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F.I.R.S.T for Planning

Josef Stalin had his Five Year Plans, Franklin D. Roosevelt had his New Deal and Dwight D. Eisenhower had his Project Apollo that planned to land a man on the Moon and return him safely to the Earth.

At this time every year, millions of people, the world over, make their own plans. They may not be as grand or far-reaching as the plans of Stalin, Roosevelt and Eisenhower, but cumulatively these plans make a major impact on the world around us, the people we work with, our families and friends, and even people we may never have met. These plans are more commonly known as New Years resolutions, but the reality is they are simply our plans for the future.

Most people would agree that having some kind of plan is not just a good thing to have, but an essential part of any desire to succeed, whether success is measured by rebuilding Russia or America, landing on the moon, or simply giving up a bad habit, putting in place a positive habit, starting a business, changing jobs, gaining new knowledge or whatever else you set out to achieve.

It is very rare that anything is achieved without having some kind of plan. People don't end up on top of Everest because they took a wrong turn down a dark alley in Kathmandu and Roger Bannister didn't achieve the 4-minute mile whilst out on his evening jog.

If you want to achieve anything in life - from small changes in habit to major life achievements - you first need to have some kind of plan.

SMART Goals - Not as smart as you might think!

People talk about SMART goals - and I used to a big fan myself - but after much consideration and experimentation I now feel SMART goals are only half the story, if that.

I'd like to introduce you to a simple system that will help you put achievable, well thought-out plans in place, help you in your day-to-day activities, give your life real direction, take your productivity to whole new levels, and make all your meetings and personal interactions much more efficient and effective - and it will do all of this quickly and easily and usually take no more than a single sheet of paper.

These are bold claims, right? But you will quickly see why this simple system is so amazingly effective in so many different areas.

Orison Swett Marden, the American author and founder of Success magazine, summed it up beautifully when he said:

A good system shortens the road to the goal. Orison Swett Marden

Imagine a system that will provide any goal or activity with a laser-focused clarity, based not on wishy-washy ideas and concepts, but clearly identified factual information. This is such a system.

And it gets even better.

Amazingly this methodology can be applied to anything from starting a business to setting your New Year's resolutions. You can use it when sat drinking your morning coffee and working out your plan for the day. You can use it when you're sat in a meeting with your colleagues, when organizing events, starting a new project, or just to plan your next vacation.

It is a simple and yet very powerful tool to have in your arsenal. Once you master it you will find yourself using it so regularly, and achieving such remarkable results, that its use will quickly becomes a habit.

Let's get going shall we?

The Concept in a Nutshell

This methodology is called F.I.R.S.T.

This is an acronym to help you remember the steps involved, but the word itself should act as a reminder that this is a process you should always go through first before you get going on any project, large or small.

In just five simple steps it will lead you from inception/conception through to having a clear idea of what needs to be done to achieve a successful outcome.

If you implement F.I.R.S.T. whenever you get the chance, you will quickly develop a positive habit that approaches all planning related issues and problems in general, in an organized, systematic, and all encompassing way.

The Five Steps of F.I.R.S.T.

F.I.R.S.T. is a mnemonic that will help you to remember the five steps that you need to work through. Once you've completed the process a few times you will be surprised how quick and easy it will be to recall the five stages and ensure you always tackle them in the correct order, which is very important.

Here's the mnemonic for F.I.R.S.T.

F = Focus

I = Identify Initial Ideas and Information

R = Reality

S = Solution or Strategy

T = Tactics and Tasks/Todos**

Let's take a look at each of the steps in turn so that you have a clear idea of what needs to be done at each stage of the process.

Step 1 - F is for Focus

This is the most important step of the whole process. If you don't get this right everything else you do will be pointless as far as succeeding in what you want to achieve is concerned.

Whilst defining the focus you will set the stage for everything that comes after.

On the afternoon of the 14th December 1911, four men planted a flag in a snow-capped mound, whilst a fifth photographed the event.

This image is the photograph that was taken. The four men are Amundsen, Hanssen, Hassel and Wisting. The flag they are planting is the Norwegian flag. The person taking the photograph is Olav Bjaaland.

These were the first men to successfully reach the South Pole.

Here's what Roald Amundson had to say:

"After we had halted we collected and congratulated each other. ... After this we proceeded to the greatest and most solemn act of the whole journey---the planting of our flag. ... I had determined that the act of planting it---the historic event---should be equally divided among us all. It was not for one man to do this; it was for all who had staked their lives in the struggle, and held together through thick and thin."

