Lesson 8 — Appropriate Planning

I, by natural tendency, am a list-maker, a decider-in-advance, a planner. Early in my adult life I found that I accomplished more in a day if I made a list of the things I needed to do. And in my working life as a design engineer, it became quite clear that if I didn’t plan the next 9-month development project in considerable detail, the nine months would be over and I would have nothing to show — except, perhaps, one trashed career.

There is, however, a danger connected with planning. We who see its great power for good in so many situations sometimes assume that planning makes sense in all situations. We natural planners sometimes let planning expand into areas of life where it just doesn’t belong.

Part of effective living involves assessing situations, and then matching the kind and amount of planning to the needs of the situation. To make all this clearer, let’s look at what appropriate planning might mean in three contexts: projects, travel, and our lives.

Projects can be underplanned, overplanned, or appropriately planned. Underplanned projects turn out to be full of surprises because the whole happening has not been thought through in advance. They take longer and cost more than appropriately planned ones. In addition, the chaos level goes up, there are frequent crises, and everyone involved is subjected to more stress. Underplanning destroys any hope of an orderly work environment.

Overplanning a project reduces the ability to deal with the unexpected. It would be foolish, for example, to plan the construction of a house to the point where the start and completion dates for all facets of the job are cast in stone. If we try that, we’re headed for trouble. Perhaps the concrete-forms people tell us that it will take two days to get the plywood forms ready for the concrete foundation. Sounds good, so we go ahead and schedule the concrete truck to arrive at 8:00 am on the morning of day three. But what if it actually takes three days to put the forms in place? If that concrete truck arrives right on schedule, somebody has a big problem. Wet concrete is not patient. Overplanning destroys flexibility.

Appropriately planning a project means thinking out in advance those aspects of the project that are amenable to that, and making advance provision for decisions that we must defer. An appropriately planned project will embody a sane working environment, few panic situations, few unexpected costs, and few delays that we can’t compensate for. The time and energy that might otherwise go into laying excessively rigid plans goes instead into project monitoring, creating backup plans whenever there is a hint of a potential problem, and maintaining flexibility.

Recreational travel is sometimes underplanned, but more often it is overplanned. Many people would not think of heading off on a trip without advance hotel or motel reservations for every night’s stay. Doing this makes perfect sense if you are heading off at the peak of high season into a prime tourist area which is know to have too few accommodations. But does it really make sense most of the time? Often, booking rooms in advance simply costs us more and ties us down, eliminating opportunities for serendipity and adventure, and leaving us with less money to spend on fun. The less expensive hotels, motels, and pensions don’t advertise or have 800 numbers. But when you arrive in a place, this other, cheaper option usually exists. Guidebooks geared to the budget traveler are now available for most locales, and most libraries have copies of the more general accommodation guides that travel agents use. These books can help us discover in advance those times and places where advance reservations would make sense, and they point the way to the cheap places once we get there.

Another vacation overplanning problem arises if someone in the family feels the need to plan each day’s activities in advance. For many people, a tightly-planned vacation isn’t a vacation. Having to adhere to a timetable is just not relaxing, and it kills spontaneity and adventure.

Where travel and leisure are concerned, appropriate planning is very often minimum planning. Yes, you need a rough idea of where you want to go and what you want to do. And certain key items of transportation, accommodation, and recreation may need to be booked in advanced. But in my experience, lightly-planned travel is lots more fun than heavily-planned travel.

What about the planning of our lives? What level of planning is appropriate here? It helps if we separate, in our thinking, the structural aspects of our lives from the moment-to-moment stuff. By structural I mean the important long-term, slow-to-change elements of our lives such as livelihood, important relationships, activities in pursuit of learning, commitments to serve others, and the practices that affect our physical, psychological, and spiritual well being. Relying on chance rather than choice to set up this life framework may be all too common, but it is not apt to result in the most satisfying possible life. To pursue our life goals, actualize our potentials, and express our deepest values, we need to set up a matrix of structural elements which is compatible with them and helps us realize them. This requires planning, and energetically following through with those plans.

Within this structure of our lives, daily life happens. It is within the lattice of structural elements that we hang out. It is here that we live, and here that we need to be more selective about planning. Here, too, it is possible to underplan. When there is no planning, some things inevitably remain undone, and things undone often have negative consequences. Underplanning also wastes time, and certain kinds of underplanning tend to raise the chaos level and the frequency of crises. We must eventually do our chores, yet when we don’t work them into the day with forethought we often find that the most convenient circumstances for doing them have passed. If we make a list and everything is on it, one shopping trip does it all. If we fail to consider the total situation beforehand, we must make extra trips.

It is also possible to overplan our daily lives. It may make sense to make a list of things that need doing, but much of the time it is appropriate to just let the moment-to-moment actuality unfold. The challenge for us control and planning freaks in living moment to moment is to get out of that I-must-control-everything mindset, and learn to go with the flow. Letting go of the need to control isn’t easy; but with practice, we can learn to do it. And in doing it we begin to experience a more relaxed state of mind.

If the planning and controlling rational mind is able to back off sufficiently, a new possibility opens up: letting the wise intuitive process direct our day. Our intuitive side is that quiet, non-verbal, value-centered, big-picture process that communicates with the verbal side of us in various ways: Sometimes through yes/no feelings. Sometimes through those feelings of direction we call hunches. Sometimes through insightful changes in perspective. And occasionally in Aha! experiences where we suddenly see the solution to some problem.

We might begin the day with a period of quiet reflection, during which we go over what must be done that day. (Those of us with poor memories will want to write some of this down.) All of us, good memories or bad, can then let go of the need for me/I/ego/self to get it all done. We can, instead, let the wisdom within, the intuitive process, dictate the specifics of our actions as the day unfolds. In this mode we simply keep doing what the unfolding situation calls for. We might occasionally ask the wisdom: “What’s highest priority now?” and then wait for some feeling of direction. If priorities switch in the middle of a job, we switch jobs. Above all, we do not bulldoze through the day, following a rigid plan, nor do we let the day drift mindlessly away. We remain alert, attentive, ready to act, and ready for the next subtle message from the intuitive process. Even in the midst of action, the aim is to maintain a quiet attentiveness.

In short, most of us could benefit by looking with fresh eyes at how we handle planning. We can change our present underplanning or overplanning habits. We can learn to do the kind and amount of planning that’s appropriate for each situation.

Professor Alan Nordstrom’s questions and suggestions:

“By natural tendency,” what kind of planner are you? How happy are you with the way you approach planning? What would you improve, and how?

What are your experiences with planning recreational travel? Have you over-planned? Under-planned?

How do you go about “planning your life”? Are you good at it? Happy with the results? Need to revise your ways? How?

Please turn now to your private journal and record your thoughts, feelings, and insights of the moment. What has your reading brought to mind? What are your responses to Professor Nordstrom’s questions and suggestions? Finally, is there anything you would like to share with others? If so, just enter it in the box below and it will soon be turned into a posted comment.

(For other wisdom-related resources, visit THE WISDOM PAGE at www.wisdompage.com.)

Lesson text is based on Copthorne Macdonald’s book Getting a Life, copyright © 1995, 2008 by Copthorne Macdonald. Nordstrom comments and suggestions copyright © 2008 by Alan Nordstrom.

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