How To Make Good Action Steps

Good action steps are critical to getting things done. You need to make action steps for yourself and you may need to coach other people to form theirs. Not all action steps are created equal. Here’s how to make good action steps. 

As a professional coach, I know my client will only make progress on their goals if they do something to implement the insights and ideas we generate through our coaching conversations. Near the end of every coaching conversation I help my clients to create 2 to 3 action steps they will do before we meet next.

I often ask about action steps like this:

What actions could you take to move forward?

Answers to this question are more often than not vague, unclear, or overly optimistic. That’s okay, it’s only the start of creating good action steps. I follow up with questions that will help the person make doable, forward-moving action steps.

How To Make Good Action Steps

When you’re forming action steps, listen for what’s missing, unclear, or unrealistic. There are 5 elements that are part of all good action steps.

1. Good action steps move you forward. A lot of my high-achieving clients create action steps that are actually goals, like, “Launch our new program by September 1st.” A goal is something you want to achieve that will take multiple steps done over a period of time. An action step is a singular to-do item that you can do in a limited amount of time. Break goals into action steps by thinking in terms of “moving forward,” rather than achieving the goal. Goals should be challenging, action steps easy. Ask,

  • What actions could you take to move forward? (focuses on forward movement)
  • What steps are needed to make that happen? (creates smaller steps)
  • What do you want to do in the next week? (uses immediacy to narrow the action step)

2. Good action steps are specific behaviors, thoughts, or decisions. “I will improve my communication at the office this week,” is an intention, not an action step. It may feel good to say it, but it’s lack of specificity is likely to not produce much change. Ask these questions to create a more actionable action step:

  • In what ways would you like to improve your communication? (defines the improvement)
  • With whom or in what situations do you have in mind? (specifies the situation)
  • What will your improved communication look like? (imagines the result)

3. Good action steps are in your control. A salesperson who says, “I will get 10 sales this week,” has identified the result they want, but not the steps they will do to get there. Ask questions to draw out the behaviors and mindsets needed to achieve the goal:

  • What will you do to get those 10 sales? (makes it behavioral)
  • How many [sales calls] will you make this week? (makes it measurable)
  • How do you need to think differently to achieve that? (includes attitudes, mindsets, etc.)

4. Good action steps are commitments. “I might work on the publicity for the upcoming conference.” I might, I think, I may, perhaps I will, maybe, if I have time… all these phrases are indicators of a lack of clarity or commitment. Assess or increase commitment by asking:

  • “What would change ‘I might’ to ‘I will’?” (identifies obstacles)
  • “What will you commit to doing?” (clarifies the action step and commitment)
  • “When could you work on it?” If they’re not sure, ask, “Would it be helpful to take a look at your calendar right now?” (calendaring tests commitment)

5. Good action steps can be checked off a list when completed. “I will change my eating habits,” has a number of problems. Besides being vague, it’s not singular and specific enough yet. It will take many different actions done over time to complete it. It fails the checklist test. Ask:

  • What specific changes do you want to make? (clarifies the goal)
  • What are the steps to changing your eating habits? (identifies specific actions)
  • What will you commit to doing this week? (makes action immediate)

Making good action steps often requires a number of reflective questions. In our minds, we feel like our action steps are clear and concrete. Saying them out loud often reveals their weaknesses. Don’t hesitate to explore the meaning or definition or how-to of an action step until it is clear and feels doable.

Question: How do clear action steps help you to move forward? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

    Keith is President of Creative Results Management. He helps busy leaders multiply their impact. Keith is the author of several books including The COACH Model for Christian Leaders.

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