Want to take action and move forward? Want to bring an idea to life or realize a dream? Here are some tips to help you create your action plan and achieve your goals.
What Does It Mean to Take Action? (A Definition)
Taking action is defined as doing something in order to get a particular result. This involves becoming active, presumably from a state of inaction. James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, reminds us that taking action should be differentiated from ‘being in motion’. Any of us can spin our wheels and ‘do things’ that don’t actually get us anywhere, much less get us where we want to go. That’s why to take action effectively, we should keep in mind some key goal-setting, planning, and motivation tips. Read on to learn more.
Taking Action Versus Being in Motion
I’ve spent a huge part of my career working with wellness startups, helping them to not only increase their impact in the world but to build a strong enough business that they are able to do so for a long time. These are passionate entrepreneurs who are not afraid of hard work. They are constantly doing things, sometimes to the point of burnout. But what I see many of them struggle with is doing the right things—the things that will actually lead them to where they want to go.
And that’s the sneaky thing about taking action. We feel satisfied by taking any action, but we’d save ourselves a ton of time and headaches by first asking ourselves, What are the right actions to achieve the result we’re after?
This is why we’re better off taking the time to create a map or plan. By relying on well-understood goal-setting strategies, we can finally build habits and take action effectively.
Steps for Taking Action
If you’ve got a dream you’re hoping to bring to life or an idea that you want to manifest, this is exactly what you need. We’ll walk you through it step by step. If some of the steps don’t feel like a good fit for you, that’s okay. Just use what is helpful and leave the rest.
1. Before You Take Action, Set Smart Goals
SMART goals are Specific, Meaningful, Achievable, Realistic, and Trackable. The acronym SMART can help us to remember these features of good goal-setting. If our goal is not SMART, it may be harder to take action. For example, if it’s not specific enough, we might not really know where to start. Or, if the goal is not meaningful enough, then we might not be motivated to do it.
Before taking action, ask yourself these questions about your goal or the desired result you’re hoping to achieve.
- What exactly is your goal? See if you can clearly articulate exactly what you hope to accomplish.
- Why are you pursuing this goal? Why does it matter to you? What will achieving this goal do for you?
- Who is involved in this goal? Are there any people who might stop you from achieving the goal? How will you get buy-in from these people?
- How will you achieve this goal? What are the actions that you’ll need to take to reach the goal? Do you have the skills to take these actions? How will you do what you need to do?
- When will you pursue this goal? Do you have the time to work on the goal? What specific times will you work on it? Day, evening, weekends?
When asking yourself these questions, you may discover some hiccups that can prevent you from moving forward effectively. This is a good time to revise the goal to make sure that it is indeed accomplishable. For example, maybe you are hoping to lose 10 lbs by going to the gym every day, but then you realize that you don’t have the time to achieve this goal in this way. So instead, maybe you decide to cut your calories and only go to the gym on the weekends. By taking the time to think through how you’ll take action, you’re likely to end up with a better plan and therefore a better result.
2. Write Down Your Action Steps
Once you’re clear on your goal, write down the steps you plan to take. The more detail you can include, the better. By writing down exactly what we plan to do, it may become clearer if there are any holes in your plan.
Let me give you an example. When I first started building this website, I had a little map that reminded me of my goals. My plan was to write articles to bring in more visitors and make more programs to sell. But because I didn’t write down clear action steps, I didn’t really know what I planned to do, and as a result, I didn’t take effective action (or really any action at all).
Instead, I flailed. Why wasn’t I able to manifest my dreams?! I would ask myself. The truth was, I hadn’t really thought through the action steps that were required.
When I finally decided to take action (and often it is truly just about us deciding to take action), I wrote down the exact steps I would need to take to get the result I was after. I discovered that I needed to write articles every week on specific topics. So now have a list of the exact topics I plan to write about each week. I just pop into my spreadsheet and have no hurdles standing in my way. This is why writing down your action steps can be so helpful.
3. Schedule Your Action Steps
Once you know your goal and your action steps, schedule them in your calendar. Be sure to block out enough time for each step, and ideally, leave some extra time for when things go awry. If you feel like you still need more time to plan or clarify your goals, schedule that time separately. The time you set aside for taking action should be used on just that: action.
