Jan. 14, 2020

Turning vague aspirations into an action plan

Getting clear on where you want to go, what’s standing in your way, and ideas for getting where you want to be

Last January, we explored the notion of building micro-habits to approach change and growth rather than making grand New Years’ resolutions. One year later, a desire to grow and evolve though continuous improvement is a recurring theme. We frequently hear well-intentioned learners make aspiring statements after participating in professional development experiences such as:

“…I am going to be more aware of my unconscious bias when I make decisions!” or “…I am going to be a better leader by increasing my emotional intelligence!”

While these are admirable goals, we often want to double click on these types of statements and ask, “How do you plan to accomplish this?”

Translating vague aspirations into tangible results often proves to be difficult; especially once we return to the day-to-day realities of work and our motivation to change begins to waver. There are many reasons why transferring learning back into the workplace might not occur. We’ll be exploring this theme from various angles throughout the coming months, but we will begin by focusing on why broad statements fail to produce the outcomes we desire.

Get clear on your future state: Where do you want to go?

Before identifying small, concrete, next steps[1], it is helpful to gain further clarity by defining your ideal future state. Consider why you want this change. Where do you want to be in three months? What will you be doing differently? These types of questions help us be purpose-centered and begin to narrow the scope of what we want to achieve and clarify what is driving the change. For example, one aspect to increase your emotional intelligence over the next three months might be to improve your impulse control.

Identify small steps and potential barriers: What’s standing in your way?

To continue to narrow the scope of the emotional intelligence example, identify what barriers or challenges you encounter when attempting to practice delaying your impulse to act. Reflect upon what is currently impeding your ability to reduce impulsive behaviours. Consider observing yourself in a team meeting and ask yourself: Do I frequently interrupt others? Am I feeling impatient? Am I stressed? Am I excited? Did I sidetrack the conversation with yet another off-topic comment?

Once barriers and challenges have been identified, reflect upon what small, specific step(s) you can take to establish a new pattern or process. If stress or excitement is causing impulsive reactions, consider practicing the STOP technique. If you notice being excited or impatient causes you to interrupt others, consider writing your ideas on a Post-it as ideas and thoughts come to you. This small technique will help delay the impulse to interject and you can always share your idea once other team members have had a chance to contribute.

Taking small steps will help you to progressively shift your actions and clarify your aspirations. This gradual process will eventually lead to significant changes in a manageable, meaningful way.

A systems approach to change or growth: How do you get where you want to be?

In James Clear’s Atomic Habits, he argues that we “fall to the level of our systems”. The notion is that motivation and goal setting will not carry us to the outcome that we desire – but a well-built system will. If we have difficulty changing our habits, the problem isn’t us, the problem tends to be our daily actions. We all know that you can’t go to the gym for the first week of January and expect results that will last the whole year. This is similar to how learning is not an event, it is a way of being. If we want to shift our behaviours, we need to create new patterns and supporting habits that will lead us to our desired outcome. This way, when our motivation fades, we will have established a system that will support us.

Approaching life from a systems-level perspective, rather than focusing on broad goals, tends to reduce anxiety and creates more sustainable outcomes. Going into 2020, we encourage you to get clear about what you want to achieve, get specific on what small steps you can accomplish, and practice being more observant of your day-to-day actions.


[1] This is something we will explore in more detail next month.