Why We Plan (or Not)

The other day, I visited a blog I only occasionally read. It’s written by a lovely person whose approach to organizing time is very different from mine, someone who relies on structure and detailed, elaborate plans. The piece I read was an essay in which the blogger reflected upon the reasons behind planning. The blogger started with the death of a loved one who had lived a life full of “social engagements, travel, art, entertaining, and time with family,” then revealed that their devotion to planning was fueled by a desire to not waste time, to ensure that each small precious moment is spent on things that matter and serve a purpose.

This blogger seems like a really nice person, so I want it to be understood that I absolutely do not wish to throw any shade here. However, this essay, like many of the blogger’s posts, gave me metaphorical hives, because the blogger and I are so, SO different. Everything  described above strikes me as an extrovert’s definition of a satisfying life. An existence this full of social engagements, travel, and family sounds downright exhausting. There are so many people, nonstop people and nonstop movement in this story. There is also the assumption that one is able to perform whatever one planned to when one planned to do it. There is no room for procrastination and no room for pushing back (referred to as “bad attitude”).

Look, I agree that we should be grateful for the time we have. But I feel that focusing on never having a wasted moment is (for the likes of me, at least) just crazy-making. It’s a bit like this: If you ever had a baby, you probably remember the enormous pressure to take advantage of the nap times, all the things you wanted to squeeze into these tiny slots,  which often resulted in accomplishing nothing and feeling like a failure because you wanted to do too much, because the baby slept too little, because the baby slept too long and you reeeeeally should’ve taken advantage of THAT even though you had no crystal ball, because you couldn’t fall asleep yourself, because you couldn’t focus on work… Because, because, because. Detailed planning with the purpose on avoiding time waste gives me anxiety similar to trying (and failing) to make the most of a baby’s nap.

Please, please don’t let anyone tell you that sitting still and being comfortable in your head means you are wasting your life.

To me, unnecessary structure is stifling. Sure, I know there are meetings I have to attend and classes, office hours, and activities with the kids; I know there are deadlines and timeframes for various goals, but, other than that, I feel that a great many things do not, in fact, have to be scheduled, or at least not too rigidly. When it comes to raising kids,  I feel there are no big manufactured moments, just moments. Sure, kids like vacations and adventures, but, to me, the most meaningful, heartwarming moments come from goofing around in the kitchen, chatting in the car on our way back from sports, impromptu silliness while shopping together. Just being around the kids, feeding them and talking to them and doing homework with them and organizing playdates, the stuff of daily life — I am positive that’s what gets built into the kids’ psyche and makes it strong. Elaborate vacations are nice, but not critical. Sure, they make for great pictures, but to me vacations are terribly stressful precisely because so much hinges on not wasting every (expensive) moment.

My biggest priorities are spontaneity and free time in which anything can happen, and I prefer to spend most of this time by myself, inside my head. I have a lot of interests, many of them creative ones, which require solitude. I feel that the focus on people-centric activities and planning misses much of the creative work and the people who engage in it. I can do relatively mindless, superficial work in 15-min chunks between chores; God knows there’s plenty of that type of work to go around. But anything deep, science or art, requires focus and doesn’t always work on demand regardless of how upset with myself and my own bad attitude I might get.

In order to have my time best aligned with the things that I find meaningful — which include spontaneous moments of deep connection with my kids and a small number of adults who kinda sorta get me, as well as both the consumption and creation of science and art and all the crazy connections between disparate concepts and images that stem from those — I absolutely must NOT plan anything that can be left unplanned. Instead, I need to leave as much time as possible free for solitude, for the intermixing of the subconscious and the conscious and all the goodness that arises from a lack of structure.

What say you, blogosphere? What drives you to plan or not plan? 


  1. I think I’m probably somewhere between you and this blogger. Not having read the original post to which you refer, it seems to me that two things are being conflated here. One is planning itself. One is the particular nature of the plans. I am a ‘planner.’ I am also *highly* introverted. A plan for my ideal weekend, for example, involves a lot of unstructured time to putter around my house, read, and not interact with other humans. But I’d still write it in an analog calendar with a to do list.

  2. We have a ton of posts on this topic back when I was still reading productivity bloggers who stressed it and would just not take my word for it that no I do not want to plan to go to basketball games or church etc. or anything that requires me to look at a clock on weekends.

    The bottom line: I prefer my work to be planned and my free time to be mostly unplanned. When we lived in various paradises, it was easier to find things to plan to do on weekends. Here anything worth planning for also involves an hour and a half of driving each way. It’s all about utility curves and budget constraints.

