I’ve talked before about how essential it is to have a plan for life. Not just having appointments in your planner and tasks on your to do list, but making sure your actions actually bring you closer to your long-term goals.

Let me share a brief story about Bill, a man in his early forties, who hopes to transition to working only part-time over the next five to seven years in order to spend time with his kids before they leave the house. He has a dream of someday retiring to a cabin in the mountains where he can spend his time reading, fishing and relaxing with his wife.

Right now, he works a 9-to5 job and makes just enough money to pay the bills each month. He has been doing this for about 25 years. When I ask him when he plans to shift to part-time, he explains that he just doesn’t have time to focus on it right now, and that maybe next year he’ll look into figuring out how to do it.

Imagine Bill is on a road trip. His vision of working part-time and retiring to his cabin in the mountains are like his destination. Suppose he started out in Philadelphia and his destination is Los Angeles. Bill is currently still in Philadelphia, hoping that someday he will miraculously be transported to Los Angeles. But right now, he has yet to consult a map and plan out his route (develop a life plan).

Instead, he just jumped in his car and has been driving for 25 years. Chances are, he will run out of gas before he ever gets halfway across the country – maybe even before he leaves Philadelphia. Ironically, when asked if he’s consulted a map, he essentially says “I don’t have time to look at the map right now, I’m too busy driving.”

Bill is not some anomaly. In fact, we all tend to do this type of thing in some area of our life. We are not taught in school to plan a future – we just hear about it from friends, family and the media, taking whatever advice we stumble across. The road trip analogy is really an excellent way to look at life.

Let's consider Susan, who took a similar situation and made it come out quite different. Like Bill, she has a 9-to-5 job. She plans (not “hopes”) to work part-time, like Bill, then retire to a beach house in California. But Susan has a solid plan. She figured out that if she saves $10 each day in a mutual fund investment , she will have over $2,200,000 to retire on by age 55 (she saves this $10 by bringing her own lunch to work most days and not buying coffee in the morning).

In fact, she figured out that she can begin working half-time at age 50, while still reaching these financial goals. Susan learned about the value of saving early in her life. Back to our metaphor, she has looked at her map and located her destination (working part-time and retiring early), then figured out a route to follow from where she is now to where she wants to go (she created a plan).

She made sure she would be able to follow her route to the destination without running out of gas money (did the math on how much she would have by age 55 if she invested $10 per day). Then she got in the car and started to drive, following her planned route as best as she could (she executed her plan). Sure, things didn't always go as expected – there was bad weather, her car broke down a couple of times, there were traffic jams and road closures, but she dealt with them as they came up, always knowing what her final destination was (In reality, she faced unexpected medical bills, got laid off, broke up with her fiancée, etc. but always found a way to get back on track toward her ultimate goal).

You get the idea. Note that there are many variations on this theme. Here are a few of them – see if you can recognize them in people you know, or even in yourself.

• Some people drive without a map (They live life as each day comes with no plan for the things they want to be a part of their future)

• Some drive with a map, but don't look at it (They once made a plan for what they want in life, but now they are way off track. They deal with this by simply not looking at their plan)

• Some looked at their map, but never get on the highway, just driving around the same streets again and again even though they once knew that those streets would never take them to their destination. (These are people who understood that they need to take certain steps to get to their long-term life goals. But they feel that it's too much work, so they put off ever starting. As a result they live one day at a time, just like the people who don't have a map).

• Some spend their time looking over the map, planning out every detail, but never actually get in the car and start to drive. (These are people who are in “analysis paralysis.” They spend their lives planning, they tell everyone what they'll do someday, but when it comes time to taking action, they say things like “I have to figure out a bit more detail…” They are forever stuck in the planning stage.)

• Some will run out of gas before they reach their destination, though even minor planning would have made it clear that this would happen. (These are people who made a plan, started out on the right track, but then when life events got them off track, they never evaluated how they were doing relative to their original goal. As a result, they've ended up lost and disillusioned, perhaps asking “How did I get here?”)

• Some pass many gas stations saying “I don't have time to get gas.” Then when the needle finally gets to Empty, they frantically start looking for gas stations only to find they are too far away to make it on the gas they have remaining. (These are people who are headed in the right direction, but sabotage themselves by not gathering the resources they need to keep going. The result is that they have an excuse like “I didn't have time,” “I don't have the money for it right now,” “My life is crazy right now because my landlord is kicking me out for paying my rent late too often.” The closer they get, the more “stuff” will get in their way – looking at the bigger picture usually reveals that it is stuff they could have prevented.)

There are four basic steps:

1. Clearly define where you want to go, then write it down. (Your goals may be for your career, family, finances, health, etc. or a combination of more than one).

2. Come up with a plan for getting there (learn from other people who have already done it before you. As Issac Newton said “I have seen as far as I have because I stand upon the shoulders of giants”)

3. Take action. Just do it. Each day, you should be taking some action that brings you closer to your bigger life goals. Large achievements are made from small steps taken day after day. (Tell someone about your goals – it's best if it is someone who will really hold you accountable, and who you would be embarrassed to have see you not follow through)

4. Continually evaluate the results you're getting to make sure you're still on track for your destination. If you're not, figure out what you need to change to get there. Then, go back to step #3. (At regular times each week, read your goals and ask the simple question “Am I closer to my goal than I was last week?” If so, great! Celebrate your success. If not, ask “What could I change that would bring me closer during the coming week?” If you get stuck, push yourself with a question like “What if I would lose my job if I didn't reach this goal – then what action would I do?”)

It takes some courage to look at your life and draw an honest analogy between your journey and a road trip. But remember, simply not looking at something doesn't make it not true. Being straight with yourself about where you are and where you want to be, as well as what you're doing to get there, will give you a valuable opportunity. Either you're on track, and deserve to celebrate, or you're not, and you can develop a plan for getting there.

I work with people all the time who never realized that they were on a road that would never get them to their greater life goals, and some who don't even know what their greater goals are. It's not nearly as hard as you might think to develop a plan and make progress on it.

Imagine where you could be a year from now if you are working toward a goal like finding a new relationship, earning more money, changing jobs or anything else you set your mind to. Stay tuned for future articles on staying motivated and overcoming procrastination. In the meantime, pull out the map, get on the freeway and put the pedal to the metal!

Author's Bio: 

Coach Al Lipper of ‘Destiny: Success’ is a successful holistic life coach that has been delivering a message of motivation, success, and personal fulfillment since 1991. Hundreds of people have worked with Coach Al on developing personal strategies that got them more free time, more money, and living their dreams. The amount invested was small compared to the results. If you’d like to learn more about his holistic personal life coaching services, including fees, go to: http://www.holisticlifebalance.com or at coach@destinysuccess.com.