When it comes to time, people talk themselves into plenty of false choices. If you read this blog, you’re likely familiar with several: work full-time or see your family. Find a job that pays well or one you love. And so it goes.
This past week had me thinking about a false choice with schedules. I’m definitely a planner. On Friday afternoons, I think through the week ahead, and list my top priorities in three categories: career, relationships, self. I think about where these priorities should go, and deal with the logistics to make them happen. I find that by planning ahead, I massively increase the chances that I make progress toward my goals.
I was explaining this recently when I got a response that I would call an “ode to serendipity.” You probably know how this line of argument goes too. I don’t want to plan every minute of my life! The best things in life are those serendipitous gems that just appear!
Or perhaps you’ve heard this quote: life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans. (It’s a John Lennon lyric, though he seems to be quoting someone else.)
I do not deny that many wonderful unplanned things happen in life. But in 168 hours per week, there is plenty of space for plans and serendipity. These things are not at odds. You can plan and be open to the unexpected.
I was thinking of this during the past week, which had a nice mix of all of the above. On the career front, I was giving a speech in California (and thus traveling there), and recording three podcast episodes. On the relationship front, I was scheduled to have coffee with the lovely Elisabeth Cohen (author of the new satirical novel The Glitch — about a woman obsessed with her own productivity). On Friday evening, my family was going to a friend’s house for a swim and BBQ. On the personal front, I wanted to go in the pool ALL BY MYSELF, and I planned to run along the waterfront when I was in San Francisco.
Those things all happened. But there was space for last minute things too. For instance, while in my hotel in San Francisco, I saw a sign in the elevator that there would be a meet and greet with several World War II era vets (including Carl Muscarello, possibly the Life magazine kissing sailor from that famous shot). I decided to go. It was lots of fun.
As for career stuff, when my plane landed on Friday afternoon at Philadelphia, I turned on my phone and saw a query from one of the bookers at Fox and Friends. They were looking for someone to talk about the disappearance of middle children on the next morning’s program. I replied that I was sure they’d found someone while I was in the air, but if not, I could do it. It actually fit pretty easily into my weekend. The car picked me up at 6 a.m., and I was home at 11 a.m. Everyone was moving slowly for the morning — we’d been at our friends’ until 10:30, even the 3-year-old! — and so I didn’t actually miss much. I changed clothes and took two kids to a birthday party, there by 11:20.
Sunday we weren’t exactly sure what we were doing, but had in the backs of our minds that we might do a Cape May day trip one of these days. We planned to have the day open. That meant we could do a last minute day trip.
To be sure, things don’t always work out so nicely. Sometimes you plan to do something, and it precludes lingering in something else. That’s why it’s important not to plan too much. I try to limit how much I commit to partly so I do have space for opportunities I couldn’t plan for. But getting to run along the waterfront in San Francisco took a fair amount of logistical planning, and wouldn’t have happened without my deciding that was a priority for the week. These things are not either/or. Indeed, planned open space allows for serendipity.
What do you think is the right balance between plans and open space?