Planning and Goal Setting: A Scientific Guide on the art of effective planning for your goals

In the words of Pablo Picasso: “Our goals can only be reached through the vehicle of a plan, in which we must religiously believe, and upon which we must vigorously act. There is no other route to success”.

There have never been truer words than the ones above.

Our Goals are indeed the destination we anticipate. The plan of action is the vehicle that takes us to that destination. That’s as simple as goal setting gets.

But it seems like society, in general, have forgotten this vital ingredient in goal setting.

And that’s why most people struggle to keep up with their goals.

That’s why the goal-setting alleyway is littered with unfulfilled potentials, un-actualized dreams, and billions of abandoned New Year resolutions.

What is Goal planning?

planning and goal setting

Goal Planning is the next (crucial) step after Goal setting.

Goal Planning in its finished form is an action plan that leads to the outcomes of achieving the goals you set.

Effective goal planning takes your goal from;
“I want to lose 10 pounds”
“By 10 am on Mondays and Wednesdays of every week, at the “getripped gym” beside the McDonalds down the street, I will be doing aerobics and HIIT exercises for two hours”.

Effective planning helps to answer the questions of “how” “where”, and “when” for your goals. And at the end of the day, you’re left with a map that will guide you to your goals.

Top athletes, top organizations, top entrepreneurs—that always optimize goal setting at the top level—knows the importance of goal planning.

They set aside time and resources to plan for their goals ahead.

You see organizations dedicating a specific time in the week for brainstorming, for strategic planning meetings, and all sorts of planning sessions.

Bill Gates and other top entrepreneurs like Ellon Musk take time to plan their days ahead based on the goals they want to achieve for the day using some productivity hacking systems (which we’ll discuss later below).

They also take some time off during the year to reflect and plan for the coming quarter.

All these time they take to plan pays dividends down the line. Dividends in terms of more return on their Energy and more return on their precious time.

And as a bonus, effective goal planning ensures they are more focused and they have their goal related cognitive functions working as it should (free of intrusion).

Your Brain on Goal Planning

“A specific plan is like a script that a person can follow mindlessly to completion”—Masicampo and Baumeister

In 2011, leading researchers in the field of Behavioral Psychology, Masicampo and Baumeister at the department of Psychology, Florida State University, set out to check the effect of planning on the pursuit of goals.

They divided 73 undergraduate students into three groups;

The first group were asked to think of an important goal they needed to achieve and told not to make any plan of how they would achieve the goal.

The second group were to make a definite plan of the how, the when, and the where they would use to achieve this IMPORTANT goal of theirs.

The third group served as the control group whom were asked to think of two goals they had completed in the last several days.

The three groups were then instructed to read the first 3,200 words of the classic novel; The Case of the Velvet Claws by Erle Stanley Gardner.

This little task is to test for concentration and comprehension.

They found that the group that had definite plans for their goals were far more able to concentrate and comprehend better than the group that didn’t create a plan for their unfinished goals.

The plan-less group reported that the thought of their plan-less unfinished kept popping up in their head and kept their brain from really focusing on the task at hand.

This later had an effect on their comprehension.

So, apart from helping you achieve your goals, planning for your goals will have a HUGE effect on your cognitive functioning, concentration, and comprehension.

Here is what researchers have found when it comes to effective planning for your goals

With years of research into goal planning, some good insights have been gained.

Some of these insights are;

So, whether you are thinking of embarking on a yearly long-term goal like starting your own business, or you just have a daily to-do list that consists of tasks like completing a work project in 2 hours, taking the time to plan will do you some good.

Now that you are convinced that you need to plan for your goals, let’s dive deeper into the world of effective goal planning.

The difficulties most people face with their goals

Goals fall apart!!

More often than I’m willing to admit.

That’s already established in today’s world.

You set a goal right now, and you’re feeling so optimistic and motivated about the goal, and two weeks down the line, you have entirely abandoned the goal.

Why most people fail in sticking to their goals is that they don’t realize that goal setting has two main elements.

There are two elements to any goal you set.

The first element of any goal is the outcome

The outcome of a goal is what you gain when you complete/achieve the goal.

