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To plan or not to plan

I hear a lot of arguments against planning. Most of those who claim they prefer to just live life “to the fullest” boast anecdotal evidence of serendipitous success. There’s a lot of things to be argued opposing this naive point of view, but let’s start with this:

Not planning leads to inaction, not an adventurous, romantic life where incredible and amazing events happen all around us. Sometimes things just happen in our lives. It’s good when it does, planning in fact would not keep us from bumping into opportunities. But the rest of our lives is filled with pure inertia. Funny that this is the exact opposite of living life to the fullest! Most people I know that don’t like to plan live such hectic and chaotic lives that they can’t enjoy even what they already have, let along conquer new things, promote change, seek new experiences.

Let’s take a lot at some of the most common arguments against planning:

“I think it’s better to live like there’s no tomorrow than to be a stuck up that plans every single step and tries to control life. Life can’t be controlled!”

This point of view can be very romantic and appealing, but it’s not practical. Life is not a Hollywood movie. Waiting for magical things to happen in your life is not a good strategy! Wonderful things can happen, and if they do, nothing will not keep you from enjoying them but yourself. Critics usually have this idea that goal setting is for control freaks that live an absolutely organized and disciplined life. This is very far from the truth! Yes, some people like to plan and organize things in order to keep the feeling of control. However, the opposite is not necessarily true. People that plan don’t do it because they need to control life. The main purpose of planning is to increase the probability of success, to optimize action (get more for less), and to speed up the results. In fact, the making of great things require a good dose of structure. Take an even like a wedding, for example: a dream wedding can only happen if it’s very well planned and executed. You can’t just say: “well, I want to have a big, dream wedding, like in the movies. 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. No plan can keep surprises away, good or bad. Life will still continue to happen to you. 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.

I have never planned and have been successful achieving my goals. It seems like an unnecessary effort. So why bother?

I have achieved a lot of things in my life with no plans, but I have also experimented with different methods and levels of planning. Looking back, I can confidently say that the goals that were carefully and extensively planned had a higher success rate. Obviously, the bigger the goal, the harder it is to complete it without a proper project. I have met a lot of people that tell me they don’t bother planning because they have achieved “a lot” of things without a drop of organization. Upon further investigation, however, I usually find out that these people have never achieved anything remotely big, difficult, or complex.

You don’t need to plan every single aspect of your life, every goal you want to achieve. If you want to live an adventure travelling around the world without planning anything, that’s fine. That’s the plan! No plan. However, if something is serious enough for you, if it’s big, long, or too hard to achieve, failing to plan will most likely lead to failure.

It’s not reasonable to bet the future will be just like the past. Maybe you have achieved something meaningful before with no plans. You have no guarantee you’ll be as lucky, or meet the same circumstances that have allowed you to be successful in the past. Superstition (thinking that because something has worked for you in the past, it will continue to work in the future) is not a good strategy!

“I planned before, but it didn’t work. Every time I try to plan, things end up happening in a way that I can’t do what I want.”

Planning is not about control, it’s about resources, performance, and the odds of success. You should aim to plan in order to be more productive, so you can reach your goals faster, getting more for your efforts, and increase the odds that you’ll succeed. If what you want is control, over people, circumstances, and results, you’ll naturally feel burned out when things don’t go as you’d expected. Stress and frustration follow broken expectations.

Sometimes even the best plans and ideas just don’t work. Nevertheless, we should always reflect upon our failures and try to figure out what went wrong. Was it out fault? Bad timing? External circumstances? Most likely, your failures were not related to the fact that you planned, and rejecting this idea after bad experiences is just pure superstition (“it didn’t work for me before, so now I won’t try again”).

Besides, not all plans are equal. Can you say with absolute certainty that you had the best possible detailed projects and the fact that you had them was the cause of failure? Planning is hard. Most people just don’t do it right. So you can’t really blame the plans for past failure, as if bad results are proof that they didn’t work.

“I can’t plan because my work is completely crazy. I can never know how my day is going to be.”

This is one of the most common misunderstanding about planning! Planning IS NOT scheduling! There are a few issues with this thinking. First, you don’t necessarily have to plan your work day. Depending on what you work with, chaos is part of the job. Again, you don’t need to plan every single aspect of your life. If the nature of your job involves dealing with the unexpected, responding to emergencies, or any routine that can’t be planned, that’s ok. There’s nothing wrong with it. How can a fire fighter plan his work day? He can’t. He just does what he has to do.

Another issue is that you must separate your job from your personal and other professional goals. Whatever you do while you’re working doesn’t need to be related to your personal projects, or even other professional projects. At work, you do what you have to do. So, thinking about a hectic work life as an impediment to planning doesn’t make sense. Yes, you can plan your career, you can plan your work day, and you should strive to be more productive at work, doing more in less time, getting bigger results, and so on. That, however, is not a matter of planning, it’s a productivity issue.

Besides, planning doesn’t necessarily involve scheduling, or organizing your day. A plan is a project, a map to get to where you want. You execute it whenever you have the time to do it. If you don’t think you have the time, you probably have a personal management problem and will need to learn to be more productive and manage your time better in order to get stuff done efficiently. If you treat planning as plain scheduling, you’ll run into the problems. While writing a book, for example, it’s useless for me to just schedule a time in the day to write. What do I do with this window? Should I just sit in front of the computer and stare at the screen waiting to feel inspired? Just scheduling activities is meaningless and it’s definitely not planning. Scheduling only works when the plans are already very well crafted and time is wisely used to do things you know you should be doing and how. This time shouldn’t be used to figure out what or how to do something. If you need to do research or waste too much time fooling around instead of being productive, you’ve already failed at the planning level. It’s like giving a speech when you’re unprepared. The clock starts ticking and you must deliver a message, but you don’t know what you should be saying, so you just ramble. When it’s time for action, everything you need to do must be clear as water. The production phase should be like going to the gym. You know what you have to do, you know how to do it, so you get in, do it efficiently, and get out. You’re done. You don’t waste time figuring stuff out. You do that while you’re planning. And again, if the problem is that you never have time to do anything, the problem is not planning, it’s time management!