Having advised executives for roughly 20 years at the time of this posting, I can tell you that I’ve had over a thousand conversations on strategy. These conversations are/were about 30 minutes long, meaning that I’d have to convey a lot of information in a short period of time. That makes it necessary to simplify as much as possible, making the summary of the approach easy to fit in a blog post.
I’ve drawn up the Life Strategy Template on the Downloads page of this site for you to use to create your own plan for how to approach your life, but here we’ll talk about the methodology behind it as to how you’d derive your plan so that you can have a clear sense of direction in your life.
Minimizing the amount of technical jargon, there are four components to a strategic plan:
These are the four essential components in a strategy because you need a reason to act, an act, a clear plan for how to move forward, and then clear benefits from acting to motivate you to move toward your goals. Note that you might be familiar with the classic Current State->Roadmap->Future State structure of how growth occurs, and that is still accurate. The above approach simply elaborates on those states to help you on the journey to understanding what your plan actually is and how everything fits together. If you already have an understanding of what you want to do and just need to create an action plan to get there, then the CS->R->FS approach is perfect for that use case. But since we’re assuming that you might not have your ideas fully fleshed out and possibly might need to get others onboard with your plan, this approach is superior for that use case.
The “Why” part of a strategy includes the following items:
When you create your strategy, you start from these components because they define why you need to do what you are about to plan to do. Note that you can also describe the problems with the current state or use other methods to help articulate a driving force.
Note that the most important thing you can do to help others explain your logic is to make the Why->What Connection very strong. What I mean by this is to be able to connect your decisions, actions, initiatives, projects, etc. back to how they are related to your Why. This is especially important if you are either an expert talking to a novice about a topic or if you did hours of work finding out why your initiatives are the best ones to undertake and you need to bring the person you’re talking to on the journey to how you drew that conclusion.
So what is a Why->What Connection? A Why->What Connection is a logical or narrative cascade from the driving forces to a call to specific action in specific areas of your life to address them. There are two ways to position these, Pain Points and Opportunities, that map to the two mental postures your audience (including yourself) will have: a “Firefighter” posture and a “Dreamer” posture.
A “firefighter” posture is an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality that requires a negative current state to drive them to action. So here, you would point out how you can’t succeed if you don’t fix the problems you’ve identified. For example, you can’t run a marathon if you’re not in shape; you can’t get a job in a certain field without a relevant degree or license; you can’t have children without a mate.
A “dreamer” posture is an “yeah, we all have our problems” mentality that does not respond to issues as much as they want to be inspired to a better future. Here, you would point out how much better off you would be if you made a change. For example, you would be a much better athlete with proper coaching; you would earn much more income if you moved into a high-paying field; you would be much happier if you had more time to rest.
Effectively, you want to make sure that your plan has a clear connection between, “We want to achieve X,” and, “Therefore, here is an area of my life or my capability set that I can improve to be more likely to attain X.” This will be what I call your “facepalm moment”—if you’re not familiar with Millenial-speak, this refers to the “Oh, crap” moment where you see exactly what you need to improve in your life to attain your goals. This is the transition moment between the Why and the What that will make sure that you (or your audience if you’re talking about this) have no doubt that you need to act.
Once you have that cascade from goals to issues/opportunities, you can now offer solutions that will allow you to succeed. Here, you want to list your recommended actions: projects, initiatives, etc. that you need to undertake to get to where you want to go. Success in a sport or profession requires practice. Success in school requires studying. Success in relationships requires self-improvement and communication. Anything you decide to do in life to attain your goals—from taking a course to working at a specific job to moving to a new city—should be clearly connected to them and elaborated on in terms of rationale, timelines, success measures, people involved, and other details that will help you understand what exactly you need to do to succeed.
Once you have a list of initiatives defined, you need a plan to proceed. At minimum, you need a roadmap of how your What will unfold over time toward your goals. For example, you’ll need to understand priority, order/sequence, length of time, and other factors so that you can do what you need to do when you need to do it. From there, you have many options to elaborate on the how.
