Plan, Plan Well, and Plan to Fail

Plan, Plan Well, and Plan to Fail

[We ran this column a year ago to great response, so we’ll run it again now that another Labour Day approaches]

This autumn I will begin my 54th year of starting school. (My overtaxed mother sent me, her firstborn, out to half-day nursery school when I was three. I’ll leave the rest of the math to you.) As a long-time student and even longer-time professor, here are three key counsels I’d like to offer parents and pupils as another academic year is about to dawn.

  1. Plan.

Lists and calendars are not only for the obsessive-compulsive, but for any of us who do not live in Wayne Manor and have an omnicompetent Alfred to manage our lives.

True, lists and calendars become oppressive when we feel we must make every move according to them. They become what the Bible calls “idolatrous” when we judge the success of our days and weeks solely by what we check off.

But lists and calendars provide freedom and peace of mind when we set them up prudently. For by them we can know, hour by hour and day by day, that we’re on track toward our main goals. And, trusting them, we don’t have to keep Remembering Everything All The Time.

I therefore recommend David Allen’s Getting Things Done, and the life management software by OmniFocus that implements his principles.

(Full disclosure: The author is not being paid to endorse these products…although he would fervently like to be.)

  1. Plan according to your hierarchy of values.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow outlined his famous “hierarchy of needs” decades ago. You’ve probably seen one of the pyramids based on his famous 1943 paper, “A Theory of Human Motivation.”

Significantly, however, it turns out that we need every item on that pyramid. It also turns out that the ranking of needs is highly controversial. Even people in concentration camps, for instance, make art, make love, and make themselves and others matter.

Still, we cannot pursue every good goal at once. And some things do matter more than others.

So make sure you put First Things First and, as Stephen Covey is now famous for saying on behalf of highly successful people everywhere, “The Main Thing is to keep the Main Thing the Main Thing.”

That way, when it turns out that you can’t check off every item on your list and you can’t get to every appointment on your calendar, you do not collapse in weepy frustration or explode in volcanic rage. Instead, you will maturely console yourself that what you really wanted to accomplish you did, and the rest will have to be chalked up to the limitations of real life.

  1. Plan for that real life to happen, because it will.

I have yet to encounter a student, even among my very most experienced and careful doctoral students, who has taken into account a simple, universally recognized fact as he or she formulates a plan for the coming year: People get sick.

You likely will get sick. And that will cost you time.

If you don’t, someone important to you will get sick, and that will cost you time.

And we’re not even talking yet about injuries, financial surprises, bureaucratic blunders, and other unavoidable elements of modern life that will take a toll on your nicely numbered lists and carefully considered plans.

The Hebrew Bible’s most world-weary book, Ecclesiastes, puts the point sharply:
“I returned, and saw under the sun that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all” (9:11).

So count on time and chance happening to you this year. Add a goodly amount to your planning of what Dr. Richard Swenson has for years been telling us to add: margin.

And thus I wish you a well-planned and truly happy academic New Year!


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