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A simple guide to life planning (Plus, a life plan template)

a woman wearing eyeglasses has charted her way to success through life planning

Creating a life plan and getting everything in order sounds like a great idea, but where do you even start?

How do you develop an action plan that will help you achieve your life goals and get you where you want to be?

We all have goals, dreams, desires, and aspirations. We all have plans, too – that's not the issue. The problem is that most of us aren't consistent and deliberate enough with our approach to see substantial change.

Before you set yourself up for failure, you need to realize that change takes time. You need to take things slowly, improving the areas of your life one at a time. If you try to do too much at once, you'll eventually wear yourself out and quickly give up.

Most 'ultimate guides' to life planning bombard you with tips and information on how to be a perfect human by doing everything right and leading a happy life as a result. Unfortunately, that's not the most efficient way to go about it because perfect situations are rarely encountered in life – shocking, right!?

The thing is, we're all different. And rather than trying to fix everything at once, it makes more sense to take a step back and evaluate your current life situation first. In this step-by-step guide, we'll show you how to bring about positive life changes and prepare for the future by asking the right questions.

By following this guide, you'll wind up with

Table of contents
1) Identify your vision
2) Self-knowledge: the most important part of life planning
3) Set your priorities
4 ) Define your core values
5 ) Make it happen with SMART goals

Four steps to creating a life plan

1) Identify your vision

The first thing you need to incorporate into your plan is your life's vision. It can be a force that drives you forward or a guide that shapes your core values and helps you better understand where you're headed to – and why.

You can think of your vision as the beating heart of your life's plan: the dream that gives meaning to every other goal you set along the way. Don't be scared! This doesn't have to be a grandiose scheme about making the world a better place or bringing more happiness into people's lives. It can be a simple allusion to your own well-being and joy as you perceive them at this very moment.

The more time you spend fleshing out your vision/dream, the easier it will be to set tangible goals and milestones.

Find your life's vision by using our first life planning template:

Click here for your free copy

Template 1 - Vision mapping

  • What are the 3 things you want most in life?
  • What's the first thing you think about when you wake up in the morning?
  • What are 3 words that come to mind when you think of happiness?
  • What would a perfect day look like?
  • Who would you want to share your dream life with?
  • If there's one thing you could be remembered for, what would you want it to be?
  • What 3 things would you do if you only had one day to live?
  • What are 3 things the world needs to change?

Once you've answered these questions, try to underline / circle words that appear more than once in your answers or words that evoke strong emotions. Use these emotionally-charged keywords to come up with a short, deliberate statement about your big dream. Here are some examples.

  • "I want to live a happy life, surrounded by people who love me for who I am."
  • "My legacy is all that matters to me; I want to be someone people respect and remember long after I'm gone."
  • "Life is too short; I want to be free to do things my way, even if it means making some mistakes along the way."
  • "Poverty is my biggest fear; I want to work hard to ensure my loved ones have everything they need."
  • "The world can be ruthless and unforgiving; I want to bring about positive change."

Feel free to play around with this first template as long as you like. Coming up with a short sentence that represents who you are and what you stand for isn't going to be easy – and that's okay. This exercise is less about planning and more about getting you to consciously consider what you want from life.

Why do I need to have a vision in the first place?

Building a life or a career is a lot like building a house. Everything is so much easier when you 1) are working with a strong foundation, 2) know what you want things to look like, and 3) can see the bigger picture.

Jumping blindly into a new life and expecting to succeed is like picking up a 50,000-piece puzzle and trying to solve it without knowing what picture you're trying to assemble.

It's so easy to lose track of what's important when you spend valuable time thinking – and overthinking – every single problem life throws at you. The harsh reality is that humans love creating problems, and they love returning to negative thoughts when they have the chance to ruminate.

Some problems are more important than others, but our brains don't work that way. We're terrible at prioritizing, and more often than not, we expend too much energy going over the small things again and again.

Why do we sabotage ourselves like that? Well, think of it as a coping mechanism. Addressing the big problems requires maturity, honesty, and a tremendous amount of self-knowledge.

But by establishing a vision (even if it's not 100% clear), it almost feels like you're living life on easy mode. Even if things don't go your way, having something to aim for will help you get back up quickly when things are challenging, giving you the strength and motivation you need to keep trying.

2) Self-knowledge: the most important part of life planning

Now that you've started giving shape to your vision, you need a way to bring it into focus. You do that by gaining some self-awareness.

What exactly does it mean to know yourself, and how will it benefit your life planning? Well, getting a better sense of your authentic self will allow you to make better decisions about everything that comes next.

