Pleasure Through Planning


Can you name anyone who feels that the days are a perfect length? Almost all of us seem to feel hurried, and to carry a sense that life itself is too short. Of course we judge "too short" by the standards of our own desires. Wanting more than we get, we actually go so far as to claim that fault lies with the universe! "If only" is a wishful refrain familiar to all of us. Too often, we use "if only" as a gateway to a fantasy world where we may continue to build dreams of desire without being accountable to the laws of material reality. To live in these ways is to invite frustration.

We at Magic teach life planning because we employ it with satisfaction. While we pay lip service to the idea that the days are a perfect length, we have yet to incorporate that realization into our every moment. As we move towards this awareness, we plan, record, and review in different ways, aiming by each to align one or another aspect of our lives with our current intentions. The techniques we offer are a sampling of our practices, intended as an invitation to exercise your imagination in devising your own ways.

Time and Life

Central to many contemporary social interactions is a notion of quantified exchange. So ubiquitous is our attention to exchange that many of us carry it into even such intimate settings as marriage or parent-child relations. So careful are we becoming to measure that which we offer and ask of each other that a growing number of us carry appointment books in which to schedule our lives to the minute. Before continuing to treat our very selves as commodities to be bought, sold, and traded, we might pause to clarify our ideas of value, and the means by which we aim to realize them.

We apply concepts of time to quantify certain aspects of life, but life can hardly be reduced to mere time. That quality can be as important as quantity, is evident in statements like "time stood still" or "time flew." Many people embark upon one or another planning regimen with attention primarily to time. To do so is to risk achieving efficiency without finding satisfaction. In planning towards satisfaction we first identify that which we value. Only then do we select our activities and the schedule by which we will order them.

How We Plan and Live

On one end of the spectrum of planning personalities sit those whom we characterize as obsessive, compulsive, tense, and hurried, while at the other are those we call lazy, indifferent, scattered, and slow. Most of us feel greatest happiness somewhere in the middle: aware, purposeful, relaxed, and balanced.

Some "over-organized" people plan to such an extreme that they compromise all else. Perhaps you are acquainted with someone figuratively chained to the clock, a person who seeks to be invariably prompt, exact in scheduling, and fastidious with time records.

Other people might be termed "overdoers" because they stay so busy that they rarely stop to assess their doing. Like anything else, life planning can be abused. By being too rigid or too flexible in planning, acting, recording, or reviewing we may suffer.

Like each of us, our planning styles and plans themselves will be unique. The techniques presented here are proven by the experience of many others, yet anyone who learns them will be prudent to regard them skeptically, testing them again against the choices and circumstances of yet one more life. Each of these methods may be a tool for increasing personal freedom. Use what you find valuable, and keep an eye open for possible improvements.

Owning Up to the Necessity of Choice

We can't do it all! With the mobility, the information, and the social change of our times has come a new relationship between the imaginable and the realizable. Some say that we are increasing the diversity and intensity of human experience. Whether this is true or false, we are almost certainly increasing the ratio of that which is presented as opportunity to that which is truly possible.

As the pace of change quickens, and the certainty of the future decreases, choosing between present and future satisfaction becomes steadily more difficult. All of us strike some balance.

We are interdependent. Despite the illusions of autonomy we create by using money to mediate our demands for the services of others, each of us relies upon many millions of other people each day of our lives. And many rely upon us. Ours is a world in which individual futures are increasingly joined.

All of us experience boundary conditions, circumstances beyond our control. To fail to acknowledge these and to plan within them is to squander life. These conditions change. We plan best when we are well-apprised of our current situation, and able to predict with some accuracy at least the outline of a future. The science of ecology may be a tool without parallel in both these endeavors.

How We Decide

Most of us are habitual in many things, having decided them far in the past. At times we decide to escape and daydream, living in fantasy. On occasion we wait for the requests/demands of others. Some of us are serendipitous. A fundamental principle of life planning is that we find greater happiness when we carefully consider how we want to live, even if we ultimately decide to live largely on impulse. By becoming more conscious of the nature of our choices we may increase the likelihood that we will bring intention and action into consonance, and thus transcend many common stresses and dissatisfactions.

