Short-Term Planning, Long-Term Happiness

“short term” by CreditDebitPro is licensed under CC BY 2.0

A classic rock-and-roll song by Fleetwood Mac implores us with the following chorus:

Don’t … stop … thinking about tomorrow.

It’s a catchy tune but the advice itself is completely unnecessary. We don’t need anyone telling us to not stop thinking about tomorrow. It’s one of the most common things we do. In fact, research cited in Daniel Gilbert’s book, Stumbling On Happiness, finds the following:

When people are asked to report how much they think about the past, present, and future, they claim to think about the future the most.

This constant fixation comes at great cost to many of us. For one, it is the antithesis of mindfulness. Thoughts about the future remove us from the present moment, distracting us from everything that is worthwhile at this point in time. Remember the words of another great song: All We Have Is Now.

But by itself, such thinking is very helpful when it involves a future that we’re excited about. Or specific goals we strive for. This harkens back to a line Tony Robbins has shared quite regularly:

We all need a compelling future. We all need something that we’re going for that makes us feel alive. If you don’t, you’re going to feel frustrated, bored and pissed off, and you’re going to start looking at other things to blame.

The reason for the frustration is that, without a compelling future to consider, we resort to the age-old human habit of worry and anxiety. We peer into the unknown with a bit less hope and a bit more fear. It’s the uncertainty that gets us. We fixate on all that might go wrong. Everything from freak accidents to flat tires. This behavior can manifest in countless ways and it makes the advice from Fleetwood Mac turn into a terrible downward spiral of obsessive pessimistic behavior.

Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow? Eh, scratch that.

Or rather, channel it. We humans will think about the future whether we want to or not and there are ways that this habit can be quite powerful. This sort of thinking shouldn’t produce anxiety. It should relieve it.

To that end, there are two types of future-thinking: short-term and long-term. As Tony Robbins suggests, a long-term future is of critical importance to all of us. This article won’t really help with that but there are many books (including Robbins’ own) that can.

Instead, I’ll focus on the underutilized, deeply-helpful benefits that come from thinking about the short-term future.

What is short-term? Any future that is close enough for you to coordinate a critical path of action from the starting point to the end. That can be a day, a week, even a month in some instances. The best practices I’ve found fit in all these shorter timespans. The practice in these time frames is simple and includes the following:

Anticipation

Vacations used to disappoint me. They were never as good as I anticipated. Then I realized that I was using my talent for prospection incorrectly.

Whether or not a vacation experience turns out to be everything you hoped, the imagining of that trip is always delightful. So why not accept that anticipation for what it is? In other words, there’s something really wonderful about scheduling a vacation for the sole purpose of having something to look forward to. Regardless of how well it turns out.

Consider it a deliberate exercise in delayed gratification. If the trip still doesn’t pan out, you’ve at least had months of positive prospection to enjoy. To that end, Gilbert writes about this with the following from his book:

Forestalling pleasure is an inventive technique for getting double the juice from half the fruit. Indeed, some events are more pleasurable to imagine than to experience.

But vacations are just one example. Thinking about a great near future gives us a chance to find appreciation in even the most mundane parts of a day. I’m reminded of something Chris Sacca mentioned in an interview about his experience cycling across the country:

“I had a phrase I keep repeating in my head over and over again which was, ‘Tonight, I will be on my bed. Tonight, I will be on my bed. Tonight, I will be on my bed.’ It was something I just repeated to remind me that the pain of what I was going through is temporary and that no matter what, at the end of that day, I would be in my bed that night.”

In this example, a perfunctory night’s rest might not be the compelling short-term future that you deliberately seek but the anticipation matters a great deal. In fact, there’s a perverse notion here that we should all remember: practicing such deliberate discomfort forces you to find something to look forward to. Even if it’s something so simple as a mattress. It leads me to the following guideline:

Always have something, no matter how trivial, to look forward to. Have that fixed on your horizon before embarking on the thing you dread. This is the payoff, the reward, that you can savor in the manner Gilbert describes. It creates relief in those painful moments of doubt.

Most importantly, remember to make it something that is not outcome-dependent. It must be something that you can enjoy regardless of how everything else turns out.

Transmuting Worry Into Action

That said, the real power of near-future thinking comes from the act of planning. This is a misunderstood element of human behavior. To plan is to problem-solve. We understand this. But planning doesn’t actually solve problems; that requires action. So planning develops a sequence of action and the action develops the solution.

That may feel blindingly obvious but people forget it all the time. So often, we pin our hopes on the elaborate plans we create, things that we say are “foolproof.” This optimism forgets that planning is always just the first step — the real work, the action, is what’s necessary.

The point here is that planning shouldn’t be seen as a way of relieving worry or anxiety. It is only the delivery mechanism, the proverbial capsule. The action, your literal actions, are what calm the tortured soul.

So you need action moreso than you need a plan.

Yet, you still need a plan.

Especially when you’re facing what looks to be a rough day, week, or month.

