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How Planning Less Can Set You Free

Feeling Free

“Life is a process of becoming. A combination of states we have to go through. Where people fail is that they wish to elect a state and remain in it. This is a kind of death.” ~Anais Nin

Normally my girlfriend and I have a routine for Saturday mornings:

She goes to yoga at eleven AM and then heads into Central London to do a small amount of shopping, and perhaps visit a museum. I might get up, do some writing in the morning, tidy the flat, and then take a dance class at 1PM. These are routines we enjoy, or at least enjoy most of the time.

Last Saturday we spontaneously decided to do none of that.

Instead, we went for a walk along a local canal towards central London. It was a mild, hazy morning, with calm water, seagulls, ducks, joggers, quiet, and sun.

We left the canal and visited some inner city churches and their second hand markets, offering cheap coffee and large, silent spaces.

We finished by visiting two different specialty coffee shops. At the end we sat in the second and best, with sun streaming in through the windows, feeling calm and content.

As opposed to our normal Saturdays, there was a natural flow to the morning—perhaps better described as an evolution.

Every decision was spontaneous. Every decision felt natural. Every moment was savored.

I could have spent an hour planning our “intimate time” down to the last degree—but would it have contained the joy and peace that naturally flowed that day?

This is increasingly how I am practicing living my life: with a minimum of routines and plans, allowing the present moment to dictate the future.

I try to stay in touch with the process of becoming. In doing this:

I don’t want to knock routines completely. They can bring richness, happiness, and comfort. For example, I cherish my early morning coffee grinding.

But clinging on too tightly to routines can be counterproductive because:

  • When something strays from our routine we suffer.
  • We create routines and make plans to impose some certainty on the future. The future is always uncertain. Therefore, by clinging onto routines we are always setting ourselves up for a fall.
  • Routines can be negative as well as positive. By blindly following them we can cause ourselves damage.
  • We close ourselves off to fulfilling and exciting possibilities. We can think we are happy living in a certain way, but really we are ignorant of the alternatives.

By clinging onto your routines you can, as Anais Nin says, you elect a state and remain in it, and close yourself off to growth, evolution, and change.

Think about your routines and the way you make plans. How many of your plans actually work out how you planned? How many of your routines do you go through blindly and mechanically?

Yesterday, did you have a plan, and did something unexpected happen?

How many of your major life events—jobs, relationships—have come out of the blue? How many times have you allocated an hour to go shopping, and then taken three, or allocated three hours to go and buy something, and then taken one?

If you are an obsessive planner, try a test: tomorrow, look at your plan, and then at the end of the day see if it worked out.

By becoming aware just how uncertain even the most planned lives are, we can let go of our need to control, learn to be soft, and move with the shifting events.

If you’d like live more in a state of becoming, rather than one of rigid routine and unreliable plans:

1. Experiment with changing one routine at a time.

Start small. Go a different route to work this week. Don’t watch TV for one evening. Order a different meal at the restaurant. See what happens.

2. Minimize your to-do list.

Only aim to do the vital thing that needs to get done. Use the free time to be flexible.

3. If something unexpected interrupts your plan or routine, close your eyes, and consciously focus on a few breaths, in and out.

Understand that no amount of anger can change the event. Accept the event, and roll with it.

4. As much as is possible, leave as many decisions about what you will do on any given day until the day itself arrives.
5. Start to embrace uncertainty.

Learn to see the uncertainty as part of the adventure of life. Next time you find yourself wondering where your career will go, if you will find love or have kids, take some deep conscious breathes and allow yourself to be comfortable with “I don’t know.”

6. Remember: just because a routine is habit that doesn’t mean there are not better, more fulfilling ways of doing things.
7. Be aware that making plans for the future, is at best, a very rough guess at what will happen.

Of course, plans are necessary to an extent. At the time of writing I’m organizing my 30th birthday. Without a time, date, place, and description, no one would know what to do or where to come. For the record I am having a lunch party at my flat and people are bringing food.

But what if my flat flooded? What if the trains broke down and people couldn’t come? What if my oven broke?

I could feel angry that my party had been ruined. Or I could roll with it, and move the party to a park or bar down the road, or a friend’s house, whatever.

