The Fallacy of the 5 Year Plan

We’ve all heard it before, and perhaps you’ve even said it, “It’s in my five-year plan”.  While planning is extremely important and encouraged, you need to be careful to avoid falling into the ‘planning trap’ where you spend more time planning for your goals than moving towards them. This trap is especially easy to fall into when you set your goals to 5, 10, or even 15 years out.

Planning prepares you for action, but is not a substitute for it.

So, what’s the problem with planning? Nothing, when done properly. There is a lot of good that can come from planning. It allows us to be thoughtful about our actions and to ensure we are moving closer to our goals in a manner that’s best for us. It also reduces the chance that we’ll make mistakes that cost both time and money. But there is such a thing as to much planning. Planning is comforting. It gives us the feeling we are working towards our goals without the risk of taking action. But eventually you need to act to move yourself closer to those goals. Planning prepares you for action, but is not a substitute for it.

I taught at a workshop in Vermont a few years back and I met someone who told me that this was her forth tiny house workshop she had attended. I told her that was 3 too many. She was in the planning trap.

While planning is a necessary activity, we need to be diligent to ensure it is not being used as a crutch or subconscious delay tactic. This transition from necessity to procrastination can be difficult to identify, since it is never intentional.

Taking the Plunge

So, what can be done to avoid the planning trap? First and foremost, you’ll want to set reasonable, and perhaps ambitious, time targets to take action. Don’t simply pick 5 years because it is a nice whole number and it’s a common cliché. Be real and think about what it is that you are trying to accomplish and how important it is to your life. What is stopping you from achieving those goals in one year instead of 5? Will the challenges that need to be overcome truly take 5 years, or perhaps 5 years is comforting because it’s so far away you can continue to go about your day without making progress and not feel bad about that. With a 5 year time target, it’s very easy to tell yourself “no need to do anything today, there’s plenty of time”.

I too was in a Planning Trap

My wife and I for many years talked about taking our family on an extended trip to the Grand Canyon. This was always a goal that we would do ‘sometime soon’. We didn’t set a specific target date but always assumed we would do it while our children were still young. The topic would come up frequently, and we would make plans as to where we would go and what we would do, but we never made any real progress.

Then one winter day when the discussion came up yet again, it occurred to me that if we didn’t do it soon, we would miss our opportunity. I realized I was in a planning trap. Always planning, never acting.  So, in that instant, I asked my wife for us both to commit to making that goal a reality and assigned a time frame. We agreed that regardless of how prepared we were, we would walk out the door with our children on July 1st of that year for 6 weeks. In that moment, in my mind, the trip took on a new reality. It went from something we would do someday to something that was happening soon, and I needed to be ready. So I got to planning, really planning. Not the ‘passive’ planning I had been doing up to that point. Then five months later, that dream became a reality.

When I decided to build my first tiny house, I knew I wanted to do it, but I didn’t set a timeline for myself. I ended up spending about two months researching and planning. Then, without much thought, I bought the trailer that the house would be built on. It wasn’t until it showed up in my driveway did the plan in my mind feel like a reality. I remember saying to myself “I guess there’s no backing out now”. After that my planning and actions accelerated. Taking that action, resulted in a desire for more action. Unintentionally, I had kick-started the whole build with what at the time was a random decision.

If you have a goal that is important to you, ask and be honest with yourself, what is stopping you from acting, and moving yourself closer to that goal today. Not tomorrow, not in five years, not when the kids move out, today! You may find that your goals are closer than you realize.

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