As we close the books on the year nearly over, and before we open a new chapter in the upcoming year, it is a good time to pause and take stock. It is a time to consider “what might have been” in terms of accomplishments in the year that is ending as well as what “could be” in the year ahead. Did we plan well, and, if so, did we execute the plan to the best of our ability? Honesty with ourselves is important, for without it the current year will be a precursor to just more of the same next year.

There are many “how to” articles and books on planning and organizing a life or an organization, but that is not the purpose of this article. I would simply like to address some of the philosophical aspects of various types of planning.

A quote that I have found to be particularly meaningful was made more than 60 years ago by Mahatma Gandhi. He said, “People should plan their life as if they would live forever, but they should live their life as if they might die tomorrow.” Not only are these great words to live by, but they also, in a very succinct way, capture the essence of life insurance as an essential part of most everyone’s life. Or, as we often say in the business–protection if you live, die or quit.

Planning comes in many forms, but they all have a common goal, which is progress. Progress itself also has different meanings in various settings. But Will Durant, the noted historian, in his book “Lessons From History,” said the universal definition of progress is “increasing control of the environment by life, a test that holds for all life forms including man.”

A popular from of planning today, particularly for organizations, is strategic planning, which is supposed to be more focused than what we used to call long-range planning. Since the time horizon has shrunk for many organizations, long-range may only be a few months.

Strategic planning, unfortunately, sometimes arises when no one can think of something else to do. It involves lots of delving into operations and setting goals and may even require an outside consultant. Such consultants know all the right words and phrases to secure a client, but more often than not, deep down they know nothing about what really makes your business tick. That may sound harsh, but I have seen too many examples where this has been true.

But in the end the plan is adopted, everybody feels good and breathes a sigh of relief knowing that now things will get better. But then comes the important part–implementation. One of the dangers about thinking long-term is that often it does not answer the question, “What do I do tomorrow?” and sometimes, tomorrow never comes. I have been told by consultants and others that many, if not most, strategic plans wind up on the shelf gathering dust because the enthusiasm for implementation is not as great as it was for the planning.

This is particularly true in volunteer organizations where leadership changes every year. Next year’s president and board will be expected to implement this year’s leadership’s dreams and goals. It is always easier to plan work for someone else. It sort of reminds me of the two bear hunters working out of their winter cabin. One of them got up early and said he was going to go out to look for a bear. A little while later, his partner spotted him running for the cabin with a bear in hot pursuit. The hunter yelled to the partner to open the door, which he quickly did. But as the hunter neared the cabin he stepped aside, not entering the cabin, whereas the bear’s momentum carried him through the door into the cabin. The hunter then slammed the door and yelled to his partner inside, “There–you skin that one while I go get another bear.” Implementation really can be tough, but without time spent on planning is wasted.

At the agent or advisor level, planning is just as important although somewhat simpler because of being less dependent on a lot of other people for the execution or implementation. From personal observation and my own experience, I know there are many pitfalls to planning and carrying out a successful year. That does not diminish the importance, however, for while some good things that happen may be luck or accident, most worthwhile achievements follow a deliberate pattern of hard work.

The chief problems I have experienced or witnessed in agent operations are unrealistic goals and lack of commitment, physically and economically. Setting lofty goals which most likely cannot be achieved is a surefire formula for failure when reality sets in. This underscores the old adage, “Never undertake vast projects with half vast effort.” Goals should be a stretch–but not impossible.

It is particularly important for an agent to be well-organized. The agent (advisor) is on the frontline of the battle to change the lives of others through successful planning. If one cannot plan one’s own life and business sensibly, than how can they be of help to others who need guidance? There is nothing more hypocritical than the so-called expert whose own life is a mess, offering advice to others on how to better plan their affairs.

It is well to remember that some of your clients may not live forever, but they will live for a long time. But more importantly, one may die tomorrow–and then we will know if your advice was sound.

May 2009 bring happiness and prosperity to you and your 401(k).