Planning Defined

Planning takes practice. Planning is writing. Planning begins with possibilities, and proceeds through priorities and performance to evaluation. Our objective is to enjoy maximum satisfaction in each activity. To do this, we match import to duration and intensity. Because we are continuously changing, we plan at regular intervals. The details we may alter from hour to hour, the lifetime goals we may modify only every few years or decades.

The basic resource of the human animal is a life. In considering the future and idealizing how we want to be, we implicitly define life goals. By writing these, we may come to greater awareness. Written goals serve as a record far more accurate than memory. They are specific. They may be reviewed and shared with others.

The Lakein Method

A general method for life planning, useful in a variety of circumstances, is set forth in How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life by Alan Lakein. That technique is as follows.

Brainstorm for two minutes, writing as much as you can in response to the question: What are my lifetime goals?" Then take another two minutes to clean up your list.

Now brainstorm for two more minutes: "What are my intermediate term (2-5 year) goals?" Take two minutes to add and clarify.

Finally, pretend that you will be struck dead by lightening six months from now. Take two minutes and write goals for the next six months. Then take two minutes and improve them.

Now rework the answers to all the questions.

The six-month question is a stimulus to consider how happily we are living. If our answers to this question are very different from our current lives, what shall we do?

Most of us discover conflicts in our answers. To resolve them we choose. This is the only way. We live but one life. Choice is essential. To choose, take one minute with each goals list and select the three most important goals. Then, take one minute more to select the three most important of these nine. You now have a lifetime goals statement. The process by which you generated it may be repeated as often as you like.You may want to rework it substantially now, but as you hone more finely, you will probably discover that you feel little desire to change it abruptly, unless, of course, the boundary conditions of your life are suddenly altered.

The second step to planning is to list activities. Putting each life goal at the top of a page, take three minutes to write the activities by which the goal may be reached. Be creative, imaginative, outrageous, speedy, uncensored, bold, foolish...whatever you can be to fill each page. Beware the temptation to list only obvious, externally evident 'doing activities.' What about 'being' certain ways? To conscientiously cultivate particular aspects of 'being' may be at least as important as doing. Thought and feeling underpin our actions. Human consciousness may well be the critical factor in the biosphere today. Take at least three more minutes to reconsider what you have written and refine it to your satisfaction.

Now ask for each activity: "Will I devote at least fifteen minutes (less if I can complete it with less) to this activity during the next week?" Draw a line through any activity for which you answer, "No." Your reasons are your own. Just be honest. Combine the remaining activities onto a single list, and rank them in importance from first to last. Then schedule them into the coming week, and record your actual performance for later review.

To recap:

  1. consider possible goals;
  2. identify current goals;
  3. consider possible activities;
  4. identify important activities;
  5. schedule activities;
  6. act;
  7. record;
  8. review and evaluate.

Alterations of Focus

After outlining a lifeplan in the method popularized by Lakein, and living with it for a period, we commonly discover that our records contain some information we find superfluous and lack other data which we need. Some of us may cultivate consciousness of a certain aspect of living, such as the frequency with which we think or act in a one or another way, even though this may be invisible on a typical "daily schedule." Part of the joy of planning lies in devising our own paths to greater awareness of how we live.

Each of us may practice science in everyday life, theorizing about the presence of pattern in ourselves and our surroundings, and observing and evaluating data to confirm or disprove our theories. If we are to successfully predict how we will behave, and what consequences will result from our actions, we will do so on the basis of repeating pattern.

Living as We Plan

What will you do today? Essential activities like eating and sleeping, routine tasks like maintaining your personal belongings, previous commitments, and unexpected crises can fill a life. Ironically, planning is most essential when we feel least able to do it! Planning for a few minutes each morning and evening can be liberating. The half-hour a day we devote to such activities is easily offset by the increased effectiveness we gain by it.

One way to succeed in living towards life goals is to set aside times in which to do this without interruption. As we learn to plan better, we can increase the amount of life in which we feel fully committed and fully engaged in living towards our most deeply held values. Selective recordkeeping, limited in duration and in focus, can be a foundation for assessing our progress.

Be aware of your own and others' rhythms. Know when you are best able to do what you do alone, and when you are best able to interact. Search for overlap in rhythm with those around you. Plan for the unexpected, leaving unscheduled life in each day. Rigid adherence to an unvarying schedule can be unpleasant. Learn to balance diversity and regularity. Doing nothing is impossible. Recognize the importance of dreaming, of looking inward and questioning, of 'being' even when apparently 'doing' very little.

