Why Too Much Planning Damages Your Resilience

Being able to plan is an amazing skill.  We plan so many things, from what to do on holiday, to what we’ll have for dinner; from ensuring the perfect wedding to planning our own funeral! 

These are all useful things to do, and I’m definitely not knocking planning.  After all, a decent business plan, for example, can be the route to a much-needed bank loan, or to securing backing from investors. 

But planning doesn’t always work.

As a former English teacher and examiner, I’ve seen my fair share of spider diagrams, mind maps and lists hastily scribbled across the pages of thousands of exam booklets.  But I realised something interesting.  The students who did best in their exams were usually the ones who didn’t plan their answers in advance.  Given that as teachers, we were encouraged to inculcate the planning habit in our students, I’d expected it to be those who did.

Many top performing students, however, simply read the question, picked up their pen, and began writing. 

And then…magic happened.

Unconstrained by the need to stick rigidly to a plan, their creativity was unleashed.  Thoughts were synthesised.  Ideas were shaped and brought to life through words on the page.  Stunning new insights were arrived at and conveyed confidently in ways which, at times, had me questioning my own beliefs, and certainly changing the way I saw the world.

And all without a plan.

Looking back now, I’m not surprised by this.  I recently wrote a book chapter aimed at helping leaders and managers to become more resilient.  I’d been asked to plan this out in advance so that I could liaise with collaborators who were writing some of the other chapters. 

But to me, the planning process felt dull and uninspiring.  I knew I had ideas floating around in my head, but gathering them together into something well-considered seemed almost pointless.  It might have worked for others, but not for me. 

The trouble was, I knew there were lots of other ideas in my head.  These kinds of ideas, the punchy, controversial ones, always seemed to lie just out of reach, and didn’t yield to the planning process.  Perhaps it’s the same for you?

The plans we make should be ‘held loosely’, and we should build into the execution process, the expectation that what we end up with might be different from what we anticipated.  If we don’t plan for the fact that our plan might not work, and instead, wait for the perfect moment to begin, in the worst-case scenario, we might never get started.

For me, it’s only through getting on and writing that I have any hope of creating something useful, informative, and hopefully, at times, even entertaining.  Sometimes, planning everything out on paper is irrelevant and a waste of time.  By placing our focus on the plan, we can actually stifle our creativity.

Yes, by following the rules, we may limit our flair and originality, and end up producing something much like, well, anybody else would produce.  Run of the mill.  Samey.  Boring.

But here’s the exciting bit: if you find yourself stuck in planning, always trying to decide what to do, rather than just getting on with it, NOT planning could be the solution to increasing your resilience.

Huh?  Where did that come from?  You can be more resilient if you don’t plan?

Well…yes, but more on that later.

Don’t get me wrong, when you have lots of things to do, it’s tempting to write it all down and prioritise.  This can be an excellent strategy.  ‘Emptying’ your brain can ease the stress levels and feelings of overwhelm.  And there is often great benefit in having a logical step-by-step process to work to. 

Who knows?  Creativity may even come calling as you begin to action the steps you’ve planned.

It’s true that, from a resilience perspective, creating a plan CAN be a positive response to stressors you are facing in your life.  Doing this slows down your over-thinking, the precise mechanism that floods your body with stress hormones making you feel tired, anxious, depressed, and ultimately burned out. 

So, a brilliant strategy – sometimes – and one that can certainly help you to become more resilient if it becomes a habit.

Sometimes, however, you need to think ‘on the hoof’, and you can actually use this to your advantage, too, by interrupting your usual ‘stress trigger has to equal stress’ thought pattern.

It’s a fact that there is a different kind of resilience boosting opportunity between stress trigger (paperwork, accounts etc.) and stress.  If you want to become more resilient AND creative, in some situations you could practise dealing with your stress triggers by taking a deep breath, then springing into action immediately.

Practising this approach regularly will help to fix it in your brain as a ‘go-to’ behaviour.  Allowing the creativity to flow will deliver a powerful ‘feel-good’ dopamine hit.  You’ll become hooked because you’ll realise that it’s working.  You’ll keep doing it because you want the ‘feel-good’ hit again, then…

Hey presto! You’ve wired in a new positive habit.  You’ve learned to think on your feet.  You’re stimulating your creativity more often, and coming up with great solutions. 

And above all else, your resilience levels are off the scale!

For one-to-one or group resilience coaching and training, contact me