Action Plans and a Rule of Life

Action Plans and a Rule of Life
Obsculta, o fili, præcepta magistri, et inclina aurem cordis tui — Listen carefully, my son, to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart. ~ Rule of St Benedict

Imagine being thrown out of an aeroplane, blindfolded, with your hands tied behind your back. While the wind rushes up your face and body, you manage to wriggle your hand free, breaking out from the vice grip of a Kevlar rope, and pull the blindfold off. You are falling thousands of feet in the air, and the thought of impending death quickly slaps you in the face, along with many insects. Amidst the sound of your screams, which sound like the buzzing of a mosquito a far off, and you flailing arms, you realise your kidnappers graciously equipped you with a parachute… You land in the thickness of the forest, trapped in the branches of the trees, like a bug in a spider’s web. As you squirm, you recall the last place you were, the beach of Rio de Janeiro. You're likely in the amazon now. You are completely lost and don’t know how to find your way out. Not only that, you are also unprepared to tackle the dangers that lurk in the forest—wild beasts, savage peoples, carnivorous plants, quicksand—everything that would want to kill you, and you have no form of defence. A map, some food, tools, and weapons would be nice now, but you have nothing. Darkness falls, and despair looms. It’s man vs the wild and there seems no chance of survival. There is no time to waste. It’s time to take action, time to set a rule of life in order to make it out alive...

For many, the beginning of our spiritual life is like being thrown out of the plane. We are free from our captor the devil through baptism, but we are in a freefall to certain death if we are not prepared. Thankfully we have reason and grace, which act like a parachute for us, but we can still get caught up tangled in the forest of life. The flesh, the world, and the devil are out to get us, and we have no food, no map, no weapons, no tools to survive. We need to act immediately, and we need a plan, we need a rule of life.

What is a rule of life?

A rule of life is essentially a plan for living each day. The Latin word for rule, regula, is a feminine noun emphasising the gentle nature of the rule as opposed to the harshness of law lex. A rule is sturdy enough to give structure but gentle enough not to break. Life needs a support; it needs a rule. All living things have some sort of structure or support that allows them to live—a spine for vertebrates, a hard shell for insects, the ocean for jellyfish. Life needs a structure. When God created the world, he gave man the power to order and direct creation, but also the power to direct his own life. The end of our life is God since God made us for himself and all our actions should have God as its ultimate end. We are a hybrid of spirit and animal. Like the Angels we have an intellect, but we are also like animals with bodily needs. The disorder that resulted from Adam’s disobedience to God resulted in our constant battle with what feels good as opposed to what we know is good. As history shows us time and time again, when our feelings are the driving force of our actions chaos quickly follows. To survive we need order. By virtue of our intellect, we are constantly putting things in order no matter how much some of us would like to live spontaneously. The ability to order is a virtue, a Latin word which means power. The ability to order is our superpower.

In The Secret of Sanctity, St Francis de Sales says order and virtue are synonymous. It is order which makes paradise, and disorder which makes hell. If your life is marked by order, you will be happy; if your life is one of disorder, you will be miserable.[1] He goes on to prescribe a rule of life for his disciple.

Throughout the history of the church, Rules of life have been prescribed by holy men and women as a way of directing one’s life towards God, Our Happiness and Joy. The most famous rule in the Latin church is The rule of St. Benedict, but there are other rules, like the rule of St Augustine and that of Pachomius.  A rule of life is something that directs us to our goal, a sort of action plan.

In I want to see God Father Marie-Eugène says, “As to the soul living in the world, without a precise rule, it is difficult to see how it could advance along the spiritual way without the help of regular direction.”[2] In another place he says a rule of life is

A plan that is stable, yet flexible, which will fix precisely the obligations of his state and his times for prayerful converse with God. This will safeguard him not only from solicitude for external things and the stubborn violence of his passions, but also from the whims of his own fancy and excessive preoccupation.[3]

Anyone who is serious about their relationship with God needs a rule of life, a gentle guide towards our destination. A rule of life is a, “specific spiritual path that can help to focus our spiritual disciplines and practice of virtue.”[4] In Religious communities such as the Benedictines, “A rule of life is a set of principles, prescriptions, and prohibitions that a person commits to in order to maintain a relationship with God and the community within the order.”[5] But to us it is, “More of a personalized creed or plan that acts as our 'compass' and helps us to stay on the right path as determined through the spiritual evaluation exercises.”[6]

How does an action plan fit in with a rule of life?

