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Why Your Plans Fail

Why Your Plans Fail

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    Business plans, diet plans, plans to get a degree and your plan to get rich. Life is full of planning. You’d think that all your practice planning would make you at least somewhat good at it. Then why do so few things go “according to plan?”

    Your business can’t make money the way you intended. You quit your diet on day three and start eating the chocolate cake. You realize that you hate the subject you’re studying. The map rarely matches the territory. “Okay,” you might say, “I’ll admit some of my plans didn’t work out perfectly, but it can’t be that bad, can it?”

    The Planning Fallacy

    People are notoriously bad at planning. The worst part is, we don’t even know it. One psychological study conducted asked students to predict when they expected to complete an assignment, almost none gave enough time. Other looks into financial analysts show that few can consistently beat the market.

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    The real problem is that these planning failures aren’t recognized. People make wildly overconfident projections but fail to notice their abysmal track record in predicting. The question is, what can you do about this?

    New Planning Techniques Aren’t the Solution

    The problem isn’t a better planning method. We’ve all had a great deal of practice planning. Different planning styles can help, but they can’t solve the core problem of uncertainty. That is, you have no idea what the future holds.

    The planning fallacy creates two major problems – the inability to plan and being blind to that incompetence. The real solution is to keep a careful eye on your track record and learn to stomach uncertainty.

    Watching Your Track Record

    The way to tackle overconfidence is to be aware of your success rate. Whenever you make plans, keep a record of occasions you were forced to deviate from them. I’ve done this, and the differences between your map and reality can be surprising.

    How does humility help you? We’ve all been told to have faith and certainty in our efforts, otherwise it is too easy to give up. I’d argue the opposite. When you are motivated to do something, being humbled about your ability to predict forces you to be highly flexible.

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    Stomaching Uncertainty

    Does risk make you queasy? Stomaching uncertainty is the next problem. Once you become aware of your inability to plan, you need to find a way to make the unknown tolerable. There are a couple ways you can do this: worst-case planning and flexible planning.

    Planning for the Worst

    One way to mitigate the actual risk is to plan for the worst cases possible. The point of this is to make you aware of the negative outcomes, and knowing you can handle it. The worst-case rarely materializes, or if it does, it usually happens in a way you didn’t expect. Worst-case planning can’t give you a look at everything that could go wrong, just a bit more confidence in knowing you can handle it.

    The other benefit of worst-case planning is it balances the built in optimism plans have. Most people can’t distinguish between their best-case plans and expected plans. In other words, when predicting the future they imagine the most optimistic scenario possible.

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    A common rule I heard in software development was to figure out how long it should take. Then double that time and add six months. For your best-case. This adjustment was another method to offset the natural optimism in predicting.

    Flexible Planning

    The second option is simply not to plan. This may seem crazy, but I’ve found using what I’ll call a “flexible planning” model to be ideal for areas where there is a heavy amount of uncertainty.

    Flexible planning isn’t planning in the traditional sense. Traditional planning involves looking at your outcome and devising a route to reach there. Flexible planning defies this entirely by not focusing on an end result. Instead, the emphasis is placed on doing actions that will place you in more favorable positions.

    Flexible Planning VS Traditional Planning

    Traditional planning starts with your objective and works backwards from that. Let’s say you were planning out what career choice you wanted. A traditional approach would be to work out your career choice, possible firms to work with, education you’ll need, classes you’ll need to take and how to fund your education. Each step determining the one before it.

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    The problem with this method is it cleanly erases uncertainty along the way. What if changes happen in the industry and firms you want to work for start downsizing? What if your school of choice doesn’t accept you? What if you don’t like the classes or eventual career? What if you can’t fund tuition?

    Flexible planning starts where you are and works forward. So your current position might be limited post-secondary schooling and funds. Flexible planning suggests that many outcomes are favorable and that the paths to get there are almost infinite. Instead your job becomes to put yourself in increasingly more favorable positions.

    The next step might be to get some schooling, apply to different Universities and scholarship programs or work to earn money for tuition. The best step is the one that has the most favorable options flowing from it.

    In a business context this would mean planning your business so that it would have the largest amount of opportunities available. This way if one of your original plans fails, you can easily switch to another.

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    Scott H Young

    Scott is obsessed with personal development. For the last ten years, he's been experimenting to find out how to learn and think better.

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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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