This was a remarkable event, and one that is still remembered over a century later, but it didn't just happen by chance.

Amundson's original mission was to reach the North Pole, but when Robert Peary and Frederick Cook achieved that feat in April 1909 he changed his focus to the South Pole.

When he first started to make plans for his Antarctic expedition he didn't know the details, he hadn't set dates, or figured out who was going or what to take. What he did have - and this is the crucial ingredient - is focus.

Focus is like looking at the moon from Earth. You can see the general direction that you would have to head in order to reach it, but you can't see any of the detail, or even have a clear idea of how you are going to get there.

Unlike conventional goal setting, often referred to as setting SMART objectives, deciding upon a focus is incredibly vague. It is simply the bigger picture. The direction in which you aim to head.

For example, if you wanted to lose 10 pounds your focus might be any of the following:

  • Health
  • Fitness
  • Diet
  • Surgical
  • Medical

Any of these five areas of focus might be able to assist you in losing 10 pounds. The area of focus you choose from these five would very much depend on your needs and wants. One person might choose health, whereas another might prefer diet, or maybe the area of focus could be a combination of the two, such as 'Health and Fitness'.

Choosing an area of focus is a wonderful way to add balance to your life. For example if you think you are neglecting your family life then fill out a F.I.R.S.T. Form (see below) with the words Family Life in the first box and then move onto step 2.

A whole book could be written on just the topic of selecting what to focus on, but to keep this brief, here's a list of some of the major areas you might want to consider focusing on.

  • Health
  • Business
  • Finance
  • Romance
  • Family
  • Education
  • Hobbies & Interests
  • Personal Development
  • Travel

Any of these can be split into smaller, yet equally relevant areas of focus. For example instead of business you could focus on marketing, sales, management, etc.

Once you have a clear idea of the area you want to focus on enter it into box 1 on the form (see below) and then move on to step 2.

Amundsen, Hanssen, Hassel and Wisting plant Norwegian flag at the South Pole. Photo: Olav Bjaaland

Step 2 - I is for Identify Initial Ideas and Information

Now that you are clear on the area of focus you can start to make note of any initial ideas that spring to mind or any information that you may feel is relevant.

Don’t hold back at this stage. Make note of anything that springs to mind as you won’t really know what is useful until you have continued onto steps 4 and 5.

This is not the time for getting ultra-specific or even listing tasks that you need to do. It is simply a time for a little blue-sky thinking and brainstorming.

For example, Joe is hoping to start a business at some point over the next few months so one of the areas he has chosen to focus on is Business. He writes down the following for Identify Initial Ideas and Information.

example of identifying different ideas
example of identifying different ideas

The secret is to just let things flow out of you and write down pretty much whatever comes into your mind. This is usually the part of the form that gets filled-up the most. If this happens to you simply turn the form over and continue on the unprinted back of the form.

Step 3 - R is for Reality

In this section you need to write down the current situation, as far as this area of focus is concerned.

Again, just write down whatever comes into your head. Don't process your thoughts through some kind of mental filter. Just write down each thought as it comes to you, and then move straight on to the next.

Joe, in the example above, might write something along these lines.

example form for reality

If you look at the form you will notice that steps 2 and 3 are side-by-side. The reason for this is that you can fill-out both of these areas of the form at the same time. You will probably find this easier than approaching each of these steps one at a time, as you will quickly realize that some of your thoughts are more appropriate to the current reality and others are mere ideas or just useful nuggets of information that need to be listed under Identify Initial Ideas and Information.

Step 4 - S is for Solution and/or Strategy

By the time you get to this step you will have a feeling that there is some flesh on the bones. You have gone from just an initial area of focus, to a position where you have some ideas about how you could progress, information to help you on your journey and an overview of the current situation, i.e. the reality.

Imagine you were planning a journey. Maybe a big vacation for the whole family.

The Focus might be Family Vacation. In the Initial Ideas and Information section you've listed a few ideas as to places you might want to go, some recommendations from people you know, any limitations such as time constraints, visa issues that may cause logistical problems, and maybe health related issues such as vaccines needed. The Reality might take a more pragmatic look at this information and list the favorite destinations that have been mentioned by family members.

Now, in the Solution or Strategy section you use the information you have entered in steps 2 and 3 to come up with some kind of way forward. If you are absolutely certain as to this way forward then you have a solution. If you are still unsure as to how to progress that is not a problem, you will just need to find a strategy that will lead you to a solution.