A rule of life is basically an action plan for the spiritual life. Action Planning, “Is an approach, rather than a specific method, which helps focus ideas and decide what steps you need to take to achieve particular goals… It is a statement of what you want to achieve over a given period of time.” [7] Using an action plan is like using a map—if we embark on a journey to new destination without one, we will get lost. An action plan not only helps us to arrive at our destination, but it also allows us to save time and provides us with the steps we should take to reach our goals.

Action plans, like a rule of life, are a way of self-management. This involves not only the management of physical activities, but also social, emotional, and spiritual.[8] According to Disentangling self-management goal setting and action planning: A scoping review, self-management,

Begins with the exploration of patients’ beliefs and values.[9] At the very core of the action plan is the person’s faith and the moral code they hold dear. Goal setting and action planning are frequently employed since they are found to “improve patients’ self-efficacy, help them change their behaviour and improve their health outcomes.[10]

Even though action plans are used for many things, from creating a business to organizing a fundraising fair, they are used by many for self-improvement, hence we will focus on its relation to our personal growth.

Achieving our goal

Changing one’s life for the better is never going to be easy. Nothing good in life comes about easily. Setting goals is a strategy that “assists individuals to identify specific behaviours to change and how to go about doing so.”[11] This means that the person who wants change must first have a clear goal in sight. According to Goal Setting and Action Planning for Health Behaviour Change, goals are “mental representations of desired outcomes, and goal setting is the process by which one identifies specific goals and determines how they will be achieved.”

The goal of the Christian is union with God. It requires that we grow in virtue and ever increase the Sanctifying Grace in our souls, but it also requires that we purge ourselves as far humanly possible of our sins and imperfections. There is a positive and negative aspect to achieving that goal—an approach and avoidance. According to Baily,

Approach goals help individuals move toward desired outcomes, whereas avoidance goals help individuals move away from undesired outcomes.” An example of a positively framed approach goal might be “I’m going to eat a cup of low-fat yogurt for my afternoon snack,” whereas a negatively framed avoidance goal might be “I’m not going to eat junk food as a snack.” Although these goals appear to be similar in terms of promoting healthy snacking, psychological investigation has shown that different cognitive and emotional processes are involved. Approach goals are associated with greater positive emotions, thoughts, and self-evaluations and greater psychological well-being. In contrast, avoidance goals are associated with fewer positive thoughts and greater negative emotions. Given these findings, setting approach goals may be more helpful than setting avoidance goals for helping patients change their health behaviours. [12]

This is in harmony with what moral theology teaches us about passions. Fr Prummer quoting Aristotle says, “passion is a movement in the sense appetite caused by the imaginative awareness of the presence of good or evil and productive of some change in the body.”[13] St Thomas identified 11 different types of passion, six belonging to the concupiscible appetite, and five to the irascible appetite.

In the Concupiscible Appetite

In reference to good

In reference to evil








In the Irascible Appetite

In reference to good

In reference to evil







In the above table, the passions are arranged according to the good to be approached and the evil to be avoided. Modern psychology points out that we desire that which is positive and adds to our life rather than that which takes away and is negative. Even when we commit evil it is under the aspect of the good.[14] We must always strive to be virtuous. Virtue gives the one who possesses it power hence the name which comes from the Latin virtus meaning strength. This strength makes one a master over the powers of the soul, thus performance of the virtue comes with ease. But to reach peak performance can take a while to accomplish. That's why we should strive to master small goals as it leads to better performance.

Performance goals involve judging and evaluating one’s ability, whereas mastery goals (also called learning goals) involve increasing existing abilities and learning new skills. Failure to achieve a performance goal may be interpreted as a failure of one’s abilities, but challenges that arise as one pursues a mastery goal are viewed as a natural part of learning and encourage problem-solving and active engagement. Furthermore, mastery goals are associated with improved self-efficacy (ie, one’s confidence in one’s ability to perform a specific action), performance, and knowledge. These findings can inform the selection of health behaviour goals in at least two ways. First, performance goals should not be set in the absence of mastery goals. If one sets a performance goal to lose 10 pounds over the next 4 weeks and then failed to do so, one might interpret this as a failure and attribute it to an inherent inability to lose weight. A more appropriate approach would be to supplement the performance goal with one (or several) mastery goals. For example, to facilitate the aforementioned weight loss performance goal, one might set a mastery goal to learn to prepare nutritious meals or to learn a new recreational activity that encourages physical activity. Second, mastery goals may help individuals persist in their behaviour change efforts when feeling challenged or discouraged. Because mastery goals encourage problem solving and active engagement, failing to achieve a specific mastery goal may provide feedback that a particular approach for achieving the goal was insufficient and that a different approach should be considered. In this way, mastery goals may promote self-evaluation of current efforts and problem solving for future attempts. Although additional research is needed to understand performance and mastery goals within the context of health behaviour change, setting mastery goals in the pursuit of a broader performance goal may be helpful for patients in their behaviour change efforts.[15]

