Work the plan | Linking Goals to Action Steps and Schedules

Jim Pascale was just twenty-seven when we hopped into my car and took off for Iowa. It was our first market outside Minnesota, and I’d just promoted Jim to Iowa regional manager. Speeding out of Minneapolis and down I-35, I asked to see his schedule. Gripping the wheel with one hand, Jim grabbed his planner from the backseat and handed it over.

First create, then integrate

An action plan is just what it sounds like—a list of what must be done to change a goal’s status from “To do” to “Ta-data!” In 1998, I renewed my commitment to deepening my relationship with my parents, who are divorced and live far from my Minneapolis home. My mother, Elizabeth, eighty-nine, lives in southern Indiana, and my father, Bill, eighty-six and now living in an Indiana nursing home, lived for years in southern California. Here’s how I linked that goal—and its action steps—to my mission. (The same drill works for business goals.)

Action plan:

  1. Call Mom three times a week.
  2. Take a weeklong vacation with her wherever she wants to go.
  3. Spend six long weekends at her Indiana home.
  4. Host her in Minneapolis from Christmas to New Year’s Day.
  5. Send cards on her birthday, Mother’s Day, and other holidays.
  6. Financially assist her so she lives a comfortable, active life.
  7. Consistently check in on her feelings and her life, and leave nothing unsaid. Regularly express that I love her and appreciate all the love she’s given me.

Scheduling breeds spontaneity

Productivity gets cranked up by connecting the dots between your mission, goals, action plans, and schedule. You’ll find you’re more relaxed and spontaneous because the parts of your life that really matter are (generally) on track and accounted for. For me, that means I’m free to live fully in the moment. With everything in sync, my mind isn’t cluttered with the debris of a million to-dos: Oh, no! I was supposed to meet George for his one-on-one two hours ago! I forgot to send a birthday card to my brother! That kind of spontaneity I can do without.

Think of action plans as suggestions and reminders. Careful not to pack ’em in too tight. Time was when my days were wound so tightly I made every meeting only if my schedule worked like a Swiss watch and I didn’t hit an ill-timed red light. No matter how much I rushed for the next meeting or the next flight, I was like Wile E. Coyote chasing the Roadrunner. After tiring of the adrenaline rushes that were produced, I finally built some cushion between appointments. That gave me time for a few deep breaths and let me catch up on minor tasks. I still find myself in an occasional tight spot, but now it’s an exception rather than the rule. Bottom line: Schedule your time or it will schedule you.

Last word

Eventually, if you’re discipline-challenged, you’ll feel like a helpless bystander watching your life pass by with nothing to show for it but gray hair and regret. The solution? A middle ground where scheduling is less an obligation than an art. It takes practice to find just the right blend of flexibility and structure. But once you’re in the zone, you’ll sense when you can push off appointments without causing too many ripples.

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