Life is short. But not short enough to skip planning
There's no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing choices.
-- Amanda Palmer
Plans are worthless but planning is everything
-- Dwight D. Eisenhower
Life is short. Sometimes the news make us feel that even getting to tomorrow is uncertain. Well, the future does not exist, right? We may as well focus on the present and enjoy ourselves in an Epicurean way, shall we not? I guess it is time to discover how planning to reach a desired future helps you have a better present.
Let's start from decision fatigue. Imagine your brain like a battery (apparently it is actually a thing). Any conscious decision you take lowers its charge.
Now think I put you in a labyrinth with traps: any time you choose a direction or you avoid a trap you consume a unit of energy. If your brain does not have enough energy to deal with both directions and traps you cannot exit the labyrinth. If this remembers you of your Friday afternoon, it is not a coincidence. And decision fatigue affects everything: from your boss deciding to give a raise to your slacking colleague, to you ruining your diet with a fast food over a slow food.
But: what if you decide at the beginning to always go right? Now, you have lost a unit of energy at the start of your journey, but the rest of your energy is available to deal with traps. And you may have even enough energy to find a better strategy to deal with directions.
Planning is deciding a strategy in advance. The main aim of planning is discarding possibilities \a priori\ so that you can invest your decision energy on the important and unexpected things.
Planning can happen at multiple levels of granularity: if you want to define how to spend the next minute of your life, chances are you can be extremely more precise than defining exactly what you are going to be doing in 10 years from now.
Short term planning is an art in itself. The insightful book Work Clean The life-changing power of mise-en-place by Dan Charnas makes this crystal clear: the best chefs plan backwards. Planning backwards means to imagine a perfectly served dish and reconstruct all the actions that bring you from there to where you are now.
The problem in planning long term is that you lack information and context. Planning backwards with a 10 years resolution is still useful, but you need to make a lot of assumptions and most likely they will fail to happen. 1
A long term plan should rather be a vision. A vision is the why you carry on making short term plans and go to troubles to make them happen. A vision is a major advantage, in the words of Darren Hardy from his book The Compound Effect: "The person who has a clear, compelling, and white-hot burning why will always defeat even the best of the best at doing the how".
A vision can be a simple but focused statement like: "You'll be third graders soon!". That gave young pupils a new identity to strive for and made them focus their energies on. This kind of clarity reduces the actions you need to perform and increases their power. As a side effect this creates what system theory calls feedback loops: you see yourself a bit closer to your goal, you get excited, and you do more. In general, this concept of having a clear why, before even discussing what and how to do something, is so powerful that Simon Sinek focuses his consulting career on making this enter people's heads.
Ideally, pick a big vision because just the fact that you will strive for that new identity will make you feel proud.
If you ever need help at picking a satisfying vision for yourself, I would suggest the three questions Tony Hsieh uses to judge actions on the long term:
- What would happen if everyone in the world would do this?
- What would the world look like?
- What would the net effect be on the overall happiness in the world?
Now, say you have a vision, and you know about backward planning: all you are left with is defining milestones that you believe will make you progress towards your vision. For this middle level planning I try to follow the suggestions of a highly respected manager like Andrew S. Grove: plan next year in the context of next 5 years and repeat next year. This way your plans react to the context: sometimes they will proceed faster and most often they will need a bit longer to succeed, or even get restructured altogether.
As I wrote about before, finding a vision is the kind of activity that can have huge impact on your life and so it takes all the time you need (i.e., no scarcity/rushed thinking here!). As Dan Jorndt told about his company: "We're a crawl, walk, run company". This means that even successful companies take time to get their root system deep enough to, then, solidly sustain the bulk of their enterprise. This is even more true for the individual, and I believe what I read in a Hacker News comment: "it's not just having the experience, the best part may be the planning".
Life is always different from what you imagine. I guess that just means we can enjoy it twice: in what we imagine it to be and in seeing what actually comes out of the egg.
To conclude: we all have our labyrinths, from bringing food on the table to finding a way to keep all our stakeholders happy, and a limited set of mental energy. Let's use plan to get out of our labyrinths. Possibly let's follow the lead of Scott Adams (a.k.a., Dilbert creator): "I wouldn't be satisfied simply escaping from my prison of silence; I was planning to escape, free the other inmates, shoot the warden, and burn down the prison".
By the way, that is also why the Agile movement started; as Bob Martin tells in his book Clean Agile: "Agile is about knowing, as early as possible, just how screwed we are. The reason we want to know this as early as possible is so that we can manage the situation".