realistic actions.
    • Example: By breaking your lit review into smaller chunks, you’ll know exactly what you need to get done, and can figure out a realistic timeframe for those tasks. Perhaps every one to two days you will have to read, analyze, and write about one key reading.
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    Put timelines on everything. Without specific time frames and deadlines, work will definitely expand to fill the time allotted, and some tasks may never get completed.
    • No matter what action items you choose for which phase of your action plan, it is essential that a time frame be attached to absolutely everything.
    • Example: If you know that it takes you roughly 1 hour to read 2,000 words, and you’ll be reading a 10,000-word article, you need to give yourself at least 5 hours to complete that article.
    • You’ll need to also account for at least 2 meals during that time, as well as short breaks every 1 to 2 hours for when your brain is feeling tired. In addition, you’ll want to add at least an hour onto your final number just to account for any possible unanticipated interruptions.
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    Create a visual representation. Once you’ve listed your action items and set a specific timeline, the next step is to create some type of visual representation of your plan. You might use a flow chart, a Gantt chart, a spreadsheet, or some other type of business tool to accomplish this.
    • Keep this visual representation in an easily accessible place — even on a wall in your office or study room, if possible.
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    Mark things off as you go. Marking things off as you go will not only feel satisfying, it will help you keep on track lest you forget what you’ve already done.
    • This is particularly important if you’re working with other people. If you’re working with other people, you might consider using a shared online document so that everyone can check in no matter where they are.
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    Don’t stop until you’ve reached your final goal. Once your plan is established and shared with the team (if applicable), and your milestones are scheduled, the next step is simple: take daily actions to achieve your goal.
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    Change the date if you must, but never give up on your goal. Occasionally, circumstances or unforeseen events can arise that throw a wrench in your ability to meet deadlines, complete tasks and achieve your goal.
    • If this happens, do not get discouraged – revise your plan and continue working to meet targets and move forward.

Part 2
Managing Your Time

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    Get yourself a good planner. Whether this is an app or a book, you'll need a planner that will allow you to plan out your time by the hour, each day of the week. Make sure it’s easy to read and easy to use, otherwise you’ll likely not make use of it.
    • Studies have shown that physically writing things down (i.e. with pen and paper) will make you more likely to do them.[2] For this reason, you may be best off using a physical planner to plan your time out.
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    Avoid to-do lists. So you have a long list of things to do, but when will you actually do them? To-do lists are not as effective as scheduling out your tasks. When you schedule your tasks, you make the time to get them done.[3]
    • When you have specific time blocks in which to work (many day planners literally contain hourly time blocks), you’ll also find that you’re less likely to procrastinate, as you only have an allotted time in which to get your work done before you must move on to the next scheduled task.
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    Learn how to time block. Blocking out your time helps you get a more realistic idea of how much time you actually have in a day. Start with your highest-priority tasks and work backwards.
    • Do this for your whole week. Having a broader view of how your days will add up will help you refine your schedule to be as productive as possible.[4]
    • Some experts even suggest having at least a general idea of what your whole month will look like.[5]
    • Some people recommend starting at the end of your day and working backwards — so if you’re done work/homework at 5 p.m., plan backwards from there, to when your day starts, for example, at 7 a.m.[6]
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    Schedule time for leisure and breaks. Studies have shown that scheduling even your free time can help increase your satisfaction with life.[7] It has also been proven that long work hours (50+ hours a week) in fact make you less productive.[8]
    • Sleep deprivation will kill your productivity.[9] Make sure that you sleep at least 7 hours each night if you’re an adult, or 8.5 hours a night if you’re a teenager.
    • Studies show that scheduling small, “strategic renewals” (i.e. workouts, brief naps, meditation, stretching) into your day will boost your productivity and overall health.[10]
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    Set aside time to plan your week out. Many experts suggest scheduling time right at the start of your week to sit down and plan your week. Figure out how you can best use each day to work toward achieving your goals.[11]
    • Account for any work or social obligations you have; if you find your schedule is tight, you may need to drop some of your lower-priority plans.
    • This doesn’t mean dropping social activities. It’s important to keep up with your good friends and to nurture your close relationships. You need a support network.
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    Know what a sample scheduled day looks like. To return to the thesis-writing example, a regular day might look something like this:
    • 7 a.m.: Wake up
    • 7:15 a.m.: Exercise
    • 8:30 a.m.: Shower and dress
    • 9:15 a.m.: Make and eat breakfast
    • 10 a.m.: Work on Thesis - writing (plus 15 minutes of small breaks)
    • 12:15 p.m.: Lunch
    • 1:15 p.m.: Emails
    • 2 p.m.: Research and response to research (including 20 to 30 minutes of breaks/snacks)
    • 5 p.m.: Wrap up, check emails, set primary goals for tomorrow
    • 5:45 p.m.: Leave desk, go grocery shopping
    • 7:00 p.m.: Make dinner, eat
    • 9:00 p.m.: Relax — play music
    • 10:00 p.m.: Prepare for bed, read in bed (30 minutes), sleep
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    Know that every day does not have to look the same. You can split up tasks into only 1 or 2 days a week — sometimes it’s even helpful to break up tasks as you can return to them with a fresh perspective.
    • Example: Maybe you only write and do research Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and on Thursdays you substitute writing with learning a musical instrument.
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    Schedule for problems. Build a little bit of extra time into every block that will account for a slow work day or an unanticipated interruption. A good rule of thumb is to give yourself double the time you expect a task to take — particularly when you're just starting out.
    • As you become more comfortable with your tasks, or if you already have a good sense of how long something will take, you can shave your time down, but it’s always a good idea to leave in at least a small buffer.
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    Be flexible and gentle with yourself. Especially as you’re starting out, be prepared to tweak your schedule as you go. It’s part of the learning process. You may find it helpful to block your time out in pencil.
    • You may also find it helpful to spend a week or two recording what you do each day into a planner as you go. This will help you get a sense of how you spend your time and how much time each task takes.
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    Disconnect. Set times in your day where you’ll check your emails or social media. Be strict with yourself, as it’s possible to lose hours just checking in every few minutes here and there.[12]
    • This includes turning off your phone, if possible — at least for periods where you really want to focus on work.
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    Do less. This relates to disconnecting. Figure out the most important things in your day — the ones that will help you achieve your goals, and focus on those. De-prioritize the less important things that fragment your day: emails, mindless paperwork, etc.
    • One expert recommends not checking your emails for at least the first one or two hours of your day; this way, you can focus on your important tasks without getting distracted by the things that those emails may contain.[13]
    • If you know you have a lot of small tasks to do (for example, email, paperwork, tidying up your workspace), group them together into a chunk of time in your schedule rather than allowing them to fragment your day or break the flow of other more important tasks that might require more concentration.[14]