Some times there will be just a single answer to write in the box for step 4, but often you will find yourself brainstorming and blue sky thinking in the same way as you did for steps 2 and 3, but this time your thinking will have more structure due to the notes you have already made under Initial Ideas and Information and also under Reality.

Without the F.I.R.S.T. Methodology people find themselves jumping straight from the area of focus to the strategy or solution - or even worse still, straight to step 5, but we will come onto that in a moment. They do this by making far too many assumptions and by completely missing out the information gathering and reality-checking steps covered above.

To illustrate what you might enter here imagine someone who is wanting to increase their knowledge in a particular area such as business. They might enter something along the lines of:

completed form

Remember, at this stage you are listing any feasible solutions or strategies based on the area of focus, and what you have entered under steps 2 and 3.

You will often surprise yourself at this stage by immediately knowing how you need to proceed when previously you were completely clueless as to the direction you should take. It is great when this happens, but don't worry if it doesn't happen every time for you.

Step 5 - T is for Tactics, Tasks and Todos

Whole books have been written on the difference between tactics, tasks and todos, but to keep this to a manageable length I will do my best to keep it brief and focus on just the todos.

In step 5 you need to review what you have written in step 4 and make a list of anything that you need to do to achieve what you wrote down in that section.

If, in step 4, you had a single solution, then what you write in step 5 will simply be a list of what needs to be done to achieve that. If, on the other hand, you wrote down several possible solutions in step 4 then you have two choices.

  1. Choose one of the solutions you wrote down in step 4 and run with only that one.
  2. Write down a list of todos in step 5 that will help you to ultimately decide which solution to go with.

The decision to choose between these two ways forward will very much depend on the area of focus and its importance. For example, whether you choose 1 or 2 will be less important if your initial area of focus is which office chair to buy than were the area of focus something more life changing such as which subject to study at university, which business to start, or whether you should emigrate or not.

By the time you get to step 5 you are likely to find that the list of tasks that you need to do just flows out of you. It will almost be as though you know instinctively what needs to be done to achieve success in your chosen area of focus.

As a boy scout I remember one hot summers day being taught how to start a fire using nothing more than a small magnifying glass and some moss that we had gathered from the small wooded area near to where our tent was pitched. We all stood in amazement as our scout leader demonstrated how, if you held the magnifying glass in just the right way, you could, in a matter of seconds, set the moss on fire and then use that to get our camp fire burning.

The same process is at work here. Instead of the sun you have your area of focus (step 1) and instead of concentrating the suns rays onto some moss, you are concentrating your thoughts, ideas, and observations (steps 2 and 3) through your possible strategies/solution (step 4) onto your todo list (step 5).

In just the same way as the sun set fire to the moss, this simple system will focus your attention in such a way that you will literally put a fire-starter to your to list, which is guaranteed to achieve far more than you could ever have achieved had you not gone through this process.

In Conclusion

Whether your goal is to start a business, gain promotion at work, lose weight, learn a new skill or anything else you can dream up, there is one thing for sure, and that is that you will get absolutely nowhere if you don't take that first step.

Reaching the South Pole was an amazing achievement, but it all started not with that first step, but with a plan.

Without some kind of plan there's no guarantee that the first step will be in the right direction. In large part, Roald Amundson and his team beat the British explorer, Robert Falcon Scott and his team to the South Pole because they had the better plan, but you can be absolutely certain that neither team would have made it had they neglected to do a plan.

The F.I.R.S.T. Methodology is the perfect way to come up with that initial plan to lead you in the direction of success. It works for anything from a New Years resolution to an in-depth strategic plan, and yet only takes a matter of a few minutes to complete. If additional planning is needed to take the project to the next level, then you will have identified that and listed it as one of the todos under step 5, but you'll be amazed how many times the F.I.R.S.T. Methodology can take you from conception to a successful conclusion without any additional need for planning. Sometimes, the simplest solutions really are the best.

I wish you every success in setting your New Year's resolutions and goals for the upcoming year and sincerely hope that you will use the F.I.R.S.T. Methodology to help you on that successful journey. If you take just five minutes to print off one of the forms and complete it by following the steps listed above, I think you'll be amazed as to how effective it is. What have you got to lose?

And if you need any help with filling out the form, or choosing what to focus on, just post a comment below and I will do what I can to help.

Here's to your success in whatever endeavor you choose to tackle.

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