    ALSO: After DH started working from home, I realized that some of the productivity bloggers who can’t imagine that anyone else has different preferences also work from home and so they don’t have as much in person interaction with people so they need to get out and see folks more than people who see a variety of adults every day at work. Basically, I saw my introverted DH need more adult interaction and needing to schedule it more once he wasn’t getting too much interaction from his day job.

    This one has a lot of good stuff in the comments section: https://nicoleandmaggie.wordpress.com/2018/02/14/a-mostly-unscheduled-weekend-snapshot/

    (Also… some of those productivity bloggers… my work is just mentally harder than theirs. But that’s an uncharitable thought. Though I’ve noted before that I work more hours when I’m teaching, but I get mentally exhausted more when I only have research.)

  3. That sort of rigid scheduling is totally crazy-making for me. I prefer to make goals for the week/day, categorize into big, medium, little in my head (ideally breaking down the big into little chunks) and go from there. Of course, I’ve always had issues with not having a lot of energy, so I also have had to learn to not be too rigid because of that. One day might be wildly productive, but it’s foolishness to think the next will be as well. Seriously, who thinks all their days should/could be identical?

  4. @N&M — I had the same thought about how my work differs from the productivity bloggers in a lot of ways. For me, often I need to devote thinking time just to come up with a work plan — what analysis should I be performing, how do I need to do it, does it really address the problem I’m trying to address and if not what should I do differently, should I rope in other collaborators, do I need to identify other technologies to help me do this, etc. that involves a heck of a lot more deep thought than say… putting together a lecture schedule, sending a few emails, or even writing a manuscript (all of which I also have to do). Thinking time has to be fluid, and the solution often can’t just be obtained by “thinking harder” or by setting aside a pre-specified chunk of time in my schedule — which I absolutely have to do — it’s just likely the problem won’t be solved just because I devoted a block of time to it (making it impossible to check off my list).

    I can work 25 hours in a row doing anesthesia. Research… much less before I’m mentally spent.

    @X — Vacations stress me out too, for exactly the reasons you describe. I don’t want to have to feel like I am checking off boxes while I am on vacation. I just want to be. What I really crave is open time for me to think and just be, and to connect meaningfully with people who get me — just as you describe. I do like talking to people, but I find the superficial conversations of the workplace to be unsatisfying, and nobody has any time for anything more meaningful, which frustrates me. An ideal date night with my husband or family vacation involves deep connection revolving around a shared experience, but for that to happen doesn’t really require an exotic locale. Unfortunately, time is so scarce that I find that to achieve that, I have to set aside blocks of time to even have a conversation with my husband sometimes, and even then there’s no guarantee that we won’t be distracted. This leaves me very dissatisfied. So.

  5. @gwinne: You’re probably right that the two (extroversion and planning) appear conflated, but it’s largely by design (addressing a specific thesis in the other essay). The blogger has all these extrovert goals and priorities that rely on activities outside the house and with other people (travel, family and friend visits) and I agree that those need to be planned. However, I disagree with the blogger’s underlying thesis that, if you care about your time being aligned with your priorities and values, you will automatically plan. To that I say poppycock, and give an example of myself. My priorities are simply different and don’t hinge that much on other people, but rather solitude and spontaneity; following my own priorities results in ditching plans. So what I am arguing is that it’s not true all alignment of time with priorities requires detailed planning; sure, it does for the blogger, but we don’t all have the same priorities, and not all priorities necessitate the same level of structure in one’s life.

    I hear you on being a list-loving introvert. I think introverts can probably get away with less structure than extroverts if they so choose. You obviously love lists and utilize them in your free time, but I imagine many introverted people might not. In contrast, detailed planning is probably necessary for most extroverts because it involves juggling other people and activities outside the house.

  6. @nicoleandmaggie: OMG, that post you linked to is adorable! “Extended morning snuggles”…”DH and I kiss a bunch” *hearts in eyes*

    When I teach or otherwise have a lot of face time (office hours, meetings) I am exhausted at the end of the day and can only veg out with Netflix and such. When I have a day full of deep and/or creative work, I am super happy and all fired up, don’t want to stop in the evening (I get a bit hypomanic really).

    The quarantine has been rough, as I haven’t had real alone time in nearly three months (other than an hour outside each day) and doing actual deep work with nonstop interruptions has been frying my circuits. So I’ve been watching a lot of TV, trying to decompress.

