A Rebuttal to “Planning Is Just Escapism”
I plan for a living. I mean, I don’t plan normal day-to-day things like business projects or neighborhood bar-b-ques. As a strategist in the U.S. Army, I write plans dealing with military operations. The process behind planning a military operation is one that’s been hammered out across various military forces over centuries, gaining more and more nuance over time as technologies enable the addition of more — more intelligence, more knowledge, more words on a digital page than on a physical, typewritten medium. The fundamentals of planning, however, remain the same:
- Where are we?
- Where are we going?
- How do we get there?
- What will help us? What will hinder us? What do we need to influence to stop hindering and/or start helping us?
Despite my day job, I rarely plan for my personal life. For that, a hybrid BulletJournal/digital calendar system is sufficient to keep me organized. With this system, I rarely feel the need to develop more specific plans beyond a mental or written note to “do the dishes” or something similar. I have even roped my wife, who is very much an extemporaneous extrovert, into keeping our social events and other things loosely planned via Google Calendar. (She’s a trooper for going along with me against her nature on that one.)
Yesterday, I came across an article from Rosie Leizrowice, who writes, in “Planning Is Just Escapism,” about the dangers of planning — namely, that it essentially amounts to an organizational comfort blanket, taking up space in our day to assuage us without providing any real significant benefit otherwise. Rosie’s main thesis is that we can easily run into the pitfall of escaping into planning and, being comforted by the idea of having an organized life, ride that sense of accomplishment into procrastination or inaction.
… it’s easy to justify devoting inordinate amounts of time to it because it is in fact a useful thing to do, up to a point.
Rosie is absolutely right that there is a point at which planning is useful… and a point at which it loses its utility. Sometimes, it is hard to know what that point is. This is a real and valid problem. For Rosie, as for many others, sometimes a process can become what I have come to know during my time in the U.S. Army as a self-licking ice cream cone (a term whose first recorded use refers to the institutions and infrastructure, physical and otherwise, surrounding the Space Station and NASA’s Shuttle program). That is, the process of planning itself has overtaken the problem the planning was meant to figure out and become so resource-intensive that time is spent simply planning, taking away from actually moving beyond that point.
I’d smile at the neat color coded list, ordered by importance, complemented with time estimations. Everything was doable. I was unstoppable. This plan would guide me through the evening. I would be the image of restraint and discipline.
It never worked that way.
For Rosie, planning was simple and fun. Planning was rewarding in itself. But planning wasn’t productive. At times, the good feelings that we get from the act of planning can result in the desire to continue planning, sometimes to the most minute detail, even if we never actually move beyond planning to execute what we spent so long developing. These good feelings, especially when coupled with bad feelings from not actually accomplishing the tasks we planned, can become a sort of distracting panacea — why spend time on doing the tasks we planned to do, which tends to generate negative feelings, when planning just feels so good? This positive emotional response to planning is not fundamentally bad, but can be a key element of what makes the ice cream cone start to lick itself.
Rosie charges that, ultimately, “we’re all terrible at planning. Maybe some of us are better than others, maybe we make better plans some of the time. But on the whole, we’re far too optimistic.”
She’s right… in part. As a professional planner, I do not believe we are terrible at planning — only that we do not naturally have the tools necessary to leverage planning to achieve our goals.
Rosie makes a relatively sound argument. Planning can become a self-serving beast that reduces overall productivity, but this is not an inherent property of planning and we are not all destined to be terrible at planning. In fact, I charge that Rosie’s position contains two fatal flaws: an insufficient acknowledgement of resource-informed planning practices and the conflation of difficulty executing the plans with the difficulty of planning itself.
First, rather than planning altogether itself being problematic, it is simply an element of planning, that of resource-informed planning practices, that presents a problem for Rosie:
The issue is that I can only tackle maybe 2 big problems at once. When I do tackle them, it tends to just happen. I get so fed up I start doing whatever it takes. [bold emphasis mine]
Rosie fundamentally understands that she is one person and her time is limited, resulting in a limit to the number of tasks she can realistically accomplish in any given time period. She inherently understands resource limitations, but appears to have trouble tying those limitations into her planning process.
