Plan: Think Before You Act

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by Maureen Delaney and John Jones

Planning is the thinking stage of taking action. Planning doesn’t always get a good rap, because flying by the seat of one’s pants may be the easier way to go and may sometimes even be more fun! Take a baseball or softball pitcher: it might be a blast to send some wild throws and dramatic curveballs across the plate. But really, the game depends on the pitcher’s technique and mindfulness in deploying their skill. Nothing is going to happen unless the pitcher practices their moves, moves the ball across the plate with finesse, and crafts a strategy to get the opposing batter out.

And speaking of skill … as an experienced high schooler, you have a pretty good idea of how to get your homework done, touch base with your parents as needed, and of course, have fun with friends on weekends. Now take a look back and think about the start of your freshman year. You built your present reality one step at a time and learned that making good decisions will keep you connected and involved. 

So, in order to keep doing all of this good stuff, you need to develop and practice the skill of planning. This is where you weigh your options, prep for the unknown, try on several scenarios, and envision yourself succeeding in the future. Planning takes vision: it is looking at the next few days, months, and even years. Managing the movement of your calendar takes slight adjustments in what you see. And you have the power. Just think: what’s due tomorrow? When is the game on Saturday? When is the last day of the quarter? What am I doing this summer? Which courses should I take next year? 

Planning can be viewed a bit like calibrating your phone’s screen when you snap a photo. Picture this: you hold your phone up and click. You capture a full body shot of everyone. Now, take a selfie — your face only and close up. Are you looking at the panorama of the people or focused on the detail of your selfie? The degree of calibration – zooming in or shooting wide-angle – will determine where you put your focus. Moving through your calendar can be akin to pinching the focus on your screen. 

This can be a basic technique for viewing your school calendar. A close up: what is happening now? Are you prepared for math class or a literature discussion, or have you written your research paper? What is due tomorrow? Where are you playing this weekend? Have you eaten lunch? 

Take a longer and wider angle and take on a longer scope on things: what is due next week? How will I plan for the writing of my research paper without staying up all night the night before? Put your weekend games on your calendar and block off the time so you can eat, sleep, and hang out with friends. (Scheduling down time is very important.)

Take a long-range look by planning your courses for next year and the year after that so you know you are on a personal path that is challenging and rewarding. Start thinking about college and what the concept looks like from here. As sophomores, ask teachers and other adults about their college experience, visit a campus or two, and talk to college students about how they made their choice. Also think about how you think: planning is linked to executive functioning, which can very pretty widely with brain type, temperament, and training. Put on your wide-angle lens and eventually, if you put in enough practice, you will develop the skill of planning, which eventually will feel a bit like auto-focus. 

Here are a few tips for developing strong habits in the planning department.

Planning Tips -- by John Jones

Now that you are a true believer in the value of planning, what do you do? What skills do you need to practice? As with many activities, there are some core concepts, along with some things we can adapt and make our own. Take a look at the following steps involved in a successful plan. Later, try actually applying these steps first on a low-stakes event, then on a more important project. Good luck!

Get out of your head-and onto the page (or screen)

Any upcoming responsibility can seem more challenging if left to your imagination. Putting the goal down on paper will help to keep it manageable. It is no longer an unbound cloud but now a limited event that we can take steps to master.

Where is the starting line?

Take an honest look at where you currently are and what you’ll need to do to accomplish your goals. Being aware of more potential obstacles and knowing your true starting point will help you develop a more effective strategy to change.


As you’ve probably heard before, goals should be SMART: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-based. 

Keeping it real

As you’re setting up your plan, it’s helpful to take a moment to confirm it’s possible, given your resources, time, and energy.

Contingency Time

You can save yourself some stress by building in some time to recover if something goes off track. Put some time in the plan for the unexpected. 

Use time as a tool and not as a crutch

Think about the time you have for your project. When will you try to accomplish each of the individual steps? What events do you need to change, move, or drop in order to be successful in the current goal? Connect each task with a specific time it will be done.

What can we do today?

Taking a look at how future events rely on previous steps, you’ll want to trace your desired end point back to today. What can you do to move you closer to your goal? What should you stop doing so that you can refocus your efforts? What can you set up for tomorrow so that it can be a productive day for you?

Check your progress

Periodically, come back to your plan to see if you are on schedule, ahead of the curve, or need to speed up a bit. Some parts of the process will take longer or shorter than we initially predict. Let’s stay aware of these variations and use them to keep the process on track for success.

A little help doesn’t hurt

Talk with mom or dad about how they plan or if they could go over your plan with you. Just as a more experienced athlete, artist, or student can help you, your parents can bring their planning experience to bear to help you achieve your goals. 

“Plans are worthless, but planning is everything” -- President Dwight D. Eisenhower 

In the end, it is important to remember that a plan is a tool for your success. When conditions change that make that tool less useful, it’s ok to change or even to discard it, and make a new one.