Planning, even when plans must change

I’m a planner. I know that surprises no one who reads this blog regularly. It is how I make my life work. For instance, I plan and record my podcast content far ahead of time. Because I do that, Before Breakfast episodes kept publishing every weekday morning this winter, even as baby #5 arrived three weeks early.

The downside of this, though, is that sometimes the world changes. I spent a reasonable amount of mental effort in January sorting through a childcare issue we were going to have due to my business travel on a Sunday in May. None of that is happening anymore. I might be tempted to view these mental gymnastics as wasted. In mid-March I realized that much of the Before Breakfast content I’d recorded earlier sounded like something out of a time capsule. I could view the time spent writing and recording those episodes as wasted.

Except…it isn’t. I love the Eisenhower quote that “in preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” (Or something like that.) Yes, the world changes. But the exercise of thinking about what you are going to do before you actually have to do it can help you imagine possibilities. No doubt in the future my household will have weekend childcare complications. I now have ideas for what to do about them. As for the Before Breakfast episodes, some still work, some will get nudged to the future and lighten my load then, and some can be repurposed. I add a few sentences acknowledging the current reality and just re-record. The previous recordings are practice runs — a chance to get better at reading from scripts. That’s the kind of thing I should spend more time practicing anyway.

Of course, not all plans are equal. My editorial calendar and childcare issues are inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. We’ve postponed the baby’s baptism and canceled our spring break trip but I feel confident we will be able to reschedule these things. Indeed, the spring break trip (it was to a resort) can be replicated exactly, meaning that planning for spring break 2021 is now done. But I know that having to change some plans feels far more devastating. Weddings, bar mitzvahs, book publications and tours. Long-planned elective procedures that would improve quality of life.

Grieving for upended plans is natural and appropriate. I have felt sad thinking about all the kids whose long-awaited birthday parties had to be canceled, and about college seniors looking at an anti-climactic victory lap. Even if there are worse tragedies, these are worth acknowledging. But all these upended plans suggest two ideas about planning that might help with mindset in a world that can never be fully predicted.

First, part of the joy of any good event is in the anticipation. Whether the event happens or not, there is still real pleasure to be gained from the anticipation. It’s hard to think this way, but it is true. Indeed, events themselves are often let downs if we’re not careful! It is the human condition to look forward to a concert for 2 months, and then be distracted during the whole event because of something your concert-going companion said to you on the way in. The moment inhabited by the experiencing self is fleeting, and since it’s experienced by one’s physical body, can never be complete bliss. Best to embrace the anticipation (and the remembering — but that’s a subject for a different post) to maximize the joy.

And second, planning is made robust with a “next best” or “back-up” option. This is helpful even when skies are sunny — as I know many readers of this blog who are juggling work (plus a partner’s career) and family have figured out. If your flight is canceled and your partner’s flight is late…then what? If the wedding venue loses power the night before your ceremony, what would you do? Knowing something good might still be possible allows for a more even-keeled approach to life. We can hope for the best, but acknowledge that we might have to opt for something else — kind of the way many of us have approached the births of our kids.

In any case, I’m still planning my weeks on Fridays and thinking through upcoming weeks and months. Planning is useful, even if things don’t go according to plan.

Photo: The magnolia in my front yard is blooming! Because we are home, I’m getting a lot of time to see it. 


7 thoughts on “Planning, even when plans must change

  1. This is so refreshing. My planning has switched from mapping out the summer and my involvement in it (which includes volunteering and making some things happen) to making the next month something we look back on with fondness rather than disdain. Because really, thirty days is about all the further out one can plan at the moment with any relative certainty.

    1. @Tana – even 30 days might be pushing it! But we can still figure out what we want life to look like — both within the current limits and once things start opening up.

  2. The “rush” of anticipation is literally that. Dopamine levels peak during the anticipation of an event, not when the event actually occurs. Perhaps that’s because imagination is not constrained in ways that reality tends to be. Planning is not a simple enterprise even in a simple mother-daughter-only household. I can only imagine what that might involve in larger families. Our plans have been pared down to the bare minimum with focus on the everyday life. My daughter and I will be sitting down today (it’s 31 March in Melbourne, Australia) to think about and imagine April 2020, what might we want for it to be like given the circumstances. 30 days is a large enough canvas for us.
    I hope everyone is safe and I pray for all you!

  3. Today we will be planning for how to take care of my kid for if/when everyone in the family gets sick. Delightful.

    Last year I took advantage of planning I had done over a year before for a research project I wanted to do. The planning ahead enabled me to throw together a grant proposal in less than a week during my free time in between cases. I’ve spent a TON of time on research projects that don’t end up going anywhere. It is honestly just part of the process. I have no interest in planning vacations.

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