For instance;

  • An “I want to make more money” goal has an outcome of making $XX more money
  • An “I want to lose weight” goal has an outcome of losing XX pounds
  • A more abstract goal like an “I want to be happier this year” goal has an outcome of showing some teeth more times than you did last year (or whatever you use to quantify happiness)

The funniest and counter-intuitive thing about goal setting is that researchers have shown that focusing too much on the outcome of your goal will greatly reduce your chances of achieving that goal.


You read it correctly!

Thinking about and focusing on the outcomes of your goals too much, will reduce your chances of achieving that goal.

So, if you want to be happier, and you are daydreaming about happiness, at the end of the year, you are highly likely to be more depressed.

This is the major culprit why most New Year resolutions don’t make it past the second week of January.

People get too caught up on the outcomes of their goals without paying much (if not any) attention to the second and MOST important element of their goals.

The second and MOST important element of any goal is the process

The process of a goal are the things you’ll do to achieve the outcome of the goal.

And believe it or not, most times, as simple as it may seem, a lot of people forget to include this very important step when they are setting their goals.

From our examples above;

  • An “I want to make more money” goal can have a process of; research a skill people are paying for—learn a new skill—set up shop—do some marketing—get hired; which can now lead to the outcome of “get paid $XX”.
  • An “I want to lose weight” goal can come with a process of; learn a diet regimen—stick to the diet for two years—do a weekly weigh-in; which can now lead to the outcome of shaving off XX pounds.
  • The more abstract goal of “I want to be happier this year” can have a process of; learn the things that are making me sad—learn the things that can make me happier—test different things that makes me happier—do the ones that work more; which can now lead to the outcome of being happier come the end of the year.

At this stage, I want you to quickly cast your mind back to the last goal you set. Did you design a map (in the form of action plans) that will take you to the outcome of that goal?

If you don’t know how to do that, it’s at this stage of the post that we learn how to effectively plan for our goals.

Planning and Goal Setting: The 5-step goal-planning template in action! 

This model of goal setting and goal planning is based on the obstacle-model of goal setting.


Research have confirmed that the major reason why a lot of people abandon their goals is because they suddenly come to the rude awakening that achieving any goal is not easy.

People tend to abandon their goals at the first roadblock or difficulty they face.

They’ve spent considerable time daydreaming about the outcome of the goal and given no considerable thought to the processes involved, and after a week at the gym, BHAM!

They get hit with body pain. And they quit the gym!

Sound familiar?

But by thinking of these obstacles beforehand, and creating a plan to deal with those obstacles, you are tremendously increasing your chance of achieving that goal.

So, any time you have a new goal to work on, you can quickly run that goal through these steps and observe the difference in how much you are motivated to work on the goals.

And MOST importantly, how easy it was for you to work on those goals once you run them through these steps.

STEP I: Prioritize your goals!

I know you’ve heard it somewhere before that it is important to prioritize your goals.

Well, it’s important to get your priorities straight because you aren’t superman. You are of the earth! You are not from Krypton!!

At any given point in time, you have limited time resource, limited energy resource, and even a limited brain capacity resource.

I’ve seen people cram like 20 major goals in a single calendar year. And at the end of the year, they will end not working on any of those goals.

Well, if you are setting goals this way, you are contradicting the first cardinal rule of goal setting.

“There is no one busy in this world, it’s always about priorities. You will always find time for the things you feel important.”—Nishan Panwar

You have to learn how to prioritize your goals!

You have to learn how to drop the not-really-pressing goals for the urgent and MOST relevant ones.

How do you figure out the MOST relevant goals though?

Well, answer the following questions;

  • Which area of my life is MOST in need of improvement right now? Is it my finances? Is it my health? Is it my relationships? Is it my career? Is it my family?
  • Which area of your life is the MOST important to me right now? Is it my finances? Is it my health? Is it my relationships? Is it my career? Is it my family?

You have to come up with one or at most, two answers to these questions.

After you’ve figured out which area of your life you really want to focus on, it’s time to prioritize further in each of the area you’ve just chosen.

Because it’s counter-productive to start setting various goals you’ll struggle to keep up with, in each of the area of your life you’ve chosen to focus on.

You need to prioritize further!!

And the way to do this again is to answer the following questions;

  • Which aspects of my (e.g. career/relationship/finance) do I really need to improve right away?
  • Which aspects of my (e.g. career/relationship/finance) will really help me improve my (e.g. career/relationship/finance)?
    Note: you can use the Pareto’s rule to figure this out.

