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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 September 10, 2019

    How to Master the Art of Prioritization

    How to Master the Art of Prioritization

    Do you know that prioritization is an art? It is an art that will lead you to success in whatever area that matters to you.

    By prioritization, I’m not talking so much about assigning tasks, but deciding which will take chronological priority in your day—figuring out which tasks you’ll do first, and which you’ll leave to last.

    Effective Prioritization

    There are two approaches to “prioritizing” the tasks in your to-do list that I see fairly often:

    Approach #1 Tackling the Biggest Tasks First and Getting Them out of the Way

    The idea is that by tackling them first, you deal with the pressure and anxiety that builds up and prevents you from getting anything done—whether we’re talking about big or small tasks. Leo Babauta is a proponent of this Big Rocks method.[1]

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    Approach #2 Tackling the Tasks You Can Get Done Quickly and Easily, with Minimal Effort

    Proponents of this method believe that by tackling the small fries first, you’ll have less noise distracting you from the periphery of your consciousness.

    If you believe in getting your email read and responded to, making phone calls and getting Google Reader zeroed before you dive into the high-yield work, you’re a proponent of this method. I suppose you could say Getting Things Done (GTD) encourages this sort of method, since the methodology advises followers to tackle tasks that can be completed within two minutes, right there and then.

    Figure out Your Approach for Prioritization

    My own approach is perhaps a mixture of the two.

    I’ll write out my daily task list and draw little priority stars next to the three items I need to get done that day. They don’t need to be big tasks, but nine times out of ten, they are.

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    Smaller tasks are rarely important enough to warrant a star in the first place; I can always get away without even checking my inbox until the next day if I’m swamped, and the people who need to get in touch with me super quickly know how.

    But I’m not recommending my system of prioritization to you. I’m also not saying that mine is better than Leo’s Big Rocks method, and I’m not saying it’s better than the “if it can be done quickly, do it first” method either.

    The thing with prioritization is that knowing when to do what relies very much on you and the way you work. Some people need to get some small work done to find a sense of accomplishment and clarity that allows them to focus on and tackle bigger items. Others need to deal with the big tasks or they’ll get caught up in the busywork of the day and never move on, especially when that Google Reader count just refuses to get zeroed (personally, I recommend the Mark All As Read button—I use it most days!).

    I’m in between, because my own patterns can be all over the place. Some days I will be ready to rip into massive projects at 7AM. Other times I’ll feel the need to zero every inbox I have and clean up the papers on my desk before I can focus on anything serious. I also know that my peak, efficient working time doesn’t come at 11AM or 3PM or some specific time like it does for many people, but I have several peaks divided by a few troughs. I can feel what’s coming on when and try to keep my schedule liquid enough that I can adapt.

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    That’s why I use a starred task list system rather than a scheduled task list. It allows me to trust myself (something that I suppose takes a certain amount of discipline) and achieve peak efficiency by blowing with the winds. If I fight the peaks and troughs, I’ll get less done; but if I do certain kinds of work in each period of the day as they come, I’ll get more done than most others in a similar line of work.

    You may not be able to trust yourself to that extent without falling into the busywork trap. You may not be able to tackle big tasks first thing in the morning without feeling like you’re pushing against an invisible brick wall that won’t budge. You might not be able to deal with small tasks before the big tasks without feeling pangs of guilt and urgency.

    My point is:

    The prioritization systems themselves don’t matter. They’re all pretty good for a group of people, not least of all to the people who espouse them because they use them and find them effective.

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    What matters is that you don’t fall for one set of dogma (and I’m not saying Leo Babauta or David Allen preach these things as dogma, but sometimes their proponents do) until you’ve tried the systems extensively, and found which method of chronological prioritization works for you.

    And if the system you already use works great, then there’s no need to bother trying others—in the world of personal productivity, it’s too easy to mess with something that works and find yourself unable to get back into your former groove.

    “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

    In truth, this principle applies to all sorts of personal productivity issues, though it’s important to know which issues it applies to.

    If you thought multitasking worked well for you each day and I’d have to contend that you are wrong—multitasking is a universal myth in my books! But if you find yourself prioritizing tasks that never get done, you might need to reconsider which of the above approaches you’re using and change to a system that is more personally effective.

    More About Prioritization & Time Management

    Featured photo credit: Sabri Tuzcu via unsplash.com

    Reference

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