We are not good at planning.
I mean any kind of planning. Ask for any soldier’s list of favorite quotes about war, and odds are one of the top three is some variation of the phrase “No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy.” (If you want to look brainy, when someone tries to tell you that Colin Powell or George S. Patton or John Wick said that, you can inform them it was actually Helmuth von Moltke the Elder).
There are many other versions of this sentiment:
Life is what happens to us when we’re busy making other plans – Allen Saunders
The best-laid plans of mice and men aft gang agley – Robert Frost
Shit happens. – Forrest Gump
So if we know this — if this has been enshrined in multiple tomes of wisdom and situations where lives were at stake based on how well people who were only job is to strategize make their plan — why do we give ourselves such a hard time when we can’t finish a to-do list?
The Map is Not the Territory
Here’s a test for you — really, for just about any of you:
Draw, from memory, a map to my house.
Some of you know where I live, and might even be able to remember the building and apartment number. A few will remember the street, but likely not the cross street. Some know what part of Madison, WI, I live in, and most likely are going “Wisconsin? People live there?”
Now here’s the question: how critical should I be of your map? Should I tell you you’re no good at map making? Really, directions obviously aren’t your forte – and I’m certainly going to caution anyone from traveling with you if you’re in charge of navigation.
Ridiculous, right? And yet that’s what happens with a schedule and a to-do list. We are drawing a map of a place we’ve never been: the Future. What’s more, nobody else has ever been there, either — so really, what you have is a bunch of people using a map they made up about a place they’ve never been, often depending on other people’s maps to get where they want to go.
When you look at it that way, it’s miraculous that anybody ever accomplishes anything.
Don’t Get Better at Planning; Get Better at Living
This is not going to end with me telling you how to be a better planner. I mean, I have lots of ideas (ok, a hint: plan fewer things).
That’s not the point, though. At any time your plan for tomorrow can be derailed, whether it’s meticulous or just a scrawled “Do some stuff”. The point is to remember: your schedule is your imagined life. What happens is your life.
That means that if things don’t go according to schedule, that just means the plan wasn’t accurate, not that you lived your life wrong.
Just because it’s not accurate doesn’t mean it’s not useful. Plans can be statements of intention; they can show where your values are; they can be inspiring and comforting and a useful tool when you’re faced with a What do I do now?
Using them as a tool for criticism, though? Not terribly useful. Use your plans as allies, not prison guards. The world is cruel enough without you adding to it.
And let me know what you plan, and how that helps you!