Planning to achieve your goals: 9 simple steps

  • The Progressive Development Plan I – Mustafa Hulusi (Photography 2004)

The principles of project management are obviously useful to anyone setting up a business, but the same ideas can also help in different contexts: curating a group show, finding the perfect residency, becoming a freelance writer... Here, project management expert Laura Kell gives a clear, jargon-free guide to planning. And for more on organisation, come along to tonight's event 'Kill the Chaos' with poet and consultant Mark McGuinness. 

Project management should help you get what you want. It’s ultimately about control. Specifically, it can help you control yourself, other people and anything else that can have an impact on you achieving your goals. And whilst nothing can be totally controlled, project management can help you recognise where problems might occur and what you can do to minimise their impact. Essentially, project management is the process of creating and implementing a plan. 

Regardless of the scale of the job, thinking ahead and planning will help. Don’t labour over project management at the expense of getting something done. But if you can’t answer these simple questions before you start a project – what do I want to achieve, can I get it done in time, do I have enough money, is it likely to go wrong? – you should probably think about whether it’s a good use of your time to even start.

Project management encourages you to be honest with yourself about what you can realistically do. Planning shouldn’t take a huge amount of time, but you do need to set some time aside to do it.

This guide draws on the basic principles of project management and gives a checklist that should help you focus your efforts and get what you want

1.    Have a clear idea of what you are trying to achieve

Start by planning for the long term. Where is it that you want or need to be in the future? Don’t worry at this point about being realistic. What is it that you are trying to do? Once you have established your goals, you can start to work out how to get there.

2.    Map out the key things that need to happen

You now need to translate this long-term goal into something more manageable. Decide what you need to do over the next year (or a shorter period, but ideally no longer) in order to be moving towards achieve this goal. This should be a series of concrete, achievable actions – things that you can focus on in the short term that help you get to where you want to be.

3.    Think about who needs to be involved

Other people are often needed to help you achieve your long-term and short-term goals.

What help do you think you will need and do you already know people who you think might be able to help? If you already know who you’d like to be involved, make sure you ask them early on and get their commitment to helping you. If you don’t know – how will you go about finding the right people?

Other people will never be as committed as you are to achieving your goals. They can therefore be one of the biggest risks to a project. So, establish early on if they can help, when they will be available and how long they think they will need to do what you need them to do. Planning around their availability will be key.

4.    Map out key deadlines – which dates must be met?

Some dates are immovable and must be met, such as application deadlines. Any short-term plans will therefore need to be built with these deadlines in mind. In other cases there are no fixed deadlines. Set them and give yourself a date to work towards.

5.    Allocate rough costs

If there will be costs involved in the project, can you afford them? It may be the case that you will need to apply for funding to help you achieve your goals. If you do, this then becomes a project in itself! What are the deadlines, what do you need to prepare to receive funding, how likely is it that your application will be accepted? This could be an obstacle to getting what you want – so try to have a back-up plan in place if you can’t secure funding. Is there a lower-cost alternative that will still get you the result you want?

6.    Where are the risks? People, time and costs

We’ve already touched on some of the things that can go wrong: people can’t commit their time, immovable deadlines are not met, you can’t get funding. Think about each of your short term goals and what could go wrong. Think about how you can minimise the risk. Do you have a back-up plan that will still allow you to achieve your long-term goals?

7.    Detailed planning for now

Now look at one of your short-term goals – perhaps the one with the closest deadline, or the one with the greatest risk. Start planning out the detailed steps that you need to take to achieve this goal. These steps should form your daily or weekly ‘to do’ list.

8.    Always looking forward to the next steps

Focusing on the jobs you need to do today is the only real way that you will make progress. But day-to-day work always needs to be viewed in the context of your longer-term goals and the challenges ahead of you. Put some time aside at least once a week to look at your progress in the context of your overall plan.

9.    At each stage – is this still working? Will this really give me what I want?

Things will always change of course. You cannot hope to have predicted everything. Put aside an hour or two at least every month to review your plan. Make sure you’re clear about why things went wrong. Don’t be scared to change the plan in light of changes that occur. This doesn’t mean you’ve failed. If you keep focused on where you are headed, you will have a much greater chance of getting there.

Laura Kell is operations director at a research company, and an experienced and qualified project manager. In her previous job, she managed large-scale projects for the UK government.