Note, though, that you’ll have two main audiences if you’re explaining your plan to someone else: people you’re trying to get money or buy-in from to move forward, and people you need to act on your plan (e.g., if you’re the head of a team and need them to execute against your plan). These relate to the two things you need to build in your audience with any plan: desire for your plan and belief in your plan. While you want everyone to agree with what you want and believe in your plan, in reality it’s more important for people giving you money or support to want what you want (i.e., so they’re willing to give you the money) and for people who have to execute against your plan to believe in its attainability (i.e., because they will drag their feet if they don’t think it’s possible). So keep in mind both desirability and believability in your roadmap and tailor to those two audience.
If you just need someone’s support, all you need to include in your How section is: “What am I/are you going to get when? What do you need from me when?” So usually a roadmap with timelines of when you’ll see results and when you’ll need support is all you need for buy-in. But for anyone who needs to believe in the plan, you’ll need more detail around how you’ll overcome the challenges they think you’ll face along the way: money, skills/talent, resources, etc. As such, in your how, you should be listing out things like the resources you have available so that you or an audience can truly believe that the roadmap is attainable.
What It Gets You
You might be thinking, “Isn’t this Why again?” Yes, yes it is. However, this “Why” is an outcome why, whereas the first one is a driving forces why. So I reword the second to avoid confusion.
In this section, you’ll have just gone through a bunch of things you need to do and possibly a long, long journey you’ve mapped out to get to your goal. As such, the urgency to act might’ve been overcome by the daunting path ahead. As a result, you want to reignite the fire before you finish. You also want to know exactly what success looks like so you know when you’ve attained it and can move on to something else.
Now, many people think about what success looks like and try to jump straight to success measures. I don’t recommend that direct route because it causes people to measure things that they can measure vs. what they should measure. If you were working on a project, for example, you might begin writing down “project done by [date]” as a success measure, but that’s not true/final success for your strategy. So, instead, I recommend a three-component process to defining success:
For example, in the first, you might say that you want to be better at football or have a high-paying job or something that qualitatively describes success. That’s the best first step because you don’t want the pressure to measure results to cause you to list something that isn’t really success for you. So take the pressure off and just describe it. Then, you can determine what exactly about your definition of success is measurable: Is it getting a certain number of sacks in football next season? Is it salary plus benefits as to what “high-paying” means for that job you want? Once you define the indicator, then you can measure it: what measurable outcome do you want to attain, and (if applicable) how does that compare to what that number/measure is right now?
The cool thing about this approach is that it takes something that is usually difficult, measuring things, and making it easier to get to. In fact, you can sometimes arrive at a metric after step one: “I want to win 5 Super Bowls.” There you go. Other times, measurable outcomes are less useful than “I know it when I see it” kind of qualitative statements. In those situations, you’ll have your qualitative description, such as, “I’ll be the best baseball player of all time,” and you don’t need to count the exact number of home runs or hits you’ll need. This approach will prevent you from inserting a lot of potentially false assumptions like what it means to be “the best” when you might prefer to leave it undefined until you find your strengths, weaknesses, and interests with regards to the goal.
So those are the four steps to creating a real, tangible plan for your life. You’ll have a clear motivation to move forward, a set of things to do, a plan for how to do them, and then a measurable outcome to shoot for so you know when you’re done or you’ve succeeded.
Note that you are welcome to customize this methodology to what works for you. Some people prefer to document everything and get support from all of their loved ones, whereas others want to keep it all in their heads and not tell anyone. How you proceed is up to you. But if you have a clear strategy for your life and begin to work toward your desired outcomes, you’ll have injected a sense of purpose into your life that you will likely not have had before. And that sense of purpose is what you need to continue to move forward through adversity and to live your life to the fullest. Best of luck!