Most of us turn towards a bad habit in those situations. When facing a tough short-term stretch of time, we tend to abandon the act of planning altogether. We tend to just “grind it out” or “get through it” instead of getting tactical.

This is truly unfortunate because it means we’ve let our worries consume us. It means we’ve given up our own agency. Why? Because we don’t see a solution. We can’t escape the rough patch we’re headed for. But that’s exactly why a plan is needed.

It’s all about defining your agency, establishing your control.

And it takes less than five minutes if you follow a simple structure.

Clarify The Problem

Perhaps it’s a long-term job assignment. Maybe it’s finals week at school. It could just be a presentation you have this afternoon that will likely go bad. Whatever the case, take a moment to write down all these concerns and your prediction of how things will go.

Seriously. Write it down.

Why? Because writing is clarified thought. And clarifying your concerns in a specific, articulate manner allows you to focus on them. Coincidentally, it also seems to diminish the sense of dread you’re feeling.

Plus, this allows you to repurpose your predilection for prediction towards a precise, productive practice. (How’s that for alliteration?)

Keep in mind, too, that you’re going to fixate on the problems regardless. So why not do it in a fashion that actually helps? By writing these concerns and predicting how things might go wrong, you remove a lot of the power these fears have. As Gilbert writes:

Forecasts can be ‘fearcasts’ whose purpose is not to predict the future so much as to preclude it, and studies have shown that this strategy is often an effective way to motivate people to engage in prudent, prophylactic behavior.

And speaking of “prudent, prophylactic behavior” …

Define Your Critical Actions

This is the heart of the short-term plan. After establishing your concerns, problems, and predicted worst-case scenarios, your mind can’t help but start conjuring up ways to either prevent those occurrences or cope with those outcomes. This extends our sense of control. And while we can’t control much, we can still define a lot that’s in our grasp by formulating how we will act. Or react.

In fact, I think this is what planning is really all about: reasserting some sense of control on a situation. When we decide to just “grind through” a particular day, we’re giving up that agency and thus set ourselves up for more grief.

Listing your actions, what you will do, is the best way you define your span of control and retain ownership of your experience. As Gilbert writes,

… people find it gratifying to exercise control — not just for the futures it buys them, but for the exercise itself. Being effective — changing things, influencing things, making things happen — is one of the fundamental needs with which human brains seem to be naturally endowed …

Again, though, I think what matters here is to write it down. It can be a to-do list. Or a simplified version of If-This-Then-That. There are countless examples to draw from.

We do this for projects all the time. Long task lists, gantt charts, schedules, RACI matrices.

We do this for long-term plans, too. Like saving for a house. Or a big move. Or a wedding.

Yet daily planning conducted in small-scale ten minute exercises is surprisingly rare. We abandon it for a simple routine. Those routines are fine when our days are “normal.” But if worry, anxiety, or frustration has you dreading the near-future, this simple version of a formal practice is practically guaranteed to help in ways your routine can’t.

So here’s the recipe again. It’s astonishingly simple:

  1. Establish something to look forward to regardless of what happens. The simpler and more mundane, the better.
  2. Clarify your problems and concerns. Write them down. All the things that have you feeling worried or anxious. Clarify your thinking on each.
  3. Script some basic actions that you can take to address each issue. Some actions will be reactive. Some proactive. Write them down. This is your plan. Your symbol of agency.

Short Plans Made Fast

My own experience has shown that this works best when you do it in less than ten minutes. Why? Because the act of planning can lure you towards escape. Do it too much, or too long, and you’re no longer problem-solving. You’re just procrastinating. Worse still, you’re infatuating over the future rather than staying mindful in the present.

To that end, there’s another aspect to planning that is just as important: the plans themselves have to be largely disposable. Or rather, flexible. This gets to one of my favorite quotes on the topic, originally offered by Dwight D. Eisenhower on the heels of his own beautiful plan-making as a military tactician and U.S. President:

Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.

In essence, your short-term plans shouldn’t be a specific screenwriter’s script but rather a set of improv guidelines. Acting through those guidelines keeps you nimble but directionally-correct. Be specific on your concerns and be specific on your actions but remember that the specificity is all about clarifying your thinking, translating vague worries and hopes into something specific that may or may not happen. Reality often takes another shape.

So don’t focus too much on executing those specifics exactly as you design.

Rather, keep your focus on the outcome you hope to achieve.

Not because you must reach that outcome.

No, that’s not the key to happiness. That’s just getting what you wanted. Which is nice. But never guaranteed and never as wonderful as it seems.

Instead, as Steve Jobs often said, “The journey is the reward.” The outcome you strive for infuses meaning to your actions, structure to your day, strengthens your sense of control, and gives you the “why” for what you do. But it isn’t the reward. It isn’t the thing you anticipate and look forward to.

The outcome is simply the destination. The short-term plan is the way you want to get there. It is the map for the journey. Which then allows you to see whatever concerns or frustrations you’re feeling as something completely different. Something, I think, more worthwhile.

All it takes is ten minutes and three steps. Try it next time you find yourself worrying about some near-term future. I think it will help. It’s better than just grinding through.