By Allison McWilliams (’95), Ph.D., Assistant VP, Mentoring and Alumni Personal & Career Development, Wake Forest University

We can’t plan for every outcome or predict the future with any certainty. Indeed, too many of us spend too much time focused on the “what if’s” and not enough time on the “what now’s.” The “what if’s” are all about trying to forecast some unknown future state without gathering the data that you need for informed decision-making: What if I get that job I haven’t applied for and I end up hating it? What if I stay with this organization and miss out on some great opportunity? What if I don’t make the right decisions now, and it leads me somewhere I don’t want to go? What if, what if, what if. There are so many ways to end those sentences that it doesn’t matter what you do. Any choice will get you there.

The “what now’s,” on the other hand are all about active, intentional work to own your choices and decisions. I’ve assessed my options and done my homework, and decided that now I should apply for that job. I’ve talked to my manager and identified a career path here for me, so for now I’m going to stay with this organization. I understand that there are many different potential paths forward, by making some strategic decisions, now, I take ownership for that path and give myself permission to make different choices in the future. See the difference? The “what if’s” are all about flailing your hands in the air in distress, whereas the “what now’s” are calm and measured and purposeful.

One of the keys to letting go of the “what if’s” for the “what now’s” is to gather data and, based on that data, to set some goals and identify clear action steps to move forward. It’s not a difficult process! But for some reason, this is the part that many people leave out and then wonder why they haven’t gotten anywhere. So here is a simple action planning process for you to do that work:

  1. What do you know? Every action planning process starts with identifying your current state. This is where you have to fully let go of the “what if’s” and identify what you actually know – about yourself, about your situation, about that opportunity you think you want to pursue. This work will likely reveal some things you don’t know, too. Gather as much data as you think you need.
  2. What’s your target? Where do you want to be in six months to one year? Don’t project out too far. Many people try to create twenty-year plans and wonder why they fail. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Just six months to one year.
  3. What are your goals? SMART goals are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timebound. They are short and to the point and start with an action verb (avoid verbs like “be” or “have”). Here’s an example: Make 10 new connections with professionals at marketing and advertising firms in NYC to learn more about the industry and potential job opportunities by June 30. Write 2-3 SMART goals that will help you to get to that target statement you wrote.
  4. How will you get there? It’s not enough just to have a goal, you need to know how you’re going to get there or you’ll never do it. Under each goal statement, write 3-4 action steps that will help you to achieve that goal. Think of these like a to-do list: first I do this, then I do this, then I do this and I accomplish my goal. Make you action steps as SMART as possible.
  5. What else do you need? Are there resources, people, or information that will help you to be successful? What are you currently missing? What proactive steps can you take to acquire those things?
  6. How will you know when you are successful? Finally, don’t forget to measure your progress. You need to build in times to celebrate your accomplishments and your forward movement, and acknowledge places where you could do more or better or differently.

One thing you may notice in all of this is you do the work. People who live in the “what if’s” are waiting for someone to rescue them, to tell them how to live their lives. People who live in the “what now’s” are taking active ownership for their lives, their choices, their decisions. Be one of the “what now” people. Own what’s next for you.