Friday miscellany: When you don’t stick to the plan

It is a rainy March day. The ground is completely sodden; I see puddles of mud in my backyard. I am telling myself that in a month my plum trees will be flowering. Already, I can see the yellow on the forsythia starting to poke out. But early March is very much a transitional season.

It's been a pretty good, if full week. One unexpected nice moment: I came home from choir at 9 p.m. last night and needed to take out the trash and recycling for early morning Friday pick-up. It was cold and rainy, so I donned my boots and my husband's oversized raincoat. Then my 8-year-old appeared and announced he was going to help. I assigned him the job of taking stuff out of the recycling cans -- people had packed them so full that the lids weren't shutting and that wasn't going to work with the rain. I hauled the trash cans up, and when I came back to the garage, he had done the job, thoroughly and well. The lids could be shut. He helped me haul them up to the street. I was remembering that my husband and I first saw this house almost exactly 7 years ago - I think March 4, 2011. We came out to look at houses in this area, with the thought of potentially moving. He was so tiny then, less than 18 months old. And now he's actually saving me time on household chores!

Another sign of kids growing up: I scheduled a preschool interview for my 3-year-old next week. And I signed him up for a few weeks of half-day day camp this summer!

A low moment: realizing yesterday that I had completely forgotten something I said I would do. I agreed to do this thing, and then it exited my mind. I think I have solved the problem, but wow. Sometimes when I forget something, I have a vague nagging sense that I've forgotten something, but in this case, not at all. It was a reminder to write stuff down somewhere I'll look. (I did not have my planner with me on the road, just my calendar, but I look at the planner more comprehensively for to-dos).

Anyway, this is yet another week where I planned to write five blog posts, and instead am writing four. In many of my talks, I get asked some version of "I agree with you on the importance of planning, and I make a great plan, but then I don't stick with it. Why is that, and what can I do?" My blog is an incredibly low-stakes situation, but it's all part of the same issue. Here are a few reasons, besides laziness or lack of discipline, that the plan might not have happened:

The plan was unrealistic. If you have assigned yourself 28 hours of activities for a 24-hour day, your inability to do it all is not about motivation. It was always a physical impossibility. Indeed, given that stuff comes up, it's really hard to do more than a few hours of assigned tasks per day. That is what it is, but the problem with unrealistic plans is people tend not to triage the list and do the important stuff first. On a 25-item list, the order is often close to random, and if not random, might be best described as "easiest first." Better to produce a carefully curated 5-item to do list, and do all these things, then do 7 random things off a 25-item list, thus missing the 2 things that truly did need to be done on that particular day.

You are too depleted to tackle the plan. This is related to the plan being unrealistic. Perhaps the plan was realistic for a well-rested, well-fed, healthy you. This is not your current reality. In my case, the 5-posts a week plan does not seem to be taking into account that I am on the road every week between now and June. Nor that in addition to the blog posts, I wrote two different newsletters, and two articles for commercial publications this week, and am also committed to sticking with my 500-words-per-day fiction goal. When I am on the hook for a lot of other words, the blog is always going to be the first thing to go.

The plan isn't actionable. Devotees of David Allen know he talks about many plans falling into the trap of being amorphous blobs of undoability (I believe that's a quote). What are your next steps? "Start a business" isn't a plan, and so if that is on your to-do list for the week, of course you're not going to stick to the plan. "Check out three books from the library on how to start a business and read them during my lunch break and after the kids go to bed for the next week" is a plan.

The plan is not what you want to do in life. In general, I believe people do what they want to do. When people find it chronically difficult to do something, it may be because they believe, on some level, that the plan is not the right direction for them to be going. For example: I can't seem to make myself apply to graduate school. Well, do you actually want to go? Or are you going because some relative told you that smart people like you get advanced degrees? Or perhaps it just seems logical to get more education because you can't find a job in your desired field? Explore the reasons you might be resisting the plan. In some cases, knowing your desires might not get you out of doing something, but it can help you then change your life, over the long run, so you never have to do these things you are resisting again.

You haven't built the right incentives. Figure out what motivates you. This is different for everyone. I like checking things off. Other people do well with accountability partners — for instance, the colleague you check in with at 10 a.m. every morning to make sure you've both done your cold calling for the day. Some people like competition, such as outdoing a spouse on Fitbit steps.

You need to lower the stakes. This isn't relevant for my blog, which is as low stakes a matter as things come, but a lot of avoidance is rooted in anxiety. While anxiety can be a serious issue, more garden-variety versions of it might be helped by lowering the stakes. You plan to send an article to one publication. If they don't like it? So what. You've got a list of ten other publications to try next, including one where you know the editor will publish most of what you send in. So you'll just do what you can do and if they say no, you’ll move on.

When you don't stick to the plan, what do you think is going on?


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8 Responses to Friday miscellany: When you don’t stick to the plan

  1. Omdg says:

    When I don’t stick to my work, it’s almost always because my to do list is too long. When I don’t stick to fun plans usually it’s becsuse when the time comes I’d rather do something else. I’ve been trying to be more realistic about how much I can get done, but it is so, so hard and the list just gets longer and longer.

    • @Omdg- being realistic *is* hard. It requires admitting that stuff that is really amazing and that we may want to do probably isn’t going to happen. I do think it’s worthwhile to live in reality, but fantasy-land is always appealing.

      • Alexicographer says:

        I try to remind myself that it is better to have more stuff I want to do than I can do, than the other way around, though I suppose that is a point about which reasonable people might disagree.

  2. Meredith says:

    I didn’t realise until I had the baby just how much my ability to complete a to-do list or stick to a plan to accomplish things was dependant on my energy levels. The amount of sleep I have on any given night is directly related to the amount I can do the following day…and I no longer have absolute control over my sleep.

  3. Great reminders.

    Just to make sure I’m understanding you correctly in your first point, should it read “thAn do 7 random things…”?

  4. Thanks, Laura! These are great reminders.

  5. Tana says:

    I am too depleted to tackle the plan. That’s the problem 90% of the time. I also live amidst chaos and cannot also focus like I need to. Sometimes it will take all morning to do poorly what should have only taken an hour had I been able to focus. But doing the things I want to do? It’s always that I am too depleted to push myself that much harder. Thanks for verbalizing that one – it’s not usually on lists of why we don’t get things done.

  6. For me, it’s almost always because I have too many things on the list and I (somehow) think I’m Superwoman.

    I had a ton of things (out and about things) yesterday, had a headache because of all the running around in the heat (South Africa), and then my body forced a shut-down so I was in bed at 6.45 pm…..

    So I’ve had to scrap about 4 – 5 things I wanted to do, but just couldn’t from my weekend to-do list.

    I put a post on Instagram about this earlier today

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