Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Drafting a strategic life plan - my head hurts!

I've been dragging my feet on drafting the plan I alluded to in my previous post. I think I've fallen into a common trap -- getting so tangled up in the "how" and the "why" that the "when" slips farther and farther away.

If you're struggling with something like this, do what I (sometimes) do. Find someone else with a good approach and adapt it to your own purpose and your own life.

I appreciate J.D. Roth's approach to planning. Back when he was still struggling with personal debt, J.D. wrote at Get Rich Slowly about developing a spending plan rather than a specific budget. When I first read J.D.'s baseline article on the spending plan, two concepts really resonated with me.

  • Making too detailed and rigid a plan is a recipe for failure. Like J.D., I feel guilty when I make a plan and don't stick with it. I should try to set myself up for success rather than failure.
  • It's important to periodically review and tweak plans because the unexpected has a way of disrupting even the best plans. J.D. says it well in his article on budgeting for non-budgeters that reviewing and tweaking plans is necessary "to compensate for changing circumstances and changing priorities." My own take on it is that most of us live life by trial error whether we realize it or not.

With these concepts in mind, I feel a little freer to put my planning process out there. What we're going to do is write a draft that will almost certainly be modified in future, and may be totally reinvented. We're not writing in stone here.

If you write in stone you've got to carry that rock around with you all the time. It gets heavy. And makes you sore. And cranky.

Baby steps, people, baby steps. The point is to get something - anything - down on paper so you have a point of reference. So, without further ado, I give you my

Beginner's Guide to Writing a Strategic Life Plan
  1. Set aside some time to plan. Choose an uninterrupted block of time and a place free of distractions. That doesn't necessarily mean you need to sit alone in silence. You might want to work at home with music or a podcast in the background. You might want to sit in a coffee shop. It's up to you how you set aside the time to plan.
  2. Gather paper and pencil. Or laptop. Or phone with note-taking app. The point is to have some way to jot down your thoughts. I'm more partial to paper and pencil because it's not as easy to edit. If I can just type over and spellcheck to my heart's content, I never get anything done. That's the reason these dang blog entries keep taking so much time!
  3. At the top of the page write your overarching goal, what you want. Set a broad goal; be general. Don't worry, we'll come back and refine this later. This was hard for me. Maybe it's easier for some people. My first stab at an overarching goal was "to be happy." That's really too general to hang any strategies or tactics on. With much painful thought and facial expressions reminiscent of gastrointestinal distress, I finally managed to refine my overarching goal to be: "to be able to do what I want, to be financially secure and comfortable enough to do what I want to do."
  4. Set aside a separate page and label it "Parking Lot."  The Parking Lot is a place to capture good thoughts and ideas that don't yet have a definite place to live. Keep it handy. We'll be making a list of strategies and tactics to reach the overarching goal. Maybe the strategies and tactics will flow in a straightforward stream. But what if they don't? Have thoughts along the way? Tenuously connected thoughts? Maybe they don't seem to be connected at all but your brain is saying these go together somehow? Park them in the Parking Lot.
  5. Go back to your overarching goal. It's time for more thought, time to decide strategy (or strategies) and tactics to move you closer to your goal. Jot down strategies, and then under those strategies jot down some tactics for implementing the strategies. What's the difference between strategy and tactic? Strategy is the broad action to achieve a goal. Tactics are the smaller, more specific actions to accomplish the strategy. Jot down every idea you have. Remember you can refine your plan later. You may jot down something as a strategy and then realize it's really too specific, it's really a tactic under some larger strategy. That's okay. Just relabel the strategy a tactic (or vice versa) and keep right on brainstorming. If you have some ideas you know fit in there somewhere, but you don't really know how, jot them on the Parking Lot.
  6. Put your notes aside for awhile so you can come back to them with fresh eyes later.
I've done this. I've actually done this. Well, I did Steps 1 through 5, and then I put the whole thing aside because I was mentally exhausted.

And then I decided the putting aside should be Step 6. One of the many things I've learned from my cat: Take something you've already done because it's just what you do, and tell people it's all part of the plan.

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