The Toxic Side Effects Of Trying To Plan Your Life

Apr 7 · 6 min read
Image by rawpixel from Pixabay

When everything you do is only a gateway to getting something else, nothing will ever be enjoyable in and of itself.

By David Grace (

We’re All Taught That Planning Breeds Success

Planning ranks near the top of middle and upper-class cultural tools. As children, future doctors, lawyers, and business people are warned again and again that they must plan ahead, make a plan, follow their plan, etc.

On top of that, some people are, by nature, planners, and for them planning ahead becomes their default strategy.

It’s taken me the better part of my life to recognize that, like powerful medications, trying to plan your life comes with detrimental side effects, with costs that are difficult to see because the losses are often things that never happened — the call you never got, the girl you never kissed.

Plans Are Orderly But Life Is Messy

There’s an old joke that illustrates the folly of trying to plan your life. Two guys, Bob and Roger, go into a bar with the intention of meeting women:

  • “Hey, look at the brunette,” Bob says to Roger.
  • “She’s too old. I want a girlfriend at least six years younger than I am.”
  • “OK, how about that Asian girl in the blue dress at the end of the bar?”
  • Roger glances at her, then shakes his head. “She’s very small. I’m a big guy. If we had sex I might crush her or something.”
  • Frustrated, Bob scans the room, then points to a woman in a red dress. “OK, what about her? She’s the right age, pretty, not too big, not too small. Why don’t you go over and see if she’ll let you buy her a drink.”
  • Roger glances at the woman, then frowns. “No, she’s a smoker. If we fell in love and got married that would be bad for the kids.”

“OK,” you’re saying, “planning too far into future is foolish, but that doesn’t mean that there is an inherent downside to making and following a life plan.”

Yes, there kind of is.

Plans Can Replace Satisfaction With Failure

Near the end of my first year in law school word circulated about big party being hosted by some people from the medical school that was sure to attract lots of pretty girls.

As I headed up the walk to the party-house my little planning-ahead brain was thinking:

  • Step 1: Scout the place and find one or more pretty girls
  • Step 2: Meet as many of them as possible and try to get them to like you
  • Step 3: If you make a good impression get as many phone numbers as possible
  • Step 4: Try to get a date with them.
  • Step 5: If you get a date, then try to have sex with her
  • Step 6: If you have sex with her, try to build a relationship with her.

How do you think that worked out for me?

Notice that nowhere on my list was the idea:

“Go to the party and have a good time.”

You see, my idea of attending that party only as step one in a long-term plan was fatally flawed.

Plans Can Turn Satisfaction Into Work

Let me expand on that idea:

When everything you do is only a gateway to getting something else, nothing will ever be enjoyable in and of itself. Everything just becomes a task, work, whose only goal is to get you to the next task.

If you live that way, everything is work and nothing you do ever inherently gives you pleasure or has any inherent value.

Treating what you’re doing as only a stepping stone to getting something else is toxic to your happiness.

And just as bad, when you do everything to attain some specific result, then everything you do carries with it the inherent risk of failure and disappointment.

  • If I went to the party and didn’t see any “pretty” girls, then I failed.
  • If I saw some pretty girls but didn’t get their phone numbers, I failed.
  • If I got their numbers but couldn’t get a date, I failed.

I set myself up for only one slim possibility of “success” and at least six opportunities for failure.

Bryan Cranston

Bryan Cranston, Walter White of Breaking Bad, said a similar thing in the context of his acting career.

Cranston said that when he started out his goal for every audition was to get a call back. The goal of every call back was to get the part. The goal of the part was to bring him to the attention of directors and producers who would give him bigger parts. And so on until, one day Mr. Cranston realized the toxic side effects of all that planning and he stopped doing it.

Instead, his only goal became to give the very best audition he possibly could. Period.

In the same way that I could have decided to go to that party with just the idea of having a good time, Bryan Cranston decided that his only goal was to give a really good audition. If he got the job, great. If he didn’t get the job, great.

By giving up planning, by abandoning the idea that the audition was one step in long series of events, he freed himself from having to worry about whether the director liked him, whether his clothes made the right impression, whether he was too old, too young . . . . Every concern beyond just doing a great job fell away.

Moreover, when the audition was no longer a contest to be won or lost, he could no longer fail. If he didn’t get the part he could still be happy he gave a great audition and move on instead of being depressed feeling that he was a failure.

Yes, there are lots of times that it’s a good idea to plan ahead, but they’re mostly of the mechanical variety — renew your passport, book your plane and make your hotel reservation a reasonable period of time in advance of the first day of your vacation; don’t wait until April 14th to begin preparing your tax return, etc.

Yesterday Is Irretrievably Gone — Tomorrow Does Not Exist

But for the things that really matter, your work and your relationships, stop treating them like a series of tasks whose only purpose is to get you to the next task in an endless chain of struggle.

Be the best actor, writer, waiter, spouse, friend you are capable of being at that moment.

We need to keep reminding ourselves that yesterday is gone forever and tomorrow does not exist.

All any of us have is “right now.” Our best chance of fulfillment is by creating the best “right now” we possibly can by experiencing the satisfaction of a job well done.

Thank you, Bryan Cranston.

— David Grace (

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Graduate of Stanford University & U.C. Berkeley Law School. Author of 17 novels and over 200 Medium columns on Economics, Politics, Law, Humor & Satire.

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