How to Make Plans (when the road ahead isn’t clear)

Welcome to Good Enough Creative, a podcast for creative people.

Hi again, welcome back. I’m your host, Marie Greene, and today I want to talk about something that I think we all face – and will continue to face – throughout our lives.

How do we make plans when the path ahead isn’t clear? How do we move forward when we’re in limbo?

Nothing will make you feel out of control faster than having the rug pulled out from under your best laid plans or being in limbo. When you’re in the middle of a move. When you’re job hunting. When you’re going through a huge life change. When you’re waiting to find out if you’ve been accepted. Or when you’ve made a careful, thoughtful plan and life just… shifts. The thing you’ve planned isn’t relevant anymore.

There are a thousand and one moments in life when we’ll reach a crossroad, or we’ll land right in the middle of an unexpected shift, and we have to figure out how to adjust our plans so we can take the next step.

We talk so much about momentum and routines and rituals and all the things that help us be creative, make space for creativity, and honor that inner call to be a maker. But then sometimes we have to do all the life stuff – the stuff that will inevitably demand our attention and throw off our best laid plans.

Somewhere in there – in the middle of the unexpected, in the middle of upheavals, in the middle of a change of plans – somewhere in there is an opportunity to be more creative, not less.

Here’s what I mean.

Anyone can do good work when the stars are aligned. When you have a perfect, beautiful space to sew or write or daydream – and exactly enough time to do it – practically any one of us might be the next Henry David Thoreau living a quiet, solitary and intentional life at Walden Pond. But most of us won’t get the opportunity to do that. We have to be creative and mindful and curious and open in the midst of our regular, busy, noisy, and unpredictable days. We to have to find the magic in the mundane, and look for the spark of an idea in the impossible.

And there is no place more impossibly perfect for creativity than when you are stuck at an impasse. You don’t know what’s ahead, and you can’t possibly know, but you have to make a plan anyway.

But beyond that, sometimes we think we know what’s ahead, and then life surprises us with an unexpected twist. The truth about planning is that none of us really knows what tomorrow holds. We make plans with the assumption that we know what’s ahead, but truthfully – we don’t. But just because we can’t predict the future or know exactly what’s ahead, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t still plan for the outcomes we want. We just have to do it in a way that supports our creativity and allows us to adjust when things don’t work out the way we expect.

Sometimes we know when we’re at the crossroad – we can see the choices ahead of us and know things are about to change, and it’s impossible to predict how those changes will affect the other things that are important to us. But I think making plans and having goals is a part of optimism, it means that even though we don’t know what’s ahead, we’re going to plan for the life we want anyway. We just have to do it in a way that gives us some room to shift if things turn out differently than we expect.

And I want to be clear that we’re not just talking about plans to write a book or do something significantly large – as creatives, we’re always in a place of generating ideas, and there’s always an opportunity for a new plan. I’m talking about the kinds of plans that help us move forward on our creative goals. The plans that allow us to make space for creativity. If all we do is go through the motions of work, and household chores and taxes and sleep – without intentionally creating time in our days for inspiration and art and restoration, that’s a recipe for exhaustion and frustration. In my experience, when life gets tough, the first thing to go is usually the good creative time. And it’s counterproductive, because that creative time is what fills our cup and makes it easier for us to get through the hard parts – so what if we found a way to squeeze our creative plans into life’s adventures?

Here are five ways to plan when you don’t know what’s next.

