Is having a plan helpful? Not always.

One fateful December several years ago, my friend Linds and I came across the life-changing magic we needed. 

It was not tidying up. 

It was a planner. 

The perfect planner, in which we would — with the perfect stickers, highlighters, pens, and washi — make the perfect plans. The perfect plans, we knew, would carry us on a wave of neon-colored energy to becoming the perfect people we knew we could be. 

Moms who actually put away the clean laundry and never got fast food for dinner at 6:47pm on a Tuesday. 

Accomplished women who were professional and articulate and, you know, leaning in

Wives who were sexy and independent and who didn’t keep score or put up with bullshit.

Friends who did things together instead of talking about how we should do something together. 

It was going to be the best year ever. 

And it was, for the planner company. They sold us, and thousands of other people, a dream of what having a plan can mean for your life. 

It’s a beautiful dream. 

And it’s only a dream. 

Productivity advice tends to support The Plan as a positive, worthwhile–even necessary–element of being productive.

But is it?

The truth is that planning can be harmful to our productivity and efficacy and even enjoyment in life. 

Plans lead us to unrealistic expectations. We don’t know how long things will take, and instead of referencing our experiences, we believe our planned estimates. Then our plan doesn’t work, and everything falls apart. 

Plans can keep us from doing our best. Research shows that making a backup plan — what you’ll do in case things don’t work out — leads to poor performance. 

Plans can reduce our creativity. Over-planning — a common tendency among those who plan in order to combat anxiety— is the antithesis of the creative flexibility shared by successful entrepreneurs.

I love a plan. I want planning to be a worthwhile use of my time. I want to be justified in making a plan, having a plan, carrying a planner around, getting upset when my plan gets derailed, and (continually) updating my plan.

I don’t want to admit that, often, planning is another form of procrastination.

But I guess I just did.

Having a plan can be helpful. But not always.

Here’s what I think:

When is having a plan helpful?

  • When you make a good plan for important shit, and
  • Stick to it, and
  • Would NOT have done the shit without the plan.

Good plans vs bad plans

I’ve learned, through multiple years of being something called a ‘productivity expert’ (I just call it getting shit done) that all plans are not equal.

There are good plans and bad plans. Good plans are effective schedules and strategies for doing things that matter to you.

Bad plans, on the other hand, make simple things complex and require more time and energy than is justified for the end result.

What is a bad plan?

There are two types of bad plans:

  1. A bad plan that is unrealistic and simply won’t work in the real world.
  2. A bad plan that is realistic, flexible, has few dependencies–in other words, has the elements of a good plan–but is focused on stuff that doesn’t matter to you.

Bad plans are worse than useless. They do not leave you in a neutral place. They subtract value from your life and give nothing in return. They take your resources (time, attention) and offer no benefit. They are a net negative.

Avoid the bad plan.

Try this instead of a bad plan

And if you’re not sure of the difference between a good plan and a bad plan, perhaps it’s better to avoid planning altogether. Instead, cultivate this small habit:

  • Every hour, on the hour, stop, take a deep breath, and ask yourself: What is the next good thing for me to do? Then do it.

If you cultivate that habit, you probably don’t need a plan at all.

If you make a bad plan, it won’t help you to be productive. It will frustrate you and derail you. It might make you feel guilty or indecisive, which will lead to procrastination, which will lead to less productivity.

A bad plan is like a set of dominoes: if you mess up or miss one part of your plan, the whole thing falls down.

A good plan, on the other hand, is useful even if you only stick to part of it.

What is a good plan?

Here are the traits of a good plan:

  1. A good plan is focused.
  2. A good plan includes buffer time.
  3. A good plan has few dependencies.
  4. A good plan is realistic.
  5. A good plan has a mix of flexibility and rigidity.

A good plan is focused

A good plan helps you protect and focus on the most important parts of your day.

What are the most important parts of your day?

They might be the top three routines, the most meaningful activities, and/or the top few tasks you need to complete. A good plan differentiates between priorities and details.

A good plan includes buffer

If you don’t include buffer time in your day, you will end up behind schedule and frustrated.

Buffer time is for mental and physical transitions, for taking breaks, for wrapping up, for clearing your head, for dealing with the tiny things that pop up, and for having a feeling of spaciousness rather than urgency.

A good plan has few dependencies

Dependencies are weaknesses.

If being able to do Item 3 on your day’s plan depends on getting Item 1 and Item 2 done on the same day, on time, you’re screwed.

Set up your plan so that even if the first half is a complete fail, you can step into the second half and get that shit done.

A good plan is realistic

If you’ve never written more than 500 words in one sitting, don’t plan on writing 2,000 words tomorrow between 1pm and 3pm.

If it takes 30 minutes to drive from Point A to Point B, give yourself more than 30 minutes to get there.

Do not make a plan that asks you to overcome all odds or exert superhuman willpower. That’s not a plan; it’s a fairytale.

Also, a realistic plan is a plan for things you can control.

A good plan has a mix of flexibility and rigidity

Certain parts of your plan need to be inflexible.

These might be your daily routines, your key appointments, or time blocked for your most important project. Rigid items get a time slot, with both starting and ending times. You don’t adjust the rigid items for anything less than an emergency.

For the rest of the plan, let there be flexibility. Flexible items might be time blocked for secondary projects, routines that can shift in the timeline, tasks that can be grouped and done whenever you have a moment, open slots in your schedule, or nice-to-do things.

Will you follow your plan?

A plan is only as useful as your execution.

That’s the real secret sauce, here: you can make the best plan, but if you don’t do it, why bother?

Don’t kid yourself. If planning is another form of procrastination, you’re better off skipping the plan. Get up and get started. Don’t plan: act.
If, on the other hands, you are willing to make a plan and the act on it, you can be more effective and feel pretty damn good at the end of the day.

Do you need a plan?

If you’re the kind of person who wakes up knowing what you want to do—and then you mostly just get up and do it—then skip the plan. You don’t need it.

If you have strong habits that keep you focused and doing the tasks that are important for your life, follow your habits.

In other words: if you would do the stuff that needs to be done anyway, don’t waste time planning to do it. Just go ahead and do it.

I’m a mix. I need a plan for some tasks, and to keep track of scheduled things like meetings and deadlines and which kid needs a ride somewhere today. I make a plan to help me put the most important things first. I don’t need a plan for things I’ll do anyway, like making dinner or responding to email from the kids’ teachers or paying a bill or calling my sister.

That fancy planner lasted a few weeks before it went into the pile of books I’ll never read. The kids claimed the highlighters and washi as new art supplies.

I kept the fancy pens for something I do consistently: journal. 

Somewhere in my journaling I began to see the key to helpful, effective planning:

  • It needs to be simple and easy, and
  • It needs to be about what matters to me. 

These days, I use a simple paper planner, and I make barebones plans. They help me stay focused. They help me guard time for what is most important. They help me say No to what is not important. 

But my plans can only contain the clarity and meaning I bring to them. Plans are tools. Until we gain the skill needed to handle the tool, the tool itself is useless.