Embracing yourself for who you are is one of life's most daunting – yet undeniably rewarding - challenges. But by getting a better understanding of how you think, work and collaborate beforehand, it'll make the goals in your life planning much more achievable and appropriate for you.

The only way to do this is by being honest with yourself. If you can identify the way you best do things, you'll find it easier to focus your energy on the things that truly matter.

You can discover more about your motivations, strengths and weaknesses by taking our science-backed self-assessment test. Using that as your guide, note down your five most significant motivations and blind spots.

Take a little time to understand how these work for you. Then, it's time to set your priorities.

3) Set your priorities

In a perfect world, everyone would live perfectly balanced lives. They'd be devoted partners, parents or children while also thriving in their professional or school lives. Striking that perfect balance isn't impossible, but you need to remember that you only have a limited amount of time, energy, and resources available to you each day.

So before you begin laying out your road map, you need to set your priorities straight. If your vision is centered around maintaining your health and caring for your family members, it won't make much sense to start working on your 15-year business plan first.

If anything, thinking about your priorities helps you set boundaries and define action steps. If your goal is to spend more time with the people you love, you won't take on a demanding job that involves long and frequent trips around the globe. On the other hand, if your goal is to create a billion-dollar enterprise, you'll have to be prepared to sacrifice some of that valuable family time in favor of your business.

You're the only one who knows what's most important to you.

If you find that your current direction doesn't align with your vision, it's time to take a step back. How does this disconnect affect your life, and what can you do to balance things out? Take a few hours off to think about your top priorities and continue to the next section when you feel ready.

Exercise 1 - Prioritizing

The main life planning template below gives you the space to actually write down your goals in a sequential order that you can take action on.

But first, before you do that, this simple exercise helps you do the thinking first so the final step is easier.

Write down all the things you want to do without trying to put them in order or figure out how you're going to do them. Then, next to each goal, put a number between 1 and 10, with 1 being less important and 10 being the most important.

Then rearrange them with the 10s at the top and the 1s at the bottom. From here, you can decide what needs to be given attention first.

Some things will be more urgent and time-bound, while others might need more effort put in over the long-term. But this part is crucial because you simply can't do everything at once.

(Need more guidance on ordering your goals? Check out our guide to prioritizing.)

4 ) Define your core values

You should now have a much better idea of what you want to do with your life. There's one last step before the final plan: identifying the values that you've uncovered during your life planning.

Yep, this one's a bit self-referential, but it's a process of self-discovery as much as it's a planning exercise.

Here's why it's important: your vision outlines where you want to go, and your self-assessment and prioritizing showed you how you're best going to get there.

Values define why you want to follow your life plan.

If you spend enough time thinking about your priorities, you'll soon discover that the life you want may differ significantly from the life you're currently leading. The greater the difference, the more effort you'll have to put in to get the plan for your life right.

The good news is that as you spend more time imagining this new life, you're also shaping a new self. This new you is defined by your personal integrity and core values – even if they're not yet fully realized. The exercises we've worked on so far are designed to help you think about this ideal new self as you discover your life's purpose and the values that fuel it.

For example, you might now realize that you value health and family more than you value financial prosperity. If you convinced yourself in the past that taking on more work would help you do more for your family, chances are you're now reevaluating that line of thought. Maybe you're thinking "my children already have everything they need; I wish I could spend more time with them."

Immediately, that potential promotion doesn't seem like such a great idea anymore. Sure, it would help you advance your career and boost your self-esteem, but it would also mean spending fewer hours with your children. By identifying your values, you're seeing life through a new, clearer prism that'll help you make much better decisions.

Exercise 2 - Defining core values

Most exercises for identifying core values ask you to choose from a list of attributes to narrow down the ones that really matter to you. This 3-step process from Adriana Girdler is an easy one to follow (here's her core value list). Importantly, Adriana notes that your core values are ones that 'hold strong no matter what, especially in times of stress or temptation.'

5 ) Make it happen with SMART goals

Now that you have a better idea of your vision, priorities, and core values, it's time to finally let the goal-setting process begin. You have all the tools you need to realize your vision, and now it's all a matter of creating dynamic to-do lists that adhere to set timeframes.

As you've probably already guessed, you can't plan every single goal toward your dream. The trick is to remain as focused as possible, concentrating on as few goals as possible at any one time.

One way to do that is by using SMART goals. SMART goals are goals that's are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. They're based on research conducted in the 1960s by psychologist Edwin Locke, who found that clearly defined goals were closely linked to increased performance and productivity.

