Planning is procrastination, not action
Originally part of “The 1 Most Important Thing To Be Successful.”
“What’s the plan? We need a plan!”
If there’s one thing in a work-environment that makes me want to punch a kitten, it’s when people react to uncertainty with words like, “the plan,” “the process,” “the procedure.” And here’s why:
Needing “a plan” is always fear-based.
The issue isn’t plans — plans are fine, in and of themselves. The issue is people who can’t do anything without plans, whose knee-jerk, default response to any unknown is to compulsively “figure out a plan” — to get “certainty.”
News flash: there is no certainty.
And when you obsess over perfecting something that’s inherently imperfect, you immobilize yourself. Defining how the problem could be solved isn’t actually solving the problem.
Planning is procrastination, not action.
And plans are never “the work.”
As Eric Ravenscraft wrote in LifeHacker,
“Procrastinating feels lazy… Planning, brainstorming, and discussing feels productive because you’re talking about doing stuff. If you don’t move to action, though, there’s no difference between the two.”
We’re socialized to “plan,” and that’s fine. But when you start to idealize the plan, spending more time and focus on perfecting it than executing, it becomes a problem.
And as Lily Herman wrote in The Muse,
“We’re told to plan ahead… to look before we leap, plan before we act… When you procrastinate working on a project, you’re not doing anything to further that project. In other words, the amount of time you’re spending on your actual task is zero. Similarly, when you over-plan, the amount of time you’re spending on working on that project is also zero.”
If you’re planning, you’re not taking action. The longer you do the former, the longer you delay the latter. They are not one in the same, and anyone who thinks planning is “the work” needs to be tossed into the deep end of the pool and learn to swim.
“Planning” is mental masturbation
When I was a kid, my mom would leave us these handwritten chore lists before she went to work. She did this every day for years, rewriting the lists over and over —which is ridiculous because: they had the same exact chores 99% of the time.
After a while we knew what to do (my brother and I still today remember: I cleaned the upstairs bathroom, he did the downstairs; I vacuumed the second floor, he did the first; I dusted, he unloaded the dishwasher; etc.)
My mother didn’t write those lists for us. She wrote them for herself. It was just psychologically-soothing to her — because list-making always is.
I love writing my goals down. I’ve got monthly goals, yearly goals, five year goals, and a loose idea of what I want next week, in six months, and by the time I’m 50. And even though they’re already written, sometimes I still rewrite them — in particularly stressful times, I’ll rewrite them compulsively, over and over, mentally masturbating over the way my pen moves to make each familiar letter and word. But, as you can guess, this isn’t actual headway.
Goal-writing, like many lists, is just self-soothing. It’s a great first step, but it’s not how things are accomplished.
Yes, experts tell you to “write it down”
Some readers are dying to tell me how the “productivity” and “success” masters all say so. And my dudes, I like Napoleon Hill as much as the next guy, but I also recognize that that circle-jerk will only get you so far.
Many people have accomplished shit they never wrote down (and many people obsess over lists they never achieve.)
For years I included “write a novel” on my long-term list, and for years I made no progress on it.
Here’s how I actually ended up writing one: two days into November 2012, I learned it was “National Novel Writing Month.” Despite a late start (and missing “Outlining October”), I wrote a 50,000-word novel in two weeks. (And I had a full-time job at the time; this was entirely after 5 pm and on weekends.)
If you want to write it down, then do it. I still do.
But when you’re actually ready, you’ll just get it done.
I know there are people who disagree
I know some of you are reeling at this suggestion, huffing and pissy like, “You have to have a plan!”
Fuck off. No you don’t.
I have built multi-million programs — and my own business — without a plan. I earned six digits by my mid-20s without a plan. I lost 20 pounds without a plan. I grew my presence on Medium without a plan. I wrote the novel without a plan.
All I had in all these examples was: a singular, high-level objective, a driving desire to achieve it, and binary metrics of success (did I hit it: yes or no?)
No diet plan in the word will overcome your self-delusion if you’re not actually deeply serious about and committed to losing weight. (And on the flip side: when you’re deeply committed, you’re never a slave to the plan.) It’s the same with anything.
And again: I know full well that people want to @ me over this, insisting plans are “crucial,” because people who crave plans are so deeply ingrained with the fear of not having them that they can’t conceptualize it, instead getting defensive about how “important” they are. But whatever — I shared what I’ve achieved without them, and I know what I’m about, son.
Give me a doer over a planner any day
I have worked with a remarkable number of “planners” who are totally useless when it comes to achieving a goal.
I just can’t with people who spend more time “updating the plan” or “overhauling the process” than they do actually doing the thing; who respond to any change — and there’s always change, because this is real life, people! — with panic and the compulsion to touch the plan. It’s all they know: plan after plan after plan. Always planning, and then more planning.
I once worked with a senior-level manager who responded to every “fire” by immediately whipping out his big ole brick of a laptop to update his project plan instead of actually resolving the problem (which of course secured the opportunity to update the plan again the next day when it only got worse.) He and I had a very real throwdown when I refused to do the same, neglecting “the plan” updates and instead running around to resolve shit. The “documents” were always out of date, but I rarely missed a deadline. (And “plans” are obsolete then minute you hit “save” anyway, losing value faster than a new car driving off the lot.)
I have managed teams of up to 20 or 25 people, and I’ll tell you this: give me a doer over a planner any day of the week. Given the choice between someone who can execute on just high-level objectives or someone who first needs to “plan” and “process” every time we have a hiccup, I’ll take the former every. single. time. With zero hesitation. I don’t have time for people who are immobilized by lack of clarity. Life is lack of clarity. The goal gives “clarity.” Go.
Done is better than perfect. Action is better than theoretical perfection.
“Preparation” is not the same as “perfectionist planning”
Nobody is telling you to walk into a client meeting or an interview unprepared. Nobody is suggesting you go all renegade on shit and Jackson Pollack your entire life. (Though you probably wouldn’t be surprised to hear that I do veer into this territory.)
There’s a difference between preparing for discrete events — buying some baby shit for the arrival of an infant — and planning that shit into the ground. I bet the number of moms who throw out their beloved “birth plan” is higher than those who keep them.
It’s about headspace and mentality
Someone armored with “the perfect plan” but still crumbling internally by fear and uncertainty is going to perform worse than someone without a plan but full of confidence. Someone who is petrified, and clutches their plan as though it will protect them, is going to cave under pressure and go running back to it, whereas someone who’s just fucking ready is going to be fine.
Nobody likes networking events. But getting yourself into the right headspace is eons better than having a detailed plan and flash cards of conversation starters.
Confidence comes from action — and focusing on the right thing
The difference between people who are confident without plans and those who are emotionally dependent on them is that the former group’s “certainty” comes from their focus on the high-level goal rather than the execution of minutia. They can make adjustments, adapt and keep taking action, because all they care about is the thing that actually matters, which is getting what they set out for.
“Planners,” on the other hand, often get so tangled up in “adhering to the plan” that they lose focus on the thing that actually matters — or confuse it with “the plan,” honestly thinking that moving through their checklist is the most important thing, and “success” is following it exactly. (Doesn’t matter if we had fun on vacation — we did everything on the list! We didn’t land the deal, but we followed the plan!) I just can’t with these people.
If you want progress, stop giving in to fear and a compulsive need for “certainty.” Build confidence through action, not outlines. Focus on the end goal, not the game plan. Adapt. Act.