Planning is the third step of ESPER framework. Where in Strategy you identify the overall principles to nail your goal, in Planning you use those principles to develop a fully structured plan, complete with all the specific details. In this step and the next (Execution), you will find that your left brain and organization skills play a very important role.

The objective of developing a plan is to (1) organize your tasks and (2) allocate your resources accordingly so that you can achieve your specified goals within your desired time frame. It is a reflection of where your time and energy will be channeled into. If it is well developed, it will keep you organized in your goal pursuit. If it is messy and haphazard, you will find your tasks get thrown into disarray when you are pursuing your goal.

The amount of planning needed varies across goals, since it is a function of the scale and time span of the goal. If your goal is a huge one that involves other resources and people (such as setting up a new business), you may find that there is a significant amount of planning to do before moving to execution. On the other hand, if it is a short-term goal managed at a personal level, you may find that there might be very minimal planning needed.

As you proceed with planning, below are the key guides to use:

1. Develop Your Plan, right down to the specifics

Get down to the specific tasks, details and action steps needed, based on the strategy you developed. This is where you get down to the nitty gritty of everything you need to do.

Some guiding questions would be:

  • What: What is the full list of tasks you need to undertake? What are the action steps needed to trigger each task? What resources do they involve?
  • Who: Who is required to perform each task? (that will typically be you)
  • When: When does each task need to be performed? How regularly does each task need to be performed? How much time does it take? Are there any deadlines?
  • Where: Where is each task supposed to be done?
  • How: How is each task going to be executed?

Not all the questions will be applicable for your goal, so use them where appropriate.

Be clear on your key pillars of success, or 80/20 Actions (see principle #4 in Strategy). Be clear on the prioritization within your key pillars of success as well – i.e.; the #1 pillar, #2 pillar, and so on.

As we have mentioned in the previous chapter, your key pillars of success are the most important tasks that will make the most impact to the goal. The rest of the tasks are the less important tasks which can be forgone if needed. This segmentation will be very important when you move to the next step, which is…

2. Fit Your Plan Into Your Schedule

After you have identified your specific plan, now you need to fit them into your schedule. By committing them to a timetable, you integrate your plan into your daily life, thus creating certainty that the whole plan will be acted upon.

a. Get A Daily Calendar

You will need a daily calendar which lists the hours as you schedule in your tasks. Depending on your preferences, you might like to use a web-based calendar, a calendar in your email client, a manually created calendar or even a hard copy calendar.

I used to use Microsoft Outlook for all my work and personal scheduling needs, since it was the email client in my previous company. It worked out pretty well for me. Now, I use Google Calendar – it is web-based so it can be accessed from any computer, making it extremely convenient. I find it extremely helpful in keeping me organized. Do check it out if you are not using any particular calendar software at the moment.

b. Identify Best Times To Work On Your Goal

First, be clear on when you can work on your goal. There are two factors that determines this. The first is naturally, your time. When do you have available time for your goal-specific tasks? The second is your energy level. During those available free time, will you be in a proper frame of mind to work on your goals? Do not run into the situation where you overcommit yourself with your tasks. If you have working hours of 9am – 9pm every day, it is probably not reasonable to expect yourself to go to the gym every day. Most people often miss this factor, overcommitting themselves in the end and get themselves burnt out in the process.

(Check out my other articles Why I Wake Up Early and 21 Tips To Wake Up Early on waking up early.)

If you find that you don’t have enough time and/or energy, start thinking in terms how you can manage your activities better. Time management has become a mislabeled problem. We don’t need to manage time as much as we need to manage our activities. While this might border on semantics to some, when you start seeing your sitution as activity management rather than time management, you will look at your activities in a whole different way.

This helps you free up more time so you can spend them on your goal. Examine where all your time is going in right now. How are you spending your time every day? Which are the different activities you are doing? How much time is taken for each activity? Which activities take up the most time?