Second, a significant challenge for Rosie and many others is simply getting started after planning:
Writing down that you want to do XYZ, even breaking it into little steps and putting it in your calendar, is light years away from the effort of doing said thing.
Other the consideration of reaources, Rosie’s methodology for planning appears sound: identify what needs to get done, break it into its component parts, and place it on your schedule or to-do list. However, “doing said thing” is a whole ‘nother animal.
Given these two challenges, I offer a some thoughts to help move forward from planning and, hopefully, to alleviate the idea that planning is ineffective.
A Way Forward
There’s never a single solution to a problem. We all have different strengths and weaknesses that require different approaches to overcoming challenges in life. It’s with that in mind that I don’t aim to propose a solution, per se, but considerations to aid self-discovery as to what might work best for you. As I identified above, I believe that Rosie’s two primary issues revolve around developing a resource-informed plan that she is able to execute.
The Army’s operations cycle, shown above, notes four key aspects of “Operations” (or projects or tasks or any other thing you have to do): Plan, Prepare, Execute, and Assess (as a continuous action). When we are done planning, we gather necessary materials, inform everyone involved of what needs to happen, and begin preparing to start executing. For plans to be executable, however, they must be resource-informed; that is, the plan appropriately considers what is required, what is available, and what is not.
In the military planning process, we ensure plans are appropriately informed by resources. Some of those resources include:
- Personnel: Do we have the right amount of units to accomplish the mission?
- Equipment: Do we have the right “stuff” to get the job done?
- Funding: Is the money there to do what we need to do?
- Time: Can we accomplish the mission with the resources at hand within the required amount of time?
To put these considerations into regular, day-to-day planning, I offer the narrative below.
John needs to write his final paper for English 101, due four weeks from today. Since he has not yet started and he knows his objective is to have a complete, informed, and well-cited 10-page paper, he knows he will need to dedicated the appropriate amount of time over the next four weeks to get it done. John begins backwards planning, starting from the known due-date of the paper and identifying all key events from that date back to now, such as the Final Review, date and time to go to the college writing center for editing, a due date for a First Draft to take to the writing center, estimated time to write each portion of the paper, time to outline the paper, time to find reference material and other resources at the library, and time to decide on a topic. John places each of these major tasks in his planner around his classes and social activities to ensure that his schedule over the next four weeks is realistic and conflict-free. By doing this, John has identified a resource-informed plan, particularly with consideration to time, developed a plan of action on a timeline, and effectively broken his project into small, manageable tasks.
But John, like Rosie, still has to execute that plan. Unfortunately, without knowing why Rosie faced challenges executing her plan, the best I can advise her and others is that regularly referencing your schedule or to-do list to reflect on what has been done and what still needs doing, rolling up your sleeves and getting to work, and, if needed, enlisting the help of others for moral support (or more!) are the best ways forward.
Many folks, my wife included, do not share the same approach to life as I do. I’m more of a “do it now and have fun later” kind of person. I like to tackle tasks immediately so that I can play video games and enjoy them later without interruption. My wife has her own timeline for doing things. Regardless of where you are on that spectrum, I want to note that you are not right or wrong, better or worse than anyone else. You have your way of doing things along your own timeline, and that’s great!
But if you find you’re missing deadlines or just never feeling motivated to do a certain task, you may just need to grin and bear it. A little bit of work never killed anyone, and I believe in you.
As an Army officer and strategist, I would be remiss if I didn’t quote a line from Dwight Eisenhower’s 1957 speech in an article on planning. Eisenhower said, “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” Although somewhat self-evident in its meaning, Eisenhower was reiterating an old lesson from his time in service where he learned that the act of planning is more significant than the plan itself because planning allows the planner to analyze and more deeply understand both themselves and their environment as they are at the time of planning and relative to where things should be at the point of success. If you’ve done the work to know where you are, where you need to go, how you might get there, and the associated challenges you might face, the rest of just a healthy dose of flexibility and initiative.
Citations and References
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