By focusing on being present in the moment and accepting life as it comes we get in touch with our own becoming.

By being adaptable to change we become peaceful, because change does not disturb us.

By letting go of routines and plans we let ourselves grow and flourish in exciting, unexpected and amazing ways.

Photo by Beatriz Jiménez

About Ben Craib

Ben Craib is a Writer and Creative Learning Workshop Leader. His blog, MNDFL, is about valuing what's important through keeping things simple and cultivating peace through living in the now. Ben aims to provide a source of inspiration, comfort, and practical advice to help people, himself included, live to their best.

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  • John

    Amazing article. As an obsessive planner I’m constantly thinking and worrying about the future. Reading this was just what I needed to take a step back, calm myself, and bring my focus back to the present. For that, I’m grateful.

  • Hi Ben,

    Life gets pretty dull if you do the same thing all the time because you already know what to expect.  A change from the normal routine can be fun because it is unexpected.  It forces you to be in the moment to manage the new choices that you have to make.  

    Routines are necessary.  But taken too far, they can cause us to become complacent.  And then, as you rightly point out, if something unfortunate happens, we suffer.  It is a matter of balance and moderation.  Anything taken too far or not far enough is not beneficial to us.  

    I am an obsessive planner.  But things usually go as planned because I divined the outcome of my actions beforehand.  Thus I know which action and choice will lead to the results I want and which will not.  But there are times when the outcome is not important to me.  During those moments, I can afford to let things happen by default.  

    Since change is the only constant in life, we must be continually vigilant and flexible.  Each moment requires a different response from us.  Unless we are aware of the essence of the moment, we may not respond appropriately.  

    Thank you for sharing this lovely article!  🙂

    Irving the Vizier

  • Kit

    A few years ago I had the opportunity to visit Paris for the weekend with my pregnant wife and 18 month old son.  Knowing I had never been before, my wife went into planning overdrive to try to get me out to see all the “important” sights.  Instead, I offered my to-do list: “I want to see a palace, a cathedral, and a museum, in no particular order.”  It was my first trip to Paris.  Only fair that I get to set the agenda.  My wife was flabbergasted.  “Trust me,” I said.  Then we set out.

    Led by our hearts, eyes, and a toddler’s sense of patience, we had a wonderful time in the city of lights.  I hit all three items on my to-do list and even did a few things I hadn’t expected to do but were immensely satisfying. (Who knew going to the market for a baguette could be so fun?)

    Life shouldn’t be lived like a birdwatcher checking off a list.  Plans are nice.  They’re a reliable scaffolding we hang our expectations on.  But just experiencing the color and the sound of life is its own reward — one we don’t often allow ourselves.

  • I wasn’t planning on commenting on this post, but I did 🙂

  • Jodi

    I am an obsessive planner, so much so that it makes me feel anxious if something doesn’t go as planned. I am also insanely organized! I usually get the results I want and planned for but they come at the cost of my emotional well being. I drive my husband nuts sometimes 🙂 He knows he can always rely on me though.

    This article couldn’t have come at a better time, I needed it! I just started school at Purdue University in medicine yesterday, I have a navy husband that is currently gone, a farm to take care of and a 19 month old to care for alone. My life is incredibly busy ad a bit neurotic at times and relyin on my well organized plans has helped me but with a toddler it doesn’t always work!

    Thank you SO much for this article, I need to post it to my forehead!

  • I love this article and idea! I all ready knew of the meaningfulness of flowing in the moment with no plans; but I see many others around me that seem to be stuck in their routines. I will have to share this with them 😀 I think… life is such an adventure! I think you stunt it’s magic when you impose your concepts of how it should be on it. Let life flow 🙂

    Love,
    Sarah

  • I have to plan, but breaking from time to time feels fantastic. 

  • This is a fantastic post. I find I sometimes become so caught up in my routines that I actually cut other people out. I often wake up with a set plan for the day and it leaves no room for spontaneity. So, if a friend calls to want to do something. I tell them I am too busy when really I am just stuck in my own head, trying to control the outside world to make sure it conforms to how I want the day to run. I often become very attached to ‘my way’ of doing things. While I am becoming better letting this go… your tips will be an amazing help. 

