Lots of people find planning difficult mostly because they have a hard time thinking very far into the future. Envisioning the weeks and months – and even years – ahead can seem as unreal as science fiction. The explanation, for people like this, lies in their brains.
In her book Thriving in Mind: The Natural Key to Sustainable Neurofitness, Dr. Katherine Benziger suggests that some people’s brains are naturally wired for maintaining order, while other people’s simply aren’t.
Dr. Benziger explains that those with natural brain dominance for order are most comfortable making linear plans and following them. In fact, planning comes so easily to them that they can’t understand why others struggle. But those without brain dominance for order find planning much harder. That’s because the neurochemistry of their brains causes them to use 100 times the energy to think in “planning” mode as someone who possesses natural dominance.
If that sounds terribly unfair, just remember that we all have certain skills we’re better at than others, like a talent for art, music, or writing. And even though ease with planning is something that we’re either born with or we’re not, it doesn’t mean that we can’t become better planners by strengthening our brains through persistent practice.
Here are several ways you can become better at planning:
Find your natural strengths and weaknesses.
If you want to gain clarity on why certain types of work come naturally to you and why you might find yourself avoiding other types of tasks, you can find out what part of your brain dominates by doing a self-assessment in Benziger’s book or even participate in the more formal Benziger Thinking Styles Assessment. Learning this can help you better understand what works for you; you can then use this knowledge to adjust your habits.
Know that some tasks will be difficult.
If you think something will be easy when it turns out to be hard, you’ll be more likely to give up. But if you set out with the expectation that a task will be difficult, you’ll be more willing to work through any issues, because you understand that challenge is part of the process. By accepting and working through those feelings, you’ll make more progress. And on the other side, you’ll have more confidence and more clarity on how to structure your time well.
Let go of all-or-nothing thinking.
If you think you’ve got to follow your plan perfectly or else all of your efforts will be wasted, or that if you can’t plan every day, there’s no point in planning at all, you’re bound to fail. Instead, try to view learning to plan as you would any process where improvement counts and every bit of progress adds up. This will build your resilience because you won’t beat yourself up as much when you deviate from your plan, and in turn, you will find it easier to get back on track.
Find the system that works for you.
Instead of forcing yourself into a specific planning process, find a system that works for you. For example, if you have a strong affinity for visuals, find a way to organize your time that takes that preference into account. Put to-do items on sticky notes, draw on whiteboards, or use mind maps. If you’re fond of spreadsheets, put your to-do lists and plans in Excel, or consider using apps that will allow you to track your progress in a numeric fashion. If you prefer to see time as flow and rhythm, use tools like paper lists that will allow you to adapt and adjust the cadence of your day as needed, instead of feeling boxed into rigid time frames. There’s no wrong way to plan. Experiment until you find the right fit.
If at first you don’t succeed…
If (when!) you get frustrated in the process of leaning to be a better planner, have self-compassion when you make mistakes, refocus when you get distracted, and adjust your plan when new issues crop up. Remember: it’s okay if you decide to move a project you thought you’d get done today to tomorrow – or the next day. And you can always reach out to a colleague for help on getting a certain deliverable done. Asking for assistance always a good idea!
Keep the words of author Alan Lakein in mind: “Planning is bringing the future into the present so that you can do something about it now.”