In setting these goals we need to set goals that are challenging in order to enhance self-efficacy, but not too challenging to decrease if we repeatedly fail. Furthermore,

Intrinsically motivated goals are inherently rewarding to the individual, and therefore an individual may be more willing to attempt an intrinsically motivating goal in spite of its difficulty. Additionally, intrinsic motivation is associated with improved learning and performance,14 which may facilitate goal achievement. Within the context of health behaviour change, these findings suggest that a challenging goal that is intrinsically motivating to a patient may be more beneficial than an easy, effortless one. [16]

One way to link all of this together is by creating SMART goals. Smart is an acronym for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timed. By using SMART as a guide, we are more likely to be successful in achieving our goals.

An example of a SMART goal is, “I will engage in 30 minutes of aerobic physical activity 5 days a week for the next 4 weeks.” Well-defined goals are necessary for goal attainment because they help individuals focus their desires and intentions and create a standard by which success can be measured. Furthermore, using the goal characteristics described above, a SMART goal should be intrinsically motivating, approach and mastery based, and appropriately challenging. A limitation of SMART goals, however, is that they do not specify how the goal will be implemented. In the example mentioned above, physical activity can be achieved in various ways: walking around the block, running on a track, going to the gym, one 30-minute bout of physical activity, or three 10-minute bouts of physical activity.[17]

To overcome this setback in our goal setting we must create an action plan. “Action plans specify where, when, and how a goal will be implemented and help individuals plan the specific actions they will take to achieve their overarching goal.”[18] We can break down an action plan into 5 components: 1. Action plans are conceived and owned by persons making plans; 2. Action plans are very specific since they answer the questions what (always a behaviour), how much, how often, and usually when (which days and times); 3. Action plans are public and are shared with someone else to provide some sort of accountability although only individuals keep track of their plans, ensuring that plans are owned by individuals; 4. Action plans are short term, usually one week; 5. individuals making plans rate their confidence in accomplishing the plans on a scale of 1–10.[19]

Creating an action plan with one’s spiritual director

In The priest: minister of divine mercy, the church's magisterium recommends the following:

The journey of spiritual direction can opportunely be embarked upon by a general revision of one’s life. It is always useful to have a plan or some particular resolutions covering our relationship with God (liturgical and personal prayer), our fraternal relationships, the family, work, friendships, the specific virtues, our personal duties, the apostolate, and spiritual instruments. Such plans can also reflect our aspirations, the difficulties we encounter, and the desire to give ourselves increasingly to God. It is very useful to indicate precisely the spiritual method which one intends to adopt for the journey towards prayer, holiness (virtue), the duties of state, mortification and for the minor daily hardships of life.

Dan Burke gives us a checklist in Navigating the interior life of how we can go about setting a rule of life implementing some elements of an action plan.

Period of Time: What period will this rule cover (month/year)?
Root Sin Identification: What is your root sin and how does it manifest in your life?
Corresponding Virtue: What is the corresponding virtue that you will pursue that will help you fight your root sin? Virtue in Christ: How does that virtue manifest itself in the life and person of Christ and in what way is Christ’s example specifically inspiring to you in your pursuit of holiness? How will you specifically attempt to live out that virtue?
Prayer and the Sacraments: How do you plan to grow in faith through prayer and the sacraments?
Daily Schedule: How will you live your rule of life on a daily basis? This might include specific times for morning prayer, other prayer, examination of conscience, etc. This schedule might also indicate which of the scheduled items are non-negotiable commitments, and which are optional in the sense that you wouldn’t violate your rule of life if you were not able to accomplish them on any particular day.

And an example he gives of implementing this is the following.

