You have probably heard the saying, “no plan survives contact with reality.” There’s a lot of truth in this — so what’s the value of planning?
Planning pays off before you take action, while you are taking action, and after you have taken action.
The most obvious benefit of planning is that it helps you anticipate possible contingencies, so you can avoid avoidable problems and take advantage of advantageous opportunities. If you take the time to predict how your day or your project will unfold, you are much more likely to bring to bear all of the information you know that is relevant to getting your tasks done.
For example, toward the end of planning my day today, I noticed a package I needed to mail. I had scheduled a shopping trip for 7 p.m. If I scheduled it earlier, I could ship that package on the same trip. After noticing this fact, I looked to see if I could move the shopping trip to an earlier time slot. As I re-examined my plan, I realized that my objective for my 12 noon timeslot was unrealistic. I was unlikely to complete it today, because it required responses from others. I changed my objective for today to simply reach out to the other people — leaving time to go on the errands during that timeslot.
All of this planning took less than 10 minutes. But as a result, I have more realistic expectations for the day, and I will have fewer things on my mind at the end of today.
The simple act of planning helps you see risks and opportunities that you wouldn’t see otherwise. This change to my plan occurred because I happened to spot the package that was ready for shipping. Knowing I was scheduled to do errands after dinner, I immediately wondered if I could ship the package on the same trip. I saw an opportunity — and then thought it through.
You may be thinking, “Fine, but what happens when the plan falls apart in a few minutes or a few hours?” I confess that it’s only recently that I have seen the true value of the plan when you need to adjust your course.
And you will need to adjust often.
When you plan, you use information you already have to predict the future. But when you take steps toward your goals, the future unfolds in much more detail. You learn much more about the actual challenge — today, here now — than you could have possibly anticipated.
For example, yesterday I sat down to write an article on a different topic. The article fell apart when I tried to write it. My plan had been to draft the article in 1 hour. But halfway through the time, it was clear that I was not going to meet that objective.
So what was the use of my plan?
In such a situation, you may be tempted to ignore your plan and just choose your next action ad hoc. In the past, I probably would have just doubled down on the newsletter and put in a couple of more hours — maybe with success, maybe not. I would have forgotten about my plan and tried to “just do it.”
What I recommend in these situations is that you make a conscious decision about whether to follow your plan or not. Yesterday, I decided to put in the full hour to see if the topic was salvageable. When I saw no progress by that time, I decided to continue with my planned activities, and regroup today to write an article on a different topic. I consciously re-planned (in just a couple of minutes).
As a result of that trivial amount of re-planning, I had my eyes open for a better newsletter topic. When I discussed planning in a one-on-one consult last night, I realized it was a great topic. At the end of the consult, I outlined this newsletter in about 30 seconds, knowing I could draft it today.
In other words, I don’t recommend blindly following the plan, I recommend working the plan. As needed, make a conscious decision about how you are changing the plan.
Why? Because you put in your best thinking about what to do. If you are tempted to deviate from your plan, your best thinking deserves at least a hearing. Taking a couple of minutes to decide how to change your plan ensures that you don’t miss some obvious complication that you already thought of. Get the benefit of that forethought — don’t just throw it away.
There’s an emotional benefit, too. You will feel proud of the change, instead of vaguely guilty that you aren’t following your plan.
When things don’t work out the way you planned, treat it as a red flag signalling a need to do a little more thinking. Your expectations were mistaken. This is a huge learning opportunity — a great chance to discover mistaken premises. By taking the time to think through your change in plan, you address the issue head on, and learn what you need to learn.
For example, when I re-evaluated what I was doing yesterday, I realized that part of the problem was that I was distracted. I had started doing the family laundry the night before, and I was finishing it up that morning. Because of the laundry, I was having trouble concentrating fully on the writing. (This is one reason I decided to give the topic a full hour attempt — to make sure the problem was not just distraction.)
I’ve always thought of laundry as something that I can do on the side of almost any work. But yesterday, because I consciously thought about what was going wrong, I saw the truth. In the future, I’ll do my best to finish the laundry the night before, or start back on it after my writing time, which requires a high degree of concentration.
This leads me to the lasting value of planning and re-planning as needed. When you work the plan, you really learn what works and what doesn’t. You become self-aware of more of the obstacles to being productive. This can only help you be a better planner in the future.
Because let’s face it — having things go according to plan is much more satisfying than the alternative. When the plan falls apart, your stress goes up. When life goes according to plan, you feel calm and in control. By planning — and working the plan — you get better at planning, and you reap both the intellectual and emotional rewards of that.
I finished drafting this article just as my timer sounded the end of my planned hour for it. Hurrah! My satisfaction is that much more positive, because I finished as planned.