Do you have a five-year plan? How about a 3-year plan? Any idea what you want to accomplish in the next year? Well, if you don’t, maybe you should. That’s not just my personal opinion, that’s science. Research shows that planning things and thinking about what you’d like to achieve will actually help you acheive them. Personal case in point:
When I learned about a progam that allowed students to spend a semester in Washington, D.C., during my freshman year of college, I carefully laid out a plan to ensure my participation in that program. It meant I had to budget my time wisely, sign up for classes right away so I could get into the ones I needed as they were offered, and take the right kinds of classes to get the required number of credits necessary for the Washington Semester. My advisor helped with this (a good advisor is crucial to planning as a college student), and by the time my junior year ended, I only needed one more semester of college credit and I was able to go to DC to earn it. This good bit of foresight helped me stay on track with graduation when, at the end of that D.C. semester I had a stroke and couldn’t do much of anything, let along think about college. To this day I credit the experience as what really helped me see the value of planning. I found a goal, did what I needed to obtain it, and enjoyed the rewards of setting and accomplishing that goal. To be sure, as evidenced by this same story, life doesn’t always go according to plan.
As I recovered from my stroke I had to learn how to type (and drive, and do all kinds of things) again, and my dreams of journalism pretty much limped along as I did. For a while I felt like goal-setting and planning were a waste of time, since life throws in unforseen diversions that can’t be planned for. Despite all this, I still I agree with people who talk about their 1-year or 3-year or 5-year plans. Working toward something and falling short or failing is better than not having anything to work toward, and just drifting aimlessly.
However, while I fully believe that goal setting is good, ambition is good, and positive thinking is good, being too sure of things can lead to unfulfilled expectations.
I used to date a guy who said that whenever he got too excited about things they either a) never happened or b) didn’t happen the way he wanted them to, and he was let down. At first this sounded sad to me, but eventually I came to see that his ability to temper his excitement with reality served a strong purpose: it helped him cope with life, even when things were good. So yes, planning and dreaming is good, but too much of a good thing can, well, become a bad one. And too much of a good thing, in a hyper-false way, can definitely become an annoying one.
In 2012 journalist Oliver Burkeman wrote the book, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, and in an NPR interview from that year, he had the following to say:
saying positive affirmations to yourself in the mirror can make you feel worse and that visualizing the future can make you less likely to achieve it.
I appreciate Burkeman’s reminder that simply saying happy things to oneself isn’t really creating a reality. Action is what creates a reality. Action, and having a plan.
So how to balance this need for planning with the need for self-preservation in the face of an uncertain future (I don’t care how well you plan, your future is uncertain!) ? I’m obviously no expert, but if you look at basic steps toward becoming more healthy, I think you can modify them to fit whatever other goals you want to accomplish in the future. For instance, there are medically documented stages of change, which can be seen in the “spiral model” here.
Currently, I’ve set (in my mind) a 1, 3 and 5-year plan for myself, and I’m definitely in the first spiral, that of contemplation and preparation. What do I want my future to look like, one year from now. Three? Five? I have very concrete ideas for myself (finish my book, year 1, secure a publisher by year 3, find property in Colombia near the water, spend part of each year in Colombia, at said property), but the how’s of these things are less clear, the further out they are.
I think this spiral is helpful if only to remind me that things take time (and more than just mantras said before the mirror). If planning for the future isn’t planning for change, then I don’t know what kind of future I’d be looking at.