Transition times, like lunch, breaks between activities, waiting in line or for someone, and commuting can all be lived to advantage. By posing a question before sleeping, we may even learn to give consciuos direction to this third of life. Every odd minute here or there can be lived well and fully if we have a plan for doing so.

A daily "to-do" list is close to imperative. Write what is important. Conscious choice throughout the day is essential. What is important? Back-up lists of "to-do someday" items are a way to filter, noise from the daily list. Group activities by function, or work content, or location, or person, or whatever you find useful. Stay aware of priorities. Better three A items completed than ten C items. Many undone C's become Z's.

The 80/20 rule states that often, eighty percent of the cost or benefit of an activity accompanies the first or last twenty percent of the effort. "How much value flows from what part of the activity?" is the underlying question. By carefully assessing this, we learn when to cultivate perfection and completion and when to settle for approximation and partial performance.

Be careful in accepting commitments. Often we may postpone final decision, by agreeing in the moment only to consider something. Over-booking is easy. The results can be shoddy performance, bad feeling, or lost perspective.

With a goals statement, a schedule, and a "to-do" list we are equipped. Yet all of these are but tools for answering the question, "How shall I live the next minute, hour, week, month, year, decade, lifetime, with greatest satisfaction?"

When we feel hesitation, we are wise to question. Intuitive reluctance to tackle a task is often well-grounded. Better to clear the way than to rush headlong into discomfort. Rigidity can carry a heavy price in a rapidly changing world.

If we feel overwhelmed or find a task unpleasant, we can sometimes make it manageable by breaking it into pieces or allocating small, fixed amounts of life to it. As a general rule, the more detailed the plan, the more certain is action. If we feel blocked, to imagine that we are planning for someone else, who shares both our goals and our boundary conditions, is a way to move beyond paralysis into action.

Getting more information is another way to warm up to a task. Information gathering is usually pretty painless, and in the process of learning, we become engaged. Select a leading task, one which is prerequisite to the rest. Begin the appropriate activity, typing, walking, dialing the phone, whatever...

Be sensitive to moods. Finding a way to accommodate feelings while still dealing with the important activities we have chosen is critical to living well. Is there any aspect of the high-priority task we can imagine tackling with pleasure, or at all? Make promises, and keep them. Set times for completion, and meet them.

When tired or bored, we may satisfy desires for change within the context of the task at hand. Beware tangents. An activity which is other than critical to completion of priority tasks, however cleverly rationalized, is a relative waste of life.

If we shrink from a priority task, we may benefit by slowing down and reconsidering our feelings. A rapid shift to something else can be a way to obscure important cues. Once we have begun a task, however unpleasant, we gain by doing it with joy. Only a fool adds voluntary bad feeling to an already difficult assignment. Remember that failure to act will likely result in failure to achieve that which we have labeled important. We can often generate enthusiasm for our choices by simply deciding to do so.

Fear is an underlying element of much procrastination. Techniques for dealing with fears include containing them, acknowledging them and deciding to proceed anyway, extinguishing them, rationalizing them away, responding to them with positive action, and exaggerating them to expose their relative unimportance.

Consider the price of delay. Usually, in addition to the obvious costs, there will be more subtle consciousness costs as we pay the price of worry. Why think about the thing without doing it? We can stress the benefits of action, and learn to act more decisively.

Common escapes include indulging in consumptive activities, socializing, reading, repetition of known ineffectual behaviors, running away, daydreaming. If we take one of these, and admit to wasting life, we reduce the likelihood that we will persist in it. We also can learn to cut off escape routes. One alternative is to simply sit, rather than do anything other than the priority task at hand.

We live on a "daily best" basis. Learning to salvage a day after experiencing failure is important. Planning, even in the face of overwhelming tasks, acting according to plan, avoiding escapes, maintaining a positive attitude, all of these require determination. If we start with easy steps we can build strength and confidence. Then wen we find the going tough, we'll be able to persist. We can learn to minimize losses as well as to maximize gains. We can make planning something which we use, rather than something to which we are a slave. Practice for yourself, you'll see!