    I would much rather live in the present, in a state of flow and openness to whatever life gives. I think this way, you are allowing your intuition to guide you to exactly what you need in each moment. Without doing this, I am realising I could be missing out on those little signs, messages and synchronicities that actually lead me to where I want to be much more efficiently than my head ever will.

    Thanks!!! Connie

  • Lv2terp

    WONDERFUL blog!!!!!!

  • Absolutely love this! Plans can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, they help us prepare for the future. On the other, they can become limitations. I believe it’s always best to think of plans as guidelines rather than steadfast rules. I wrote a similar post about trying new things called The Curse of Familiarity – some of you may be interested to check it out.

  • LOL!

  • Absolutely! Sounds like a great Paris trip! 

  • Thanks for your words, Jodi! I guess you have to organise with so much on – but it’s okay if things go different to how you envisaged – and not getting as much as you planned done says more about the plan than it does about the dooer, IMO. 

    All the best with the course!

  • Thanks so much, Connie.I relate to how you feel –  I think the more you practice living in the now, the easier it becomes to deviate from a plan – and I agree with you about the little signs andsynchronicities!

  • Thanksso much Sarah!  I agree!

  • Thanks so much John, glad you liked it!

  • Thanks Irving! I agree that change is the only constant, haven’t yet mastered the skill of knowing which action will lead to the results I want or not yet 🙂 , but am working on it. 

  • Yes, nice one, I agree with your article – sometimes we need our familiarities taken away from us before we realise that our attachment to them was just attachment, and that we can be open to all sorts of things.

  • Can Okar

    Beautifully written, Craiby. I’ll try to put some of this in action in İstanbul – if ever there was a city which enchants as you flow with it, I am there. Keep writing buddy, everyone loves to read what you have to say.

  • I am so learning to roll with it.  Hawaii is good in that way.  People just don’t seem to get so bent when “plans” don’t work out.  They just do something else.

    However, there are days I still have to work on it.  For instance this morning I went to take my Hawaii drivers license test.  I have 11 days until my CA one expires, and besides, I live her now.  I plan on staying for a very long time.  A Hawaii drivers license is the last of my legal change overs.

    I didn’t have my SS card with me.  I couldn’t take it.  I had to work hard at re-framing my day.  There was a reason I should not have taken it today.  The lady I got to help was in a bad mood to start with.  Maybe I would have answered one too many random questions wrong… who knows.  I did have to work at it though.  I wanted to be irritated with the “plan” not working out at first.

    Its a much better way to be.  5 years ago I would have bent out of shape all day!

    Aloha wags!

  • Gaby

    Hey Ben,

    This is so nice, thank you. I really needed to read/hear something like this in these times of uncertainty… I’m so used to controlling my life and planning it and not knowing what’s going to happen freaks me out, but life is not granted and if we don’t enjoy each moment just waiting for those things to happen, then we are wasting it.
    I will put on practice this and remember to take those breaths whenever fear hits 🙂
    xxx

  • I am a planner.  I have the hardest time going with the flow of things and get nervous when things do not happen as planned.  Looking at this site everyday and reading the excerpts on the home page has helped me considerably.  I have taken several trips to the city and found a Wat where I have brought offerings and prayed, I am hoping to get blessed this Sunday.  

    I have learned to live in the moment and look forward to the future.  I do not need to create a blueprint of my life.  

    Thank you Tiny Buddha. 🙂

  • Anonymous

    I very much enjoyed reading your blog post. The holiday season is usually hectic, annoying & exhausting, but this year I wanted something different – to enjoy the holidays & start off the new year rested & refreshed. We made a few plans for the activities we enjoyed & we enjoyed them immensely. During our days away from the office, we made no plans & just did what we felt like doing at a leisurely pace. It was magical! I started out 2012 with a sense of peace I haven’t had in a long, long time. My energy level feels balanced, my mind is clearer, and I’m enjoying being in the moment. I even picked out a word for the year to guide me – adventure. Bring it on!

  • kathy

    thank you for this…starting a week or two ago, just before the changing of the year (thank you 2011, embracing 2012!), i seem to have started on a path on flow, less control, surrendering to the universe, visualizing well and then not being attached to it, letting go and trusting in the process of life, believing that life is unfolding as it should for me and it is always for my best, non-expectations…my emails, my exchanges with friends, movies i watch, dreams i recall, many others…i seem to get reminded of these a lot. like it’s my running theme for this year. and now your article. i love it. i am open. i welcome and embrace it. its a good and relaxed way to live and love…desiderata says, …and whether or not, it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. namaste!

