There’s a lot to be said for improv, but it’s not a great long-term strategy for actually getting shit done. Eventually, flying by the seat of your pants no longer works (and can, in fact, cause some pretty chaotic aftermath). When that happens, you’ll want to start creating some kind of plans for your projects – where you want to be in six months or a year, what you’ll do to get there, etc.
The problem then comes in executing those plans. One of the commonest complaints I hear is that people come up with awesome plans and then, somehow, as if by nefarious Death Eater magic, nothing actually gets done from those awesome plans. They put all of this time and energy and effort into planning, and then, six months later, they’re left scratching their heads as to why none of those plans got done.
In general, there are three different reasons that this happens:
Reason #1: Setting goals that you aren’t excited or motivated about.
This is pretty self-explanatory. For whatever reason, we get it in our heads that we need to do something. Usually, because Expert XYZ tells us to, or because we saw a friend or colleague (who might have an entirely different customer base and business model, mind you) try something with great success. So, without sitting down and really thinking hard about if this is something we want to do, we put it on our “to do list” and then…put off doing it for eternity because we have no motivation.
If this is you: This is a psychological obstacle more than anything else, and there isn’t really a simple one-time solution (oh, those simple one-time solutions! how I wish they existed more often!). You just need to work on developing the habit of asking yourself “Why do I think I need to do this? Is this something I actually want to do or just something I feel like I should do?”
Sometimes, these things are tasks that really do need taken care of. (I don’t know very many people who get all hot and bothered about doing their taxes and financial paperwork, for example.) But if you’re not doing it, delegate or outsource it. My general rule of thumb is that if I put off a task three times (barring incidences of severe illness or other disasters), then I either delete it entirely or I outsource it. Simple yet effective.
Reason #2: You set big goals…but don’t keep track of them.
This is what happens to people during New Year’s. You get all revved up, say “I’m going to do this!”, declare it out loud, and then promptly forget about it. Then you aren’t sure what they need to be doing, when, so you get sidetracked and distracted, and don’t stick to your focused plan of action (if you even created it).
If this is you: One place to start is to find ways to keep your goals in front of you after you set them. Here’s some ideas:
- Large wall calendars or a year outline. These can be as intricate as an actual calendar with post-it notes marking milestones and tasks, or as simple as a large whiteboard that has your focus for the year/months written on it.
- A Big Three poster or whiteboard. The concept of “Big Three” comes from the Accidental Creative by Todd Henry. When he uses the phrase, he’s referring to your three “open loops” – projects that need a breakthrough. The idea is that having these reminders of your Big Three in your workspace will keep them at the top of your mind and prompt you to make new connections and keep them moving forward. I think this is a great idea not just for “open loops” but for reminding yourself of your priorities and goals – you could have something as simple as “This year, I will…” or “In August I will…”. Every day when you start work, you can look at your poster and make sure that what you’re doing is moving you towards those things.
- Changing your computer background. Simple! Just come up with a design-y way to convey your top three business priorities (whether that’s awesome typography or something more along the lines of an inspiration board) and change your computer background to it.
Reason #3: Something is fundamentally broken in your planning process.
There’s three sub-causes here:
Sub-reason #1: Setting unclear goals
This is the still-being-beat-dead-horse of the productivity world, but there’s a reason for that. We know that we’re supposed to make clear, measurable, focused goals and yet we still end up saying things like “I want to make more money than last year!” How much more? 10% more? $10,000 more?
Once you have an actual number to work from, you can start figuring out what different ways can get you there – $10,000 more could be 300 more products sold, or 100 seats of a $97 class sold, or ten of your $1,000 service packages, or it could be any combination of the above, based on your other plans for the year.
And then, once you know the different routes that can get you to your end goal, you can start working on action steps for those routes, based on what’s worked for you before. If you know you want to get ten more $1,000 clients this year, and you know that you usually pick up one new client every time you run a teleclass, then you can make plans to start running free teleclasses every month. If you know you sold 20 products last time you guest posted on Blog X, then guest posting should be a part of your strategy. And so on. (Money is an easy example here, but this holds true for any metric.)
Sub-reason #2: Setting big goals and then not breaking them down
This is a big one. A goal is a great thing to have, but it’s only a starting point when it comes to taking action. (Click to tweet.)
If you know that you want to get a book deal or land that particular client, but you don’t actually break down the action steps required to achieve that end result, then the project is just going to sit there like a lump on a log and stare at you, inducing guilt-trips. You need to have a place to start – and not just a place to start, but a place to go after that, and after that.
Everyone does this sometimes; we mean to break a project down into action steps but we really end up breaking it down into mini-projects. I actually just realized this the other day with my fall promotional schedule – I had on my task list to “Research 3-4 places to guest post & submit posts”, which really should have been broken down into researching places to guest post, deciding 3-4 places to guest post, brainstorming posts, writing posts, editing posts, and submitting posts.
My preferred method to help with this is to make a huge action list all at once, in the beginning stages of the project, and then effectively put on blinders so that I’m only looking at a small piece at a time (to prevent overwhelm). Whether that’s storing the master action list somewhere else or planning it out using a project management tool and then only choosing to look at the tasks for this week, it’s surprisingly effective.
Other resources: The difference between a project and a next action, Action Method II
Sub-reason #3: Setting goals and then taking not focused or not well-thought-out action
When you create a plan to get you towards an end goal, you need to specifically ask yourself why each step in that plan exists. This somewhat ties back in with the motivation piece – we absorb these ideas about what will work and what won’t based on what’s worked for other people, but the problem is that:
- what works for other people won’t necessarily work for us since we’re all special snowflakes
- oftentimes, the people who are telling you something will work have a stake in telling you that (i.e. they’re selling you a solution)
Which is not to say that all people selling a solution are snake oil salesmen or don’t know what they’re talking about, of course. But you have to take that into consideration when you make your plans. A rather extreme example of this might be someone saying “I want to increase my profit by 25% in Q2” (side note: good measurable goal! go you, fictional person!) and then they create a plan that focuses entirely on increasing their Facebook “likes” by 50%.
However, if there’s no reason that increased Facebook fans would actually lead to that corresponding increase in profit – if they don’t already have an engaged Facebook community, if their ideal customers/clients aren’t active on Facebook, if they aren’t already experiencing a high conversion rate from their Facebook fans – then one of two things will happen:
- They’ll recognize subconsciously that this probably won’t work out, and thus feel no motivation to work on it
- They’ll get halfway through their plan and realize that it’s doing jack-all to increase their profits. Then, get frustrated and give up…putting them back at square one. Actually, at square -1, since now they’ve wasted time, effort, and energy on a bad plan.
If this is you: Every time you draw up plans for a project, ask yourself why each step is there. Is it based on your past measurable results, or because someone told you that was the way to go? If you have a team, you can make this part of your team planning process.
(As a side note, there’s nothing wrong with going with your gut. But it’s vital to separate out your gut instincts, vs. plans based on past results, vs. expert advice, and it’s best to do this during the planning process.)
If you consistently struggle with Reason #3 or any of its sub-reasons, check out the Freelancer Planner – it’s designed to solve exactly those problems.
Out of the three reasons – what planning pitfall do you typically fall into? And…what are you going to do differently now that you know what your planning kryptonite is?