How to Create a Good Action Plan
Advice on how to write a good action plan, including examples of well written and poorly written actions, and ideas on how to come up with actions.
February 09, 2020
Creating a plan

What is an Action Plan

An Action Plan is a series of tactical steps (“actions”) that you take to achieve your goal. A good action plan is like a good recipe - it gives you all the information you need, in one place, organized in a step by step manner, to achieve the outcome you want. A poor action plan is like a poor recipe - a lot of guesswork, filling in the blanks, and a low likelihood of success.

Not only will a good action plan give you your recipe, by having the action plan you will decrease the stress, anxiety, and mental load associated with your goal. Your goal will seem much more manageable and achievable, and you won’t have to keep everything in your head.

Furthermore, a good action plan will help you keep your motivation and energy levels up. As you complete your actions in your plan, you will get a sense of progress and accomplishment that will help keep you going.

What is an action

An action is, in the abstract, something you’re going to do move closer to achieve your goal. A good action is well defined and close ended, right sized, and time bound.

Well Defined and Close Ended

Actions should be achievable, and what makes an action done should be self-evident. Remember, actions are discrete steps you take to achieve your goal. If your action is too vague, it likely needs to be broken down into component actions.

Additionally, actions should inspire you to act. They should not leave you wondering where to start. So if your action is “update your resume” and you have no idea how to do that, you need to break that action down into sub components (e.g., “search for examples of 10 good resumes”, “analyze what makes them strong”, “edit one section of resume per week”, “find someone to review resume”).

Right Sized

A “right sized” action is an action that is not too small but not too large. If an Action takes less time to do than it does to create the action, it’s too small. If an action takes tens of hours then it’s probably too large.

Much of this comes down to personal preference - some people like have lots of bite-sized steps, and other people like having fewer meatier things.

Our recommendation is that you should be completing on average two actions per week, otherwise, it’s easy to lose momentum. Humans like progress and if you’re not making progress frequently and on a regular basis it’s much harder to stay on track. This means that each action should take you two to three days, and so depending on how much time you have per day to work on your goal, you can size your action accordingly.

You can also use Action Tasks to break up a big action into smaller tasks, so checking those off gives you a sense of progress and momentum. This can be useful when you have lots of small tasks that don’t each need their own action but all fit under the same umbrella.

Time Bound

Actions should have due dates. Due dates are a forcing function and commitment device that you can enlist to keep you on track. Additionally, by setting a due date, you’ll trigger the Nodabl reminders as your due dates approach. Without due dates, Nodabl won’t send you reminders since it won’t know when your action is supposed to be done.

Examples

Scenario: You live in Dallas, Texas, and you want to get a new job in New York City in digital marketing.

Well written actions:

Action: “Update my resume”
Description: Add recent experience and tailor it for digital marketing.
Due Date: Feb 16, 2020

Action: “Update my LinkedIn”
Description: Tailor for digital marketing
Action Tasks: Edit skills to highlight digital marketing expertise, Request recommendations focusing on digital marketing projects, Update experience to highlight digital marketing
Due Date: Feb 16, 2020

Poorly written actions:

Action: Prepare for job search

This action is neither well defined nor close ended. What are you actually going to do here? Update your resume? Look at job listings? Buy clothes for interviews? It’s so vague that it’s not really providing direction. This should be much better defined, and probably broken up into several actions.

Action: Move to New York”

This action is well defined and close ended, but not right sized. There are many things that need to happen to move to New York, so this should likely be its own goal and have its own action plan, with actions like: “Identify neighborhoods to live in”, “Hire an apartment broker”, “Hire movers” etc.

Rewriting actions to improve them:

Scenario: You want to learn how to speak Spanish

Action: “Look for a Spanish class”

This action is fine, but it can be improved.
Strengths: It’s a discrete step and it’ll get you closer to your goal.
Weaknesses: how do you know it’s done? Is doing one google search for “Spanish class near me” sufficient? It’s not as close ended as it could be.

Improved: “Identify a Spanish class that I can take”

This is a slight rewording - you need to still look for the class. The subtle difference is that this is only done when you find a class that works for you, so by assigning yourself this action you’re more likely to get to the outcome you desire.

