Nothing irritates us like unmet expectations; nothing causes anxiety like wanting to control things over which we have incomplete control.
Planning can draw us into both of these unpleasant situations: it leads to expectations and presupposes control that we may or may not have. If done incorrectly, planning can therefore become a source of both frustration and anxiety.
How should we plan, then? Two pointers:
- Plan to try to do things, not to achieve an outcome
If you plan to try (your best), then nothing outside of yourself can stop you. Result: no unmet expectations and complete control over everything you’re trying to control. “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game” isn’t a phrase to comfort the losing team: it’s a piece of wisdom that reminds us of this very fact.
- Plan to meet with circumstances you didn’t consider
This is the problem with trying to control things outside yourself: the world’s a complex place; if you think you can plan for every scenario, you’re wrong. What’s more, the attempt to manage every possible situation generates a fair bit of anxiety.
One strategy that can help here: include a “reserve clause” in your statements. People still do this occasionally when they say things like “God willing” (the Latin for this, Deo Volente or D.V. for short, used to be more popular). But it doesn’t have to be religious: you could substitute “Nature willing” or “but I understand the Universe may have something else in store” or “but the world’s a complex place” for example.
Epictetus gives us an example in the Enchiridion in the context of using the public baths:
You will complete the act with more composure if you say at the outset, ‘I want a bath, but at the same time I want to keep my will aligned with nature.’ Do it with every act. That way if something occurs to spoil your bath, you will have ready the thought, ‘Well, this was not my only intention, I also meant to keep my will in line with nature – which is impossible if I go all to pieces whenever anything bad happens.’
Does this sound like a cop-out to you? Think of it this way: When an archer aims to hit a target, she employs her best technique, her physical strength, and even takes account of the wind. She must acknowledge, though, that a sudden gust may cause her arrow to miss its mark. Sometimes Nature has other plans.
Next time you’re planning (this’ll be soon – we’re all making plans, big and small, all day long), try this out. See if you’re not happier with the outcome, whatever it is.