My friend Paula doesn’t just like to plan; she lives for it. She’s the one who snatches up tickets to this movie or that concert and reserves seats for us at networking lunches. When we meet up for dinner (at a restaurant she researches), she pulls out a list she’s made on Evernote of all the things we have to talk about so we don’t miss anything. When she traveled through Italy, she had every day choreographed from start to finish. But when she and her husband went to Miami recently for a long weekend, she didn’t plan a damn thing. She brought a book, a hat, and sunscreen and sat on the beach for three whole days—no small feat for the woman who created the popular list-making blog, listproducer.com, and just published a book on the topic called Listful Thinking: Using Lists to Be More Productive, Highly Successful and Less Stressed. “I have to work really hard to give up control like that,” she admits. “I have to remind myself that sometimes I can go with the flow.”
Even if you’re not a professional list maker like Paula, you know the lure and pull of planning, and the indispensable role it plays. And that’s because if something isn’t on your schedule, it simply doesn’t happen—whether it’s an oil change, an overdue lunch, or a full-fledged vacation. And yet, could giving in to the urge to plan everything to the hilt be costing you something just as valuable?
The Problem With Planning
You don’t need to be a therapist to recognize that what fuels the urge to plan isn’t just foresight, but insecurity. It’s an attempt to control the uncontrollable—and keep uncertainty at bay. Self-help guru Tony Robbins teaches that the yen for security tops the list of human needs. And yet second on that list? The need for variety and discovery. Lean too far in the direction of certainty, and you could be missing out on something vital.
If there’s anyone who has mastered the art of functioning on the fly, it’s Alex Marino, improvisational actor, teacher, and cofounder of Manhattan’s Magnet Theater. He’s been walking on stage without a clue as to what comes next for well over a decade. “Control is an illusion. Let’s be honest about that,” says Marino. “No matter what you have planned, stuff happens that you have no control over. And if you hold too close to the idea that you have control over everything, you’re deluding yourself.”
When you feel pressured to stick to the plan, says Marino, you risk something worse: A life that pales in comparison to what it could be. “Why limit yourself to what you can come up with when the alternative is what the entire world outside of you is capable of providing?” Marino says. This willingness to be open to suggestions from sources outside yourself also happens to be one of the core tenets of improv theater, in which the unscripted scenes are most rewarding, and hilarious, when they’re allowed to unfold spontaneously and without one person driving it. “If you don’t explore beyond your agenda, you’re stuck with something very predictable, which can be uninspiring. If you’re open and curious, you constantly make discoveries and surprise yourself.”
Buck The Agenda
You don’t have to toss all of your best-laid plans, but it’s worth wriggling free of the grip of must-dos. You’ll not only surprise yourself; you’ll create memories you would never have imagined. Here are a few ways to do that.