Sometimes the fastest way to a goal is slowing down enough to plan.
Goals aren’t Plans
In the realm of making meaningful changes in life, goals, while necessary, are not enough to get us where we want to go. Too often we formulate some sort of goal: “I want to be less anxious,” for instance, and leave it at that. While general intentions are sometimes enough to bring about change, more frequently the lack of clarity or doable actions leads to frustration, stagnation and failure.
Success in all but the smallest endeavor requires planning. Plans can take different forms, but I would suggest that any decent form of planning, from the most structured to the most casual, must relate goals — which are descriptions of how we’d like things to be — say, “enjoy breakfast tomorrow morning,” to achievable actions, like “buy milk and cereal.”
Planning is resisted for several reasons. Maybe buying milk and eggs is obviously related to breakfast, but many goals require actions that are more removed from ultimate goals. Planning itself takes effort and if planning is not something that is practiced and refined, it may be harder than the actual doing. Sometimes planning reveals the hidden costs of our goals. Perhaps we don’t want to think about those costs or when we see them, the goal becomes not so dear to us. Attempts at planning can reveal gaps in our knowledge. We may simply not know enough to formulate a decent plan and noticing our own ignorance can be painful. Lastly, we may not understand the necessity of planning and feel that “winging it” will get us to the finish line faster.
A microcosm of planning (or lack of it) is how we approach math problems in school. I remember being the kind of student who had pretty good mathematical intuition, but I frustrated my teachers because I didn’t want to “show my work” — the incremental steps that led to the answer. I had found the answer in my head and jotted it down (though not always correctly). Because I was in such a hurry to get done with the drudgery of math, it took me a long time to heed their advice and write things down. But in time I learned that writing down the givens, the incremental steps and finally the solution allowed me to tackle bigger problems and increase my odds of spotting mistakes.
Stopping to Plan
Planning, or “showing your work” in life isn’t that different from math class. It may seem unnecessary drudgery, but it boosts our odds of a correct “solution” and allows us to take on bigger problems with less confusion.
Another bit of advice you might remember from math class: write down what you know. In everyday life, journalling, brainstorming or scrapbooking are all ways to “write down what we know.” Exercises of this kind enable us to reflect on our current level of knowledge and intention. Multiple passes allow us to correct and refine exactly what it is that we want and exactly how we plan to get there.
Step by Step
Although it takes more time, breaking big dreams down to little actions pays huge dividends. If you’ve taken the time and trouble to make a plan, you’ll also have a good idea when you’ll achieve your goal and how much effort it will take to get there. Commitments under correct assumptions work a lot better than blind pledges.
Step-by-step plans are also encouraging. It may be years until a goal is realized, but checking off little tasks feels good and helps associate positive emotions with concrete actions which leads, not surprisingly, to more concrete actions.
Check your Work
Planning also grants the ability to compare expectations with reality. A good plan includes not only actions to take, but expected results. So if you eat a healthy diet for a few weeks, you might reasonably expect to shed one or two pounds of excess weight per week over the duration. Many people expect more, either through lack of knowledge or unscrupulous diet hucksters. Either way, they’re set up for disappointment.
Seasoned dieters know the scale can seem cruel, and a week or two of good effort may not move the needle a pound. Yet over time, if the scale doesn’t change, it’s a signal to look for problems and try something else.
On the other hand, when the scale moves, when the jeans fit, and when somebody notices the changes in you, it’s hard not to be over-the-moon. Recognizing results is so motivating that it’s a tremendous blunder to miss out on the chance to celebrate each step forward.
Back Up and Re-Plan
Certain math problems can be solved by rote. Recognize the problem, do steps one through three in order, and the solution inevitably emerges. Once a student gets past algebra, however, the problems change. Now there are multiple techniques that might or might not yield a usable answer or even progress towards a simpler equation. In my own academic career, integral calculus was the most profound expression of these sorts of problems.
Flip to the front or back inner cover of a calculus text and you’re likely to find two solid pages of rules for transforming one integral equation into another. Each of these rules only applies to a certain kind of equation, but one equation might be eligible for multiple rules. After a rule is applied, sometimes the answer emerges or the equation is reduced to something simpler for which another rule may be helpful. Other times the equation is stranger and more difficult than before. When the problem gets worse rather than better, the only thing to do is back up and see what other rule might be more helpful. This trial-and-error, forward-and-back dance goes on until the problem is solved or the student gives up in frustration.
It’s often impossible to know which way things will go in advance. Guessing the correct rule to apply to a given integral comes down to either experience or mathematical intuition. Outside of the classroom, we’re also confronted with multiple approaches to our problems. Sometimes we can rely on experience to know the best approach for us. Other times we can look to experts for advice. But sometimes we just have to pick a method, try it and stay strong when it fails so we can back up and give the next idea a try. It takes patience to come back after failure, but knowing that the failure of a plan doesn’t doom the overall goal is one of the keys to resilience and long term success.