To be honest, I much prefer innovation and planning to taking action on my goals. It feels fun to dream and think about the possibilities. I doubt that I’m alone in this preference. If you’re like me, it may be helpful to schedule some time for “dreaming”. That way, you’ll ensure you still get done whatever you need to get done.
Another tip for overcoming this challenge is by hiring help (if you can) to take action on certain things. Sometimes when people think of taking action, they think that means they have to be doing all the work. If hiring someone to do something you’re not so good at helps you get done what needs to get done, then that can also be an effective strategy.
This is true for workplace goals, but also other goals. For example, if you want to work out but you have to clean the house, you could hire someone to clean the house and free up time to take action to achieve the goals you set for yourself.
4. Commit to Your Action Steps
If you have a doable plan with clear action steps, then it’s time to commit to them. By making a commitment—either a written or verbal commitment will do—we create more accountability. Just the sense of having agreed to do something—to ourselves or others— helps us stick to doing it.
One idea to do this can be to write up a little contract with yourself. Write out a statement of the efforts you agree to complete, and then sign it. Hang it on your wall in a place where you’ll see it and be reminded that you have committed to take specific actions. Another idea can be to create a vision board, something that shows you visually what the results might look like if you commit to taking the actions you have decided on.
5. Link Problem Scenarios to Goal-Directed Actions
When we’ve gotten started and we’re taking actions to bring to life a dream or goal, we can sometimes get stuck when we encounter challenges. This is why it can be helpful to create something called implementation intentions (Gollwitzer, 1999). Implementation intentions can help you overcome blockers that might prevent you from taking action or reaching goals. They are simply: IF problem situation X happens, THEN I will do Y.
I have an example from this week. My well-being quiz on this website broke this week (as it does a few times per year) and fixing it took up time I had set aside to write. So I started this week behind (arg!). But it’s okay because I have an implementation intention to make sure I complete my writing each week.
Specifically, it is: IF “I am unable to complete my articles during the week”, THEN “I will finish up on Saturday morning.” I have a few hours blocked out on my calendar on Saturday morning for just this situation, but I don’t always have to use that time. And if I still don’t complete my writing? Well, then I rely on the next step below.
6. Take Action in Ways That Feel Right to You
Unlike some other goal-setting tools, content, or programs, our focus is on well-being. So we believe that if taking action towards your goals means that you feel constantly overwhelmed or burned out, then it is not a truly effective or sustainable approach. Taking action on your goals should push you out of your comfort zone a bit, but that slight discomfort should ebb and flow as you build skills and gain confidence in your ability to complete small steps that bring your closer to your desired outcome.
To help you ‘avoid the overwhelm’ that can sometimes come from setting important or ambitious goals, here are some tips:
1. Set an ‘action step completion’ goal.
Rather than making sure you complete all your action steps 100% of the time—and punishing yourself or feeling guilty when you don’t—it can be better to first set reasonable goals. Then, set a goal to reach your other goals some percentage of the time. I like to complete my action steps 80% of the time.
If we don’t quite finish all of the time, that’s okay. We’re only human.
2. Give yourself a ‘get out of jail free card’.
Sometimes you’ve planned to do something and you just can’t get yourself to do it. It can actually be helpful to let yourself off the hook every now and then. If we have a specific allowance for ourselves to take breaks, then hopefully we won’t be so hard on ourselves when we need to take breaks.
3. Re-evaluate action steps as needed.
Sometimes we set action steps that are too easy, too hard, or need to change to be effective moving forward. Remember, it’s okay to change your plan.
For example, I currently have ambitious writing goals that I’m not sure if I can complete. And knowing myself, I’ll get down on myself if I don’t succeed in meeting these goals most of the time. So, I might actually scale them back a bit. That way, I’ll feel better about myself and my ability to meet my goals. And for me, that is really important for motivation.
What about you? What helps you reach your goals? Be sure to choose action steps that fit your unique needs.
- Focus on the Actions Rather Than the Effects of Actions
Although we do need to be careful that our actions are the right ones—the ones that actually get us to whatever results we desire—we also need to be careful not to overly focus on the end goal. It is the process, not the product that matters the most. If our action steps take us three months, or a year, or 10 years, then we will spend a significant amount of time—a significant amount of our lives—taking these action steps. So they better be something we enjoy and believe in.
