As I sat at a funeral recently saying goodbye to a friend who died well before his time, I was really, truly struck by the brevity of life. This great guy who was alive on this earth just 72 hours ago and had years of possibilities ahead of him was now gone forever.
Death is a bit of a downer. We all know that. But it can also teach us things, like the futility of wasting our incredibly short lives worrying about the future instead of enjoying the present.
This is a lesson I was lucky enough to learn quite a few years ago. And when I did, I made a commitment to stop making plans.
It isn’t easy. Plans are everywhere. We’re bombarded with them all the time. We’re told we need business plans, retirement plans, travel plans, 10-year plans, and on and on. We make these plans because it’s what we think we’re supposed to do; it’s part of being a responsible adult. We believe plans are the best way to achieve success and we compulsively gravitate toward them because they make us feel safe.
As far as I’m concerned, though, plans are awful. Here’s why…
1. Plans create the illusion of control
Let’s start with the biggest problem: By creating a plan, I’m essentially telling myself “these are all the things I am going to make happen.” That might actually work if it wasn’t for the fact that every single other human being on the planet is also trying to make things happen and many of those things are working against my plans. I’m essentially playing poker at a table with 7 billion people expecting to win each hand. So what inevitably happens is the things I planned don’t work out (at least not the way I wanted them to) and I’m about as disappointed as your typical Chicago Cubs fan.
2. Plans are just guesses
In their book Rework, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson write “planning is a fantasy. There are just too many factors that are out of your hands… Why don’t we just call plans what they are: guesses.” They’re right. There are literally infinity things that could happen between now and any given amount of time from now. Unless you’re some kind of fortune-telling gypsy or one of the pre-cogs from Minority Report, you have exactly zero chance of knowing right now which things will actually happen in the future. So if I can’t even know for sure what will happen tomorrow, then how can I realistically plan for it? The answer is I can’t, at least not accurately enough to make it worth the trouble. And the further into the future I go the more inaccurate and unrealistic my plans become. Like my childhood plan to grow up and be an astronaut.
3. Plans skew perspective
It’s the journey not the destination that matters, right? Well, not with plans. Plans center around a destination, usually some magical future in which, through the completion of the perfect series of actions, I have ended climate change or achieved everlasting Zen or become the world’s greatest photographer. Plans lure me into living for a fairy tale ending rather than trying to enjoy the present, however miserable it may be. And being present is important. Olivia Fox Cabane, author of The Charisma Myth, writes about charismatic people: “Everyone is impacted by their presence. People are magnetically drawn to them and feel strangely compelled to help them in any way they can.” Plans, however, take me out of the moment and thrust me head first down the slippery slope of seeing the world as it should be, rather than the way it really is. When I think this way, I’m only setting myself up for failure… and an attic full of expensive photography equipment I’ve never used.
4. Plans waste time and energy
I used to begin my workweek the way society trained me to (by society I mostly just mean Yahoo Answers and LinkedIn). I’d get to the office Monday morning, guzzle a few cups of coffee, and then plan out the week’s events. That sounds like a pretty solid routine, except it wasn’t. After a while I finally had the realization that what I was doing was pointless. Usually by Monday afternoon my plans were already useless. All the time I had spent making those plans was time I was never getting back; time I could have used actually getting some things done.
5. Plans result in missed opportunities
John C. Parkin, creator of the ultimate spiritual way, said it best: “A plan, especially a very focused one, narrows down the possibilities of the future to just a couple of things; things that either go to plan, or they don’t.” What a plan does is strap a big ole pair of blinders to the side of my head. I become so focused on a predetermined outcome that I ignore everything else, including numerous outcomes that are far better than the one I planned for. It’s like a seeing a $20 bill on the sidewalk and running toward it, completely missing the pile of $100 bills in the middle of the road.
6. Plans cause unnecessary stress
Usually, by the time I’m finished creating a plan, I’m so exhausted and overwhelmed by all the things I need to do to complete my plan that I can’t even get started. I need a break before I’ve accomplished a single thing. Not exactly a recipe for success. But the stress doesn’t stop there. It only gets worse once I fall short of my intended target, which we’ve already established is roughly 100 percent of the time. For me, all that stress far outweighs anything productive that comes from making plans.
7. Plans are an excuse to do nothing
Whether consciously or subconsciously, if I dig down deep enough, I often find that most of my plans are an excuse to delay doing something. I generate plans when I’m feeling lazy. I generate plans because taking action is scary. There’s comfort in a plan. I can convince myself that the plan I create will be my safety net to protect me from the fear of uncertainty. Unfortunately, though, by the time I’m done planning it’s conveniently too late to still be productive.
8. Plans never end
Planning is a vicious cycle and once I’m locked into it I’m in for one hell of a ride to nowhere. I start with my noble plan to end poverty, which in turn requires a plan to secure funding for a nonprofit, which in turn requires a plan to reach out to donors, which in turn requires a plan to smooth over that Thanksgiving fiasco from last year so I can ask my parents for money, and before I know it I’ve still accomplished absolutely nothing. Congratulations. Meanwhile, the rest of the world has cured cancer and sent a man to Mars.
The point here is, I figure out what I want in life and then I go for it. That’s it. I don’t need a plan for that.
That doesn’t mean I blindly rush into something stupid without thinking it through. As the philosopher Epictetus said, “In every affair consider what precedes and follows, and then undertake it.” Once I figure out what I want, I study it, set some loose goals, and then get moving.
I’ll admit I’m far from perfect. There are a lot of times I catch myself subconsciously making plans. There are other times where it’s easier to appease people who demand a plan (like colleagues and clients) than explain my radical philosophical opposition to plans. But I try my best to avoid plans at all cost.
I encourage you to give it a try. The next time you feel the urge to plan — whether it’s something small like what you’re going to have for lunch or something bigger like how you’re going to end world hunger — just don’t. Stop yourself, resist the urge, and remind yourself that you don’t need plans. Instead, go make a sandwich, volunteer at a soup kitchen, or read a book. Whatever you do, you’ll get far more out of it than the time you would have thrown away planning to do it. And you’ll quickly realize life continues on just fine without your plans.
“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”