STEP II: Create effective systems

Remember the second element of any goal setting we discussed earlier?


The processes involved in achieving your goals!!

Well, the processes involved in achieving a given goal can be different for everybody.

There are different routes you can take to achieve your goals.

But each process that comes up for any of your goals can still be broken down into more nuances.

These nuances are often referred to as systems.

Whenever a system pops up in your goal setting, know that you have achieved effective planning for that goal.

Systems are the nuances you have to focus on to achieve your goals.

Why do systems work so well?

  • They completely solve the problem of “how”, for your goals
  • They are very definite and they are as actionable as any process can get
  • Systems, when repeated constantly, will become habits. And at this point, it’s not a matter of “if” you’ll achieve your goal anymore. It’s a matter of “when” you’ll achieve your goal.
  • Systems that have been habituated hijack the reward pathway of your brain and this makes working on your goals more pleasurable which also makes achieving the goals more pleasurable.
  • Habituated systems help to relieve the anxiety and nervousness that comes with not achieving a goal.

Now that you are a little bit acquainted with systems, let’s see them at work for the above examples;

  • An “I want to make more money” goal can have a system of distributing five marketing pamphlets DAILY in its “marketing” process.
  • An “I want to lose weight” goal can have a system of eating XXX diet as breakfast EVERY DAY for two years in its “stick to the diet for two years” process.
  • The goal “I want to be happier this year” can have a system of watching one hour of stand-up comedy from 5:00 pm to 6:00 pm EVERY DAY in its “do the ones that work more” process.

STEP III: Plan for Obstacles

There is a certain equilibrium that our mind, our body, our brain, and our life gets accustomed to.

It’s a form of balance that our life strives to reach. We all have our pattern of thinking, our pattern of habits, and our pattern of lifestyle.

This is the “status quo”.

Biologists often refer to this term as homeostasis.

When you now have the bright idea of setting a new goal; which is bound to disrupt this equilibrium, there will be opposing forces of some sort.

These opposing forces will want to get you back to the “status quo”.

Whenever you set a new goal, or you start working on a new system, there’s always a resistant and opposing force that comes into play.

These opposing forces are often referred to as “obstacles”.

Obstacles at this stage can be psychological (the ones your brain is throwing your way), it can be environmental (the ones your room, or your family members are throwing at you), and it can be random (those that just pop up from nowhere and leaves you wondering if a supernatural force doesn’t want you to achieve your goals).

The idea is that the bigger the goal you are setting, the bigger the obstacles.

If you look closely, you’ll see these different forms of obstacles at work in your life when you start working on a new goal.

  • For instance, you have the goal of reading every day, and as you’re about to sit down and read for the day, an emergency happens at work (random obstacle).
  • When you set the goal of writing every day, your dad might get into a gruesome car accident, where you have to drop everything and go and stay with him at the hospital for 3 months (A personal random obstacle of mine in 2016).
  • As you are getting ready to work on a project (which is your goal for the day), you heard a notification sound on your phone. It was a facebook notification. You clicked on it, got to your feeds, spent 45 minutes there, got directed to instagram, spent one and half hours there, got directed to, and you spent two hours there(environmental obstacle).
  • Psychological obstacles can come in different forms like; procrastination, discounting benefits of achieving goals, moral licensing, and so on.

Have you noticed how these types of events have a way of popping up in your lives whenever you start working on a goal?

As a result of all these, the importance of planning for obstacles beforehand cannot be over-emphasized.

This is where rubber meets road when it comes to planning for your goals.

Your goals get a new life entirely when you envisage these obstacles (or at least some of them that you are able to predict and control) beforehand and device a solid plan of dealing with them when they pop up.

Ways to plan ahead for the different obstacles

  1. Environmental obstacles

These obstacles for the most part are in your control. And you can surely plan for them so you are better prepared.

And the best way to do this is to basically optimize your environment for your goals.

For instance,

  • you can deliberately leave your smartphone in another room when you want to work without distractions,
  • you can let the people around you know beforehand that you are working on a particular goal at a particular time so that they won’t disturb you,
  • you can de-cluster your work desk in the morning, in preparation for the day’s work,
  • you can put your running shoes at the feet of your bed, so it’s the first thing you put on in the morning, so as to enforce your daily morning running habit,
  • and any activity you engage in to make your environment conducive for your goals and systems.
  1. Psychological obstacles and the “if-then” planning strategy

Psychological obstacles are often the resistance that your brain puts in place when you are trying to make a change to the brain’s status-quo.

