“I don’t know what I want to do with my life / I don’t know what’s gonna happen. I can’t possibly plan”.
I have heard this question over and over for many years, often as an excuse other than a real dilemma. Most people never stop to think about what they are doing with their lives or how they could possibly expect good results out of inertia. They just hope for the best, as if success is a matter of luck, and all they can do is work really hard and be “positive”. Since the future is unknown, they can’t possibly plan, right?
This perception is not only wrong, but it’s extremely naive! To begin with, when we plan, we don’t plan our whole lives! We don’t need to know what we’re going to be doing in 30 years. Can we plan for the long term? Sure, but we don’t have to. Then, there’s the element of surprise, we don’t know what’s gonna happen. True, we don’t. It doesn’t matter, though.
Let’s think about one of the most common goals people are used to exhaustively plan: wedding receptions! People don’t know anything about the future. They don’t know if it’s going to be hot, cold, or raining on the day they’re planning to hold the event of their lives. They don’t even know if by then they’re still going to be with their partners. They do hope so, but it happens sometimes that things just fall apart. Other than the weather and the status of the relationship, a lot of different things can happen in people’s lives that could potentially interfere with the wedding plans. Still, they don’t refrain from planning. The result is that most wedding receptions happen with few glitches. Whatever happens, happens. The event still takes place at the schedule date.
So why don’t we just plan everything we want to accomplish like we plan wedding receptions or birthday parties?
For most part, because people don’t know they can.
I’ll give you a common example. As a writer, sometimes I have people asking me how I write my books, and I manage to produce so many articles. I usually respond with other questions trying to understand first what is the impression that they have of the writing process. Most people believe writing is a matter of pure inspiration. So people tell me that they think I sit at my desk in front of my laptop and just write, and write, and write. One day, I’m done and then publish it. That’s it. That’s the magic that people think happens when I transform ideas into books. When I tell them that no, that’s not how it happens, they react surprised. I actually need to plan how I’m going to write the book with a deadline in mind, then I need to research the topic thoroughly, and narrow down what I’m going to be talking about on that specific book. I only write the first word after I have the whole structure of the book planned out. The writing process ends up being 99% research and planning, and 1% inspiration. They are surprised to know it’s possible to plan a book from beginning to end.
Another reason people don’t plan is lack of accountability. An event requires commitment with other people. If you schedule a party, reserve the location, invite people, you can’t change the deadline if you’re running late, and you can’t just forget about it while you work on other projects. When we have personal goals that don’t involve other people, we often don’t feel the pressure that comes with social accountability. We set goals, then put them aside to take care of other things. We’ll talk more about that here, but what’s important to understand is that whatever we want to do can be planned, regardless of our lack of knowledge of the future. Also, we don’t need to plan too far ahead. We can plan goals exactly like weddings and parties. Things that we want to accomplish in a few months to a few years and that’s it. There’s no need to plan your whole life.
But what if things don’t go as planned?
This is another naive question. Ok, so what? What do you do when your wedding doesn’t go as planned? You just keep on going, you do what you have to do, you adjust. You don’t refrain from planning because there is a remote possibility that things might go wrong, or there may be obstacles. Anything can go wrong. Heck, I don’t know if I’m going to be alive tomorrow. I can only assume that I will and in that case, I need to have a plan to support myself and my life tomorrow, next month, next year, and so on. You don’t quit your job and stop taking care of yourself because there is a possibility that you’ll have a heart attack and die tonight. You don’t do anything expecting the worst, you act to have a better life hoping for the best. If something else happens, you deal with it. Of course, if you plan before you take action, you’ll have considered the most probable obstacles and will be ready to take care of them if and when they happen.
Anything you want to accomplish can be planned just like a wedding reception. Athletes plan the development and maintenance of their skills, musicians plan long world tours, businesses plan the launch of new products, engineers plan the construction of new buildings, and so on. Nobody knows anything about the future, but if you think about the world around us, you’ll realize everything that is remotely complex works because it has been planned.
No plans = chaos, disorganization, inertia, failure.
Plans = structure, productivity, action, success.
Frequently, this type of avoidance of planning is typical in people that are afraid of failure. The possibility that their plans might not come true freaks them out. I talk about this on another article, but it’s worth mentioning here that the side effect of this flawed thinking is exactly what these people are trying to avoid. By not planning, they are already “preparing to fail”.
I don’t know about you, but I would rather plan and conquer a few things, risking occasional failures due to unexpected events, than a whole life of chaos. As a matter of fact, expecting life to be “awesome” when you live as if there’s no tomorrow, living to the fullest, and [add some cliché about living without planning], is not only naive, but plain stupid.
Sometimes, things just happen. You probably know a lot of anecdotal examples of people and businesses that didn’t plan at all and something wonderful, completely unexpected happened. This is not a recipe, though. It’s not like planning or not planning is part of a magic trick to produce results. Planning will not jinx your luck!
Somethings must be properly planned in order to turn out as expected, or even to happen at all. Going back to our original example, a dream wedding needs to be very well planned and executed. You can’t just say: “well, I want to have a big, Hollywood wedding. Therefore, I won’t plan at all, I just want it to happen naturally, because I want to enjoy it fully!”. Obviously, this would be ridiculous. An unplanned wedding would be a mess (or would just not happen at all).
No plan can keep surprises away, good or bad. Life will still go on. The difference is that when you plan, you create the things you want, you produce the results you envision. Whether you want to start a business, write a book, sail around the world, retire earlier, learn a language, play an instrument, or anything else, planning can only help you. None of these things will just happen. Life will not suddenly “install” a new language in your brain, nor it will have UPS deliver to your door a book you’ve written!
Living life to the fullest is something you do while enjoying the results you’ve achieved as a successful person that has planned and worked hard to get to where you are. It’s not something you do as a loser that thinks enjoying life means literally living as if there’s no tomorrow.
Recommended books to explore this topic:
Extensive personal planning is unfortunately not a popular book topic! Goal setting, yes, planning, no. Setting goals is just the first step. If people don’t know how to plan properly, those goals are likely not going to be achieved.
I’ll recommend here some of the best books that tackle planning along with goal setting, and sometimes time management:One the greatest classics in productivity/time management literature. Covey doesn’t go too deep into planning, but his advice on how to set your priorities are so great that they have been copied by 9 out 10 productivity coaches.