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. I was a little shocked by what I saw. “Do you have a copy of your goals with you?” I asked. Jim froze and shot me a deer-in-the-headlights look. “Pull over,” I said. “I’m driving.” Back on the interstate, I told Jim to write down everything he wanted to accomplish for the year, from career and financial goals to travel, health, and relationships. He listed the categories and wrote things like, “Hit my bonus target,” “Pay off personal debt,” and “Visit my parents in Chicago.” Then I told him to list the action steps they required. Finally, I asked him to set deadlines.
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.)
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.
Take your eyes off the prize
Let’s say you want to land the big Acme account. Sure, it’s fun and inspirational to visualize the handshake in Technicolor detail—whooping it up at the signing, pumping up the team, adding it to your portfolio, and watching things snowball. But the lion’s share of your focus must shift to what it takes to accomplish the goal. That calls for an action plan. Ask yourself, what’s the smallest step I can take right now toward my goal? Then ask, what’s the next smallest step? Then look for the one after that. Keep going till you’ve written down every step you can imagine.
Now weave the steps through your schedule and to-do list, and start crossing them off. Take five minutes each morning and fifteen minutes at week’s end to review progress and priorities—with market conditions in flux, a goal that seemed essential six weeks ago might be meaningless today. If you think of other steps, update your action plan, schedule, and to-do list accordingly. Then dig in again, and keep shoveling until you hit pay dirt.