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.