Welcome Terri Lynn Main, author

The very talented Terri Main, author of Dark Side of the Moon,
gives us some tips today on dealing with the New Year:

Beyond Resolutions:
How to Prepare an Action Plan for 2012

It’s the first of the year and that brings with it New Year’s Resolutions. We decide we are going to lose wieght, write a novel, learn a language, stop smoking and do a hundred other things we said we were going to do last year. So, why didn’t we do them last year? Because resolving doesn’t work. Planning Does!

It is time you substitute your New Years Resolution with a New Year’s Action Plan. An action plan includes a reasonable goal and a set of steps in achieving that goal.

How Does a Goal Differ from a Resolution?

Resolutions tend to be vague, ill-defined and usually overly ambitious. For instance, I see resolutions like:

 I’m going to write more this year
 I’m going to lose weight
 I’m going to be more careful with my money
 I’m going to improve ____ skill

Immediately, questions jump to mind. How much will you need to write to “write more”? What will you need to do to lose weight? What does being “careful” with money mean? How will you know you have improved a given skill?

Even more specific resolutions often have problems. Consider these:

 I want to write and publish my new novel this year
 I want to lose 40 pounds
 I want my writing business to increase it’s profits by 30%

These resolutions, though specific, are not entirely under my own control. They state an end result and not a specific behavioral change I need to make. While writing my novel is under my control, finding a publisher or agent to represent my novel is not (unless I am considering self-publishing). I cannot predict a specific amount of weight I will lose. Even following a weight-loss program which “on average” produces a certain amount of weight loss per week doesn’t mean MY weight loss will be that high. Differences in metabolism between individuals and even within an individual during a month or year can change the amount of weigh lost. Likewise, my increase in profits are only partly due to my own efforts. I can cut expenses to a certain extent on my own, but I can’t control ongoing costs determined by others such as gasoline, telephone and internet connection. Also, fluctuations in the economy can also affect my profit margin.

Finally, many resolutions are simply unrealistic. Someone without a decent education sets a goal of getting a $200,000 job this year. That is just not going to happen. Now, s/he can take some actions that will eventually lead to that goal, like enrolling in college or a professional training program. Likewise, some goals which are realistic for one person may not be for another. Completing a 250,000 word novel in a year for someone with a regular 9-5 job and few family obligations is somewhat realistic. However, if that person has three children and a job that takes an average of 10 hours a day six days a week, it is less realistic.

So What Makes a Good Action Goal?

A good action goal is specific, realistic, behavioral, and under my control. First, it is specific. That also means measurable. How will you know you have succeeded. Take, for instance, writing a novel. What do you mean by writing a novel. Do you mean finishing the first draft or do you mean having it fully edited and ready to submit to publishers and agents?

Secondly, it is realistic. If your goal is to write, edit and self publish a trilogy of 250,000 word novels this year, you had better be independently wealthy, live alone, and expect to do nothing but work on that project for the entire year. It’s possible, but not likely for most people. A more realistic goal would be to complete first drafts of the novels or complete and publish the first novel in the trilogy.

Third, you need to be able to state the goal in behavioral terms. In other words, it needs to be something you do which can be observed and measured. This is where you need to revise your goal a bit. Unless you know for a fact, that your novel will be 75,000 words when finished. You are better off simply setting a word goal likely to cover the completion of the novel. This will also likely mean you will have to break your goal into smaller chunks like the following:

 I will spend 30 hours researching my novel
 I will write 75.000 words of a rough draft for the novel
 I will edit 75,000 words of the novel for content.
 I will edit 75,000 words of the novel for mechanics
 I will submit the final product to a minimum of three agents or publishers

Each of these goals are stated in easily observable and measurable terms. Of course, some may need to be revised during the year. You might have to work more overtime or the nature of the novel shifts and it will be longer or shorter piece. That’s fine you can revise your goals as you go along.

Finally, the goal needs to be under your control. I know a lot of people who have goals like: I’m going to lose thirty pounds this year, I’m going to meet my future spouse this year or I’m going to get an agent this year. Each of those are hopes more than goals. As mentioned earlier, the rate at which a person loses varies from individual to individual. Finding the love of your life is full of uncertainties. You can do things to improve that situation but you don’t have total control over that goal, unless you are planning on ordering a mail-order bride. And finding a reputable agent is going to depend on a whole host of factors you have no control over.

Does this mean you should forget about losing weight, getting a spouse or finding an agent? No, but it means your ACTION goal should be something you have total control over. For instance:

 I will reduce my calorie intake by 25% this year and spend at least three hours a week at the gym.
 I will join the singles club at church and attend other functions where I would be likely to meet like-minded single people.
 I will submit my work to at least ten agents this year.

