Updated: Apr 27, 2022
Learn what an action plan is and how to write one.
Planning a wedding, applying to college, hosting a dinner party, or launching a new product. These are complicated and multifaceted activities. Successfully planning and then pulling off goals like these may require that you complete many different subtasks. All of these subtasks may have different importance levels, different due dates, or may even require the involvement of different people. So how can you organize and prioritize all of the things that you need to do to make sure that everything goes smoothly and that you can achieve what you want to achieve? With an action plan!
An action plan is a list of the steps or tasks that need to be completed to reach a goal or to complete a job (Frese et al, 2007). There is no one correct way to write an action plan. You can organize your action plan in whatever way helps you keep track of all that you need to do to accomplish your goal. Oftentimes, action plans are organized as tables or spreadsheets with each job, task, or step listed in the first column and other important information listed in the second and subsequent columns.
Most plans include a date or timeline for each of the component tasks. If you are working with a group of people, each task will probably also list the person or people responsible for that task. You may also want to add in other information that is specific to your goal. For example, you may want to note the priority level (low, medium, high) of each task or list the resources that are needed to accomplish each task.
An example of a relatively small goal that may be organized and clarified with an action plan is a dinner party (Rysman, n.d.). Using an action plan to organize a dinner party might first involve listing everything that you need to do to throw the dinner party. You might also find it helpful to organize the tasks by deadline. For example, two weeks before the party you may want to create your guest list, send out invitations, and decide the atmosphere and aesthetic of your party. One week before the party you may want to follow up with guests who haven’t sent RSVPs, confirm the dietary requirements of your guests, plan the menu, and purchase any décor or dishware that you need.
Two days before the party you may want to get your ingredients and make a playlist. The day before the party you may want to prepare as much food as you can, clean your home, and pick up flowers. On the day of the party, you may want to prepare the last of the food and set the table. This action plan lists all of the tasks that need to be accomplished to host a dinner party, along with a timeline for each task.
How to Write an Action Plan
Once you have your goal, you can proceed with writing your action plan. This process can be broken down into five steps (Cochran, 2012):
Task Definition – Identify everything that needs to be done. What individual steps need to be accomplished? For example, if you are organizing a surprise birthday party, the list of tasks might include booking a venue, arranging food, inviting guests, and getting the guest of honor to the party. If you are working with a team, this is also where you identify the individual people who are responsible for each task or job.
Create action steps – What are the steps or subtasks that need to be done for each task? For example, the task of inviting guests to the birthday party might include creating a guest list, finding contact information for each guest, sending out invitations, and following up on RSVPs.
Prioritization – Assign each task and perhaps each subtask a priority of low, medium, or high. The criteria for assigning a priority are based on how time-sensitive the task is, how complex or time-consuming the task is, and how critical that task is to the overall event. For the surprise party, arranging food will probably be a lower priority than inviting guests: If you don’t get the food arranged in time you will probably be able to arrange last-minute alternatives. However, if there are no guests, there will be no party. For this step, it is important not to default to categorizing everything as a high priority. If you find yourself running low on time or resources, you can use your priorities list to decide how to allocate the limited time and resources that you do have.
Collaboration – Engage all stakeholders and create a communication channel. This may involve communicating with people who are not on the team executing the action plan. For example, you will probably need to continually interact with staff at the event venue to keep them informed of guest numbers and outside food vendors amongst other things.
Close – After your goal has been completed, take the time to congratulate yourself on what you have accomplished and to review what went right and what went wrong. What adjustments can you make to improve things next time? This step may be particularly helpful if you will continue to work on similar goals or with the same team in the future.
Action plans are useful for organizing and prioritizing the steps required to complete a relatively complicated task. You may also find that writing an action plan helps to bring your broader goals into focus. Identifying the specific actions that are needed to bring your thoughts, ideas, and desires into reality may help you to identify which of your goals are realistic and desirable.
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Cochran, S. (2012). How to develop an action plan.
Frese, M., Krauss, S. I., Keith, N., Escher, S., Grabarkiewicz, R., Luneng, S. T., Heers, C., Unger, J., Friedrich, C. (2007). Business owners’ action planning and its relationship to business success in three African countries. Journal of Applied Psychology, 92 (6), 1481-1498.
Rysman, S. (no date). How to host a dinner party. The New York Times Style Magazine.