Everyone in the military knows the line, “No plan survives first contact,” and likely says it multiple times per week. It originates in knowing that your enemy often has different plans than you expect them to have, but you only discover the fact midway through implementing your plan. The insight, though, extends past military encounters.
Unforeseen Things Happen
We both probably recognize that, no matter how good our plans are, unforeseen things will happen. Reality also possesses an annoying tendency to act differently than we expect. We spend weeks and days making our plans, but they can fall apart in mere seconds — even when we do ourselves the favor of creating some wiggle room.
Deadlines can’t heal the mysterious funk you caught in Mexico. Ship dates can’t account for your dad stumbling over a root, hitting his head, and needing in-home care. Your desperately needed suncation can’t overcome the freak winter storm that reroutes, cancels, and delays flights for days.
Expectations Make or Break Our Reactions
Our plans fail all the time, for all sorts of reasons. We accept they sometimes die during first contact. But strangely enough, not everything dies alongside those plans.
Our expectations often survive first contact, and they tell us we should be further along than where we are. We come back from being sick for a week with the absurd notion that our projects should have kept on rolling. We cognitively know there’s no way they could be further along, but we still get sucked into the thought’s gravitational pull.
How to Respond When Life Changes Your Plans
- Let go of the expectations that undergirded your plans. Many people try to get back on track by winning yesterday’s race. Nothing good comes from the effort. Rather, anxiety, suffering, frustration, self-judgement, and excess consumption of wine usually ensues. You are not where you thought you’d be. Accept it, and move on.
- Remove dates from your nice-to-have-done-by’s. Before reality shoved your plan off the wall, you likely assigned some dates to actions. Some were absolute; others were “nice-to-have-done-by’s.” Instead of juggling around the latter or arbitrarily assigning new nice-to-have-done-by dates to them, delete the dates and use the free space to focus on hard deadlines.
- Renegotiate and recalibrate deadlines. Before working on those deadlines, evaluate them. Most, if not all, deadlines feature different levels of severity and adjustability. Prioritize, renegotiate, and recalibrate the ones that claim higher adjustability and lower severity. Then, let the relevant people — a graphic designer waiting for copy, a publisher wanting the latest draft of your manuscript, et cetera — know as soon as possible that you won’t be on schedule . No one likes a missed deadline, but they like it even less when it comes as a surprise.
- Do not work on undated deadlines until you get momentum on dated ones. You’ll want to push undated deadlines along, most likely because you’re either holding onto expectations about when they’ll be done or want to complete them more than your firm deadlines. Resist the temptation and get traction on dated deadlines first. Doing so inspires you to get things done, helping you transition from dated to undated deadlines. It also creates realistic expectations, preventing us from over-estimating how much transition time we need or under-estimating how many new projects and stuff will come our way once we’re back at work.
- Start scheduling your nice-to-have-done-by’s. With some transition time and momentum built into your days, you’ll gain a better understanding of when you’ll be able to finish the nice-to-have-done-by’s. That knowledge, in turn, instills confidence. You can trust your plans because you’re no longer anxiously figuring out which of the seventeen things on your to-do list have to get done today.
Unfortunately, too many people put self-care, eating right, exercising, connection, intimacy, and meditation in the “nice-to-have-done-by” category. Translation: They don’t happen while you’re trying to catch up from first contact. But self-care is essential to getting things done, including your hard deadlines.
Yes, we need to learn to focus on fewer goals — doing so combats the tyranny of the urgent. But self-care isn’t and should never be a backseat goal. It catches us up sooner, not later, so make it a priority. Renegotiate and recalibrate your deadlines around it. (Tweet this.) I promise it pays off, keeping you healthy, motivated, and happy even when life changes your plans and you have to play catch up.