The Planning Trap

  • Derek Roger

Being awake is about having presence of mind, which means that your mind is in the present.  The practice of presence of mind is not to be in the present exclusively, however – we're constantly making sense of the world by moving between past, present and future.  The question is whether this is done intentionally or not.  In the Challenge of Change resilience programme, intentionally giving attention to the past or the future is called reflection, while waking sleep is having attention snatched away.  Reflection requires detachment, which means being able to maintain perspective, and the trap inherent in this process is attachment.  A detached view of the past allows you to learn from experience, and a detached view of the future provides scenarios that can be explored for their likely implications.  An attached view of past and future leads to regrets, guilt, and expectations based on hope or fear. 

Unproductive planning
Unproductive planning is mostly about trying to gain control.  Plans give the illusion of knowing what's to come, but what happens following any action is statistical: based on the evidence to hand you anticipate an outcome, but there is only a probability of that occurring.  The world is an uncertain place, and the likelihood of a particular outcome might be better than chance but often isn't.  The main reason for people becoming frustrated and angry is the world not being the way they want it to be.

Letting go of the need to control is not an argument for fatalism, but it is about exercising the last of the measures included in the Challenge of Change Profile, which is flexibility.  The caution about flexibility is being in love with change for it's own sake, which isn't appropriate, but truly flexible people don't just bend with the wind.  They have clear goals that they'd like to achieve, but their expectations are flexible: they know when to let go of a cherished idea.  Being wedded to a particular outcome can also blind people to what is actually available. 

Threat or opportunity
Broadly speaking, there are two ways to plan: by trying to control the future, or being free to respond to the opportunities that arise.  The difference is expressed in the old adage about change, that it can be seen either as a threat or as an opportunity.  To be free in this way you have to free of fear.  There are of course difficult decisions that need to be made, but they can be made unhesitatingly with the frame of mind we describe in the training as detached compassion – not dismissing or being unconcerned about the pain that some decisions might cause, but knowing that the decisions must nonetheless be made. 

Cultivating a frame of mind
Another adage that comes to mind is 'tough love', but because people tend to think in twos only one component of the phrase ends up predominating.  Decisions can then be too soft or too hard, and the challenge is finding the balance by combining them into one.  Decisions do need to be made, but the outcome isn't certain.  If things turn out differently than anticipated the idea is to adapt, but that can often mean scrambling about trying to retrieve something from the expectations that were held about the outcome.  An alternative is cultivating a frame of mind that learns from experience without regrets, and that responds to change as an opportunity by not having plans set in stone.

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