Against Planning

More than detailed attempts to trace a path from the present to the future, plans can function as psychological buffers, insulating us from the interminable flux of life. If life is a raging river, plans are stepping stones we hope will take us to the safe ground on the other side.

First we’ll finish school, then we’ll get a degree, after that a great job, a partner, a house, then we’ll have a child, maybe two; and we’ll retire happy, healthy, & whole. That’s the plan.

Then we get cancer. A family member dies. The economy implodes. Considering how likely it is for something to go wrong, it is suspicious how little we make room for that in our plans. After all, nobody ‘plans’ to get cancer.

At any moment, we balance at the intersection of a thousand threads; at any point, innumerable things could go wrong. We should get comfortable with the fact that our plans – no matter how well thought out and well-intentioned – will likely fall apart.

Particularly clever people try to hedge their bets. They realise that solid plans in a fluid world are destined to fail. So, they make back-up plans. Plan A is followed by plan B, then C, then D, and perhaps even E. But, rather than solving the problem, it simply pushes it one step back, continuing to rely on the illusion of security in an insecure world. The rigorous planner has failed to take note of Alan Watts advice in The Wisdom of Insecurity,

The best predictions are still matters of probability rather than certainty, and to the best of our knowledge every one of us is going to suffer and die. 

If, then, we cannot live happily without an assured future, we are certainly not adapted to living in a finite world where, despite the best plans, accidents will happen, and where death comes at the end. 

In the spirit of Zygmunt Bauman, we should acknowledge the inherent ‘liquidity’ of contemporary life. We should see all our plans as tentative and likely to change at a moment’s notice. You feel fine today, but that little niggle on your right knee doesn’t seem to be going away. You’re close to approval for that bank loan, but aren’t interest rates rising? Life is inherently insecure and plans are liable to fall apart at a moment’s notice. There’s always one person in the relationship who doesn’t ‘plan’ on breaking-up.

Perhaps we could entertain a radical idea: not planning at all. Good conversations don’t have their topics planned in advance, and overseas travel can be so much richer when we allow the experience to unfold organically. At the very least, you can’t plan your own surprise. Maybe we could make a little space for letting life happen to us instead of trying to make it obey the timelines of our diaries and planners. I’m yet to meet someone who could successfully plan to be happy.

Alan Watts warns us that in the pursuit of planning for the future, we can lose sight of the present. We can plan, but the compulsive planner, the one who lives in their ‘to-do list’ and their ‘goal sheet’ and their pursuit of tomorrow can hardly be said to be living.

Tomorrow and plans for tomorrow can have no significance at all unless you are in full contact with the reality of the present, since it is in the present and only in the present that you live.

To continually plan for the future without paying attention to the present is absurd, leading to a future which,

When it comes to me, will find me “absent”, looking over its shoulder instead of into its face.

Jonelle Summerfield, 2010, Café in Amsterdam

Life, annoyingly, continues to evade our predictions of it. The sooner we give-up trying to determine every move, predict every possibility, and plan every pathway, and instead, adjust ourselves to the inevitable paroxysms of life, the calmer, and hopefully happier, we will be.

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