Focus Point: This week I want to work on ensuring that I am gentle and respectful to my spouse and family—particularly when I get interrupted when I am trying to get work done. When the interruption comes, I will stop my work, turn to them, and engage with love and gentleness.[20]


7:00 a.m. to 7:10 a.m.


7:10 a.m. to 7:20 a.m.

Scripture Reading and Reflection

7:20 a.m. to 7:30 a.m.

Decade of the Rosary

11:50 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.


12:00 p.m. to 1:00 p.m.


4:30 p.m.

Start ramping down work for the day so I can leave on time

5:00 p.m.

Leave work to get home on time for dinner with family

6:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m.

Dinner with Family/Rosary

8:30 p.m. to 8:45 p.m.

Examination of Conscience and Night Prayer

And He give this last bit of advice.

An even simpler way to start is to write out how we might react when confronted with a frequent temptation. This approach might simply have the focus point like the one mentioned above without a schedule that might look like this:
Focus Point: Every time I have thoughts or temptation about _____________________, I will begin to pray the Hail Mary until they dissipate.
A key ingredient in a good rule of life is to be as specific and focused as is possible. Emphasis on everything is emphasis on nothing; it is very easy to be ambiguous or to focus on too many things at once when seeking to gain traction in the spiritual life. Guidance for being specific is similar to that provided earlier for root sin identification: If you can explain it to a stranger, then you are probably clear enough. With respect to the specific pursuit of any virtue or spiritual discipline, here’s a commonly used test to determine if your spiritual goals are S.M.A.R.T:
Specific: Are my spiritual goals precise, detailed, and explicit?
Measurable: Have I stated my spiritual goals in a way that I can easily determine if I have achieved them or not?
Actionable: Are my spiritual goals clear enough that I can take daily steps toward achieving them?
Realistic: Are my spiritual goals high but within reach of someone with my responsibilities as a mother/father, wife/husband, etc.?
Time Bound: Are my goals tied to increments of time like days, weeks, months or years so that I have the added benefit of working against a specific schedule?[21]

...Face with certain death, one begins to reflect on one's goals. you create an action plan, not only to get out of the forest, but also to improve your spiritual life. you press on forward making small goals, creating a map of where you have been, making tools and weapons from broken branches and stones, and foraging for food and hunting, and you keep praying to be king, generous, temperate, courageous and loving to all you meet. Several days later you see a glimmer of civilization. You are now approaching paradise.

[1] de Sales, Francis, and Jean Crasset. The Secret of Sanctity. Translated by Ella McMahon. London, England: Catholic Way Publishing, 2015.

[2]l'Enfant-Jésus Marie-Eugène de. I Want to See God: A Practical Synthesis of Carmelite Spirituality. Translated by Sister M. Verda Clare. Allen, Texas: Christian Classics, 1953.


[4]Burke, Dan, and Fr. John Bartunek. Navigating the Interior Life: Spiritual Direction and the Journey to God. Steubenville, Ohio: Emmaus Road Publishing, 2012.



[7]“Action Planning.” Involve, July 4, 2018.

[8]Lenzen, Stephanie Anna, Ramon Daniëls, Marloes Amantia van Bokhoven, Trudy van der Weijden, and Anna Beurskens. “Disentangling Self-Management Goal Setting and Action Planning: A Scoping Review.” PLOS ONE 12, no. 11 (November 27, 2017).



[11]Bailey, Ryan R. “Goal Setting and Action Planning for Health Behavior Change.” American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine 13, no. 6 (September 13, 2017): 615–18.


[13]Prümmer Dominicus M. Handbook of Moral Theology. Translated by Gerald W. Shelton. Manchester, New Hampshire: Benedictus Books, 2022.

[14]St Marys College Oscott, ed. “The Problem of Evil in St Thomas Aquinas.” The Problem of Evil in St Thomas Aquinas. St Marys College Oscott, January 2, 2018.

[15]Bailey, Ryan R. “Goal Setting and Action Planning for Health Behavior Change.” American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine 13, no. 6 (September 13, 2017): 615–18.




[19]Lorig, Kate, Diana D Laurent, Kathryn Plant, Eswar Krishnan, and Philip L Ritter. “The Components of Action Planning and Their Associations with Behavior and Health Outcomes.” Chronic Illness 10, no. 1 (2013): 50–59.

[20]Burke, Dan, and Fr. John Bartunek. Navigating the Interior Life: Spiritual Direction and the Journey to God. Steubenville, Ohio: Emmaus Road Publishing, 2012.