In other words, if you are writing input oriented Actions (“Look for…”, “Research…”, “Find…”) marry them with the desired output (“...three candidates”, “two viable options”) so outcome is specified.

An alternative path would be to create an action “Sign up for a Spanish class” and use Action Tasks to break it down:

  • Research options and identify three to five classes that meet my schedule, geography, and budget

  • Look at reviews for each class to identify the best one

  • Sign up for that class

How to come up with actions

If you’re struggling to come up with actions to do to achieve your goal, try and diagnose the underlying question:

Is it that you can’t identify any actions to do? Or do you know what actions to do, but you don’t know how to do them? Or do you have so many options for actions but you don’t know which ones you should do?

Once you know what question you need to answer, then create actions to find those answers. Some ideas:

  • Meet with mentors, managers, advisers, teachers, and/or friends to get their advice on actions. Example Action: “Meet with [manager] to get input on action plan”

  • Do Google searches - there is a world of content out there that can help you get going. Example Action “Identify 1-3 online tutorials to learn [x]”

  • Look at Nodabl’s Action Plan Templates. We provide preset action plans for specific goals. You may find one that fits your goal perfectly, or, they may act as inspiration for you to create your own. You can also contact us and ask for our help.

If your biggest challenge isn’t directly the actions themselves, but something else (i.e., time, budget, other resources), then create actions to remove those blockers. Some ideas:

  • Re-organize schedule to block off 1 hour to do X

  • Ask [colleague] to cover for me to free up time to do Y

  • Talk to [manager] about approval to expense [class/training/book]

Or, you may need to create a separate goal that unlocks your current goal:

Goal: Save $1,000 to be able to do [x]
Actions:

  • Catalogue my expenses for past month

  • Make a weekly budget that trims $200 in expense

  • Develop system to track expenses on ongoing basis

  • Track week 1 spend against budget

  • Track week 2 spend against budget

  • Track week 3 spend against budget

  • Track week 4 spend against budget

  • Track week 5 spend against budget

Your Action Plan should work for you

Your Action Plan should be set up to make you successful. Different people have different working styles, organizational preferences, and different motivators. Some people like really detailed micro step by micro step plans that let them cross things off multiple times per day. Other people are fine with broad actions that act more as reminders than a detailed roadmap.

You know yourself better than we do, so design your Action Plan in the way that best fits you. However, be honest with yourself - don’t take shortcuts using your work style as an excuse.

Additionally, your Action Plan is a living document. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good - it’s better to start with something than to let the lack of a perfect plan stop you from making any progress at all. You don’t need to get up an entire end to end plan on Day 1 if you don’t have the time or if you don’t know. Set up the first few actions, create an action to set up the next few actions so you don’t lose track of it, and then get to work!

If you need to edit actions, re-prioritize actions, delete actions, change deadlines, you should feel free. Circumstances change, you learn as you go, and you can’t always perfectly forecast the future. Do what makes the most sense for achieving your goal - your goal isn’t to execute your original plan.

Summary

  1. An action plan is a series of tactical steps (“actions”) that you take to achieve your goal. A good one will give you step by step instructions to achieving your goal.

  2. An action is something you’re going to do move closer to achieve your goal. A good action is well defined and close ended, right sized, and time bound.

  3. If you're struggling to come up with ideas for actions, ask for help, do research on the Internet, or look at Nodabl's Action Plan Templates.

  4. Your action plan and your actions should be designed to fit your work style, organizational preferences, and your motivators.

Get started by adding an action in Nodabl, viewing our Action Plan Templates, or, if you need help, don't hesitate to contact us.

Written by
Vikas Gupta
Vikas is the founder of Nodabl. He started his career in management consulting at McKinsey & Company. When he left and joined the operating world, he was shocked at the difference in the way he experienced development and growth at McKinsey versus industry. This difference became even more apparent when he started managing a team for the first time. He was challenged with both developing himself as a leader and fostering growth in his team. Since then he's been thinking about how to improve the growth experience and enabling every person to be their professional best.
Vikas Gupta headshot

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