The five-year plan is dead. With the pandemic and other uncertainties, many individuals are questioning what this means for career, and for those who plan years into the future, it can make them feel like they’re floundering.
Fortunately, you don’t have to leave planning behind, even in the face of an uncertain future. With micro-planning, you can plan for the future in smaller chunks, allowing you to reassess at set points throughout the year and readjust to circumstances as necessary. To micro-plan, start with identifying your compelling purpose for your career. Then, make a plan for the year that aligns with this purpose. Each quarter, reassess and reflect on what you’re working on, and each month, break those goals and projects down into distinct phases. At the start of each week, have a broad view of what you need to do. Finally, each day, track your energy and see where you can improve to reach your goals.
The year 2020 did not turn out as we planned. Unemployment rates in the U.S. are close to twice what they were in February of 2020, and the number of people furloughed is still towering over February averages. Plus, with the profound shakeup of our daily lives, a lot of folks are asking, What do I really want to do with my life, given that everything else seems to be up in the air?
If there’s any beauty that’s come from this pandemic, it’s that we’re reorganizing our priorities to honor what really matters to us. And for many, “career” is top of the reboot list. But letting go of what we always thought we could count on, like a five-year plan, can be painful and leave us feeling like we’re floundering.
Having a plan is one of the best stress-reduction strategies out there. As humans, we crave feeling like we’re in control and that we have certainty. In fact, research shows that a sense of control helps us stave off symptoms of depression and anxiety and can even decrease mortality risk. And the more we crave control, it turns out, the higher achieving we tend to be.
Just because we no longer have the illusion of knowing what our long-term future holds doesn’t mean we can’t still benefit from the stress-reduction — and achievement-enhancing — results of planning. It all comes down to how we look at time and goals.
If you want to thrive and be part of the meaningful change, adaptability is the key ingredient. But I don’t mean to just go with the flow and take life as it comes to you. This new brand of adaptability channels our desire to make a strategic plan, while building in planned checkpoints for course correction as new information arises and circumstances shift. It’s called micro-planning.
Micro-planning is simple. It takes a larger vision and breaks it down into yearly, quarterly, monthly, weekly, and daily check-in practices to plan and adjust as necessary. We get some of the same stabilizing effects that a five-year plan may have given us but with shorter chunks of planning that make more sense in our current economic and cultural context.
Micro-planning is based on biomimicry, “a practice that learns from and mimics the strategies found in nature to solve human design problems — and find hope along the way.” Prolonged stress, like the kind experienced during a global pandemic of unknown length, can cause a significant decrease in our ability to function optimally, especially when it comes to our cognitive abilities (like our brain handling high-order tasks or our ability to make decisions based on our goals instead of based on our habits). Micro-planning allows us to relieve this stress without the seduction of thinking, however erroneously, that we have control over what is going to happen in the next one, three, five, or more years of our lives.
There are six elements of micro-planning:
1. Purpose: Identify your compelling purpose that allows flexibility in terms of how it will come to pass. So many people are in a reboot phase when it comes to their careers. New directions can feel risky, but when we look back at our career history, we often find a thread that connects what all of our different roles have had in common. That thread is a great place to start when it comes to identifying your compelling purpose. For example, my purpose is to help leaders become more connected to sustainable sources of personal power so we can all make our highest contribution to humanity and the planet.
While how I implement this purpose may change as circumstances change around me, the purpose itself remains the same. If you aren’t clear on your purpose, do a quick exercise: Jot down the most fulfilling career experiences you’ve had to date. Notice what commonalities they have. Those are the ingredients of your purpose.
2. The Year: Make a plan for the year that aligns with your purpose, based on the best information you have available to you. Reflect on the previous year and what worked (or didn’t work) and take into account past lessons you’ve learned. Identify one to three areas of growth that you want to focus on. I don’t recommend trying more than three; a larger overhaul often fails because, when we put too much on our plate, we end up overwhelmed and not achieving the results we want. Your yearlong plan could include a job search, pursuing growth opportunities in the career you currently have, meeting and exceeding your KPIs, laying the groundwork for starting your own business, or whatever else makes sense for the current moment you’re in.
3. Quarters: At the beginning of each quarter, reassess what you’re working on and how you’re working by asking yourself powerful reflection and planning questions, such as: What themes emerged this past quarter? What worked, and what didn’t? What did I learn? How can I apply what I learned in the next quarter? What needs to shift in my plan based on new information and circumstances?
Based on the answers to these questions, set goals for the next quarter, being careful to choose no more than five per quarter. (The fewer the better; the fewer things you do with more focus and attention, the better results you’ll get.) For example, you might notice that a theme that emerged over the previous quarter was that you weren’t recognized for your ideas at work. After reflection, you realize you weren’t advocating enough for them.
You may then shift your plan for the next quarter and set a goal to share one new idea with your department every month and that when you do so, you also share very clearly how it will positively impact results for your department. You might also decide to read two books on increasing your influence as a leader to improve in this area.
4. Months: Each month, take your goals for the quarter and assess where you stand with them. For any active goals, break them into specific projects and then break each project down into phases. Every project requires four distinct phases to get it off the ground and achieve the results we want: planning and initiation, shipping/launching/making it visible, completion and integration, and rest and reflection.
For example, if your project is to “search for a new job,” the “plan and initiate” phase would be updating your resume, tapping into your network for potential opportunities, and searching for openings. The next phase, “making it visible,” would be applying for jobs, showing up for interviews, and following up after. The “complete and integrate” phase would be the onboarding phase once you receive your new job offer. Finally, the “rest and reflect” phase would be allowing yourself to exhale and celebrate, knowing that a new cycle has begun — and you have accomplished your goal.
5. Weeks: At the start of each week, make a weekly to-do list — rather than a daily one that’s a mile long and leaves you feeling defeated when you shut down for the day. This weekly plan allows you to have a broader view of what’s ahead and gives you more flexibility to plan than your average to-do list. But don’t just think about work tasks. Prioritize movement, sleep, time outside, hydration, and healthy food, too, as you look ahead in your week. Optimizing your physical energy make you significantly more effective at executing your plans than buying into the common, yet inaccurate, belief that our best work comes exclusively from our intellect.
6. Days: Finally, track your energy on a daily basis. Gathering data about yourself and your physical, mental, and emotional energy at the end of the day can give you powerful information as to how to optimize your workflow. Keep a journal by your bedside and jot down how you felt emotionally, mentally, and physically. Note what you worked on, how it went (what went well, what didn’t, and what you learned), and what you’re grateful for. This five-minute practice allows you to incrementally adjust the way you show up at work and in your life so you can approach your weekly, quarterly, and annual planning more mindfully. Using this data collection practice to make micro-adjustments to the way you work and your goals also gives you a tremendous sense of control, which has been proven to decrease the amount of time it takes to get tasks done.
The world is changing dramatically all around us, and we need to change with it. Clinging to a long-term strategy like the five-year plan isn’t going to work anymore. But letting go of our need and desire to know what the future holds does not mean a freefall into anxious indolence. By breaking down our planning processes into smaller chunks, we begin to check in more frequently and adapt more naturally. The five-year plan may be dead, but our capacity for doing our most impactful work and live into the goals that we set for ourselves is very much alive.