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148 Make Your Future Happen: Learn to Plan

There is a natural conflict between planning and being impulsive, between pursuing a long-range goal and doing what you feel like doing right now. If you have ever had to study while the rest of the family was watching television, you know what that conflict feels like. If you have ever been invited to go eat pizza and hang out with friends but stayed home to work on a class assignment, you know that sticking to a plan is not easy.

The section on planning is adapted from: Investing in Your Future (Thomson South-Western, a part of The Thomson Corporation, 2007), pp. 1–10.

Of course, planning and being impulsive are both good. They both have a place in your life. You need to balance them. Having a plan does not mean that you can’t act on the spur of the moment and do something that was not planned. Spontaneous events produce some of the happiest, most meaningful times of your life. Problems arise when you consistently substitute impulsive actions for goal-oriented planning. Success in life requires a balance between the two.

If you do not engage in long-range planning and lack the discipline for it, you may limit your opportunities to be impulsive. You are not going to take a weekend fun trip just because you need a break if you have not saved the money to do it. In the short run, planning involves sacrifice, but in the long run, it gives you more options.

Life requires planning, and the more important one’s goals, the more important planning is to achieve these goals. Whether the objective is to graduate from college, develop a professional career, or build a brighter future for one’s family and community, personal success depends on a good plan. How can the six steps of the planning process help individuals achieve their educational, personal, and career dreams? (Credit: Rodney Martin/ Flickr/ Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0))


Graduates, wearing cap and gown, walk across a stage to receive their diplomas.

What Is a Plan?

A plan is a method or process worked out in advance that leads to the achievement of some goal. A plan is systematic, which means it relies on using a step-by-step procedure. A plan also needs to be flexible so that it may be adapted to gradual changes in your goal.

The Planning Process

Whether choosing a college or finding financial aid, you should understand how the planning process helps you accomplish your goals. The following steps outline the planning process.

Step 1: Set a Goal. Identify something you want to achieve or obtain, your goal. The goal, which is usually longer term in nature, will require planning, patience, and discipline to achieve. Just living in the present moment is not a goal.

Step 2: Acquire Knowledge. Gain an understanding of your goal and what will be required to achieve it. Gather information about your goal through research, conversation, and thought.

Step 3: Compare Alternatives. Weigh your options, which are the different paths you might take to achieve your goal. Analyze the pluses and minuses of each—the costs, the demands, the likelihood of success.

Step 4: Choose a Strategy. Select one option as the best plan of action. The choice is based on sound information, the experience of others, and your own interests and abilities.

Step 5: Make a Commitment. Resolve to proceed step-by-step toward achieving your goal. Keep your eyes on the prize.

Step 6: Stay Flexible. Evaluate your progress, and when necessary, revise your plan to deal with changing circumstances and new opportunities.

An Example of Planning

The following example illustrates the process of buying a new pair of wireless headphones using this planning process.

Step 1: Set a Goal. Purchase a pair of wireless headphones.

Step 2: Acquire Knowledge. Ask friends if you can try out their headphones. Study standards and specifications. Check on retailers, brands, models, and prices. Consult Consumer Reports.

Step 3: Compare Alternatives.

  • Alternative 1: Purchase a pair of headphones from an online auction website such as eBay.
    • Pro: Affordable high-end equipment. Can buy right now.
    • Con: Uncertain condition of equipment. Limited warranty.
  • Alternative 2: Buy wireless headphones for $110.
    • Pro: Can afford now; new equipment with warranty.
    • Con: Not the best sound quality.
  • Alternative 3: Buy a high-quality pair of headphones for $500.
    • Pro: Excellent sound; new equipment with warranty.
    • Con: Costs more than prepared to pay now.

Step 4: Choose a Strategy. Decide to buy the high-quality headphones, but rather than using a credit card and paying interest, will delay the purchase for six months in order to save for them.

Step 5: Make a Commitment. Give up going to the movies or buying coffee drinks from Starbucks for the six-month period, carry a lunch and stop eating out, and place the savings in a designated headphones fund.

Step 6: Stay Flexible. Four months into the plan, a model change sale provides an opportunity to buy comparable equipment for $300. Make the purchase, paying cash.

Planning for Your Life

Using the planning process to make a buying decision is a simple exercise. Making a decision about major parts of your life is far more complex. You will see that no part of life is exempt from the need for planning. It is important to apply thought, creativity, and discipline to all the interrelated phases of our lives. These phases include the following:

  • Career: Choosing a field of work and developing the knowledge and skills needed to enter and move ahead in that field. We will offer you some tips to get started on a great career later in this chapter.
  • Self: Deciding who you are and what kind of person you want to be, working to develop your strengths and overcome your weaknesses, refining your values.
  • Lifestyle: Expressing yourself in the nature and quality of your everyday life, your recreation and hobbies, how you use your time and money.
  • Relationships: Developing friendships and learning to get along with people in a variety of contexts. Building family and community ties.
  • Finances: Building the financial resources and the economic security needed to pursue all the other dimensions of your life.

Dreams and Plans

People are natural dreamers. Dreams give us pleasure. They are also part of making a future. If you do not have dreams or think that you are not worthy of dreaming, something very important may be missing from your life. You have a right to your dreams, and you need them—even if there is little possibility that they will ever come true.

Planning is not the same as dreaming, but it uses dreams as raw materials. It translates them into specific goals. It tests them. It lays out a course of action that moves you toward realizing these goals and sets up milestones you need to achieve. Planning brings dreams down to earth and turns them into something real and attainable. For example, assume you have a dream to visit Spain as an exchange student. To translate this dream into a specific goal, you will need to follow the planning process—gather information about the exchange process, discuss the program with parents and teachers, and improve your Spanish-language skills.

Directions for Your Life

One of the best things about pursuing our dreams is that, even when you fall short, the effort leads to growth and opens a path to other opportunities. The person who practices the piano every day may not achieve the dream of becoming a concert pianist but may eventually put appreciation of music to work as the director of an arts organization. A basketball player may not make it to a professional team but may enjoy a satisfying career as a coach or a sports writer. Without a plan, dreams simply dissolve. With a plan, they give shape and direction to our lives.

Planning involves a lot of thinking and finding answers to lots of questions. The answers and even the plan will change over time as you gain more knowledge and life experience. Planning is a skill that is useful in every area of your life. It is something you have to pursue consciously and thoughtfully. When you plan, you translate your goals and dreams into step-by-step strategies, specific things you can do to test your goals and bring them to reality. You often have to revise your plans, but even when your plans are not fulfilled, planning will have a positive effect on the course of your life.

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Make Your Future Happen: Learn to Plan by Rice University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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