  1. Build in a buffer. If you’ve ever ridden a train or taken a flight or even gone to the doctor’s office, then you know the struggle of a delay that happens because the person or plane or train in front of yours had a delay. One delay or challenge can cause a trickle effect, with the inconveniences spreading like dominoes – affecting everything in their path. Sometimes when we set a goal or make a plan for ourselves, we might plan for best case scenario, without giving ourselves enough of a buffer to create space for a Plan B. Even if you think you know what’s ahead, life is notoriously unpredictable. The truth is none of us really know what’s ahead of us, regardless of our best laid plans. So planning for the unexpected will help you navigate your goals and make progress on your ideas, even when a curveball comes your way. A buffer will give you the wiggle room around your idea or your goal so that you don’t lose momentum completely. A buffer might look like giving yourself a generous deadline, or having multiple smaller deadlines built-in, with the ability to adjust if things change. It might mean having a less complicated version of your plan in case you need to make it happen faster. Or it might mean giving yourself permission to focus more on the experience rather than a specific outcome. Done is better than perfect. Here’s an example. If you’ve set a goal to write for an hour every morning, but then – surprise! – you’re now babysitting your grandchild or nephew for the next few weeks while the child’s parents figure out a new daycare solution. You might have planned for that writing time to happen in an ideal scenario, but just because the plan changed doesn’t mean the whole thing has to go on pause. It might mean that you’ll need to cut back to 10 minutes a day, and do it in the afternoon when the little one is napping. This might mean that it will take you longer to reach your goal, but at least you’re still moving forward.
  2. Look for the grey area. Taking an all or nothing approach can really ruin your plans. I can say this from experience, because so often I’ll set a goal and I’ll plan out how it’s going to fit into my day, and then one thing throws off the day and I feel like the whole plan is ruined. I don’t know about you – but do your days often turn out exactly the way you planned them? Because mine don’t. They go sideways more often than not. In fact, the entire month of January went sideways for me, and a lot of my personal projects had to fall to the side. I think most of what we accomplish in life happens in the grey area – in the imperfect, messy middle of life where it’s not exactly how we envisioned it, but we’re still finding a way to make it work. What would grey area look like around some of your plans?
  3. Be ready to pivot. If you ever watched the show Friends, there’s a scene when Ross has a new coach that he needs to get up to his apartment. He enlists Rachel and Chandler to help him get it up the stairs, and there’s a moment when they’re trying to get it around the corner and Ross is yelling “Pivot! Pivot!” I love that scene, because I can almost hear that voice in my head telling me to pivot when something I’ve planned doesn’t work out the way I expected. Having to change direction or switch gears isn’t always that easy to do, because it’s not like everything we plan has a natural detour built in. Sometimes we have to really think outside the box to figure out what we’re going to do next when Plan A falls through. In small terms, a pivot is a blop of paint on your paper that will now have to become a balloon. There wasn’t a balloon in the plan, but there is now. Many many years ago I knit a sweater for my sister – and it was long before I knew what I know now about sweater knitting. It was way too small for her, and I didn’t know a single person it would fit. My pivot was that I washed it in hot water so it would shrink and then I cut it up and turned it into the world’s most expensive and fancy hot pads. It’s not the plan I started with it, but at least I found a way to pivot.
  4. Have support on standby. The absolute best way to navigate a change of plans is to have a support system in place. A support system can be people, or it can be time savers like frozen dinners instead of having to meal prep. Whatever might be going on in your life, it’s okay to enlist help so you can do more with the time, energy, or resources that you do have.
  5. Focus on the purpose rather than the actual plan. It can be easy to focus so much on the daily tasks related to our planning that we lose sight of why we’re doing it in the first place. Daily tasks can pile up. Interruptions will happen. Detours will inevitably arise. But when they do, remember your why. Why did you make this plan in the first place? Why do you want to do this? Remembering your WHY will help you step back and look at the big picture. The spirit of the plan (or the WHY) is just as important as the plan, itself (also known as the WHAT). Be careful not to focus so much on the WHAT that you lose sight of the WHY.

Planning for the unexpected is just a part of life. Resistance is inevitable, and frankly – most artists throughout history used that resistance as fuel for their inspiration, and we can, too. I’ll never stop making plans, but I’m learning that every plan needs a little extra help to stay relevant. Build in a buffer, look for the grey area, be ready to pivot, have support on standby, and focus on your purpose, or you’re why. That focus will help your ideas and your plans survive the unexpected.

Harp

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Until next time, my friend – you’ve got this.

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