Petty Plans

I like to plan, and have always considered planning to be a good and worthwhile (even necessary) activity. However, the more that I think about it, the more I begin to question the value of planning and to see the matter as up for debate.

Is it good to plan? First of all, I should say that such a question is unanswerable, or that it would yield an invalid answer. To talk about the value of planning, we need to make a distinction not only between different types of plans, but between different circumstances in which planning might arise. This suggests that planning does not have an intrinsic value so much as a contingent one. Whether or not planning is good depends on multiple factors surrounding the planning process, not on the joy of the planning itself (though planning can indeed be joyful at times).

We are often told (and probably tell ourselves) that we ought to “live in the moment.” I wholeheartedly agree with this advice and am all for advocating mindfulness in an age of distraction (though I do think this advice is frequently delivered in a superficial way). On the other hand, we, as human beings, are oriented toward the future. Our lives and our selves are not split apart into separate and unrelated pieces (or moments). Identity is continuous and stretches over the course of many, many moments (too many to count). As humans we are also beings endowed with the capacity for self-reflection. We are not mere machines acting according to instinct and doing the things that have been programmed within us to do. Rather, we have the ability both to act and to think critically about those same actions, to engage in self-evaluation and to develop hopes, dreams and ideas pertaining to self and reaching towards our future life.

Looked at in this way, is it any wonder we plan? Could it even be said that we are planning beings?

Here is where the distinction comes in. I think that to plan is always to plan ahead and as we naturally possess self-consciousness and thoughts of the future, planning is also a natural activity. However, there are ways in which we can plan that get this twisted, and it is then that planning becomes unnatural.

The kind of planning ingrained in our nature that we were talking about above refers to more of a grand, abstract plan: vague and perhaps unachievable dreams that provide us with hope and help us to live in the world in a meaningful way. There is also planning of a more practical sort, and this is probably what is suggested more clearly by the word “planning.” If we had to differentiate between dreams and plans, we would probably do so like this: dreams are indeterminate and fantastical, whereas plans are plausible and have an articulated series of steps leading to their realization on earth.

These practical plans are likewise important. We often need to plan ahead in order to accomplish something of value or to fulfill our potential. If we were to live entirely in the moment and only ever act on impulses without any forethought, then there are many things we simply could not do. Yet we need to be able to discern between practical plans which are necessary and useful, and plans which are merely masquerading under the guise of practicality and use. Such fraudulent plans are the opposite of necessary, and do detract from our ability to live in the moment and to live in a meaningful way.

I call plans of this sort petty plans. The plans and their subject matter are unimportant and do not really matter in the grand scheme of things, but they acquire to us in the moment of planning an enormous significance. Take for example, a plan for the things one will do on the following day. I make these sorts of plans all the time, concocting a list of the tasks I want to get done, and I think through my plan before I go to bed. I become so invested in the plan that the items on the list become mere commodities and only have value insofar as they can be checked off as completed and not for the things in themselves. In this way, I am attempting to attain control, to be the master of my own life and fate, and by doing so, to eliminate the fear of change and uncertainty.

But the results are far more dismal than that lofty goal. Wrapped up in my petty plans for the day to come, I am too anxious and agitated to sleep, invading the space of silence with thoughts of things which are not yet here. And when the next day finally comes, my plan does not make control any more attainable. The plans are often arbitrary, and I do not fulfill them. Yet the prior act of planning and the large amount of focus placed on the plan increase little unimportant things to mountainous problems. Thus petty plans lead to petty problems.

Petty problems then lead to petty pleasures or petty disappointments. Because I have my arbitrary plan burned into my brain, I regard any deviation from the plan as a failure, and any adherence is a success for the sake of the plan and not for the thing itself. Maybe the problem here is not just the plan itself but one’s attitude toward it. We need to accept that no human plan is infallible and as a result to be flexible and forgiving to ourselves. If we deify a petty plan, then we lose our capacity to appreciate the moment and even to reflect in a truthful manner on ourselves and our days. Perhaps it can be said that plans exist to help us to become more human, and we do not exist to serve our own human plans. Plans fail. Yet the greatest failure of a plan is not when we fail to complete it, but rather when we fail to truly live and be present to the beauty around us because we are consumed by a petty plan and petty problems.