I love nothing better than a good plan. The research, the lists, the color coded tabs and worksheets – they all make my heart happy. In fact, some of the people in my life might tell you I love planning a little too much…

You may not share my affinity for planning. However, you probably know that having a good strategy is crucial for success. Whether you’re talking about throwing a great birthday party for your spouse or kids, taking a once-in-a-lifetime vacation, or taking on a career-changing project at work, we all need to rely on a good plan from time to time.

That being said, sometimes planning can feel daunting, especially when you’re starting out. You’re staring a blank piece of paper, an empty whiteboard, or the opening screen on your project management software. Now you’re wondering…what now?

There are a few straightforward (which is NOT always the same as easy) steps to getting a great plan up and running.

Get Clear on What You Really Want

To get started on your plan the first thing your need is to be clear about what you really want to accomplish. Sounds easy enough, right?

You’d be surprised, however, how often our plans fall short from the very beginning because we don’t spend enough time on this step, or we skip it altogether. Instead, we settle for fuzzy notions about what we want to accomplish. Words like “better” and “more” can be indicators that you’ve fallen into this trap:

“I want to be a better communicator.”

“We need a better process for following up on leads.”

“I’d like more freedom in my job.”

It’s crucial in this step to be specific. What’s the most important outcome you’re trying to achieve? What other benefits might be realized if the plan is accomplished?If you find yourself struggling, try writing down what you want to get done in a single, short sentence.

“I want to be able to give my team consistent, effective feedback.”

“We need a process that will ensure we follow up on all leads in 48 hours.”

“I’d like a job that allows me to work from home once a week.”

Be Honest About the Trade Offs

Almost everything we do in life has a cost, whether it’s time, money, or the loss of some other option that might be out there. Getting serious about getting in shape means we give up some time and perhaps a few of our more indulgent favorite foods. Becoming more effective at delegating requires that we take the time to do it well and also that we get comfortable with letting go. Starting a new career may mean taking a step backward in pay for a short time.

Once you’ve clarified what you want, it’s helpful to try to identify as many of these trade offs as you can at the outset. Doing so allows you to further define what matters most to you about your plan and reinforces how important it really is to you. In fact, when faced with the trade offs, you might find that what you’ve been planning just isn’t worth it or needs to be saved for a later time.

Break It Down

Plans come in all shapes and sizes. Some are quick to complete and others seem to stretch on forever. When you find yourself making a plan that takes a while to implement, it’s critical that you break it down into smaller pieces.

I’ll be honest – this is advice I had heard for years, but rarely took the time to actually do. But, it makes all the difference in your ability to stay motivated as you move through your longer-term plans. Otherwise you’ll find yourself slogging away day after day with no real way to mark your progress and no sense that you’re moving forward.

What if you don’t know all the steps at the beginning? Give it your best guess. Plans aren’t set in stone – they are supposed to flex and move as you begin to implement them. So dive in, sketch out what you think the steps are. You can always adjust them later when you know more.

Schedule It

Once you know what you want, what it will take to get there, and the steps along the way, it’s time to take action. Unfortunately, this is where many of us hit a wall. We create a plan, and then put it away intending to get to it “someday” or “when we have time”.

If you don’t put the action steps for your plan on your schedule, to-do list, or calendar, they’ll likely be forgotten before you know it. So go ahead, schedule the first couple of action items in your plan. Decide how long they will take and exactly when you’ll do them. Then, get moving.

Not everyone loves to plan the way I do, but if you’re serious about getting different results for yourself in your life or career, you will need to rely on a few basic planning skills. Next time you feel the need to map out the road ahead of you, give these steps a try and see what happens.