What are some examples of SMART goals in life planning?

It starts by setting a specific long-term goal. For example, if your idea of happiness means being free and answering to no one, your 10-year goal might be to have a successful business in which you earn more than your current job.

If you dream of living a long and happy life surrounded by people you love, your 10-year goal might involve getting in shape and finding a compatible partner.

Using your 10-year goal as a starting point, try to come up with a 5-year goal. As your deadlines get tighter, your goals should be a lot more focused. Here's a 5-year goal inspired by our first 10-year goal example:

  • "Five years from now, I will have established my business in the industry. Ideally, I want to be making at least triple what I am now."

We can then take that goal and make it even more specific by tightening the timeframe even more. Here's a 1-year goal example:

  • "By this time next year, I will have already been running my business for a few months. If I'm making at least $50,000 annual equivalent, and I've got 6 months' expenses saved up, I'll quit my day job."

And a 1-month goal:

  • "By this time next month, I'll have conducted enough market research to know whether there's a place for my business in the industry. I'll have an outline of my business plan, and I'll also start the process of registering and setting up the paperwork."

Weekly smart goals are also a good idea, and you should consider adding a few when creating your own plan. Effectively, this means you'll have to change things up every now and then – and that's good!

You want your vision and long-term goals to stay the same (you'll have to come up with a new plan if these change), but you need to revisit your short-term smart goals every couple of days or so.

Template 2: Downloadable Monthly Life Plan Template

Instructions: download the image below and fill in the top sections. These are the long-term values and goals you'll be reminded of each time you look at the template.

Save a copy of the template with only these parts filled in. Then, you can print duplicates of this sheet every month.

Then, each month when you fill out the template, you'll write a new set of monthly tasks for yourself which will serve to help you achieve those goals.

Click here for your free copy (download for an editable version)

Learning to create life plans that implement a top-down approach to goal setting will completely change the way you think about life. Most people spend their lives struggling to find purpose with no real big vision to guide them. They're stuck with ineffective bottom-up approaches that help them occasionally tick things off a checklist, but don't really get them anywhere.

At a first glance, there's really nothing special about the way this monthly life planning template is laid out. But if you've already taken the time to work on the previous parts, you'll know more about yourself, and you'll have a better chance of coming up with a vision that's true and honest to you. Once you lay the groundwork, setting smart goals becomes so much easier.

Your short-term goals will change, but you'll always have your dream to work toward. Return to the template every week, and edit your weekly goals accordingly. Even better, print it out and make a habit of consciously filling in all the blanks every single time. Reminding yourself of your big dream and long-term goals will give you the strength you need to keep moving on.

And yes, just thinking about stuff won't cut it. Neuroscience proves that you have to write down your goals if you actually want to achieve them.

How do I stick to my life plan?

Now that you have a plan, you need to make sure you stick to it. Here are some tips to help you keep the flame burning as you work toward those big dreams:

  • Simplify whenever you can. Don't be afraid to break your weekly SMART goals into more manageable chunks if they seem overwhelming. Daily SMART goals work for some people; others find them too restricting.
  • Respect your timeframes. If you set a weekly goal, you have to make sure you have the resources to see it through. You won't get too much done if you're too lenient with yourself and keep pushing deadlines, fear of failure will slowly kick in. Set easier tasks if you have to, but make sure that you're seeing them through.
  • Make yourself accountable. Don't be one of those people who say they'll start working on their life plan/ health / diet / relationships come Monday. Motivation is a tough nut to crack, but you shouldn't cut yourself too much slack. If you can't afford a life coach, share your goals with someone close to you, and invite them to keep pushing you gently but firmly.
  • Make a habit of it. You can complete the above vision and self-assessment worksheets in less than 20 minutes – and you only have to fill them in once. Updating your weekly life plan shouldn't take you more than 10 minutes at a time either. There are 10,080 minutes in a week, so there's really no excuse not to.
  • Make it easy for yourself. Set reminders in your calendar to update and review your plans. Digitize the plans if you have to - using tools like Trello or other project management software can make it easier if you're not a fan of pen and paper. Do whatever it takes to reduce the possibility of skipping your regular check-ins.

If you want to succeed, then you MUST believe in yourself. If you're planting seeds of doubt about your dream's scope, difficulty or plausibility right from the get-go, you'll find it hard to realize your full potential.

Good luck - and if you need an extra boost, our Vital Well-being program will help you develop the resilience and self-esteem needed to power through the challenging times in a healthy, sustainable way.

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