Planning for the future is both Debilitating and Important
We’re hardwired biologically to regularly think, “What’s next?” Regardless of whether the most recent experience was enjoyable, decent, or awful.
A lot of our conversations with others and in our head are about the future.
The questions include variants of: “What are you doing this weekend, this summer, over the holidays, next etc.?” Sometimes the questions are about more consequential topics such as when or whether one will settle down with a romantic partner or commit to a specific career path.
Answering ‘I don’t know’ is typically interpreted as a sign of being immature, unthoughtful or lost.
The unquestioned assumption is that each of us should have a clear plan for our future. Because doesn’t everyone who has their act together? Having plans suggests clarity of mind and superior intelligence.
The unstated warning is that either we have a plan that leads to progress or else we will stagnate and perish prematurely.
So what is one to do when bombarded with reminders about and suggestions on things you ought to need to do? Especially when all of the recommendations (from your friends, doctors, marketers and the media) are presented as the ‘right thing’ for you to do.
The Both/And Approach
As I have aged, I have realized that many questions which involve trade offs are better answered with a ‘Both/And’ approach. Read further to hear my thoughts on finding a balance.
Modern Life is Highly Scripted
Modern life, especially from birth through about 22, is highly scripted. Most of us follow the same well-worn path with clearly defined rungs leading forward and upward. In education—preschool, elementary, middle school, high school, college. In activities—little league, a ‘club’ team, junior varsity, varsity, and perhaps further.
Those in their early twenties might argue the pressure to clearly outline their future continues. And that the stakes are actually higher. Are you going to graduate school? What’s the next job? When will the next promotion in title or pay raise come? Is this the right, (semi) permanent romantic partner? Where will you live? In the city or suburbs? On this coast or another? Will you have children? One or more?
And then the cycle continues, as we put our children back on a similar treadmill.
At least until we both launch our children into the world (if we have any) and then formally retire at the end of ‘mid-life’ sometime after 60 or maybe even 70 today. At which point embracing serendipity and living an unplanned life is acceptable and even encouraged.
Why does this treadmill persist and seem so normal?
Planning is an effort to Avoid Uncertainty
Uncertainty creates anxiety. That anxiety feels more painful in our bodies, minds and souls than the actual experience of most bad outcomes. In the absence of knowing, our mind tends to imagine the worst possible outcome. Once we know the actual outcome, regardless of how good or bad it is, we can accept it and plan to make changes.
Planning for the future and having an answer to “What’s Next?” offers a way to stave off uncertainty.
Planning provides the Feeling of Control
We all recognize that we don’t know what is going to happen in the future. As we get wiser, we learn that we also have very, very little control over the future. Having an answer to ‘What’s Next?’ is our attempt to control the future.
Having a plan for the future calms our anxiety and allows us to focus more on the present.
Here are some thoughts on embracing planning and thinking about the future while not getting consumed by it.
The Both / And Approach
- Create rituals that provide some structure. These rituals should be things that bring you comfort and satisfaction, rather than chores that must be done or new habits you are hoping to build. The rituals can be daily (e.g. gym or morning coffee/tea with reading), weekly (e.g. yoga class) or seasonal (e.g. repeat items during certain times of year).
- Don’t over schedule. Leave yourself some free time every day. The best version of ourselves emerges when there is slack in our lives. This applies to creativity and to emotional intelligence. Boredom is actually a good thing; particularly in an age when it is so easy to escape time alone with our thoughts.
- Plan around your risk appetite. Differentiate between the few things that are ‘big deals’ to you and everything else which is a ‘little deal.’ Planning is valuable in situations where you feel the risk of a bad outcome is both large and meaningfully negative to you.
- Expect that things will go wrong. And accept it as normal. This excerpt from a poem by Robert Burns comes to mind: In proving foresight may be vain:The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men. Gang aft agley, An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain, For promis’d joy!
- Be open to the new and the unplanned. See it as a way to learn. I recently saw this quote and found it powerful and relevant. “Always walk through life as if you have something new to learn and you will.” Vernon Howard (1918-1992)
We all benefit from having goals and objectives. It helps align our internal purposes with priorities and actions. Of course, we should all regularly revisit those goals and ask ourselves if they are still serving us well and aligned with our values. Having a plan for the future is useful, so long as we don’t get too attached to it.