That is, your brain’s happy-hour is when you’re eating a yummy chocolate bar, and you have the bright idea of going on a diet. Or you want to stop eating chocolate bar altogether.

In effect, you want your brain to STOP liking chocolate bars.

I know!! Insane right?

Your brain is definitely coming at you.

It’s going to crave chocolate bar, it’s going to crave it hard, it won’t stop at that, it’s going to tell you all the reasons why you should eat just one, for old time sake. No harm in eating only one chocolate bar.

Your brain is going to locate that article online about that research that was carried out in Nicaragua where the researchers found that eating three chocolate bars daily is good for your health.

The best way to plan for this sort of obstacle is to use the “if-then” planning strategy.

“If-then” is the most effective strategy that researchers have found in 50 years of research on goal setting to be the most effective so far.

The if-then planning is also known as implementation intention in some circles.

If-then is based on  “behavior replacement”.

You see, our brain is typically not really good at stop-commands. For instance, you can’t just tell your brain to “STOP craving chocolate bar!!”.

It won’t listen.

What works best is to replace your bad habits with more positive ones. You are sort of redirecting and pointing your dopamine pathways to a more positive habit.

This is where if-then planning comes in.

So, instead of saying “STOP craving chocolate bar”, the if-then planning is saying;

  • IF I crave chocolate bar, THEN I’ll go for a walk”.
  • IF I want to procrastinate, THEN I’ll do the task for just 10 minutes”
  • IF I feel like going on Facebook or I find myself there, THEN I’ll do 10 push-ups”
  1. Random obstacles

Because Random obstacles are random, no one can predict their occurrence.

So, there is no feasible way to prepare for them.

The best hope you have is that when your systems are already habituated and automatic for you, after the random event, you feel compelled to go back to working on your goals and habits.

Another reason why it’s good to have systems when working on your goals.

SPEP IV: Use the Time-Boxing technique

The time-boxing technique is a very simple planning technique that helps to enforce the systems you created earlier.

Time-boxing is creating short boxes/blocks of time (ranging from 5 minutes to 45 minutes intervals/blocks/boxes).

After creating the time-boxes, you fit in your daily tasks or systems into these boxes.

Once the box of time you allocated to a particular task or system is over, you move on to the next task or system.

For instance;

  • Someone that has a system of sending out 5 emails to prospects every day as a system in his/her “make more money” goal can have a 15-minute time-box in his daily schedule that looks like this;
    12.00pm—12.15pm (email client 1&2),
    12.15pm—12.30pm (email client 3&4),
    12.30pm—12.45pm (email client 5 & arrange my office desk),
    12.45pm—1.00pm (write an outline of the ninja report),
    and on and on and on… for a very productive day.

Time blocks creates a sense of urgency for you as each mini-deadline approaches. This triggers some motivational circuits in your brain which helps you get things done.

Time-boxing is a technique that you can start using right now to combat procrastination. It will also help you to guide against the side-effects of Parkinson’s law.

Parkinson’s law states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”.

The literal interpretation of Parkinson’s law is that it doesn’t matter how fast you can complete a task, the task will find a way to fill up the time you allocate to it.

This is evident in our everyday productivity time-drain. Tasks that are not supposed to take us more than 30 minutes can fill up 3 hours if we allocate that to it.

This 3 hours will be filled with YouTube, Facebook, gossiping with co-workers, and at the end of the day, we might not finish the main task.

One thing you start noticing when you start implementing the time-boxing technique is that most tasks don’t take you as long as it used to.

Bill Gates and Ellon Musk specifically use this technique to go about working on their goals for the day.

Ellon Musk and Bill Gates use 5-minute time-blocks to schedule their busy schedules. And believe me, these guys are really busy and have a lot on their plates.

STEP V: Create a Tracking system

The last step in the planning of your goals is the tracking step.

What we focus on expands—can’t remember who said this…

When you start tracking how well you’re executing your goal systems, it’s easy to know when you are forming a habit.

And habits are key to achieving long-term goals.

If you want to apply all that you’ve read, here is a printable planning worksheet that allows you to plan for any goal in five minutes.

Let’s know how this has worked for you. You can use the comment section for feedback.