Plan like a pro

Ever get the feeling that you want to do so many things, but can never get around to actually doing any of them? You’re not alone, because we all do that. Follow our expert advice on forward planning, and you might just hit your goals.

Words: Michael Donlevy

Well, 2020 was quite a year, wasn’t it? Covid-19 made it virtually impossible to plan ahead – something that isn’t easy at the best of times. We can be overwhelmed with a desire to do so many different things that we end up never doing any of them. It’s easy to get sidetracked by life.

With the prospect of life starting to return to normality in 2021, you may be making grand plans like a career change, new car or new home. Or simpler ones such as updating your wardrobe or being more in touch with old friends. Either way, organisation is key.

Almost anything is possible if you plan properly, and making those plans come off will make you feel more fulfilled across all areas of your life. Trust us – and trust the experts who are here to help you.

Take a step back… 

…and ask yourself why forward planning is necessary to you. ‘We spend a lot of our lives doing things we’re told to,’ says psychotherapist John-Paul Davies. ‘Often the motivating factor is fear, especially at work, and control over our lives is often further away than is good for us.’ Planning something you want to do, and building in 15 or 20 minutes every day to make it happen, is good for your brain. ‘It gives you a sense of purpose, a feeling of competency and control over your life,’ says Davies.

Work backwards from the goal

Make a detailed plan and fill in the steps back from the goal by breaking it into chunks. ‘It might help to create a “vision board”, something visual that represents the goal,’ says Davies. ‘Ticking off micro-tasks along the way has a physiological benefit because your body releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain that helps to promote feelings of pleasure. This is a physiological reward for hitting a target, but you can give yourself physical rewards, too.’

Be flexible

Achieving a goal is a process and you may have to adapt over time. ‘Missing targets can lead to anxiety or negative thoughts so you have to be open to change,’ says Davies. ‘Psychological barriers – anxiety, anger, depression – can knock your cognitive function off line. Give yourself a daily physiological check-up to make sure you’re in the right place, in a calm state and in balance, because if you’re not, those micro-tasks are of no importance. Take care of yourself to take care of the goal.’

Identify goal conflict

‘All your goals count, but you need to know which one you are pursuing now and when you will pursue the others,’ says Andy Lane, professor of sport psychology and director of research at the University of Wolverhampton. ‘Your goal to be fit and healthy, or to complete a marathon, might run in stark contrast with your goals to go further in your job or spend time with your family. It’s important to recognise this challenge and identify when  you will devote time to achieving each goal, then commit yourself to make full use of that time.’ Be organised every day. Oh, and don’t let those fitness goals suffer. They’re important.

Keep it to yourself

‘Studies show that sharing a goal makes you less likely to achieve it,’ says Davies. ‘Therapists hear a lot from people who talk about the life they want, but struggle with the motivation to make it happen. Talking about a goal to others, and experiencing their response, can make you feel as if you’ve already achieved it. If you’re serious, tell one or two people or keep it to yourself.’

Get your rest

It sounds odd, but sleep can help you plan. ‘Research shows that sleep deprivation has a major impact on mental performance and wellbeing,’ says sleep coach Nick Littlehales, who has worked with an array of sports clubs and organisations worldwide. ‘Low levels of recovery will affect how well our brain can process information, our emotional response to tasks, mood, decision making and motivation. Time sleep to match your 90-minute cycles which contain REM and non-REM phases of sleep, aiming for
a total of 7.5 hours, or five cycles, per night.’

Manage your mood as well as your time

‘Frustration in not achieving your goals can lead to negative mood and apathy, which further disrupt your efforts,’ says Lane. ‘One approach is to plan activities proven to enhance your mood such as cardiovascular exercise, which releases endorphins that have been shown to help overcome depression and promote feelings of euphoria, such as the famous “runner’s high”. Even a walk in nature has an effect.’ You can also use this time to plan your goals by disassociating from the effort of running, for example – and no one is going to interrupt you while you’re sweaty.

Use mental training in preparation

‘Evidence from sport psychology has shown that mental training can help prepare people to perform better under pressure,’ says Lane. This can be particularly useful if your goals involve public or sporting performance, or the possibility of rejection – that much-anticipated job interview or big meeting with your bank manager, for example.

‘When we put pressure on ourselves to achieve our goals, mentally rehearsing your performance, seeing yourself perform smoothly and overcoming difficult moments can bring a sense of confidence that you can achieve what you’re setting out to do.’ 

Illustration: iStock

For more expert advice on mental wellbeing, read the latest issue of Healthy For Men, on sale now in Holland & Barrett stores and online at

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