Setting Up an Action Plan
It is good to have specific, realistic, behavioral goals, but they are no better than resolutions, if you do not have a plan to carry them out. “Hold on!” you say “Isn’t writing 75,000 words a plan?” No, it is not. How long will that take? When will you do it? What kind of schedule will you have to keep to do that? Will you need to spend any money on that? That is a goal, but it is far from a plan.

Setting a budget. Everything you do costs something. It may cost money. It may cost time. It will probably cost both. The Bible says “Before a Man builds a tower he counts the cost thereof.” You would do that in business. You need to do it in your personal development as well.

First, how much will this cost in terms of time. Something like writing a novel will probably cost little in terms of financial expenditure except maybe paper and ink for the printer. However, it is a major investment in terms of time. Let’s just use it as an example, then you can adapt the process for your other goals. If you are going to write 75,000 words this year, how many hours will that take? Let’s keep this simple and just focus on writing the rough draft which will still need to be edited, proofread and polished.

The first thing to know is how many words per hour you write. I average between 1500 and 2000 at rough draft speed. Some go faster. Some go more slowly. I always low-ball it, though, and say 1500 when I am doing figuring. So, that is 50 hours. But we all know things don’t always go perfectly. The computer crashes. You didn’t recharge your tablet and it is failing. So, to be safe, I add another 50% making that 75 hours. Taking two weeks off for vacation, that is an hour and a half a week. Of course, that doesn’t include your research and polishing the final copy. If your goal is to complete something ready for publication. You would have to add in those times as well. My rule of thumb for myself is to take my rough draft time and triple it. So, that would be four and a half hours a week or roughly an hour a day Monday-Friday.

An hour a day does not sound like much. However, considering you have about 16 waking hours a day, it is six percent of your time. You are probably using that time in some way. That means giving up something. So, the second aspect of budgeting your time is asking what you will give up to accomplish this goal. Right now, there is a rerun of Law and Order on. I like Law and Order, but I’ve decided writing is more important than TV. Look at your schedule and see what you are willing to give up to achieve your goal.

Secondly, you need to figure the financial costs. As I said, for writing, these are usually pretty low. However, if the only way you can get five hours a week to yourself to write is to send hubby to the movies with the kids, that might be something you would have to figure into the budget. Other goals, such as losing weight, are going to require more financial planning. Healthy foods and low-fat products tend to cost more than less healthy options. Then there might be a membership at a gym. And, of course, you want to look cute at the gym, so you have to have nice gym clothes. You might purchase some home exercise equipment. This year, I’m buying a Wii Fit, so that’s about $300 I’ll have to find somewhere.

Sit down and figure out how much your project is going to cost and see how it fits into your budget. Will you have to trim expenditures elsewhere?

Setting up a Schedule

Now, comes one of the harder parts of action planning: setting up a schedule. You may not be able to set a schedule a year in advance. I know teachers who plan out their classes so precisely they can tell you what they will be teaching on the third Tuesday of October 2018. I’m lucky if I know what I’m teaching next Tuesday. 🙂 However, even if you can’t schedule precisely, you can schedule in times to schedule. Let’s say your work changes from week to week. You probably get your schedule on a certain day of the week. Once you have that schedule, you can set up a tentative action plan for the week.

If your schedule is more regular, then take out your datebook at the first of the year and set appointments with yourself. When I was freelancing fulltime, I had certain times blocked out for writing, marketing, researching, resting, etc. It took a lot for me to schedule anything into my writing time. After all, that was my job. As a teacher, I can’t leave my class because my neice wants to go shopping at the Mall. I tell her she will have to wait until I get out of class. (Just a note: While emotionally, it is true that family comes first, in practical matters, it doesn’t ALWAYS come first. Sometimes, you have to say “no” or “wait” to those you love in order to achieve your goals and your family goals as well.)

Taking Stock

Built into your scheduling should be periodic points of evaluation. How well are you doing? How long as it been since your last cigarette? How many words did you write? What’s your daily calorie count? How do you feel about the whole project? What has been working well? What has not worked so well? Do you need to make any changes to the plan? What kind of changes? Why do you need to make them?

Just because your plan isn’t working, doesn’t mean it should be abandoned. If your book turned out to require 150 hours of research instead of the 50 you planned putting you behind schedule, doesn’t mean you have failed. It only means your plan needs to be adjusted. You are not a fortune teller. You can’t predict the future. Plans are always written on paper (or in electrons) not chiseled in stone. Recognizing a plan needs adjustment is not failure, it is a successful recognition of a need for a change.

So, there you have it. That’s how you go about creating an action plan for 2012. It’s a lot more work that dashing off a bunch of resolutions, but it is far more likely to produce results at the end of the year with fewer of those resolutions reappearing on the list.