  7. I am definitely the type of person whose Google Calendar would give you metaphorical hives, and for me this type of planning solves problems in my life that it sounds like are not problems for you in the first place or for which you’ve already developed solutions that don’t involve planning:

    1) Holding space in my life for the kind of complex thinking you describe so that space doesn’t get overrun with mundane details
    2) Making sure I only take on what I can handle and don’t overcommit too much—some people thrive having a huge backlog of projects and thrill in the race to meet a deadline, but this is the type of thing that gives me metaphorical hives 🙂
    3) Giving me a compass to make sure I’m spending time on all my disparate interests (I never follow my plan exactly, but it helps orient me).

    Since you are able to do all of these things or they are not an issue for you without a plan, it makes sense to me that you wouldn’t want one, and hopefully it could make sense to you why people like me and the blogger need them.

  8. As someone who’s not super introverted or extroverted, but lives alone, I miss seeing people to chat these days.

    But planning: I do well with structured planning stuff for work, but when I’m on my own, I like to wing things. Sometimes, that’s not such a great idea (you have to arrange hotel or camping spaces to have somewhere to sleep when you’re on vacation, or you can add a lot of difficulty…)

  9. My ideal life would be spent entirely in my head…

    I prefer to plan chores and tick them off once i set myself do doing them. This frees up time for the important stuff: reading, watching, listening, thinking, writing. No need to plan anything. I am never bored because i can always entertain myself and the best events happen through creative/deep thinking. (I guess my master plan os theto list of everything i still wish to do/read/watch etc.)

    I wouldn’t call the non planning ‘spontaneity’ though, because that suggests things like surprise parties and last minute trips and visits. I shiver all over just thinking about that.

    I do need to plan/schedule time with friends or family because otherwise i get stuck by myself and while i thoroughly enjoy my own company its probably healthy (and also nice) to see some other people every now and then.

  10. @biobrains: It’s funny now that you mention it, how spontaneity doesn’t involve other people. Before I lived in the US, it had. I think back home it still does for many people. You can impromptu call up a friend or relative and just get together or go out. Nobody seems to do this in the US (at least nobody I know); socializing is much more structured, so I completely stopped expecting it at some point, and now that I think about it, it makes me sad. Also my DH is very much a careful planner; while kids are game to up and see a movie in a theater 10 min after I suggest it (not now b/c Covid-19, but in general), DH doesn’t do social spontaneity, so it doesn’t really feature in my life anymore. I do miss it. 😦 There used to be an older colleague who was just like me, with whom I could just decide go to have lunch on the spot, but he retired a few years ago. 😦

  11. @Emma: No shade on planners, I promise! I understand why people need or want plans. It’s just that the planning voices are the only voices out there, and it often feels like a certain set of priorities and a certain set of strategies are the ONLY way to be, lest one become a complete underachiever. I think that’s what grates on me, the fact that there aren’t actually many visible avenues toward success, so those who are like me feel they are lone freaks, somehow successful despite doing everything wrong, even though the reality is that there are different personalities, and most people are somewhere on the spectrum between “plan everything in 15-min increments” to “planner? what’s a planner?” and often different strategies are employed for personal and professional spheres, also if someone lives alone vs manages a family, etc. In a nutshell, nothing against planners and list-makers, honestly, but I’d like to see and hear more from people who get organized differently and whose priorities differ from the mainstream. Here’s my humble contribution to “Organization for List Haters” (the comments are well worth reading):

  12. @xykademiqz Thank for those links, I love reading about other people’s systems even if they are very different from/don’t work for me personally! Do you like writing about your systems or is that also painful like planning would be? If it’s not painful, I agree it could be really useful to represent those perspectives more–I have a few colleagues I work closely with/family members that are much more like you, but sometimes still want to fix small issues in their system, and then they ask me for advice because they know I like planning, but it’s clear that what works for me is never going to work for them because they need something more like your systems.

  13. This is relatable, even if I am not exactly the same.
    I like a few things a week to be set down pretty solidly, but to have many other things that need to be done, and a few other “like to have”. But I definitely get similar feelings of “wow that’s great, and also not for me” when I read bloggers who are extreme planners.

    I feel like I used to be more of a planner, and now am not, and I think that for me the way I am now is actually more optimal, but I can’t shake a lingering fear I am Not Productive enough. In reality I am probably just much more streamlined about what NEEDs to be planned, as well as able to accept with equanimity some things not going to plan. I have also learned some types of work fit better into less task oriented thinking- appreciating your time with family is a great example. If I make all parenting into a to-do list, it’s just too easy to get stressed over the wrong things.