For example, if our goal is to make a million dollars and we spend the next 40 hours per week, 50 weeks per year, for 10 years doing something we hate, then that is going to be pretty hard. Plus, that million dollars can’t buy back all the time we spent.
I’m currently struggling with a similar dilemma. I’ve put on some weight, I want to lose that weight, but I don’t want to spend any more of my life counting calories (Been there. Done that.) So I’m trying to find a way to do things I enjoy to reach my goal—things like gardening, learning new healthy recipes, and going for more walks. Will it work? Maybe. Or maybe I’ll have to revisit my action steps in a few months. But again, it’s okay to revise a plan if something isn’t quite working for you. That’s to be expected.
- Create Support Structures for Your Action Steps
Are there some days when completing your action steps is way easier? Are there some situations that seem to make your action steps harder? You’re not alone.
None of us live in isolation. There are all sorts of things going on around us that can help or hinder us from effectively moving towards our goals. Ask yourself these questions to explore where you may have opportunities to improve the support structures around your goals.
Are there people who make it difficult to complete your action steps? How might you manage these relationships in ways that better support your goals?
Are there situations that make it hard to take action? What might you do to change or shift this situation in ways that better support your goals?
Are there characteristics about you that make it hard to take action? What might you do to better support yourself?
How others may affect our ability to take action
The people in our lives can indeed make it more difficult to take action on our goals. Maybe our boss keeps us at work late preventing us from working on our side-hustle. Or maybe our kids are home sick from school preventing us from getting to the gym.
In addition to the practical barriers, there may be less obvious ways that other people block us from taking action. For example, perhaps our mother’s regular criticism makes it hard to believe in our ability to accomplish anything. Or perhaps our friends all like to go out for pizza, and in order to see them, we have to go too.
Thinking through creative solutions around these potential ‘human roadblocks’ is not easy. But sometimes, just recognizing that these people have indeed been blockers to our success can be enough to help us move past them.
How situations may affect our ability to take action
Other situations can also present obstacles to our success. Lack of financial resources is probably the most common challenge for achieving a variety of goals, but lack of social resources (knowing the right person to get the right job) is a more common barrier than we might realize. Luckily, we can affect our life situation, at least in small ways, a little bit at a time.
Most people don’t know this about me, but 10 years ago I was working a minimum wage retail job. I had few financial resources and few social resources. Bit by bit, year after year, I started shifting my situation. I volunteered to gain some skills, met some people who helped me, made a bit more money, and kept leveraging these resources to put myself in ever-so-slightly better situations. This was way before I knew anything about action steps. But really, I used many of the processes I’ve been talking about here—taking one step at a time in the direction I wanted to go.
How we may affect our ability to take action
Although we may think that people and situations represent the biggest roadblocks to our success, I’d argue that our biggest roadblock is ourselves. The damage that can be done by a lack of self-love or a failure-oriented mindset is not to be underestimated.
If we’ve struggled in the past to bring our dreams to life, we can be quite cynical and dead-set on taking the most difficult path forward. We may also have beliefs that stop us in our tracks. For example, if you believe that it’s only through hard work that success is achieved, then you’ve basically just destined yourself to that path. You may not be able to see alternative, easier paths because you simply don’t believe they exist. This is why exploring your beliefs, attitudes, and mindsets is crucial for taking effective action towards any outcome.
Activity: What Action Do You Want to Take?
Based on the information above, here’s a tool that may help you take action. Get started by 1.) setting a clear goal, 2.) committing to your goal in writing, and 3.) creating implementation intentions, or a “plan B”, to stay on track with your goals. The tool below will aid you with this process while simultaneously helping us learn more about goals.
WHAT ACTION DO YOU WANT TO TAKE?
DO YOU COMMIT TO TAKING THIS ACTION?
HOW WILL YOU GET BACK ON TRACK IF YOU GET STUCK?
HOW HELPFUL WAS THIS ARTICLE?
1 – Not at all helpful
2 – A little bit helpful
3 – Pretty helpful
4 – Very helpful
5 – Extremely helpful
Note. Submitting your responses helps us to better understand how people reach their goals. If you want to keep your responses, you’ll have to save to PDF or print this page. Thanks!