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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 April 8, 2019

    22 Tips for Effective Deadlines

    22 Tips for Effective Deadlines

    Unless you’re infinitely rich or prepared to rack up major debt, you need to budget your income. Setting limits on how much you are willing to spend helps control expenses. But what about your time? Do you budget your time or spend it carelessly?

    Deadlines are the chronological equivalent of a budget. By setting aside a portion of time to complete a task, goal or project in advance you avoid over-spending. Deadlines can be helpful but they can also be a source of frustration if set improperly. Here are some tips for making deadlines work:

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    1. Use Parkinson’s Law – Parkinson’s Law states that tasks expand to fill the time given to them. By setting a strict deadline in advance you can cut off this expansion and focus on what is most important.
    2. Timebox – Set small deadlines of 60-90 minutes to work on a specific task. After the time is up you finish. This cuts procrastinating and forces you to use your time wisely.
    3. 80/20 – The Pareto Principle suggests that 80% of the value is contained in 20% of the input. Apply this rule to projects to focus on that critical 20% first and fill out the other 80% if you still have time.
    4. Project VS Deadline – The more flexible your project, the stricter your deadline. If a task has relatively little flexibility in completion a softer deadline will keep you sane. If the task can grow easily, keep a tight deadline to prevent waste.
    5. Break it Down – Any deadline over one day should be broken down into smaller units. Long deadlines fail to motivate if they aren’t applied to manageable units.
    6. Hofstadter’s Law – Basically this law states that it always takes longer than you think. A rule I’ve heard in software development is to double the time you think you need. Then add six months. Be patient and give yourself ample time for complex projects.
    7. Backwards Planning – Set the deadline first and then decide how you will achieve it. This approach is great when choices are abundant and projects could go on indefinitely.
    8. Prototype – If you are attempting something new, test out smaller versions of a project to help you decide on a final deadline. Write a 10 page e-book before your 300 page novel or try to increase your income by 10% before aiming to double it.
    9. Find the Weak Link – Figure out what could ruin your plans and accomplish it first. Knowing the unknown can help you format your deadlines.
    10. No Robot Deadlines – Robots can work without sleep, relaxation or distractions. You aren’t a robot. Don’t schedule your deadline with the expectation you can work sixteen hour days to complete it. Deathmarches aren’t healthy.
    11. Get Feedback – Get a realistic picture from people working with you. Giving impossible deadlines to contractors or employees will only build resentment.
    12. Continuous Planning – If you use a backwards planning model, you need to constantly be updating plans to fit your deadline. This means making cuts, additions or refinements so the project will fit into the expected timeframe.
    13. Mark Excess Baggage – Identify areas of a task or project that will be ignored if time grows short. What e-mails will you have to delete if it takes too long to empty your inbox? What features will your product lack if you need a rapid finish?
    14. Review – For deadlines over a month long take a weekly review to track your progress. This will help you identify methods you can use to speed up work and help you plan more efficiently for the future.
    15. Find Shortcuts – Almost any task or project has shortcuts you can use to save time. Is there a premade library you can use instead of building your own functions? An autoresponder to answer similar e-mails? An expert you can call to help solve a problem?
    16. Churn then Polish – Set a strict deadline for basic completion and then set a more comfortable deadline to enhance and polish afterwards. Often churning out the basics of a task quickly will require no more polishing afterwards than doing it slowly.
    17. Reminders – Post reminders of your deadlines everywhere. Creating a sense of urgency with your deadlines is necessary to keep them from getting pushed aside by distractions.
    18. Forward Planning – Not mutually exclusive with backwards planning, this involves planning the details of a project out before setting a deadline. Great for achieving clarity about what you are trying to accomplish before making arbitrary time limits.
    19. Set a Timer – Get one that beeps. Somehow the countdown of a timer appears more realistic for a ninety minute timebox than just glancing at your clock.
    20. Write them Down – Any deadline over a few hours needs to be written down. Otherwise it is an inclination not a goal. Having written deadlines makes them more tangible than internal decisions alone.
    21. Cheap/Fast/Good – Ben Casnocha in My Start Up Life mentions that you can have only have two of the three. Pick two of the cheap/fast/good dimensions before starting a project to help you prioritize.
    22. Be Patient – Using a deadline may seem to be the complete opposite of patience. But being patient with inflexible tasks is necessary to focus on their completion. The paradox is that the more patient you are, the more you can focus. The more you can focus the quicker the results will come!

    Featured photo credit: Estée Janssens via unsplash.com

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