    Also, I just don’t like bugging people. As I’ve grown, and my goals and plans necessarily involve others, I want to be proactive enough that things will get planned if they need to and no one else wants to take on the role, but not so proactive I drive people who are more laid back bonkers. Because the people who are more laid back are actually often better to collaborate with than the extreme planner types.
    Basically, I can adapt to high levels of structure, but I extremely dislike *imposing* high levels of structure. I would never invent the Dewey decimal or library of Congress systems, but I can readily shelve books according to either and derive minor joy in it. I value autonomy, and assume everyone else does too.

    I also think extreme planner types have an especially hard time with things like Covid19. Sure, you can make *some* contingency plans (e.g. for various daycare scenarios), but you ultimately have to accept some plans will be determined more by things outside your control than inside.

  14. Can you share how the rush to the deadline/Netflix afterwards and cake before dinner approaches worked when your kids were really little (like 0-3)? Did you just work/watch Netflix during daycare hours and when they were asleep? How did you deal with interrupting cake time for daycare pickups/dinner/bath etc? Or did you have some sort of alternative arrangements? I guess basically how do/did you adjust when your time/flexibility becomes more limited than in the past, so there are fewer open schedule blocks? Hopefully this makes sense.

  15. @Emma: This is always a struggle. I was and am no less limited by daycare pickup times or child aftercare activities than anyone else. I don’t have more time overall or more blocks of uninterrupted time than other people; in fact, with three kids, I probably had years of extremely fragmented time, and when I was/am at home, I was/am still always on duty. The answer is you do what you can and when you can, and you have to make peace with doing most things less (far less) than perfect much of the time. When you do have some extra time or energy, try to invest it wisely, either in stuff that’s both truly important and urgent, or stuff that you know will nourish your soul. For example, after several bad nights with a new baby, there’s a backlog of work, but sleeping or doing something for myself will take precedent over most work if at all possible, because in the long run I have to be able to keep going. And, remember, a large fraction of work is total bullshit; if you can just not do it, or do it shoddily and be done, that’s the way to go.

    I also slept very little for many years with small children (breastfeeding, then ear infections etc.). Sometimes I wonder how I have any gray matter left. It wasn’t easy, and you have to listen to yourself and your body as much as you can and prioritize them to the extent possible. I had no real hobbies until after tenure (two kids in). Then I took up blogging (2010). After the third kid, I started exercising daily (2011), kept that on and off for years. Later I added creative writing (2017) which is now, across several genres, my main extracurricular activity (plus exercise and some art here and there). With small kids I was (and most people are) in pure survival mode; no long-term plans, one day at a time, extremely gentle and forgiving toward self (trying anyway; there was definitely plenty of frustration and tears), trying to keep the energy and spirits up by tending to self whenever there’s any extra time (sleep/soul nourishing activities — yes, maybe that’s Netflix), saying no/dropping bullshit work, half-assing things when they can be half-assed, and generally just living (with health and sanity mostly intact) to fight another day. (But damn, those baby months/years are brutal. *shudders*

    By the way, we never hired babysitters and only relied on daycare plus husband/me coverage. That basically means that DH and I didn’t go anywhere without kids until Eldest was old enough to babysit. We still rarely go out, and when we do, it’s to catch a concert or go to a comedy club. Our weekly “date night” is watching a show together on Friday, which the kids try (and fail) not to interrupt. It is extremely unhealthy to compare oneself to online personas who can afford multiple nannies and babysitters and professional photo shoots of perfectly coiffed families in angelic light. Most people struggle and do the best they can. Those who project a perfectly manicured image are not perfect; they are just people, their $hit stinks, too, but they tend to have more money than their target demographic, and money can transform into things like hired help and free time. So they are not what most of us should aspire to.

    tl;dr When struggling w/ having small kids: Be kind to yourself, prioritize health and sanity of yourself and family whenever possible, drop whatever can be dropped, half-ass whatever can be half-assed, and take it one day at a time.

    Does this somewhat answer your question?

  16. I hate planning. Part of the reason for the hate is that it never goes as planned. I have general trajectories (like retirement planning), but the Universe is excellent at destroying my short-term plans. When we plan vacations, we have an idea of where we want to go, but we don’t stay attached to anything and usually just book a couple weeks in advance. Right now, my schedule is mostly dependent upon naps and feeding for the little one. And I feel like I was built for this because I’ve always been used to being pulled in different directions and being spontaneous. I’m sure I could use a healthy dose of planning-assistance, but I do prefer the spontaneity that life can have. And I’m sure it works great for some people, just doesn’t work with my personality.

  17. I love how you articulate your system and the discussion here. I very much have taken the productivity bloggers as The Word, and it is helpful for me to think about what is just the best approach *for me.*

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