Hold the far future loose; hold the near future close

I spend a lot of time planning. I want to complete long term projects, such as writing books based on research projects I’ve done. Over the past year, my family renovated a historic house and the seven of us moved into it. The seven of us also have various activities we want to do, and the kids can’t always do those things on their own. Planning is how a complex life doesn’t descend into chaos.

On the other hand, the future is to some degree unknowable. Pandemics and wars can upend whole societies. On an individual level, accidents and illnesses can change life overnight. Unforeseen good events can happen too — a dream job offer in a different city, for instance.

I feel like sometimes these things get presented as either/or. Planning is a futile attempt to ignore or at least push forward our mortality! We should just live in the moment! Or people tell ridiculous tales of having planned out their entire lives — writing a note to their 50-something self at age 20 and it has all come true! We hear about it because some of it did happen; when it doesn’t, people don’t talk about it.

But life is seldom either/or. Instead, here’s a better way to think about it: Hold the far future loose; hold the near future close. 

The far future is the place for general hopes and dreams. This is one reason I love the List of 100 Dreams exercise. You brainstorm all kinds of desires, without holding yourself to any of them. What would be cool to do or have in life? How might it be meaningful to spend one’s days and years? One envisions possibilities.

The near future, on the other hand, is where the real work happens. This is where desires get turned into reality. I think of the next 1-2 years as an active document where I am planing steps to make things come to fruition.

In my talks I recommend an exercise of writing a prospective job performance review, and thinking about what you might be recounting at a future holiday party. It’s March now. If you were giving yourself a professional performance review in December 2022, what would you like to say you’ve done? If you were at a party in December 2022 sharing tales of what you did in your personal life over the course of the year, what would you like to be saying? To some degree, this could be done for 2023 too. I’ve been planning out trips for 2023 for instance. I am thinking about my next book. And whatever reading project will follow 2021’s War and Peace and 2022’s Shakespeare.

For near-future desires, active planning is critical. A research project and book won’t magically come to be out of living in the present and following one’s day-to-day whimsy. I have to plot out the steps and timeline. To be sure, life is still unknowable in the sense that major events could change everything. But you can start to see probabilities a bit more clearly, and there are also plenty of things that won’t happen without planning. You’re not going to do an extended family trip to an international destination without a lot of advance planning, for instance. It still might not happen with the planning but it definitely won’t happen without it.


7 thoughts on “Hold the far future loose; hold the near future close

    1. @BethC- well, the verdict is “some” — sadly some of the travel had been planned during the pandemic and got canceled! But I do keep making these lists and thinking about these things.

  1. Words of wisdom !!

    My 16 year old daughter has also started listening to Before Breakfast and finds your tips very inspiring and helpful.

    Thank you for all the wonderful work that you do.

  2. Very, very true.

    Our lives were upended with some very bad, very strange news last Friday. The longish term plans are a mess but the weekly schedule meeting has to still happen- “who will drive whom where and when and what will they eat” is still a conversation that must be had.

    Life has changed for us for the next couple of months but beyond that- vacations and work goals continue. Planning for that also helps give hope and structure in the midst of chaos.

    1. @Calee – I hope you guys will be OK. Definitely will be thinking about you! And yes, life in the long term can change a lot but we still need to make sure people get picked up at the right time.

  3. Very true. I used to over plan (too many details and too far out in the future). Then as you noted, a significant illness can upend plans overnight. I have been in remission for 5 years, but since I was diagnosed I don’t plan nearly as much as I did pre-cancer. I think of it more now like plan vs. strategy. Planning is for the near future (for me in general weekly with an eye on those larger things). Strategy for the far future. For example, in terms of family trips/vacations, my strategy is that every year we have a extended family trip and then a smaller long weekend trip in the summer. Also, a Thanksgiving trip. These are the goals, when the time is right, I will actually sit down and plan these trips.

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