  • Sweetspot

    I think there’s a big difference between routines and planning. I have routines that are not planned anymore. They’re so ingrained that they are a way of being. I like all your advice, however. Flexibility and an openess to new and change are the key to planning and routines respectively.

  • Tinarose29

    I was talking about the same thing with my sister just this afternoon. I’ve got a review for a case I’m involved in comin up in a couple of weeks and I decided I was not going to panick or plan anything and just go with the flow. I’m not really worried about the decision that will be made because I believe that what shall be, shall be and no amount of planning will change that. My brother in law on the other hand has other plans and he wants us to have a meeting and try and come up with the different outcomes this review might bring. I really dont want to have this stupid meeting beacuse at the end of the day we don’t know what the outcome will be and no amount of planing will give us the answer. But I have decided that to keep the peace I’ll let him have his little meeting and I’ll be wearing my imaginary earphones, listening to Beyonce. I want to reamin positive and not voice the negative outcomes. Wonderful artice Ben

  • yeh. i need to plan less. my life has been too set on for the future and going according to schedule that i think i missed opportunities that came along the way!
    noch noch

  • This year, after 5 years of strict goal setting, I decided to do a priorities list; what REALLY matters to me. That’s it, most of them 1 word. Love, Happiness, My wife and family, etc. I was scared to take that step honestly, but so far so good. I am making better decisions.

    Here is a blog post I wrote about my experience: http://wp.me/p1fSlS-56

    Thank you!

  • Guest

    Words are tricky, aren’t they? When I saw the first few of your words in this column, I thought, “oh no, the Buddha’s invitation was about giving up becoming…exchanging it for being.” But as I read, I realized we were on the same page. The karma that ends karma. Lovely piece. Thanks! And thanks, Roxanne, for posting it on FB.

  • teresa

    Absolutely beautiful post, Ben! I’m currently at a crossroads with career/relationships/inner spirituality, and I think your message is resonating with me because I needed to hear it at this pinnacle time in my life. What I find most comforting from your post is the idea that I don’t have to have it together all the time, that I should be open and not cling to an arbitrary vision of my future that either I’ve cooked up or someone else has for me, and that I should enjoy this transition. Be fuid and let go.

    This was just what I needed. Thank you!

  • teresa

    *be fluid and let go. =) whoops!

  • This is something that I’m actively working on.  I had almost 13 years of planned routines set during a long-term relationship that I’m no longer in.  Sometimes after I wake up, doing certain previously-planned things just doesn’t feel “right” and I have given myself permission to modify my day as necessary for those kinds of things.  I’m learning to accept spontaneous invitations and not look at them as intrusions or interruptions, and to trust myself when I do feel like saying no.  It has definitely opened up a new world for me!

    Great post and valuable tips!  Thanks!

  • Ranojoyadhikari

    The Hindu sacred book Bhagvat Gita says flow in life as lotus floats in a river,it has no pre defined destination and it doesnot sink either-let life flow.nice post,Thanks

  • Awesome post, Ben. I particularly like your suggestion of leaving as many decisions about what you will do on any given day until the day itself arrives. Fantastic!

    Thanks for sharing these tips. Have a WONDERFUL Saturday!

  • Michael

    Something shifted for me when I was reading your post. Yea, I think it’s something to do with wanting to control the future. When I attempt to stick to a strict schedule I just always seem to eventually end up taking some of the fun out of life, not to mention I get burned out after a couple of weeks. Thanks for posting this, it’s reminded me that it’s cool to be soft and not know ha 🙂

  • katie

    I love this article, I am a vast over planner myself, it makes me feel like my life is full, but it also makes it hard to live up to expectations. I am trying to unlearn 27 years of planning- and your words are a great read to help with my new desire to live in the now and not the future.

  • Beej H

    ur right – this works very well for individuals but no so well for community activities ie – shared stuff – we have to plan to build bridges, skyscrapers etc but i guess you aren’t saying that ……i hooked on your title