A simple yet excellent tool which enables you to get immediate clarity on how to streamline your current schedule is the Time Management Matrix. This matrix is first published by Stephen Covey in the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. With this matrix, you can segment all your activities you are spending right now in your life into 4 possible quadrants – Q-1 (Important, Urgent), Q-2 (Important, Non Urgent), Q-3 (Not Important, Urgent) and Q-4 (Not Important, Not Urgent). (For more information, read my article on Become the Master of Your Time)

Assuming you had been rigorous in the first step of ESPER (Establish – the goal), your goal should be a Q-2 or Q-1 task, meaning it is important. Just by removing the Q-3 and Q-4 tasks from your schedule, you will suddenly get a whole lot of free time for your goal tasks in the next step.

c. Schedule Your Goal Tasks

After you have identified the best available times to work on your goal, here is where you schedule your goal tasks in:

  1. Schedule your key pillars of success, or 80/20 Actions. Start filling your available time slots with your key pillars of success first. These are the deal breakers in your goal and needs to be placed in first.
  2. Schedule your remaining tasks. After giving priority to your key pillars of success, fill in the other tasks. These are the remaining tasks that need to be done in the course of your goal pursuit. They are not necessary all that critical in the bigger picture of your goal, but need to be done anyway as part of the goal.
  3. Ensure you spend disproportionate time and energy on your key pillars of success. Ideally, the time allocated across your key pillars of success : your other tasks should be disproportionately skewed toward the former. The ratio will be dependent on the context of the goal and the plan, but the general principle is to spend as much time and focus on your key pillars of success as possible.

As you work on your schedule, here are some tips which can help you build a more robust schedule:

  1. Bundle/Schedule similar-tasks. See if you can be more effective by bundling tasks or scheduling similar tasks together (e.g. getting your health foods at the same time when you do your grocery shopping; going to the gym on your way home from work).
  2. Allocate sufficient time for each task. Many of us often run into the situation where we underestimate the time needed on an activity. Develop a good understanding of the timing needs for each task and allocate it accordingly.
  3. Schedule extra ‘buffer’ time. This is for contingency purposes; it will come in handy in times when there are unexpected events that occur which need your attention, or when you underestimate the time taken for a particular task.

If you find you don’t have enough free time to schedule all your tasks in, you will either need to prioritize across the activities you have in your life currently (see previous step 2b.) or prioritize across the tasks you have listed for your goal (see step 1). Do it until you are able to fit everything within your time schedule.

3. Ensure Congruency With Your Strategy

As a check, the plan you develop should be congruent with your strategy. Your strategy is your blueprint, so your plan should be fully based on that blueprint and not deviate from it. In any scenario you find incongruency in your plan vs your strategy, you need to (1) revisit your strategy to examine if you missed something during that step or (2) revise your plan to fit your strategy if your strategy is indeed robust.

For example, let’s say you want to reduce 10% of body fat. Your main strategy is to do high intensity interval training (HIIT). HIIT involves doing bursts of intense exercise that is followed by lower intensity exercises; It has been proven to be effective in reducing fat compared to other methods. However, when you are doing your planning, you fill up your exercise schedule with aerobic lessons and resistance training, which are not HIIT exercises. To stay true to your strategy, you should identify exercises that allow you to perform HIIT, such as treadmill, running and elliptical trainers.

Let’s look at another example. Say you want to increase your salary in your current job, and in your strategy you listed the three biggest pillars of success as (1) Perform well in Project A, a huge project you just got assigned with (2) Finish Project B, which is less important than Project A (3) Ensure the day-to-day tasks are in order.

The time that you allocate across pillars (1), (2) and (3) should be in accordance with the importance you gave them; For example, at a ratio of 60:30:10. Since Project A is the most important factor that leads to your goal, it justifies having the bulk of your time (60%) should be spent on it. If you find that you are allocation 90% of your time on (3) day-to-day activities and only 10% on (1) and (2), clearly there is something amiss. In this case you will need to reevaluate the timing allocation.

With the right planning, your execution will become an easier task. In the next article, we will be discussing Execution.

This is part 5 of a 7-part series on what it takes to successfully achieve goals.

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