The balance between plans and spontaneity

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?

5 thoughts on “The balance between plans and spontaneity

  1. The eternal dance between what you have planned and scheduled and being spontaneous in the moment. Laura, I think you have wonderfully described how we can have both. In our complex lives, to me it is imperative to plan and schedule important projects and tasks. But I too do not believe in scheduling every minute of the day. This way, we can change and embrace something that has our focus. Will we have to also sometimes change our plans? Of course – but one should never use this as a reason NOT to plan.


  2. We discovered the perfect balance between open space and plans this summer. 3/4 of us are introverts and people with a low tolerance for busy, and our extrovert 5yo still has trouble with transitions and routine changes. Right now the 5yo has “camp” at her private Montessori, which is basically just a regular school day 8:15am – 2:45pm. We’re trialing letting the 8.5yo stay home while we work (both parents have separate offices) and giving her a list of tasks to complete each morning. So we’re not dropping off at 2 different schools with kids on different schedules. Both kids have swim lessons at the same time 4x/week and that’s the only activity. We had a couple of trips but most weekends are open. I realized that life feels less “hectic” when the family activities we plan are fun for all of us, not just the kids. For example, I thought the county fair was hot and boring even though the kids loved it, but the girls and I had a BLAST at a Hamilton singalong at a local pub. So now that the girls are older, I’m trying to make our family activities things we do and enjoy together rather than stuff I’m taking them to because only THEY would enjoy it 🙂 I’m resisting the urge to fill up this empty space on our calendar, and it just feels “right” now. I need to figure out how to do that during the school year 🙂

  3. I am also a planner and I find it odd when people make comments about serendipity letting things “happen” because usually someone is planning them 🙂

    It’s always a work in progress for me but I’ve gotten better over the years with balancing planned things to do with leaving open space. I also try to keep in mind that I like to have a bit of weekend time to prep for the upcoming week. I think the best change for me has been a flexible mindset–if something appears during my free time, I’ll often shift gears and go for it. It’s usually something with friends or family, and even though I’m an introvert and like my alone time, I get that most mornings (for now–I’m expecting my first child in early September) and I know that spending time on relationships is a great use of my time.

    My husband and I have gotten pretty good at doing this on vacation. We always have a short priority list of things that are really important to us, and another list of things we’d like to do but it’s okay if we don’t, and we leave open space for lingering and events we only find out about once we arrive.

  4. I definitely find that I don’t feel spontaneous unless I shake the “shouldn’t I be doing something productive…?” impulse, and that only happens if I know I have planned the things that need to be happening. I also like to flag sequencing dependencies in my planner, so that if some (considered) spontaneity is allowed to displace a planned item, I can address any knock on effects without unpleasant surprises later.

  5. I benefited from your planner side by getting to have coffee with you! As a side note, I’ve started tracking my time as an experiment and in just a few days have already seen two benefits: 1) I’m wasting less time, because knowing I’m going to have to write it down makes me change my behavior (I’ve experienced the same thing with a food diary–pride at not wanting to write down that I ate 11 marshmallows keeps me from doing it) and 2) I realize that a lot of what I attribute to laziness might just be me being tired.

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