Join us at the Mental Fitness Fair on September 23rd!

Make the Plan Even If You Know It Won’t Happen

Just the act of making a plan has huge benefits​

I’m supposed to be at a music festival in Germany right now, not at home writing this column. My friend and I made the plans months ago. For obvious reasons, that festival isn’t happening.

My kids should be preparing for camp right now. Back in January, I created a camp spreadsheet organizing where each of my four school-aged children would be during July and August. Now all those camps have been canceled as well.

When nothing goes according to plan, it’s tempting to conclude that planning is a giant waste of time. Life is unknowable. Perhaps the hours I spent organizing my children’s summer should have been spent playing with them instead.

The mismatch between plans and reality is well-documented. The project-tracking software company iDoneThis found that 41% of all to-do list items never get done. And just 15% of “dones” started as “to-do” items. We don’t do a lot of the things we plan, and we do a lot of things we don’t plan.

But this doesn’t mean planning is futile. It’s just evidence that most people don’t plan particularly well.

Even if life is unknowable, the process of thinking through the future can ensure that whatever future does arrive, you’re better prepared to deal with it. Planning is a beneficial use of your time whatever happens.

Planning enjoyable things increases the chances that they happen

When it comes to moment-by-moment happiness, people rate socializing as more enjoyable than watching TV. Yet how many of us spend evenings and weekends watching TV because we haven’t made the effort to call friends and make plans to get together?

Or take my Germany trip. With all my kids to be accounted for, and a husband who also has a job, I wouldn’t have been able to go without first making a plan. The coronavirus was unforeseen, but many plans do happen, and some activities (for example, anything requiring a reservation) are impossible without some forethought.
Planning helps people see both good and bad possibilities, and prepare for them

For example, after intense snowstorms in the winter of 2009 and 2010, the federal government began requiring all agencies to have a telework policy spelling out who could reasonably work from home and how they’d do it. These plans weren’t written with the Covid-19 pandemic in mind, but their existence meant that most agencies were able to continue operations.

Planning lets our minds relax

The “Zeigarnik effect,” named after a Russian memory researcher, refers to unfulfilled goals and tasks that persist in the mind. Picture yourself having trouble falling asleep because your brain is working through the presentation you know you need to write in the morning.

One study found that when students were asked to make a plan to complete certain personal tasks, they were better able to focus on reading a novel than students who were asked simply to think about the personal tasks they wanted to complete. In other words, once there was a plan, their brains could let the matter go and turn to other things.

In my case, having a summer camp schedule in January meant that I stopped thinking about what my kids would be doing over the summer from January until April. Then I began to realize that my plans looked unlikely. But those three months of freed up mental space aren’t nothing. The plans turned out to be useless, but planning gave me a break.

This article by Laura Vanderkam was originally published in Forge