Part 3
Staying Motivated

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    Be positive. Staying positive is fundamental to achieving your goals.[15] Believe in yourself and the people around you. Counter any negative self-talk with positive affirmations.
    • In addition to being positive, you will benefit from surrounding yourself with positive people. Research has shown that over time, you adopt the habits of those with whom you spend the most time, so choose your company wisely.[16]
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    Reward yourself.[17] This is particularly important to do each time you hit a milestone. Give yourself tangible rewards — for example, a nice dinner at your favorite restaurant when you hit your first two-week milestone, or a back massage for your two-month milestone.
    • One expert suggests giving a friend money and telling them that they can only give it to you if you finish a given task by a specified time. If you don’t finish the task, your friend keeps the money.[18]
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    Get a support network. It’s important to have your friends and family on your side; it’s also important to build connections with people who have similar goals to you. That way you can check in with each other.[19]
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    Track your progress. Research has shown that progress is the highest motivator.[20] You can track your progress simply by ticking off tasks in your schedule as you go.
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    Go to bed early and get up early. When you read about the schedules of highly productive people, a large percentage of them start their days early. These people also have a morning routine — often this is something they can look forward to doing before they go to work.
    • Positive ways to start the morning are to do some sort of exercise (from light stretching and yoga to an hour at the gym), eat a healthy breakfast, and spend 20 to 30 minutes writing in a journal.[21]
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    Give yourself downtime. Taking breaks is imperative to staying motivated. If you are always working, you’ll wind up exhausting yourself. Taking breaks is a pro-active way to prevent yourself from getting exhausted and losing time that you don’t want to lose.
    • Example: Step away from your computer, turn off your phone, just sit somewhere quiet and do nothing. If ideas come to you, write them down in a notebook; if they don’t, enjoy having nothing to do.[22]
    • Example: Meditate. Turn off your phone’s ringer, turn off any notifications that you might get, and set a timer for up to 30 minutes, or however long you can afford. Just sit quietly and try to clear your mind. When thoughts come into your mind, you might find it useful to label them and then let them go — for example, if you think about work, just quietly say in your head, “Work” and then let it go, and keep doing this as the thoughts arise.
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    Visualize. Take a few minutes now and then to think about your goal and how it will feel to have achieved it. This will help you get through the harder times that may accompany pursuing your goal.
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    Know that it won’t be easy. Things worth having are rarely easy to get. You may have to resolve a lot of issues or work through some things as you work toward your goal. Accept them as they come.
    • Many gurus who extol the virtue of living in the present advise to accept setbacks as though you chose them yourself. Instead of fighting them or getting upset, accept them, learn from them, and set to work figuring out how you’ll achieve your goal given the changed circumstances.[23][24]

Part 4
Identifying Your Goals

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    Write about what you want. Do this in a journal or a text document. This is particularly helpful if you're not entirely sure what you want to do, but just have a feeling about it.
    • Writing regularly in a journal is a great way to keep in touch with yourself and to keep up to date on how you’re feeling. Many people claim that writing helps them clarify how they feel and what they want.
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    Do your research. Once you have an idea of what you want to do, do your research. Researching your goals will help you narrow down the best way to achieve them.
    • Online forums like Reddit are a great place to look for discussions on most topics — particularly if you want an insider’s view on specific careers.
    • Example: While writing your thesis you’re beginning to wonder what you’ll end up doing with it. Read about what others have done with similar degrees to the one that you’re pursuing. This might even help you gear your thesis towards publications or other opportunities that can help further your career.
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    Consider your options and choose the one that best serves you. After you’ve done your research you’ll have a good sense of what each path and result will look like. This should make it easier for you to choose the path that will best serve you in achieving your goal.
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    Be aware of things related to your goal that may affect you. This includes being aware of things that may hinder you in your goals — in the case of thesis writing this may include mental exhaustion, lack of research, or unexpected work responsibilities.
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    Be flexible. Your goals may change as you move toward them. Allow room for yourself, and as a result, your goals, to develop. That said, don’t just give up when it gets hard. There’s a difference between losing interest and losing hope!


  • You can apply the same planning and goal-identifying techniques to larger, more long-term goals such as choosing a career, for example.
  • If you think that scheduling your time sounds boring, think about it this way: scheduling your days and weeks, and even months, ahead of time saves you having to make decisions on a regular basis about what you’ll do next. This frees up your mind to be creative and focused on the work that matters.[25]


  • The importance of giving yourself breaks cannot be emphasized enough. Do not overwork yourself; you will only wind up being less productive and less creative.

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Categories: Improving Productivity