This reminded me of the adage that no plan survives contact with the enemy (Moltke):
When done well, daily and weekly planning rituals can help you travel gracefully through life in a peaceful, intentional manner. But sometimes, overplanning your day-to-day activities can make you a neurotic, stressed-out person who feels like you would have been better off if you hadn’t planned anything in the first place.
In my work as a time coach and trainer, I’ve found that people experience planning stress when they don’t understand the role that spontaneity plays in the process of implementing their plans for the day. Instead of embracing change as part of the process, they get irritated at themselves or others whenever something doesn’t go exactly according to plan, such as a meeting running late or something taking longer to do than expected. They can also cause themselves and others stress when they refuse to move something forward because they don’t have the ideal amount of time to work on it. For example, when the three hours they had designated to work on a project gets shortened to one and a half hours, they may not even bother to start on it.
The way to reap the benefits of daily and weekly planning without these unpleasant stressful side effects is to take a more relaxed approach. In How to Invest Your Time Like Money, I encourage people to use seven ways to achieve the effectiveness that’s only possible through planning, while retaining the happiness brought about by acceptance of and openness to any unexpected circumstances that might emerge:
1. Intention matters: You wouldn’t want to take a seat on a plane without knowing the intended destination because you could end up heading in the wrong direction. Similarly, the whole point of planning is that there’s a decision in advance about where you want to end up, and the proposed steps to get you there. Sure, pilots often need to adjust their flight path or even land if there are storms. But the fact that they had a specific end point in mind vastly increases the chances that passengers will end up in the right place. Similarly, you will have the best results when you set the course for your day. The next time something comes up that “messes up” your plans and you’re tempted to dismiss planning as irrelevant, remind yourself that your plan did help you set an initial trajectory and equip you to get to your desired destination eventually, even if you have to modify your course along the way.
2. Redefine a 100% score: One of my coaching clients recently asked me if anyone ever gets 100% on following through on their plans. I told him that a 100% day is rare. For most people, a great day is when you accomplish 60-70% of what you had intended to get done. Later when I contemplated it more, I realized that a better answer would have been that a perfect score should be defined as having confidence that you made the right decisions about how you invested your time based on the data you had in advance on potential tasks, your overall priorities, and the circumstances that arose throughout the day. The best way to evaluate the day is to ask yourself: Did I make the best choices in how I invested my time today? Instead of: Did I do everything as planned?
3. Don’t waste time obsessing about a perfect plan: There is no perfect plan. Even if there was a way to make one based on the current data, you can’t know what will come up unexpectedly, so you still can’t guarantee that your plans will be perfect. The goal of planning should be to get just the right level of clarity, so you know where you should focus your attention and how to evaluate opportunities that arise. I recommend setting a limit on how much time you invest in planning. For most individuals, an hour is the maximum time appropriate for weekly planning. Then daily planning should take 15 minutes tops, since you’re not re-evaluating all of your priorities, you’re only recalibrating your weekly plan.
4. Consider plans a road map: Your plan for the day, the week, or even the year, is a road map that gives you a sense of direction and a high-level overview of the various paths you could take. Just as you may find yourself on a detour and then need to turn back to your map to find the best way to continue on your journey, having a plan to come back to after an interruption gives you the insight you need to reroute your schedule. Throughout the day, I’m constantly looking back at my daily plan and saying, OK, based on how long that activity just took or on the fact that an important call came up, what’s most important now? You can do the same. Instead of reverting to checking e-mail after an unplanned meeting or phone call, go back to your daily plan and if necessary, move around items on your calendar or renumber your to-do list to give you clarity on what to do next.
5. Expect the unexpected: One of the greatest powers of planning is that it gives you the ability to respond to the unexpected without experiencing massive stress. When you plan correctly, you’re looking ahead and moving along activities ahead of deadline. This then means that when something comes up that causes you to have to switch your plans, you can do so without it causing issues, because you planned to have margin. When you don’t plan, you end up being so close to the edge that anything going slightly off kilter can create major problems. To dramatically reduce stress, give yourself a personal goal to complete items at least one day, if not multiple days, ahead of a deadline. This gives you flexibility when an unexpected interruption comes up or when there’s a technology problem.
6. This is not a test: If your plans—and then the accuracy of their subsequent implementation—form the basis of your self worth, you’re on shaky ground. Although I wholeheartedly believe in intention and discipline, I also know that we can’t control life. We instead need to embrace it. When you find yourself becoming critical of what you did or didn’t do, stop and ask the questions, “What happened?” and “Is there anything I could do differently next time?” Then use your answers to those questions to inform your decisions moving forward.
7. Be open to creativity: I loved this insight that one of my clients shared with me recently. With his permission, I’m sharing it with you as I feel it’s a wonderful way to think about the interplay between intention and freedom:
“I had some beautiful one-on-one time with my mom this week, where she was teaching me oil painting techniques. She shared how some artists sketch their scene before beginning, but she emphasized that a sketch on canvas is temporary—a guide only—which should not be too detailed, and is not to be strictly adhered to, as doing so can reduce a painter’s spontaneity and hinder creativity in the moment. I relate that lesson to managing my time, as well. I am starting to discover again what’s really important, what I want my life to look like and how to live life more fulfilled. Thank you for helping me realize that it’s my painting and I can paint it like I want it.”
So in short… relax. Breathe. Set your sails and then adjust with the currents and winds. Our safety and security doesn’t lie in our plans, but in our hearts. Life is to be lived and enjoyed, not just “done.”
(Elizabeth Grace Saunders)