Meticulously crafted agendas, event-filled calendars and visions for the future — all discarded virtually overnight.
In a hawk-like manner, COVID-19 swooped in, poking holes in all our detailed life plans. The pandemic’s ensuing uncertainty was a humbling reminder for humanity that some things are simply outside of our control.
Perhaps this dismantling of plans was a blessing in disguise.
Planning enables us to experience stability, control and autonomy. We do it to rid ourselves of discomfort with uncertainty. Having a plan empowers us to navigate the future with purpose and clarity. It is what brings life to our dreams.
But we concoct these elaborate plans on limited information. We only know ourselves at our past and current states. Our choices are locked into a domino-like network of other people’s choices and whatever happens to us. Anticipating other people’s actions is almost futile because we only know them as how they present themselves — not how they really are or how they will act in the future.
Additionally, we have dealt with the possibility of a global pandemic overturning life in every way for 13 months and counting.
To quote film director Woody Allen, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.”
Excessive planning is not simply unsustainable in our dynamic world. It can also be detrimental to our well-being and growth as people.
Planning puts a lot of importance on the ultimate outcomes. When we focus on future outcomes, we develop expectations, which typically align with our idealized view of the world. These expectations increase the pressure to succeed. When our realities contradict these expectations, we can feel frustrated and discouraged.
In this case, our coping mechanism for discomfort with uncertainty — planning — can actually invite more discomfort.
Additionally, thinking ahead hinders our ability to savor the present. How can we truly live in the moment if we are constantly anticipating what is coming next? In focusing on the end goal, we can overlook the excitement and enrichment of the journey, dismissing it as a mere stepping stone.
There is a popular psychological awareness test that reveals our selective attention. In a 2008 advertisement for cycling safety in London, a person dressed as a bear moonwalks across an active basketball court. Viewers are tasked with counting the number of passes a basketball team makes, meaning they often do not notice the person in costume.
From dancing bears to signs from the universe, we tend to look for what we want to see.
Planning can narrow our vision by reinforcing the idea there is only one path to get to where we want to be. Under our plan, we may be able to find opportunities and people that align with our goals for the future because that is what we are actively looking for. However, we will miss out on other unexpected opportunities that may resonate more with our passions and values.
Sometimes it is the most spontaneous events that can mean the most to us.
That said, planning is still incredibly important in helping us stay grounded and motivated in achieving our goals. We must plan in moderation, balancing intentional goal-setting with an open mind.
As we fulfill our goals, we must accept their fluidity and welcome any changes. In fact, changes in our goals are testaments to our evolution and growth as people.
Striking this balance involves broadly knowing your “whys” and “whats” — your values and dreams — as determined through frequent self-reflection. But you leave the “hows” for the unknown, putting faith in the process.
Steve Jobs once said, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”
Attempting to compute the future’s answers in advance is a game we’ll never win. Let’s instead embrace uncertainty and reach these answers simply by living.