Planning in a Planning-Unfriendly Environment

I’m a planner. Whether I’m organizing vacations, work tasks, or long-term goals, I enjoy the process of imagining the future and identifying next steps to get there. The COVID-19 pandemic and the collective responses to it–public and private–have made long-term planning difficult, to put it mildly. Today I’ll discuss approaches to planning in a more-uncertain-than-usual business and personal environment.

Planning in the Pre-Pandemic World

Even in the pre-pandemic world, planning was never an exact science. Weather, natural disasters, economic disruptions, accidents, and other random events could and did screw up the best-laid plans. Still, we had certain expectations about economic activity, freedom of movement, ease of communication, and resource availability which are now sadly out of date.

The COVID-19 pandemic has managed to undermine or severely disrupt most of our assumptions about how the world functions and how the future will unfold.

  • Will you have a job in X months?
  • Will travel restrictions be relaxed by Y date or will they be made tighter?
  • Will supplier Z still be doing business when you need them?
  • Will your meetings be in person or remote?
  • Will you or your client or customer be healthy when needed?

Bottom line: as messy as pre-pandemic life might’ve been, you could probably depend on a few more things or people being available than is now the case.

In an effort to overcome a sense of helplessness, in June I booked myself a cruise vacation for the following May (2021) under the assumption that this situation would have improved by then. It seemed like a reasonable call at the time. And yet cruise lines in the U.S. faced a no-sail order until October 20 and since then have been under conditional sailing rules for safety’s sake, causing many major lines to cancel their itineraries through the end of the year. So given that and the ongoing inability of many of my fellow citizens to follow reasonable precautionary measures, I’m starting to wonder if that cruise will happen at all or if I’ll have to accept a later trip or a cancellation.

I’ve also been mulling over my future job prospects. I’ve got one customer contract ending in a year while another moves ahead in fits and starts depending on which customer within the company wants or needs my services. What will replace that work if it all goes away?

Oh yeah, and I’d like to retire at some point.

So Now What?

I’m at the point right now where I feel my choices are:

  • Change how far into the future I plan.
  • Change my expectations/assumptions for what I can accomplish
  • Change how I pursue my goals
  • Stop planning

Change the Planning Scale

The “long term” has had sort of a funny connotation this year, as 2020 feels like it has been dragging. I suppose that’s a function of the number of things happening or the number of places I’ve been able to go compared to previous years. “Time flies when you’re having fun,” they say…I’d just say time seems to fly by when I’m busier. 2020 has felt like a long year because I haven’t had a lot happening. As opposed to five-, ten- or twenty-year goals (yes, I plan that far out), I might be better off trying to play six months or a year out at most.

Change the Assumptions

When I talk about assumptions, I mean my expectations about reality and things both within and beyond my control. Things beyond my control would be items such as:

  • The rate of inflation
  • The workload from my customers
  • The spread of the COVID-19 virus
  • The shutdowns or other actions local, state, and federal governments might take in reaction to the coronavirus
  • The likelihood of other organizations or businesses to remain operational

Items more or less within my control include:

  • The quality of my work
  • The speed at which I work
  • My ability to learn new information or skills, which is also a function of speed
  • How much money I spend
  • What attitude I apply to my daily living

Ultimately, that last bullet determines how well I do on the rest. However, I’d be lying if I told you that I have the same work velocity I did pre-pandemic. Given longer stretches of time between work assignment and work submission, I take more of the time than I used to. Likewise, my ability to learn new skills–while decent in a professional capacity–has been less than stellar in my personal time. The piano keyboard I acquired is collecting dust in my office, and so far I’ve written a total of one new piece of (short) fiction in two years. I’m not certain if that is a result of stress or angst or some other combination of emotions I haven’t faced yet; I only know that the last nine months I’ve enjoyed less than my usual amount of energy and enthusiasm. I get the impression that I’m not the only one.

Stop Planning

Sorry, that’s not going to happen. Planning is something I just…do.

Change How I Pursue My Goals

Many activities or lines of research I normally would pursue in person must now be handled remotely. Fortunately, the internet is pretty handy for that.

Bottom Line

You might have had grand and illustrious goals for this year. Yet the events of 2020 have hampered your ability to achieve them. Still, giving up on your goals completely isn’t a good idea for your mental balance, nor is making a long list of things you plan to do “once the pandemic is over.” That could be months or years in the future. At any rate, that magical time is utterly beyond your control. You still have to live. There are things you still want to do. Make those plans. They might need to be scaled back or the timeline stretched out to match your current work or financial realities. Make the plans anyway, and do your best to stick to your timelines. Falling behind is not a sin. Giving up is.

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About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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